Chun-Hui was so shocked when she looked at the profile on the handouts the Director of Discipline brought on to the stage to show all of the students. It was an unkempt man with stubble that had begun to show on his cheeks. The Director announced: “If you see this man, you must report him to the police, or to your teachers.” It was a black-and-white image caught by cctv, very blurred, but Chun-Hui had no problem recognizing it was Uncle Huang.
“These people are traitors, they are on the run. If they are not caught and put in jail, they will continue doing harmful things to our country.” The Director of Discipline preached in a threatening tone, like among these elementary students there were accomplices of these traitors.
Before noon, a big sign was erected in front of the passageway between the classrooms and the garden, it read: “Concealing Espionage is Equal to Treason”. The blood-red characters were terrifying, like they could become monsters any time to grab kids walking past it. The whole day Chun-Hui was ill at ease, she couldn’t concentrate on the classes, and during the recesses, the fear of being grabbed by the red monsters waiting for her outside of the classrooms prevented her from doing anything. She did not understand the meaning of espionage or treason, but these two words were seen everywhere these days, from TV, newspapers, and banners over the gates of some buildings. But not until now did Chun-Hui realize it was about Uncle Huang.
She even did not dare to go to the restroom, the whole day she sat on her desk with her bladder getting fuller and fuller, and her mind less and less focusing on teachers’ talks. The day of school seemed to be unusually long, Chun-Hui was on the edge of collapsing.
Chun-Hui had seen Uncle Huang almost every month, when he came to drink with her father. And they smoked. Dad usually did not smoke, but when Uncle Huang was around, they’d chain smoke all night. Chun-Hui did not like her dad smoking, so she did not like Uncle Huang. She suspected her mom also did not like Uncle Huang, because she complained about his visits more than once.
After school and at home, Mom was busy preparing dinner right after she returned from work. She was a clerk of the township office. Chun-Hui was going to ask Mom about Uncle Huang, but Mom bade her and her brother to start dinner without Dad.
“Where is dad?”
Mom thought for a moment and said, “An elderly relative in Kaohsiung was very ill, he went to assist him.”
“When he will come back?”
Mom waited for a moment again, and said, “I don’t know. Depends on how well or how bad the elderly’s health is.”
Mom seemed to be in a low mood, Chun-Hui thought she’d better stay quiet. After dinner, she stayed in her small room all night. They lived in a packed apartment that her father and his brother inherited from their parents, and each month they paid some money to his father’s brother for renting his share of the apartment. The furniture from the time of Chun-Hui’s grandparents and their own mismatched, making their activities at home awkward, but they couldn’t afford not to use the old furniture. The old furniture had better quality, but they were not designed for the space or for their needs. Several things in it were broken, like in the rainy season, water would drip from the northeast corner of the ceiling. But they never had it fixed, because her dad never got agreement on how he and his brother should split the expanse. They let the rain drip for years, until the site next to their apartment was developed, a higher building was constructed and blocked their apartment from heavy rain, as well as sunlight. They did not paint the rain stains over. Chun-Hui gathered that their parents had a philosophy that if a problem was not fixed, it shouldn’t be covered up even the symptoms stopped showing.
Chun-Hui took out her homework. In school her performance was just passable. As long as she was not punished by neglecting her assignments, she’d never bother to work harder in case teachers would notice her. Unlike most of the girls in her class who strove to impress their teachers, Chun-Hui maintained a distance from teachers and the Director of Discipline, Director of Curriculum, Director of This and Director of That. She participated in as few school activities as possible.
When Chun-Hui woke up from a horrifying dream, she realized she had fallen asleep when doing her homework. It was not done, but she was too tired to continue, she hardly could open her eyes. She had been running and running in her dream, and she wasn’t clear what she was running away. The blood-red monsters? The ghost taking shape from Uncle Huang’s cigarette smoke? The Director of Discipline who found Chun-Hui had known Uncle Huang?
The next morning on her way to school, the same handout the Director of Discipline had shown them before became larger posters attached on to the public bulletin board of their community. Chun-Hui shuddered. Did her mother see it?
The big sign of “Concealing Espionage is Equal to Treason” was still there, but several other notices were added by it, some of them were colorful. They were about dance contests or painting contests. The illustrations on the other posters reduced the threat of the blood-red characters. Chun-Hui decided to ignore it. She had decided, after the nightmare she had during the previous night, that reporting Uncle Huang was not her duty because even though she had seen him before, her knowledge of him wouldn’t help to know Uncle Huang’s whereabouts now. If Uncle Huang turned up again to drink with her father, she might consider reporting him, especially if he smoked too much. The cigarette smoke was really annoying.
