Shekow, China, 1938
Pulling her in-laws’ front door shut, Emma leaned against the stone wall outside until the wind was fresh again. Then she walked the length of the house but no further, straining to hear far-off air-raid alarms, the drone of airplanes, gunshots.
Emma’s hands were trembling, and she tucked them in her armpits and shut her eyes, searching her mind for a picture of the farm. After only a minute she gave up and dug the photos from her pocket. First the creased one of her mother, father, Martha, and Jon, standing in front of a new tractor, the North Dakota sky stretching out behind them. Emma stroked the curled edges of the photo. Then she turned to the recent picture of Soren and held it close. She studied the smile lines that ran the length of his cheeks, the hazel eyes that she knew were flecked with gold. His wavy hair was in need of a cut and stuck up from the top of his head.
It had been Harald’s idea, this looking at the photos. Her father-in-law had encouraged her to think of better times as soon as the anxiety rose and suggested carrying the pictures.
Still staring at the photo of her husband, Emma whispered, “Where are you, Soren?”
Harald had told her to believe that Soren was alive. Unless she heard otherwise, Harald said that Soren should be alive to her, and she repeated those words. But he wasn’t coming to her. He wasn’t coming today, she was sure of it. And he wasn’t coming tomorrow.
Once Soren had tried to explain the meaning of the word “duty”—a man’s duty to work versus his duty to his family. Soren had said that, as a man, you sometimes had to choose.
She realized that he didn’t mean choosing not to love your family. He loved her. Emma knew that as deeply as a child knows she’ll wake up in the morning. And she’d seen his longing to be understood as he tried to explain what duty meant to a man, how hard it was to choose work but how necessary.
“A man has to make a decision, Emma,” he’d said, his eyes pleading with her. “I’m here to do the work of God, and I need to stay at my mission site. You, as a woman, can leave and go someplace safe, but I can’t. Don’t you see how dishonorable it would be? How weak?”
He loved her, but he’d chosen the work. The work was the most important thing.
Emma reached up to rub the tightness in her neck, under the wrap of scarf. Then she tucked the pictures into her pocket and trailed her hand against the stone as she wandered to the door and into the empty home. Harald and Liv would be back soon, and, without removing her coat, Emma paced from window to window, stopping for a moment at each one as she hummed against the silence.
She lowered her forehead to the window’s cool glass. “Where are you, Soren? Why don’t you send a telegram or a letter?”
She lifted her head to the colorless sky.
Well, when it came down to it, women had to make hard decisions too. They had to decide whether to follow their own work and passions or to get married and raise a family. And of course they chose family. They elected to give themselves to others. That’s what her mother had done and all the women she knew. But choosing a relationship—choosing to love—didn’t mean the end of responsibility. Embracing marriage and motherhood often meant more and more dilemmas and difficult, even terrible choices. Sometimes women had to make horrible decisions that cracked open their hearts.
She stepped back from the window. “I’m leaving this place. I’m leaving China.” Her voice was loud in the empty room. “I don’t want to go alone, but if I have to go by myself, I will.” She found strength in the words and lifted her chin. Moving to the next window, she rested her hands on her stomach. “Relax, little one,” she whispered. “You’re going to be okay.”
August 30, 1935, Seattle, WA
Foreign Mission Headquarters
Dear Mother, Father, John, and Martha,
Tomorrow we leave for China, and boy, am I nervous. I think we are well-prepared, though. Our papers are in order, and Soren has put the tickets in his traveling shoes where they sit waiting by the door.
To answer your question, Mother, Soren said we can buy furniture and anything else we need in China. He said China has many large cities and we’ll find whatever we need there. It’s hard for me to imagine, though, that the cities in China will be as large and as crowded as Seattle.
I think we are both relieved to be getting on the ship tomorrow. Soren is relieved because he’s anxious to get home, and I’m relieved because the waiting is harder than the doing. As you always say, Mother, it’s better to face the trial than to sit and think about it.
