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born under an assumed name THE MEMOIR OF A COLD WAR SPY'S DAUGHTER
By SARA MANSFIELD TABER
Copyright © 2012 Sara Mansfield Taber
All right reserved.
Chapter One the wall
China—age seven, age of clear memory—was the place I became aware of my strange perch in the world.
The sun was warm on my cheek. My legs shifted under the sheet. I squinted my eyes open, sensed a ray of watery shine, shut them again. There was the smell of cooking rice and the green-mud smell of padi—the smells of Taiwan, of "Free China," as my father called it. Snuggling under my covers, I listened. There was a soft scratching sound. The scratching sound of earth being dug.
I kicked off the sheets, opened my eyes, settled them on the soft grey, plain walls of the room. The air was cool and moist, playing on my flung-out arms and legs. It wasn't hot yet. The atmosphere inside and around my body was soft and still. No one else was awake.
Pulling my nightie down, I sat up. There was the scratching sound again. I tugged the filmy curtain aside and peered out the window. The guard was squatting in the dirt across the small patch of garden, wearing his sunny-side-up, straw coolie hat and his loose cotton pants. I could see his thin ankles and the thick, corded veins of his weathered, caramel-colored arms.
The yard was ragged—a thin rectangle of dusty grass edged with a bare, tan bed of dirt. My mother had asked the guard, who was on round-the-clock duty but had little to do except twiddle his thumbs at his post near the gate, to plant some flowers. At the back of the dirt bed rose a high cement wall, with little chunks of clear broken glass on top like ice teeth. This was the wall that kept my family safe from thieves and other unnamed dangers. I often imagined what it would be like to be a thief trying to climb over the wall into my family's yard and finding his fingers and the fleshy parts of his legs and his feet sliced by the glass shards.
The guard was standing up now, his spade and pail lying on the ground beside him. He shifted slightly. The moves were quiet. Now he was staring at the earth; he was gripping his rake. All of a sudden, his skinny arms and upper body were twisting something, and, a second later, he was turned around, looking shyly into my face. He was holding, on his rake, a coiled, long, fat, dead brown-and-black snake.
I was transfixed by the sight, but my insides shrank down very small with fear.
During the time that the guard was standing, looking into my face, our bodies were only three paces apart, but it seemed like the old Chinese man and I, a seven-year-old American girl, were separated by a distance as large as three oceans. Even so, I wanted to open and climb out the window, to join the guard, to see the snake. What would its eyes look like, up close?
But I was frozen. I couldn't go out the window to the guard and I couldn't step back into the coolness of my room. I was at a juncture. I could stay in my room and remain an American girl with patent leather shoes and smocked dresses, or I could clamber out the window and become a Chinese girl who could kill snakes and spy dragons in the air. I stood at the opening, holding my breath.
Then I heard my father's voice calling. "Girl-child, time to get up. Time for breakfast."
A little while later, when our cook, Yuki, was clearing my sugared rice porridge, my father put down his Chinese newspaper and told me the guard had knocked on the door to say that a snake had slithered under the wall that morning.
"It was a krait," he said, beckoning me onto the lap of his khaki suit. "A twenty-stepper."
"You run inside, Sara, if you ever see anything moving in the yard," my mother said, leaning her dusky-blond bob toward me and pulling her Japanese yukata around her, her voice trembling, vehement. "Besides kraits, pythons and bamboo snakes are about. They're poisonous too." Andy, my brother, two years younger than I, was born right after my father drove over a thirty-foot python that was sleeping in the road.
"And," my mother went on, uttering the words I had heard many, many times, "don't ever, ever go outside the wall by yourself. It's not safe beyond the wall."
"But don't worry," my father said in turn, as he always did. "Snakes are rare. Almost all the time Free China is a very safe place."
My father had told me that, like the king of the beasts, America was the strongest country in the world and could save us anywhere, anytime, from anything—even, as I imagined now, from poisonous snakes.
My father had told me, too, that the Chinese thought of their country as ruled by a dragon—a wild and powerful dragon curled over a continent. I lived, thus, in a land of enchantment. Always, my father could change the look of something. He was my private magician.
* * *
Later that morning I watched from the window again as the guard placed foot-high piles of dirt along the inside perimeter of the wall.
* * *
As a child, I lived in a walled, American world within the island of Formosa, as Taiwan was then called. In one way, this world was bright and spotless and upright as a battleship, but often, when we stepped outside its walls, or bits of the outer world slipped in, that sterling picture became jumbled and tarnished. Living in a closed American world within another country has its inherent brittleness.
When you live in the country of your passport, you can take nationality for granted. You breathe it in with the air. When you grow up abroad, however, surrounded by people unlike yourself, the question of what country you belong to arises every day. You have to piece together nationality, painstakingly put it into words and build it block by block, like a foreign language. As a girl, I learned what it was to be American by watching Americans, by watching the world, and by watching my father. And my father was a certain kind of American, with a certain kind of job, a job that could make being an American into a hot potato.