Would Mom report Uncle Huang if she had seen the poster? Mom might consult with Dad, but Dad wasn’t at home. Would Chun-Hui’s decision not to report Uncle Huang result in an invasion by the Communist soldiers? She really couldn’t think too much. The foremost thing she should do was to be practical and make up the homework that she failed to complete the previous night.
Dad did not return home in the following days, thus Uncle Huang did not visit. Mom’s spirit was low, probably because Dad was not around and she had to do everything. Chun-Hui and her brother went to school as usual, and she maintained her unnoticed status as usual. One day after school, she saw two policemen standing in front of her home, talking to her mom.
“I don’t have his address.” Mom said. And one of the policemen spoke in a low voice.
“He called once when he arrived there, that was all. He did not call again.” Mom replied. Another policeman said something.
“I told you, I don’t know anything.” Mom said. The two policemen wrote something on a notepad, but did not seem to be leaving. Chun-Hui felt it was safer not to be seen at this moment, she turned and stepped down the stairs. She’d go somewhere else first.
It was March, but the weather did not show any sign of spring. Showers of cold rain washed away the energy of shoppers, storekeepers dozed off behind the counter, and street vendors played cards or read tabloids by their goods that were covered by plastic sheets protecting them from rain. The streets were bleak, Chun-Hui walked toward the small park, she decided to wait fifteen minutes and then go home. The policemen wouldn’t hang on that long.
In the park she saw that the seats of the swings were too wet to sit on, so she walked to another side of the park and surprisingly saw her brother was there, too. Was he also waiting for the departure of the two policemen? Chun-Hui weighed whether she should say hello to her brother and sit beside him to wait together. In that case she would have to talk about their dad who had not been in touch for days, according to what she had overheard of Mom’s conversation with the two policemen. And Uncle Huang, who was on the posters everywhere. . . Chun-Hui did not feel she had the mood to talk about it with her brother, so she walked away and sat down on a porch of a closed store, where she could see her brother’s profile. “I can take action after him”, she thought to herself.
Chun-Hui’s brother Chun-Shih was two years older than she, although they went to the same elementary school, they did not have a lot to share. Chun-Hui felt that her brother was closer to Mom than she was, because Chun-Shih could share Mom’s thoughts. Chun-Hui was always absent-minded, no opinion and no sense of responsibility. Chun-Hui wondered whether or not the reason that Chun-Shih was in the park instead of at home was the same to hers. Was it a better decision that they stayed away when their mother was interrogated by police?
Did Chun-Shih know the man on the posters was Uncle Huang? If so, would he report to the police? Did Mom recognize the man was Uncle Huang? If so, would Mom report to the police? What would happen to them if they recognize Uncle Huang and did not report?
Earlier in school, Chun-Hui’s unfinished homework had gotten her busted. She had hoped to get away, but she calculated it wrong. She got away with unfinished homework more than once, because the teachers had too much homeworks to grade, they sometimes only checked the first one or two pages of the homework presented on each child’s desk. Today Chun-Hui was hit by the teacher’s bamboo stick three times as punishment, and was bade to make it up during the recesses. Later Chun-Hui realized she could have gotten away had Cheng Mei-Ru not reported on her. Chun-Hui was very surprised that Cheng Mei-Ru would have done this to her. First because Chun-Hui was not like those troublemakers who were often reported to the teachers. Second, Cheng Mei-Ru never was the kind of girl reporting on classmates. It was understandable if Cheng Mei-Ru was given a hard time or bullied that she took actions of revenge or self-defence, but Chun-Hui’s not having finished her homework was not Cheng Mei-Ru’s business at all.
Ever since that day, Chun-Hui was reported by Cheng Mei-Ru on a regular basis. At first Chun-Hui was really annoyed, then the incidents at home had left her exhausted. Mom decided to take Chun-Shih and Chun-Hui to resettle in the countryside. Packing and moving tired them, so Chun-Hui completely gave up her studies. Knowing she was leaving, Chun Hui’s teachers no longer cared about her performance in school.
Chun-Shih and Chun-Hui’s father never returned home. Chun-Hui did not ask Mom, those days she was easily irritated, or depressed, or absent-minded. They threw away a lot of their stuff during their move, Chun-Hui remembered she felt most pity for a brand new book in a foreign language, on its cover was a young man of black skin and big smile. The only words on the cover she could recognize were 1971. The place they were living was much smaller, Chun-Hui shared the same bedroom with Mom, and they put up a partition with closets and shelves by the living quarters so that Chun-Shih could have his own bedroom. There was no room for Dad, but soon enough Chun-Hui realized where Dad was and why they did not need to have room for him.
