My classes in the beginning were most difficult and I didn’t think I would ever learn Chinese. Mrs. Murray admitted she had used the wrong approach with me. “We will study vocabulary every day followed by basic grammar,” she said at our first class. “You will learn to conjugate verbs.”
“Conjugate verbs,” I said.
“Yes, conjugate verbs,” she said. “Certainly you conjugated verbs in school, didn’t you?” I didn’t want to tell her that I dropped out of school in the 9th grade to join the war effort and began working in the steel mills, and on my seventeenth birthday I joined the Marines. My mother and father had to sign my papers and agreed to let me join since the war was winding down, and I pleaded with them that if I enlisted, before it was too late, I would be entitled to all kinds of benefits.
I could study electrical engineering under the GI Bill. No one had even the slightest notion that the war was a long way from over. Nor did anyone know that I really didn’t want to study electrical engineering. My parents signed my enlistment papers and I left for Parris Island.
That first night when I returned from the Murrays to the barracks, I studied verb conjugations. It wasn’t that difficult and I figured I could easily bluff my way through now. A couple of hours and I knew all the answers.
“Today we will study verb tenses,” Mrs. Murray began the next day. I knew them: past, present, future. “In Chinese we do not have the pluperfect and conditional tenses that you have.”
Pluperfect, conditional tenses, I had no idea what she was talking about. It was obvious I had to learn English grammar before I could learn Chinese grammar.
Except for the little money the Murrays made from tutoring, they had no other income. Whenever possible I brought them gifts from the PX that I smuggled out the gate shampoo, Lux soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, a Gillette safety razor and blades. Mr. Murray had never seen a safety razor before. “What they don’t have these days,” he said. They were pleased with anything that I brought. In spite of their ill health, and problems with their daughter, they looked to the future with hope. They planned to establish themselves in another mission, perhaps in Cheefoo in the north.
Once I got beyond the stumbling block of grammar, my Chinese studies went a lot easier. The second week I could put simple sentences together. Before long I was beyond “What is the color of your rice bowl ?” I memorized phrases and kept repeating them over and over in my mind, and sometimes aloud, to the annoyance of others. I learned children’s poems.
Mrs. Murray was a good teacher. “Chinese is a very simple language,” she explained. “It’s a language of poets, but not scientists. In the next million years, the Chinese could not develop a bomb like you Americans did. It’s not within their language to do so.”
“But you said they were the first to invent gunpowder, and the compass.”
“Yes, they did many great things, but China also closed its doors for many hundreds of years. They lost trust in the West.”
The Marines were harsh skeptics when I came back to the barracks and told them that the Chinese invented gunpowder long before it was ever known in the west, and that the Chinese were the first to use a compass to navigate. “That’s bull shit,” Terry said when I mentioned it. “Look at their bloody trucks. They bum charcoal to run.”
“They don’t have gasoline, that’s why,” Chandler butted in. “They don’t have money.”
“They’re backward sons of bitches, that’s why. If they weren’t they’d make money and buy all the gasoline they wanted. They never invented nothing.”
The guys didn’t always like to hear what I had to tell them about the Chinese, and they really became annoyed when I went around spurting out Chinese. “Shut up you friggin’ gook lover,” they said when I overdid it. Nor did they like it when I came back smelling of garlic. The Chinese couldn’t cook without garlic. The second time I came back from dinner at the Murrays they ganged up on me and put my bunk out in the hall for the night.
The guys mocked me for my Chinese, but they also picked up their own street vocabulary, which one could hardly use in polite company. They learned curse words and went around the barracks cursing one another in Chinese. Before long they were using the words freely in town. It amused them to learn that to offend someone in Chinese, you called them a turtle.
Chinese Language, the Bible, Humanities and Strange Livelihood
My education with Mrs. Murray was more than learning Chinese. She started me thinking on serious matters that never entered my mind before. She found books for me to read on their bookshelves. A whole new strange and often mystifying world began to open up. But when she began talking religion, I became uncomfortable. l was not pleased by the way she forgave the Japanese for their atrocities and the pain they caused her and her family. No Marine could.
“How can you forgive them?” I asked in anger after she had just told me about public executions when the Japanese beheaded their victims, and prisoners were forced to watch, even her young daughters.
“They are God’s children. We are all God’s children,” she replied.
“Maybe, but you don’t let your kids do what they want to do,” I said.
“It’s in the Bible,” she said. “If you want to believe the Bible, the Japanese were under the influence of the devil disguised as the Emperor. To the Japanese, the Emperor was the light of the world; the devil, the Bible says, transforms elf into the light of the world. It says so in 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 4, and in Revelations 12. It states how Satan blinds the minds of the people and misleads them. To answer your question, unless you believe that the Emperor was God, it is obvious by the Bible that the Japanese were possessed by the devil. Now, you don’t believe the Emperor was god, do you?” I listened but these things I dared not repeat back at the barracks. I couldn’t go around saying the Japanese were not the fault for what they did, that it was really the fault of the devil. But I could discuss such things with the Murrays.
Mrs. Murray was sympathetic, and yet on the other hand she appeared to be calloused. In her 30 years in China, she formed a view of the world that was perceived quite differently than most others viewed it. When I mentioned about the kid I saw sleeping in the sewer every night, she didn’t feel the compassion for him that I did. Then I found myself in complete disagreement with her about another incident that took place a few weeks after I began my studies with her. It involved a beggar boy.
At the front gate of the university, a boy, about fourteen or fifteen, came often to beg. He made quite a pathetic sight. He couldn’t stand upright and to get around he had to crawl on all fours like an animal. He had pads on his knees but still the skin was as hard as shoe leather. His legs were sticks, almost withered away from disuse. A navy surgeon saw the boy on several occasions when he passed through the gate on his way to the navy hospital. The surgeon was deeply moved by the boy’s agony. One day he had his Chinese assistants bring the boy into the examining room. After x-rays and consultation with other doctors, the surgeon concluded that the boy could walk again. It would take several operations perhaps lasting many months. After reams of paperwork with navy headquarters, he got permission to operate, but not at navy expense. The surgeon put out an appeal to raise money, and within a couple days the whole regiment was prepared to pitch in. The kid became a cause celebre. The surgeon located the boy’s parents and gave them the good news. Their son could be made whole again. The parents refused. The surgeon was astounded. He argued that we were living in a modern, scientific world, and there was no room for pagan superstition and false religious beliefs.
The thought came to him that perhaps Mrs. Murray, being a missionary and understanding these strange religious matters, might be able to intervene and convince the boy’s mother to change her mind.
“The boy’s mother would never change her mind,” Mrs. Murray said emphatically.
“But there’s a good possibility that the boy could walk again,” the doctor insisted.
“And what would the family do?” she replied, not wanting an answer. “The boy is their sole income. If he could walk, he could not beg. It’s as simple as that.”
The boy never did have the operation.