* * *
My father went to work every day at the NACC, the Naval Auxiliary Communications Center, a plain, rectangular building on a base surrounded by a high wall in the sprawl of Taipei. As long as I could remember, my father had described his job to me as "China Watcher." This meant his duty was to keep a close eye on Red China for the American government. China Watchers had a secret mission that was very important to Washington, he told me, but I hadn't a clue, at seven, what exactly my gentle father really did. His official title was "naval attaché," but, unbeknownst to me, my father's actual portfolio, as a clandestine human intelligence officer, was to "debrief" escapees from the Mainland and to recruit and run agents with close ties to Red China. China then was almost completely closed to the West. In addition, my father and his associates were training Nationalists from the Mainland to infiltrate back into their homeland and build a democratic opposition movement.
In Taiwan, my family lived not under an assumed name, as we had when I was born in Japan, but we would throughout the rest of my childhood live under the cloak of "official cover." All through his thirty-year career—I wouldn't know this until I was a teenager—my father described his job as something somewhat altered from the truth. And every day in his work as a covert operations officer in pursuit of Communist secrets, he used false names and assumed secret identities.
Until I left for college, in tandem with my father's shifts in identity, and by virtue of family membership in the strange league to which my father belonged, I too lived under identities not of my own choosing. This way of living had many benefits but also high and painful costs for both me and my father—sacrifices that would eventually, for each of us in different ways, call in their chits.
It was in the crumpled and beauteous hinterlands of postwar Japan, at the point my father entered the clandestine service, that my father's secret work commenced its own clandestine job of slow and subtle tainting. The secret work my father did was like a branding on his chest, predestining his rocky and ambivalent, fascinating and tortured career. For me, his daughter, his secret work was like a stamp on my passport. Indelibly, it shaped my girlhood, turning it into a glamorous life rich in foreign cultures, delicate beauties, and startling joys—and burdened by strange silences, heartsickness, constant change, and loss.
Now and then, I sipped tiny tastes of my father's clandestine activities—they were like the little sips of scorching Chinese tea my father shared with me from his glass—but I didn't know that I was sipping. Most of the time, my father's secret was as imperceptible as a droplet in a rising tide.
* * *
In my father's soft-worn British atlas, Taiwan was a tiny rice grain in the Pacific Ocean just off Red China. The island was a dictatorship propped up by the U.S. government, patrolled by military police and on constant alert for Red Chinese attack, but for me it was a place of limpid airs; of lime-sparkling padi and scarlet lanterns; of fast-talking people in tattered clothes; of the delicious smells of pineapple and soy sauce shrimp; and the stink of fish and water buffalo dung. I had spent most of my seven years in Asia. This, to me, was how a place should look and sound and taste and smell. This poverty-burdened and shimmering padi-land—yanked around by the big powers in the Cold War—would stay in my bones, and draw and disturb me for years to come.
* * *
The Taipei in which my family lived was a cluttered city—half poverty-crumbled, half rebuilt with American money—sprawled at the foot of Yangmingshan, a beautiful, steep-sloped mountain named for a Chinese philosopher, and inhabited by deer, mountain pigs, and wealthy Taiwanese. According to my father's orders, our tour of duty in Taipei was two years, but, as my father said, whenever Washington cabled—and it could happen at any time—our job was to serve the U.S. government and board the next boat. (One day when I was settling into a new dormitory in a Midwestern college, feeling homesick for our recent home in Tokyo, I would ask my mother how she felt about having left so many places. "Oh I miss every home we've ever lived in," she'd sigh. Then she would count up the temporary billets and embassy houses we had lived in over the course of my father's career. We'd have moved, by then, thirty-one times.)
Our house was in a neighborhood called Renai Lu, Section Four. This was a new housing district on land that used to be rice padi: a crisscross of narrow streets lined by compact houses, each boxed within its own high wall. Many Americans lived in a U.S. compound, but our neighborhood was mostly Chinese save for the Tanners, another U.S. government family.
Our house, enclosed within its wall higher than my father's head, was made of concrete. It was small, square, and tight. The bare rooms were provided with embassy-issue furniture made of bamboo with grey duck cushions: a two-person couch and two chairs of the same grey duck, and a low coffee table. We also had one armchair, with a flowered slipcover, a sprig of prettiness to cut the institutional grey. Andy and I each had a plank bed with our own covers on them—olive green army blankets and white sheets. My father loved army blankets because he had served in World War II—when he'd first visited Asia—and his army service was one of the things of which he was proudest. There was a scroll on the wall in the living room. It was of Chinese characters in calligraphy presented as a compliment to my parents by one of my father's Chinese colleagues. The characters meant either "America," or "beautiful place," my father told me, depending on how they were translated. He delighted in the double entendre.
America was my country, but I really couldn't say if it was beautiful. I had last been there when I was four. Taiwan was the only home I remembered with any clarity. I knew America made good hamburgers and vanilla ice cream, because we ate them at the snack bar at the base, and I knew America had friendly soldiers with crew cuts, because we saw them all the time, both at the base and on the regular Chinese streets. What I didn't know was that my country had another, darker side.