Chun-Shih and Chun-Hui transferred to a smaller school. Chun-Hui was happy that the homework assigned by the teachers at the new school was much lighter and much easier. She maintained her style of not standing out, not being noticed. Chun-Shih had been more active in their former school, but he was much quieter since they moved.
Several months later, one day Mom told them they were going to visit Dad. The three of them got up early and took several bus rides to a place with high gray walls and barb wire. A booth was at the top where two walls met, someone was in the booth, watching.
Dad was imprisoned. Chun-Hui finally realized it. That was why they had to move to a smaller place, and that was why they did not have to save a place for Dad. After the check-in line, they entered a hall with large tables, similar to the common dining room in Chun-Hui’s former school, only the windows here were much higher, they couldn’t look out. All the men wore baggy uniforms of faded blue. Chun-Hui did not recognize Dad until one man stood up and walked toward them. Chun-Hui thought her parents might hug, but they did not. All of them found a place and sat down. They exchanged some words like old neighbors chatting. There was no point at all to the conversation.
Chun-Hui couldn’t help but glance at the other tables, those visiting families and their incarcerated husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons. Why were they here? And why was Dad here? Chun-Hui’s parents cared very much about explaining things to their children, even before they raised questions. And when they did not explain certain things, they knew it was because they thought it was not their business, or beyond their understanding.
Chun-Hui felt ill at ease, she did not know how to participate in her family’s conversation. Dad seemed to have lost some weight, she wanted to look at him more closely but also felt embarrassed to look at him. Chun-Hui felt the tension in Mom gradually loosened, her hand held her husband’s hand, although their topics were still about insignificant matters, like the weather, the food they ate, and the plants around their new homes.
After a certain time Chun-Hui did not know how long, a male voice broadcasting something, and all the people began to stand up and leave. This time Chun-Hui’s parents hugged, they hugged for a long time. Then Dad hugged Chun-Shih and Chun-Hui, he bade them, “Support your mother.”
On their bus rides home, Dad’s words hummed in Chun-Hui’s ears. “Support your mother.” Dad never talked like the parents of her classmates who emphasized “obedience” all the time. “Support” was definitely a new vocabulary for her, which made her feel like she was older than she really was.
The following years, Mom would pay Dad visits from time to time. Sometimes they went with her, sometimes Mom left them at home. In the first years, Mom’s become very irritable before her visit, and much easier after the visit, until her trips to the penitentiary became routine.
Chun-Hui received an email inquiring about her experience after her father was incarcerated. It was from an art curator, who was also a daughter of a political prisoner in the 1960s. Dad had passed away the sixth year after he was released. That time Chun-Shih was in America, he had settled down there after completing his graduate degree of information technology. When he returned to Taiwan for their father’s funeral, Chun-Hui proved something that had been hidden in her mind for decades: Chun-Shih blamed Dad for his irresponsible actions against the government and the consequences they had to endure. For all the nineteen years of Dad’s incarceration, Mom, Chun-Shih and Chun-Hui had been harrassed by police from time to time. Chun-Hui’s performance in schools was mediocre, but Chun-Shih was an excellent student in every subject. To his regret, each time he was applying for an award or a scholarship, he’d been cut off for unspoken reasons. Even when he was going to graduate school in the US, he had to overcome a lot of troubles that his peers never came up against.
Being asked about her experience, the first thought Chun-Hui has in mind was Chun-Shih. How much more he would have accomplished had their father not been a dissident and a political prisoner?But, was it fair to have such an assumption?
Chun-Hui never talked about it with Chun-Shih. She had assumed that Chun-Shih wouldn’t want to talk about it. Or, it was she who avoided talking about it.
Chun-Hui inquired more about the art events the curator was working on, and the reason why she was interviewed. The reply came back quick, explaining it was to document the experience of the families of White Terror victims. The art curator sent several files about herself, her projects, and related reports of White Terror. It was the first time Chun-Hui learned the term “White Terror” and she immediately could feel it. The invisible threat she and her mother and brother had lived within for nearly two decades. Chun-Hui decided not to respond to the email anymore, she wished she never had responded to it in the first place. She deleted the email, not wanting to be upset by the ghostly past.
About ten days later, the art curator emailed Chun-Hui again. She said she understood that many victims and their families did not want to talk about the past, and if Chun-Hui was interested in reading the interviews of others, she’d email her. Chun-Hui did not reply, and she did not delete the email, either.
Chun-Hui was a mother of two children now, her son was a college freshman, her daughter was in high school. Her son was a quiet boy like her, but her daughter was very active in school activities. She published articles in student journals, participated in debating teams, and ran as a student body representative. Chun-Hui’s mother once commented that an eloquent and opinionated girl in her time certainly would be put in jail. Chun-Hui was shocked when hearing it, but wasn’t it true? Looking back, her daughter did inherit many traits of her father. Before her father was imprisoned, he was an excellent speaker, a strong thinker, and a charming activist.
