My cousin Nancy Dunlap Bercaw was here this last weekend and we spent a great deal of time talking about our families. She noted that our parents and some of us cousins were Children of the Occupation. My dad was born in Manila. I was born nearby at Clark Air Base. That Nancy was born in Germany. My cousin Woodson was born in Japan. Our conversation reminded me of a chapter from Brain in a Jar that I thought might be worth sharing–in an excerpted form.
“We’re going for Chinese food tonight,” Beau announces to my brother and me. It might be the strangest thing he’s ever said. It’s 1978. I am 13 and I’m just beginning to understand that my father’s complexities know no bounds.
We never go anywhere on a Sunday evening. Usually we watch the Six Million Dollar Man because Beau is fascinated by Steve Austin’s bionic implants. Otherwise, Lee and I are allowed only three hours of television a week. Our choices must be from one of the following: National Geographic, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, Fat Albert or Walt Disney’s Movie of the Week. Once our choices are circled in the TV Guide, they are written in stone. No changes are permitted—unless Billy Graham has a special. Our world stops for Billy Graham’s inspirational shows.
“The idiot box will rot your brain,” my father claims. I picture melted gray matter pouring out of my ears as John-Boy narrates life on Walton Mountain. Beau likes the Waltons because the real-life family is near the Bercaw farm in Palmyra. Some of the Walton’s kin attend Lyles Baptist Church, where Berc is buried, and where my grandmother still goes to services.
The only thing I know about China is that my father puts the word “red” in front of it. I know a bit more about Japan because Grandfather wanted to re-join the Army to fight the country in World War II, even though he was getting a bit old for service and had a good high-paying job in Washington, D.C. He wrote to General Douglas MacArthur and asked to be called back into active duty.
Berc was sent to learn Japanese in California, instead of being shipped out to the South Seas. Grandmother worked in a cannery there for a while before heading back to the farm with Beau, Peter and David. Young Woodson was busy making a name for himself at Virginia Military Institute.
In the parking lot of the Great Wall of China, which looks more like a temple than a wall, my brother asks a question.
“What do they have to eat?”
“We’re not here for the food,” Beau snaps. “Although I expect you to eat whatever is served. I want you to meet the owner of the restaurant. He’s going to tell you all about the horrors of Communist China and how grateful you should be for all you have.”
“We are grateful,” I say as sweetly as I can.
“Not enough,” he says, unfolding himself out of the car.
The Great Wall of China restaurant is dark inside. Strings of red lanterns hang from the ceiling. Each table has a candle inside a hollow Buddha. Murals of farmers and mountains and boats and temples decorate every wall. A man greets my father and takes us to a huge, round table with a place card that says, “Reserved for Bercaws.”
Dad sits between Lee and me; four other chairs remain empty. Soon thereafter, another man comes over to the table and my father stands up.
“Dr. Bercaw, so glad you are here,” he says. “These must be your children.”
“It’s our honor to be here, sir,” Beau says. “Nancy and Lee, please stand and greet Mr. Tan.”
“We are very excited to be here, and to try your food,” I manage to say.
“I will bring you the specialties of the house,” Mr. Tan says.
“After we eat,” Beau says, “would you kindly tell us about what life was like in Communist China?”
Mr. Tan nods and bows. My father bows too. I curtsey like my mom has taught me.
“Young women bow in China too,” Mr. Tan says, smiling big. I bow.
I wonder how Beau met Mr. Tan, who looks healthy and fine. Surely he isn’t a patient. I imagine Beau calling every Chinese restaurant in town and asking, “Did you escape from Communism?” and hanging up if the answer was no. Finally, perhaps, he happened upon Mr. Tan and here we are at his Great Wall restaurant. Maybe they met once, in a secret location, to strategize about how to turn ingrates into patriots.
“Two Shirley Temples,” Beau says to a waiter. “And one Singapore Sling.”
My drink arrives with a pink plastic mermaid hanging off the rim of the glass. My brother’s cup has a green plastic bull straddling the rim. We smile for the first time that evening. Studying the placemats, Dad figures out which sign we are in the Chinese zodiac: Beau is a tiger; I am a snake; and Lee is a pig.
“A-ha!” Dad exclaims with each revelation.
Two waiters deliver more food than I have ever seen in my life. Lee inhales General Tso’s chicken. Beau shovels rice and spicy broccoli into his mouth. I eat fried bean curd as if it were French fries.
“Can we come here all the time?” I ask Beau.
He nods, approvingly.
Mr. Tan sits down in one of the empty chairs. Beau wipes his mouth, and leans forward to listen.
“In China, I could not own a restaurant like this. I could not have this much food. There were rations. I could not pray to God. We had to be atheists. I was not free.”
Beau watches him intently. His eyebrows rise and fall on Mr. Tan’s words. When Mr. Tan mentions the words “not free,” my Dad’s eyes water up. I try to make mine well up too.
Mr. Tan continues for a long time. I hear the words he is saying, but they are heavily accented. Mohw. Torchure. I’m not sure what he means by them.
My father understands everything. He’s taking notes on a prescription pad, undoubtedly to quiz me later. He’s done this before at Civil War battle sites and museums. He wants to see if I am paying attention. Whenever I don’t remember what we’ve just learned, he says, “Gal, you’ve got to get this information through your thick skull.”
“Thank you for telling us this information and for feeding us this great food,” I say when Mr. Tan is done.
“Zai jain,” he says.
“A good man,” my dad says on the way home. “God, the things people have to endure in this life. You can learn a lot from a man like that, Gal.”
Turns out that I learned a lot from both of them.