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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2
be reunited for more than a year. When my fa-
ther’s temporary assignment ended, he requested
a diplomatic position in China. He had some
background for this, as he had spent his junior
year abroad at Lingnan University in Guangzhou
and had followed up with Chinese-language study
at the University of Washington, giving him a
working knowledge of Mandarin (which he would
later polish up at the Foreign Service language
school in Beijing).
In July 1945 he was sent east via Calcutta to
serve as vice consul in Kunming. WithWorldWar
II still on, his family could not join him; as a re-
sult, he missed my birth in June of that year and
would not see us again until mid-1946. Our fam-
ily Christmas card for 1945 featured two separate photo-
graphs: a snapshot of Dad on the steps of a temple in
Chongqing (his second posting in China) and a group por-
trait of the rest of us taken in a studio in Seattle.
My parents rarely quarreled, but they did (by mail) dur-
ing this period, and they were determined not to repeat
that experience in 1949. So there was resolve, not bravado,
in Mary Lou’s decision to leave Manila and return to Nan-
jing. As she wrote to a close friend, Jean Smith, “To be
frank, I’m scared, and it’s not a pleasant sensation.” But
both my parents saw it as critical that the three of us get
back to Dad before the city fell, because they had no idea
when the Communists would allow us to rejoin him once
they controlled the capital.
Rushing into a city virtually under siege seemed an
ironic choice, but the Nationalist generals’ well-known dis-
taste for serious combat gave Mary Lou some comfort. As
she wrote to Jean Smith: “There is a very nice air-raid shel-
ter, and anyway, there probably won’t be very long fighting
for the city. If I can only get back to Ralph. This all sounds
weird, doesn’t it — it is, too, I guess. Don’t you dare tell
your mother, because she might tell my mother that I’m
When the three of us rejoined Dad in Nanjing, the lines
of civil war lay outside the city to the north, close enough so
we could watch the flashes of artillery across the river from
our balcony. Yet Fred and I were largely oblivious to any
danger. At 5 and 3, respectively, our interests focused on
toys, games and birthday parties with our friends.
Nor was ours the typical American childhood, as we
might have lived it back in Seattle. We spent most of our
time with the Chinese servants; and Amah, who took care
of us, was our closest friend. My first language was the Bei-
jing Mandarin I had learned from Amah; when our grand-
parents visited us in 1948, they could only talk to me
through an interpreter, my brother Fred. My favorite
comic strip featured a Chinese Sad Sack who had lost his
best friend in the civil war and ended up begging on the
streets of Shanghai.
We were in China, but not
China. The Chinese peo-
ple we knew were the house servants, employees of the
embassy, or middle-class families my parents met through
Dad’s work and Mother’s volunteer service. When we
drove out into the streets in the big American car, the
crowds that slowly parted before us flowed anonymously
past, notable to us only for their numbers.
Ours was a cloistered world in the Nanjing compound;
the daily drive to kindergarten, visits to friends’ houses and
family trips to parks for weekend picnics had not brought
us any closer to the lives of ordinary people beyond our
gates. Nor had the civil war made much difference to us
The Communists Take Power
On April 23, 1949, the Nationalists suddenly aban-
doned Nanjing. They blew up their ammunition dumps
and marched south, giving up their capital without resist-
ance. As Mary Lou described it, “It is amazing to me how
fast everything happened. Friday the Nationalists were in
control, Saturday the looters were in control, and Sunday
the Communists took over. We were indeed lucky there
was no real fight — no fight at all for the city.” But it was
still a difficult time for the remaining American diplomats
and their families.