A Chinese saga

As a young girl, Mie Tien traded one ancient culture for another when she came to Israel.

By HADASSAH BAT-HAIM
December 1, 2005 13:26
chinese sage 88

chinese sage 88. (photo credit: )

 
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On the morning of July 6, 1913, Shaw Bah Tien sat in his private room, waiting. The atmosphere in the house was tense. His beloved wife, Ni, was about to give birth. He had never been a father and was a little unsure of the procedure. They had not been married very long. It had been an arranged marriage, of course. Their horoscopes had been evaluated carefully, family backgrounds investigated and the elders were satisfied, although in other circumstances, in other times, the obstacles might have formed a barrier. Shaw Bah Tien was descended from a line of nobility. Nothing had remained of his family's fortunes after the fall of the monarchy and subsequent uprising, so a little social leniency was welcomed. The family of Ni had been merchants and traders, a social class that he would hitherto not have been encouraged to join. But her family were big landowners, very respectable, with children brought up in a traditional way, so the advisers were optimistic. Neither of the young couple had been educated in the modern way, which later became accepted in some parts of China. Bah Tien could read and even wrote poetry in an elegant hand, though he could not use an abacus. Ni could neither read nor write. As a baby, her feet had been bound to prevent their growth so she could barely walk and was usually carried in a sedan chair, according to Chinese tradition. She could do exquisite embroidery and outstandingly beautiful flower arrangements. A perfect wife! At last, the midwife came into the room holding a small red bundle. "It's a girl," she announced. The young couple had hoped for a boy, but there was time and girls were often assets, bringing home husbands and children when the time came. The house was large, standing in a pleasant garden in the city of Hang Chou. Apart from the many pagodas and temples, it looked out onto a large lake. Many visitors came to participate in water rides, fishing, canoeing, and to enjoy the tranquility. The grounds of the family house were extensive enough for other members of the family. The estates and farm provided all their needs. Pigs and poultry were available for meat, and there were fruits and vegetables in abundance. Clothes were ordered, discussed and designed by a dressmaker, and material was brought for their approval from the city. There were always other children around, and they played together while their amahs (nannies) sat and gossiped. There were so many little ones that a tutor was engaged to teach them the rudiments of learning. The only dissension within the family was over Mie Tien's feet. Though the leaders of the revolution had declared equality for women, this view was held with mistrust by the elders - who solemnly warned the infant's parents that by depriving her of this unique attraction, they would be spoiling her chances of marriage and condemning her to be regarded as a servant or peasant. However, Mie Tien's grandmother was adamant. She had endured that agony all her life and had even inflicted it on her own daughter when all her instincts told her that it was wrong. But now she was a grandmother, and grandmothers have great authority in China, so Mie Tien went with unbound feet as did the sister who was born some years later. After kindergarten there was school, and a long walk early in the morning with a servant. The same servant brought hot food at noon and came to take her home in the evenings. High school was different. Too far for a daily journey, she joined friends and cousins at a residential high school and - again at her grandmother's insistence - later attended a Christian missionary school, where she had her first encounter with "foreigners" - as anyone non-Chinese was called. They were regarded with great curiosity and respect, and it was here that Mie Tien had her first encounter with English. The first invasion from Japan did not affect them. As far as possible, the family carried on as usual. But rumors of land seizures and urban brutalities made them very uneasy. Mie Tien left. Her parents stayed, holding onto their land and giving up the yield as demanded. The nearest refuge was Hunan. The Christian missionary school was still functioning, and Mie Tien found a place with them. After a year, she moved again, as it seemed likely they would be evicted or even imprisoned. It was still possible to be admitted to Peking University. Dodging from school to school, Mie Tien managed to pass the entrance examination. But she had no money. Whatever she had brought from home, however carefully hoarded, was finished. The place in the dormitory was free, but food - though very inexpensive - was not. Books had to be bought second-, third- or fourth-hand. Later, she learned that her own money inherited from her grandparents had kept her parents and sister alive unmolested, with bribes and gifts to the Japanese. Her missionary time stood her in good stead. She had not heard from her family for almost four