BY: ROBERT SCREVEN
I call my grandfather Gong-gong, which my parents tell me means “old man.” He grew up in the countryside of Toishan, an area of China. He does not speak much English, and I never learned Chinese, so we have never been able to converse. Even so, he and my grandmother took care of me every day until I was five years old, and we have a strong, loving relationship. Over the years, I had heard stories about my grandparents escaping to Hong Kong, building a life there, and then starting over again in the United States after immigrating years later. I knew my grandfather to be quiet, kind, hardworking, and willing to sacrifice for his family. But I did not know what drove him to take those chances and shoulder those burdens, what events pushed him to do whatever was required to ensure his family was safe and secure.
Driving up to San Francisco to eat dinner with my grandparents, as my family often does, I wondered if my grandfather would be willing to answer questions about his life during World War II. I knew Japan had occupied Toishan when he was a boy, but I had never heard anything about his life during that time. In the car, I struggled to imagine personal questions about the invasion. During the war, the Imperial Japanese military murdered 17-20 million Chinese civilians. With numbers that large, it is hard to conceive that it actually happened. That infamous quote by Joseph Stalin rang in my head, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”
After finishing dinner, I was ready to interview my grandfather. With my mother next to me as translator, I sat on one end of a large, tan sofa in my grandparent’s living room. My grandfather made slow, small steps toward his favorite black chair across from me, shuffling forward in a weathered body shaped by hard years. I nervously glanced around. Even though I had spent thousands of happy hours in that very room, I began to feel uncomfortable. Doubts about the interview raced through my mind, but it was too late. There was a slow creak as my grandfather sank into his chair.
I began with a basic question, “How old were you when the Japanese invaded?” It was an easy question to relax us both. He glanced at me for a second and then glanced at my mom who repeated my question in Chinese. He responded in a strained voice, “I was 12 or 13 years old at that time.”
Silence ensued as I nervously stalled. My grandfather is not a talkative person, and I wondered how willing he would be to discuss his past. Suddenly, my doubt was shattered by loud speech from the neighboring kitchen. My grandmother, a little girl during the war, wanted to jump into the conversation. She plopped down on the couch and eagerly awaited questions. Reassured that the interview would go well, I asked about life before the Japanese invasion. My grandmother responded first, saying, “Life was entirely different before the invasion. Everybody had enough to eat.”
My grandfather added, “It was not perfect, but it was a peaceful, secure life.” My grandfather stared out into the distance, slouching deep into his chair. I wondered what was going through his mind.
I then asked, “What do you remember of the Japanese invasion?” My grandfather answered first this time, sitting up and becoming alert. He told of the Japanese army badly beating the Chinese army and sweeping through surrounding villages. “We heard of the Japanese burning through nearby villages, and stories came out of soldiers raping and killing the inhabitants. We knew we had to leave soon for our safety.” The villagers’ fear of Japanese attack soon became a reality. My grandfather described Japanese warplanes bombing his village in Toishan and destroying its main bridge. I cannot imagine the terror that my grandparents must have felt then. The very idea of facing death at such a young age is completely foreign to me.
After the bombing, my grandparents and their families evacuated from Toishan and fled into the mountains to avoid the Japanese army. The Japanese army came and went, creating a cycle of villagers cautiously returning and escaping. I asked them what images they remembered from running away. My grandmother began, passionately waving her hands as she spoke about how ill-equipped they were. “Many people didn’t even have shoes. They only carried small bundles containing food, firewood, and clothes while they traveled from mountain to mountain. I remember seeing the Japanese Army approaching us from behind on the mountain. I saw them firing and then saw the bullets landing in front of my face. I remember hiding behind low walls.”
Before I could ask another question, my grandfather began to speak unprompted. “The Japanese army had three principles of attack: kill, steal, and burn. In Toishan, people were either killed directly by soldiers, or they starved to death.” On a return to Toishan, he remembered seeing people who starved to death on the street because of dislocation and theft by the Japanese.
There was a brief pause. Then my grandfather continued describing the utter cruelty of the Japanese army. The Japanese had no regard for any kind of life and killed young children they found. “I saw the soldiers spear through the stomachs of little kids. Then, they hanged them.” Shocked that anybody could do this, I remained silent. That image conveyed the true terror burned into my grandfather’s memory. This event was no longer a paragraph in a history book; it was a vivid, tragic reality personally experienced by my grandfather and millions of other people.
“Did you know any victims of the killing?” I asked.
He told me that he had friends who didn’t survive, then described two instances in particular. “The son of a family I knew well unluckily visited Toishan during Japanese control and was caught. He starved to death. Japanese soldiers forced a man who had worked for my father to be their guide, showing the Japanese the roads. Once he outlived his usefulness, they beheaded him.”
Despite the grisly subject, my grandfather seemed to be invigorated by the interview. I have never seen him so passionate. My grandfather was only a teenager when this happened. It must have been traumatic for him, yet he stayed strong and survived. I asked him how he thought his experience might have shaped his world view. He replied, “I am lucky and grateful to be alive. I am also thankful for the United States because without them, it would not have ended.” It also made my grandfather wary. As he saw the brutality of the Chinese Communist Party grow, he began his search for a safe haven. He was eventually able to slip over the border into Hong Kong, under British rule at the time, where he immediately applied to immigrate to the United States. After years of waiting, he reached the front of the queue, and then he, my grandmother, my uncle, and my mother reached San Francisco, finding sanctuary at last.
With the interview coming to a close, I asked one more question. “What is the most important thing to say about those times?”
My grandfather said simply, “People should not forget.” Then he smiled. I thanked him and departed for home with my family.
Riding in the back of the car, watching night overcome twilight, I replayed my grandparents’ stories in my head, stories I had never heard, stories my mother had never heard. The ribbon of history that includes my good and comfortable life was woven in part with threads of horrible atrocity. It would have been so easy for my grandfather to give up, to live out a life of bitterness and hatred. But he did not. He focused on the future and the well-being of his family. By living their lives constructively in spite of the searing tragedy of the Japanese invasion of China, my grandfather and many of his fellow survivors have done their part. Our part is to make sure that the human impact of those events, the survivors’ words and emotions, are captured forever so that the world never forgets what did happen and what could happen again if we don’t all stand guard.
Understanding my grandfather’s experience has deepened my love and respect for him. While any adversity I might encounter will almost certainly pale in comparison, his determination and forward-looking attitude will always inspire me to push on, fight through it, and get to that better place. And, Gong-gong, I promise you, I will not forget.