My earliest years were spent in wartime China, moving, constantly moving, and sometimes fleeing with only what we could carry. I can still hear the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones of our courtyard, the mounted soldiers shouting, guns going off, grenades being thrown, the sound of shots everywhere. My first word in Chinese was “Sha!” (Chinese for kill) mimicking the Kuomintang soldiers running by the wall of our compound. My mother was alarmed, unable to project the lasting effects or protect her young children from witnessing daily scenes of violence.
We took off one day, like any other day in our rickshaw, my older brother Tracy and me: he in his little visor hat with padded earflaps, and me, in my quilted jacket and pants, dark blue with a faint whitish flower pattern, to go to school. My teacher, Miss Shu, greeted me at the door. It was a sunny day, though crisp and cold like most Nanking winters. We sang a greeting and counted each child. From playing with our neighbor Jung Chan, I had become quite the Chinese chatterbox. “Let the brush do the painting,” said Miss Shu, as she watched my frustration with trying to make my picture look just so.
I was in the middle of letting my brush do whatever it wanted when my father was suddenly standing there. He felt taller than his lean six-foot-three-inch frame. “Come,” he said, “we need to go.”
“No,” I cried, “I am not finished painting; I don’t want to go.”
He scooped me up and carried me out to the open jeep where my brother was already sitting. As he got behind the wheel, a plane flew overhead. I heard a loud explosion just beyond my school. Stones and dust scattered. My father drove fast and my body froze, not knowing if I should duck as another plane that was dropping bombs flew overhead. My whole body was rigid with fear, though it was such a familiar feeling that it felt like I was wrapped in a self-created rigid shell, impenetrable, but one that didn’t allow much freedom of movement. More bombs fell, but farther away, and my father raced on. We were suddenly at the gate of our compound. Our cook whisked me inside, scooping me up and carrying me into the house.