years, and this was her constant worry. Should she go back and try to be with them? She was advised not to look for them or she herself might be detained. By this time, the war in Europe had started. Jews were fleeing persecution in Germany and flooding into Shanghai, where no entry permit was required. Then she heard that an English translator was required in a Hunan hospital. A young German doctor had started work. Full of hope, she went for an interview and found a shy young man anxious to understand his patients. There was one obstacle - Dr. Victor Karfunkle did not know a word of English, so their first sessions went mainly by gestures and smiles. Mei Tien had an ear for languages and soon picked up enough German to explain the patients' needs. Karfunkle absorbed a little English. Mei Tien became involved with the family. His father, a dentist, had spent some time in prison and narrowly escaped a concentration camp by walking across the border into Czechoslovakia unnoticed and penniless. His first wife remained in Europe; his second wife relied heavily on her stepson's pretty translator. Having cleared the language hurdle, the two young people decided to get married. Karfunkle had acquired Chinese citizenship, so a civil contract was straightforward. By this time the Japanese, who were preparing for their great adventure in Pearl Harbor, were no longer a presence. Mei Tien found out that her father had died and the two women, lonely and unable to contact Mei Tien, had bought - for seventy dollars - a six year-old girl to have a young presence in the house. Mie Tien's sister married a teacher and moved away, taking her mother. She and her husband were later swept up by the Cultural Revolution, when all schools were closed. They were taken to forced labor camps, their home was confiscated and given to an official, and the elderly mother left to fend for herself. Their old sprawling commodious home in Hang Chou was claimed by their adopted orphan as her own. As she had married a local commissar, this was not disputed. Victor and Mie Tien - now renamed Diana - were registered with the Jewish Agency in Shanghai. Diana took lessons from a rabbi and became very interested in a culture almost as old as her own. Her official conversion was completed before the birth of their first son, Reuven. After the second son, Joachim, was born, they were told there was a place for the whole family in a Jewish Agency transport. Three weeks later, they arrived in Israel. The boys, then aged two and four, had no difficulty with the language, but Karfunkle again needed an interpreter for a while. He ultimately managed with as much as he needed but complained that Mandarin had been easier to learn. Eventually the family settled in Nahariya. Victor was immediately absorbed into the medical services, and in a rickety old jeep soon became familiar with the uneven paths and rough roads leading to villages and kibbutzim in the Galilee. For more than 30 years (although with a better car) he treated, comforted and reassured patients in scores of small settlements. This aroused his interest in archeology and the house is full of reminders of trips that he and Diana, with the boys, took into the ancient history of the land they had come to. They bought a small house with a large garden. They had with them Victor's stepmother who had accompanied them from Shanghai and also his birth mother who joined them from Europe. Karfunkle built each of the elderly ladies a cottage on the grounds of the house they had acquired, where they were looked after and fed, cosseted and cared for by Diana for many years. Diana, who had written stories for magazines when she was a student, now took to journalism. She found a weekly news magazine Newsdom printed in Shanghai and became so incensed by the inaccuracies in reporting about Israel that she wrote fiery refutation and eventually had a weekly column correcting and explaining the news from Israel. She had to write by hand, as the 6,000 Chinese characters had not yet been converted into a mechanically usable form. In time, news arrived of the family living in a hovel in Shanghai. Her sister had resumed work teaching, but her brother-in-law - his body broken by the brutality of forced labor - never worked again. Diana got as far as Hong Kong but was warned against continuing to the mainland, as she would never get out. However, with a travel group, she later managed to meet them and say goodbye to her mother, who was in her 90s. Two years ago, Victor Karfunkle died at age 89. Diana is now 93. The spacious house is still full of her late husband's archeological finds, fossil rocks sent by Joachim who is a geologist in Brazil, and tranquil Chinese scenes that mingle on walls and shelves. The boys work abroad, but there are grandchildren and great-grandchildren nearby. Diana tends her fruit trees, makes jam, walks in the park with her caregiver, and greets visitors with a smile and instant offers of hospitality. Surrounded by her memories, she is content. It has been an eventful life, and her memory is clear about most of it. Indeed, there is a great deal to remember.

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