We met with a man in charge of China missions yesterday and learned that we’ll be staying at the Missionary College in Peking for eight months. During that time we’ll study Chinese language and culture. Soren was disappointed because he wants to begin the work right away, and, of course, he already knows the language. The man convinced him, though, that the time in Peking will be necessary.
Thinking about the Missionary School, I worry about ever learning Chinese. During these few days in Seattle, I’ve tried to memorize some words, but I fear I haven’t accomplished a thing. I can’t get my thick tongue to make the sounds, no matter how many times Soren repeats them. He says I shouldn’t fret because we’ll always be together. I tell him I’m thankful that he’s willing to be my interpreter, but I know we won’t always be together, and I need to learn the language of the people, especially if I am to teach music as I plan to do, even though he hasn’t necessarily agreed.
Tomorrow I will see the ocean. I imagine I’ll spend most of my time on the ship’s deck, watching the waves.
I think of you all every time I see something new, wishing you were here to experience it with me.
With much love,
Emma and Soren stood close, heads tipped back, trying to take in the immensity of the S.S. Jefferson.
“What do you think?” Soren leaned down to be heard through the noise of the crowd.
“I’ve never seen anything so big.” The sheer size of the ship gave Emma one less thing to fear. At least they wouldn’t sink.
Soren tucked her arm in the crook of his own. “This way, Frank,” he shouted over his shoulder.
Frank, his long-time friend, slowed and veered to the left as Soren motioned for him to follow. “I think I can find my own way, pal,” he said.
As the crowd surged forward, Soren pulled Emma closer. “You’re going to love the voyage, Emma. I promise.” His voice was quick with excitement.
They made their way onto the deck and squeezed through the crush of passengers to find a place at the railing. Only then did Emma let go of Soren’s arm, grabbing onto the metal rail with both hands and holding tight. Musicians played behind them, and from somewhere above confetti fell, fluttering past like snow. It was a going-away party.
People on the shore began to wave and cheer, and Emma found herself waving back, pulled into the moment. “Good-bye,” she cried. “Good-bye!” And suddenly she felt as though she knew each person down there, as though they were family saying farewell. She waved even harder. “Good-bye,” she whispered.
Men unwound the massive ropes holding the ship to the dock, and the S.S. Jefferson slid away from shore, slowly enough to allow the passengers a long final look. They were leaving the United States.
Emma kept her eyes on the shoreline, feeling a need to watch while they could still see land. Thankfully Soren didn’t suggest searching for their room or checking for their luggage. He seemed to feel the same as she did, and they stayed on deck as the ship left the Sound.
“I’m going to close my eyes, Emma,” Soren said. “I’ll close my eyes, and you describe the sights, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, as he dried her cheek with his thumb.
For the next half-hour, Emma described everything she saw while Soren stood near with his eyes shut. She told him of the small dark birds that followed along beside the ship, dipping into the waves, and the mountains with their shoulders huddled into the clouds, and the way the sun kept breaking through and lighting up patches of water in silver streaks.
“You pay attention to things other people don’t even notice,” Soren said after she stopped speaking.
Emma smiled at him, realizing that, for a few moments, she’d forgotten her nervousness about the journey.
A bell clanged nearby.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Lunch on a ship?” She grabbed Soren’s hand.
“I wonder where Frank went,” Soren said as they entered the dining room. “Ah, should have known.” He pointed to a table where Frank sat with two young women.
“Welcome.” Frank’s eyes barely slid over Emma as she and Soren approached. “Let me introduce you to Beatrice and Gert, two ladies I met during the grand send-off.”
Despite having just been out in the wind, Frank’s appearance was, as usual, impeccable. Short dark hair perfectly combed, square jaw perfectly shaved, shirt crisply ironed. In college, most of Emma’s friends had thought Frank was the best-looking man on campus, even if he was a cad. Emma, though, had always preferred Soren’s loose lankiness and funny faces to Frank’s perfection.
“I’m Soren, and this is Emma, and I’m happy to announce that we just got married.” Soren grinned as he shook the women’s hands.