My days in Taipei clicked along to a rhythm like my piano metronome, put into motion by my mother's orderly hand. My mother was often busy with her work as a physical therapist with Chinese polio victims and orphans, and as a teacher at TAS, Taipei American School, so our family had three servants: Yuki, a cook; Aduan, a maid; and Mary, our amah who took care of Andy and me. My mother and Mary knitted our household together. It seemed as if Mary had always lived with us. I loved her. She had fluffy black hair that she let me pin up with barrettes. She cooked special sweet rice snacks for us and played Old Maid as many times as I asked.
When we lived in America, my mother explained, we couldn't afford household help, but when we were in foreign countries, it was different. Because of my father's "representational duties," our family received an extra allowance for servants.
We lived in China but I hardly ever went to Chinese people's homes. On weekends we visited other Americans who lived in Taipei—missionaries and other government families. Some of them had sandboxes and swing sets like back in America. When I went to my best friend Laura's, we sat on the couch side by side, and drew pictures.
My parents did have Chinese friends. My mother had her Thursday ladies' group and my father had lots of Chinese friends. One of them was Mr. Chu, a man I had never seen—his special Chinese friend. At odd times—a drowsy Sunday midafternoon or a Thursday morning at five o'clock before the roosters had crowed—my father sometimes went for a walk with him. I imagined the two of them walking along hidden back alleys that smelt of blossoms and garbage, or along misty forest paths, their heads leaning toward each other, speaking of private things known only to the two of them.
* * *
We hired two pedicabs on Renai Lu, the big street near our house, and the skinny drivers cycled us into the center of the city. We were going downtown because my father loved to walk the streets of Taipei.
I watched the old man who was pedaling my mother and me. The muscles of his bare back strained and stuck out in rubber bands, and his leg muscles were carved into curves as they pushed up and down on the pedals. I hoped the ride would finish soon because it looked like it was difficult for him to carry us. When we got to the downtown, we paid the drivers and proceeded on foot through the close streets. One of the roads was called "Losefalu," the Chinese way of saying Roosevelt.
The streets as we walked were a whirl of stink, color, and cry. I liked all the swirling colors and rotten and fruity odors, and walking along holding my father's strong hand.
Long vertical banners of cloth with big Chinese characters fluttered in front of all the small, jumbled shops set side by side on the crowded, narrow street. They were messy places piled with plastic toys and buckets; cascades of rubber shoes; stacks of hard Chinese pillows; bolts of cloth; and tubs of smelly fish heads, noodles, and chicken feet. They also sold items like black furniture carved in geometric designs and shiny pots in a thousand sizes. But most of all, for me, looking around holding my father's hand, the street was teeming with people. Hundreds of heads poured into the distance ahead of us, and when I looked back, a long, oncoming wave of faces pushed toward me. They were a smudge of bright brown eyes, butter-brickle skin, and ink-black hair. I could hardly distinguish one person from the blur until my eyes got used to it. Then I could pick out people one by one: a hunched woman in a black dress shaking her finger at a man standing by a shelf of pigs' heads; a man selling fortune-telling sticks; a boy chasing a scroungy brown dog; an old man squatting, fanning himself with a broad fan; a sea horse seller; a man falling off his bicycle because no one would let him through; a pedicab driver leaning against his cab in the middle of the street; a water buffalo wandering in and out of the people, its tail flicking.
Mixed in with all the other people on the street were American and Chinese soldiers. They were bunched in groups of two or three. My father had told me that the guns both the Chinese and the American soldiers carried were American M-1 rifles and American 45-caliber pistols. The Chinese soldiers wore khaki the color of old bamboo. The faces of both the American and the Chinese soldiers were serious until one of their group pointed and told a joke, and then their shoulders swayed and they laughed.
The air around me squabbled and banged. Chinese people were talking, in a racket of chattering and yelling and scolding. I could only understand words here and there. TSE CHAW SHUR HOW CHOW CHO, harsh, chopping consonants strung together in rapid, spat-out sentences. Cows lowed, roosters crowed, buffaloes snorted. Hawkers shrieked out the names of the wares they were selling.
As we walked deeper and deeper into the street the smells grew stronger. The street reeked of rotting fish, rotting eggs, vomit, and dung. The air also smelled of fresh-cooked chicken and spring onions, spring rolls, and sweet candy.
Through the chaos, my tall father in his long, baggy shorts and sneakers, my mother in her pale green shift, my brother with his short legs sticking out beneath his shorts, and I, in my smocked, flowered dress, made our way. My father, walking with his head high and his eyes directed outward, looked exhilarated, my mother looked both interested and concerned about the poor people, and Andy pointed at everything and talked nonstop. I was easy and curious, and bubbling with confidence. I knew all these Chinese who saw us would know, just by looking at us, that we were American: inherently different, richer, and superior to them.
Excerpted from born under an assumed name by SARA MANSFIELD TABER Copyright © 2012 by Sara Mansfield Taber . Excerpted by permission of Potomac Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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