One Thursday in December, I got a call from a cousin in Tianjin, who had planned on taking her 8-year-old daughter Jing to Beijing for the weekend. “Sorry, we have to cancel,” she told me. “This coming Saturday Jing has to go to school. You must have heard—all the students have been asked to attend a major school ceremony in honor of the anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre. Seems like it’s getting big this year.”
I put down the phone and turned on my computer. News headlines flashed online: China’s first “National Day for the Nanjing Massacre” was everywhere. I checked WeChat—a popular Chinese social networking app—and saw people posting and re-posting nationalistic, hate-provoking articles, with comments ranging from relatively moderate (“I will never forget what the Japanese did in that war”) to extreme (“I want to throw an atomic bomb on Japan.”)
This stirred memories of my school days in a small village near the port city of Tianjin and what we were taught about China’s difficult history with Japan. Like many Chinese, when I was growing up I felt fear, hate, and confusion toward the Japanese. But I also remembered the time I spent with a person who sparked my fascination and, ultimately, love for the same country. I couldn’t help but think: What would she feel if she was still in China today? And what hardships had she experienced during the sixty years she lived in a small Chinese village surrounded by people who regarded the Japanese as enemies and cruel barbarians?
The author with her mother, aunt, and cousin on the road to her grandparents’ village in 1993. Photo: Courtesy of Karoline Kan
I called her Grandma Ono. She was a Japanese woman who married a Chinese farmer in my grandparents’ village. I don’t know her real name. I decided to call her Grandma Ono after I watched an anti-Japanese film a character named Ono. I thought it sounded much better than the term the villagers had used to describe her and her half-Chinese children: “Little Japs.”
As a child, I had no idea what it meant to be Japanese and what it meant to be Chinese; I didn’t know why they all treated her differently. She farmed in the field, planted flowers in the yard, and cooked meals—just like the rest of the women in the village did. If there was something different, it was mostly her accent, the fact that she was alone most of the time, and that people in the village often talked about her behind her back.
One day I followed my aunt to play mahjong at her friend’s home. On the way, we encountered four women having a conversation; Grandma Ono had just passed them by.
“She was abandoned after the end of the (Sino-Japanese) war and found hiding in the forest near the river, while other Japanese left or killed themselves,” I remember one woman saying.
“She can’t be a wife of a high-end Japanese official. Otherwise how can she be left here?” said another contemptuously. “She must be a…”—the old woman looked around, and lowered her voice—“…a weianfu—a woman that did that kind of business with Japanese soldiers.”
The bored women murmured something low, and then laughed and sneered.
I pulled my aunt’s blouse and asked, “What’s weianfu?”
A fat woman interrupted. “Little kid, don’t ask too much!” The others laughed. I knew from the sound of the laughter that weianfu couldn’t be a good word.