Emma smiled at them, then unfolded a white linen napkin, hoping to hide her blush.
“It’s our two-week anniversary, and we decided to take a voyage to China for our honeymoon,” Soren continued.
“Oh, how romantic!” Beatrice clapped her hands together.
“Well…” Soren gave Emma a wry smile. “It wasn’t quite what my wife had in mind. Not her first choice for honeymoon, believe me.”
“It’s fine,” Emma said quickly. “It’s just how it worked out.”
“So where are you two headed?” Soren asked Beatrice and Gert.
“Shanghai. We’re both nurses, going to work at an international hospital,” Gert said.
“Shanghai? Well isn’t that a coincidence. Us too.” Frank leaned back in his chair, sleeves rolled up, hands in his pockets. Emma wondered which of the two women he would pick. “I’m going to China to be a missionary—save the heathens and all that,” he went on. “Soren is too, because the old boy seems to do everything I do. I decide to go to seminary and become a pastor, suddenly he’s thinking of seminary. I decide to be a missionary, and lo and behold, who else should sign up but Soren?”
“What?” Soren pulled his head back to look at his old friend. “What are you talking about?”
Frank laughed, showing his straight white teeth. “Just kidding. Well, kind of kidding.” Frank turned to the ladies. “He does seem to be following me, but I’m sure he has his reasons.” Again he smiled at Soren, and the look wasn’t unkind, just the usual half-mocking grin.
Emma leaned toward the table. “Actually, Soren grew up in China. His father was a missionary.”
A waiter came to pour coffee.
“So what was it like growing up in China?” Gert asked. “Pretty crazy?” she took a cigarette out of a gold case, but before she could light it Frank was standing, striking a match.
“Yeah, was it strange?” Beatrice asked.
“No, it seemed normal.” Soren put two sugar cubes in his coffee, stirring until Frank sat back down. “Actually, it was a great place to grow up.”
“Where’d you go to school? With Chinese kids?”
“No, us missionary kids went to school on a mountain. A place called Kikungshan. It was a boarding school, and we were with other foreigners’ kids, businessmen’s kids. Our parents joined us in the summer, to get out of the heat.”
“Did you like it? China, I mean.”
“I never thought about that until I left. Then I realized it wasn’t a matter of liking or disliking—it was just home. Where I belonged.”
Emma shifted in her seat. When they were dating she had always felt uncomfortable when Soren referred to China as home. Now she knew he meant it. It was his home, and that was where they were going.
“So how do you know each other?” Gert blew smoke through her lips as she pointed from Frank to Soren and back to Frank.
“Soren and I used to be roommates back in college,” Frank said. “Best buddies, actually. We used to be like brothers.”
“Used to be?” Beatrice laughed. “Why do you say that?”
Soren took another drink of coffee, and Emma straightened her fork, then her knife. She lifted her head to Frank’s gaze.
“Oh, you know.” He turned to the young women. “Lives change, people grow apart. Soren got—” Frank paused for only a moment. “He got married.”
The waiter arrived with plates of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and their talk changed to the excellent food and the exciting send-off and how they couldn’t wait to see their rooms. Emma noticed, though, that when they finished and the plates had been cleared, no one seemed in a hurry to leave the table.
Soren slid his foot to touch Emma’s, and she looked at him, expecting him to suggest that they go find their cabin. Instead he cleared his throat and said, “So what is everyone going to miss most about the States?”
“The movies,” Beatrice said, without even having to think.
“Clark Gable,” Gert added.
“You aren’t going to miss anything, are you, Soren?” Beatrice said.
“I’ll miss some things. But you’ll be surprised when you get to Shanghai. The foreign concessions have everything you could find in Seattle. The French and the British have built up around the river so much that you’d never even know you were in China. European buildings, cars, clothes. You could live there a year and never eat Chinese food. Although you won’t want to do that—Chinese cooking is delicious.”