“Mom, I bought some taro at a good price in the late-afternoon market. Do you want some? I can bring it to you now.” Chun-Hui called her mother, who lived by herself two blocks away.
“Don’t bother. Make something for your children.”
“I did. I bought more than we can consume, the vendor was about to leave when I went to him, and he gave me all the taro left.” Chun-Hui felt she was eager to see her mother now, but she needed some excuse.
Chun-Hui and Mom peeled the taro, washed them, and put them in the soup made of pig bones Mom had prepared before Chun-Hui arrived. As the soup was cooking on mild fire, they took a break. Chun-Hui finally spoke out, “Mom, an artist is asking me about Dad. They are organizing art events about political prisoners in the past.” Chun-Hui figured Mom wouldn’t know the term curator, she simply said an “artist”. Mom did not seem to be surprised. She told Chun-Hui the government was talking about rectifying the past injustice, she also got information from some agencies.
“Do you think Dad should have avoided involving his incarceration?” Chun-Hui raised the question that she had no idea did it constitute an answerable question or not. Or, was it appropriate to ask such a question at all?
“It had been very difficult the first years your dad was in jail, not just the role of the husband and the father was gone, but also the deliberate insults and harassment from the authorities. At first I thought your dad was reckless participating in those gatherings against the government, but having witnessed how terrible it could be to the people, I realized that there was just no way your dad and his friends could stay silent about it. If we backed down, those villains would have no limit to their evil.”
Throughout her school life, Chun-Hui always told her classmates and friends that her father was working in a military camp, and, because his work was quite sensitive, he couldn’t go home. From time to time, they went to visit him. It was a scenario Chun-Hui made up according to the fragments of conversations her mother had with others she eavesdropped on. She knew having a version of her story consistent with her mother’s was the safest thing to do, although the mother and the daughter never discussed about coordinating their stories. What was the story Chun-Shih told? Chun-Hui would never know. It was not a topic between herself and her brother. Did Mom ever discuss it with Chun-Shih? Chun-Hui did not feel she really wanted to know.
After his release, Dad tried to write down what he kept in his mind over the years. That was what he and Uncle Huang were trying to do—spreading the idealism of socialism, something that certainly was a taboo in the past. All the papers, journals and reference books, among other publications they had used were burned by Mom right after his disappearance. Chun-Hui recalled the young black author’s big smile on the cover of the poetry a long time ago. Later in the library of her college, she found the same book and the title she had been too young to recognize: My Name is Afrika. To Dad, trying to recall what he memorized in his mind long ago was a challenge, but after two decades, he was told that these topics were outdated, the camp of socialist countries had collapsed or become markets for capitalism.
“It is a different matter.” Father tried to explain, but he seemed to be living in a different time and got confused as well.
“I should have let your dad know that I eventually understood his political decisions, but I did not. Having had to change jobs, transfer you and your brother to another school, hide everything we had and live like criminals made me unwilling to support your dad. And my bitterness only made your dad unforgivable to you and your brother.”
“I was all right.” Chun-Hui did not know how to comfort her mother. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, even she did not directly suspect the threats from the law enforcement or the watching eyes from their neighbors, teachers, or co-workers, she could feel the fears of her mother and brother. There was a time, the three of them crowded in the only bedroom at night, any sound, wind gusts, or tree rustling, or frog croaks could frighten them easily. Even today, Chun-Hui needed music of streaming water to help her fall asleep. Not to calm down her mind like meditators did, but to engage her ears.
The light of the setting sun filtered into the living room, to the old chair Father had occupied often before his passing. It had been a second-hand piece of furniture when they acquired it, and the long sitting of Chun-Hui’s father during the six years between his release from prison to his death had left a sunken area at the green seat of artificial leather. They had moved to a small apartment closer to the town, so they had better access to the public transportation. During the six years, most of the trips her parents made were to the hospital.
What was in his mind during the moments he sat there with his eyes casting in blankness all the time? Chun-Hui felt she had betrayed her father, as well as her mother and brother by not knowing more about their past. She had dodged the difficulties they had shared. Had she been more sensitive and more brave, she might have the opportunity to provide support to her unfortunate father.
Her father was never a traitor of the country as the charge resulting in his confinement, but Chun-Hui felt she was the traitor of her father.
Chun-Hui sat down on the chair, looked around, trying hard to imagine what Father had seen during the time before his passing.
C.J. Anderson-Wu is the author of Impossible to Swallow—Collection of Short Stories About The White Terror In Taiwan(2017). She is also a publisher, an editor and a translator.
Her Blog: https://impossibletoswallow.wordpress.com/