BY: CANDY YIN
“I never felt desperate.” As my maternal grandma said this to me about her experience as a refugee during the Second Sino-Japanese War, I really admired her optimism and strength after fleeing thousands of miles from her place of birth to another completely different city twice.
I had heard from my mother about my grandma’s experience as a refugee. Starting from July 7, 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War lasted eight years. During those eight years, my grandma fled with her family twice in order to avoid the invasions from Japanese, witnessing a lot of refugees’ tragedies caused by the war. Knowing the difficulty to survive during the war, I was afraid of this interview at first, fearing the interview would make my grandma’s sad recollection come back. During the winter break in 2015, I went back to my home, Shenzhen, China, and saw my grandma. She is called Ying Liu, a retired college professor of history in Wuhan, China. She always lives in Wuhan but Chinese New Year brought her to Shenzhen. I saw her when I came back from the airport. She is a short old woman with nearly grey long hair and a smiling face. I wanted to mention the interview several times but I withdrew it because I did not want to remind her of the memories during that hard time during the jubilant Chinese New Year. Finally, with the support from my parents, on February 20, 2015, I asked my grandma after dinner.
“Grandma, would you like to have an interview with me for my English assignment?”
“Wow, this sounds really fun! What is your English class about?” she asked with excitement.
“My English class is called Literature of Witness, which is the literature about life experience during war, genocide, etc.” I lowered my voice when I mentioned the word “war.”
“Oh… about war… sure, I can share my experience as a refugee. Let’s begin.” She was so clever that she understood the intention of the interview before I told her.
We sat down on the couch in the living room with red decorations of Chinese New Year around. She began to talk.
My grandma was born in 1934 in Jinan, a northern Chinese city near Beijing. When she was four years old, the Second Sino-Japanese War began. Several months later, the Japanese bombed Jinan. My grandma’s house was destroyed entirely. “The roofs collapsed and the wells were sealed by the bombs. We had no place to live,” said my grandma. “So my father decided to flee south to Changsha, a city near his rural hometown.” When her family was on a train on their way to the south, my grandma recollected what she saw on the train. “There were so many refugees that the train was crowded with people both inside and outside. The top of the train was filled with people while Japanese planes were throwing bombs to the train. I saw flying hands, arms, and legs through the train window… and… and the grass outside became red…” My grandma lowered her voice. Her pauses made me feel her nervousness of the scene. “When we walked, some babies were left on the road, crying loudly. Their parents left them because the adults wanted to survive. Also, I saw a lot of luggage left on the road. People had to throw things away to increase their speed. I can still hear the sounds of people’s running footsteps and babies’ crying now,” she said.
After a month of fleeing, my grandma arrived in Changsha and settled down. She thought she could have a rest. But she was once again pushed to flee away. In 1938, because the Japanese army succeeded conquering Wuhan, a city north of Changsha and was going to invade Changsha next, the government applied the scorched earth policy to burn the whole city of Changsha. “Hearing this announcement, I did not say anything and started packing,” said my grandma. “We then fled to a rural village that was about 200 miles from Changsha on foot. We ate wild grass and slept in the bush.”
“Did you know about that rural village before you went there?” I asked.
“No. The village was so poor that you could barely find a good bed to sleep and a good meal to eat. The most serious problem was the lack of salt in the village. After eating meal without salt for a month, everyone was swollen and lacked energy. So we dug into the walls of bathrooms because the walls contained saltpeter, which could separate sodium chloride after stewing.”
“So you just ate food with bathrooms’ walls?” I asked with astonishment.
“Yes. That is how we lived during that hard time. There was no other choice. Survival was our first choice.”
“During that hard time, did you ever feel desperate when you were fleeing?”
“No, I never had that feeling. My elder sister and her husband were anti-Japanese teenagers at that time. They organized teenagers to fight back against the Japanese while helping my family move from Jinan to Changsha. I was inspired by their optimism and confidence during the hard time and their love for their country. They were not distressed by the war so how could I feel desperate? Later, nine people from my family attended the war and some of them became high-ranked leaders of the troops. Their attitude to life was the source of my survival. I had waited in the poor village till the end of the war for the following seven years.” My grandma answered firmly and confidently. I was surprised when she answered. I could not believe a four or five-year-old girl who experienced the life of a refugee did not ever feel hopeless when eating wild grass and meals with bathrooms’ walls. Meanwhile, I thought I was so fragile that I always felt angry for trivial things.
“How did you think your experience changed your life and your view of your country?” I asked.
“Those years of fleeing and hiding made me love and treasure my life more and love my country more. When I became a teacher, I always taught my students to love their country because without the endeavor of our people and government we would not live in such a happy life. My experience made me love my country more. I really thanked my country. It resisted Japanese for eight years! It was so poor and weak compared to Japanese at that time but it won the war! I really love my country.”
“Have you ever thought about forgiving the perpetrators?”
“No! No at all! They caused a large number of destructions to both China and Chinese people! Besides, they have not faced up to their crimes until now. They should learn from German people. They should apologize to Chinese people and promise they will not invade any country in the future!”
I was proud of my grandma and I was so glad that I got a chance to interview her and share her experience. I felt depressed at the first half of the interview when I heard the tragedies of the refugees and my grandma’s life, but my attitude changed at the end of the interview. I was moved by my grandma’s optimism and striving spirit during those hard years. She even did not complain once about her hard life. Instead, her experience helped her love her country and life more. Her optimism and confidence helped her overcome the hard time. I did not feel awkward anymore for asking my grandma about her experience during the war because I knew even the worst war could not defeat her.