“You’re lucky to be going somewhere you know. You don’t have to be scared like the rest of us,” Beatrice said.
Emma now saw how nervous Gert and Beatrice really were, leaning into the table as they listened to Soren, wanting to believe it was going to be okay.
“Well, you don’t need to be scared.” Soren smiled. “You’ll love China. The people are kind. They have the best manners in the world, and did I mention the food?” He patted his stomach.
Emma suspected that neither Gert nor Beatrice was convinced, but they were certainly interested. Frank, on the other hand, had tipped his chair back against the wall and was tossing a quarter into the air and catching it with a swipe of his hand.
“Wait till you see the mountains, with fog drifting over the tops,” Soren was saying. “And all the beautiful flowers. You’ll be fine. Better than fine. Hey, we’re going to the other side of the world—it’s an adventure!” He grinned at the solemn faces. “And like I said, you can go to any movie you could see in the States, hear any music, and buy anything.” As though the thought had just come to him, he turned to Emma and added, “You can even buy a piano, which is what I’m going to do for Emma. You two should see her play.” He nodded to Gert and Beatrice. “She becomes another person, kind of like an actress on the stage. And the sound is so…”
Emma shook her head to deny the compliment, but he lowered his voice and said, “So beautiful.” Then, as though he were talking only to her, he said, “She hasn’t gotten to play for the last week, but as soon as we get to China, she is going to have a piano.”
The front legs of Frank’s chair came down with a thud. “You better stick to that promise,” he said.
“Oh, I will,” Soren answered.
The group grew quiet again until Frank said, “I hear they’re all backward in China. When they open a book they read from the back to the front, starting with the righthand page and then going to the left. Isn’t that strange?”
Beatrice and Gert laughed.
“And they don’t read across the page horizontally; they read vertically.”
“They do?” Emma asked.
“And listen to this: instead of shaking hands to say hello, they put their hands in their sleeves and bow. Can you imagine? That’s why we’re going over there—to teach them the right way to read and how to shake hands like regular people.” Frank pretended to stuff his hands into his tight sleeves.
Emma glanced at Soren.
“Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t put it quite that way.”
“Isn’t it just…?” Emma stopped when they all looked at her. “Never mind,” she said.
Soren pushed back his chair. “Let’s go find our room.”
As he and Emma left the dining room, he again slid her arm under his. “How are you?” he asked.
He tipped his head down to see her face and said, “Are you sure?” When she nodded, he squeezed her arm. “Time to see the honeymoon suite.”
My grandmother was a North Dakota farm girl who fell in love with my grandfather in college and spent her honeymoon on a ship bound for the mission field in China. For years I imagined what it must have been like for her to give up her teaching career, her home, and her family for her husband’s vocation.
Five years ago, I decided to write her story and began by researching pre-Communist China, reading a dozen books to give myself a modest understanding of what was happening there during the late thirties. Only then did I turn to my grandparents’ diaries and letters. And I was blown away. My grandparents were in China from 1935 to 1940, some of the most tumultuous years in Chinese history.
After reading the diaries, I understood that, yes, the story needed to be about what it cost a woman of that time to follow her husband to a far-off land, but the novel would also be about foreigners in an occupied country. Foreigners who, as missionaries, soldiers, and businessmen, had power. Foreigners who owned foreign concessions where they could live and shop in British- or French-owned stores and live with immunity from Chinese law.
Using some events and descriptions from my grandparents’ diaries, I wrote a fictional account of their time, wanting the freedom of fiction in order to contemplate the misunderstandings between strangers of different cultures: the arrogance, good intentions, self-righteousness, and compassion. The writing of this story also led me to contemplate the differences between those people whose driving force is to be loved, respected, and admired and those whose drive is to love others—an interesting exercise as I explored my main characters’ motivations.
Jen Kunka lives in Great Falls, Montana. She has been writing fiction and poetry for twenty years, while also working as an educational events planner and as a freelance writer for the local daily newspaper and other area publications.
Embark, Issue 3, January 2018