I DID A DOUBLE TAKE WHEN I HEARD THAT REDROOM'S TOPIC OF THE WEEK WAS "WHEN I GROW UP" -- I THOUGHT IT HAD TO BE A PUT-UP JOB BY VICTORIA ZACKHEIM, THE MARVELOUS EDITOR OF THE EQUALLY MARVELOUS NEW ANTHOLOGY "THE FACE IN THE MIRROR." SHE SWEARS SHE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. NEVERTHELESS, I'M GOING TO SEIZE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO POST A BLOG ADAPTED FROM MY ESSAY IN HER FINE BOOK, WHICH I HOPE YOU WILL ALL BUY AND GIVE FOR THE HOLIDAYS! HERE IS AN EXCERPT FROM "BECOMING INTERNATIONAL"
When I was a child, I considered the United Nations my playground and my destiny. My father ran the UN Visitors’ Service. This meant that he hired and supervised the “girl guides,” as the tour guides then were known. Each morning he briefed them on global crises and conferences taking place at UN headquarters, and at the end of most days he schmoozed with other career bureaucrats and diplomats at cocktail receptions hosted by one foreign delegation or another. I’ve no idea how or when my parents first decided that the UN was the ideal vacation environment for a seven-year-old. Perhaps my mother, a fan of Eloise, thought the Secretariat should stand in for The Plaza in her daughter’s real life edition. More likely she wanted Dad to pick up the child-rearing slack on school holidays when she was stretched thin. My mother, at the time, was building a small business importing hand-woven fabric from India, where we had lived a few years earlier. My father typically was gone from our home in suburban Connecticut from 7 am, when he left for the train station, until 7:30 pm, when he returned just in time for dinner. He was not a playful or otherwise involved father, and I sincerely doubt that these daddy-and-me days were his idea. Whoever initiated them, however, I took to them like primer to canvas.
I can’t recall my father uttering a word to me on the train into the city. We’d sit in the smoking car as he puffed on one Kent after another and inhaled the New York Times. I’d pick at stray threads in my tights, connect the dots in my activity books, and watch through the nicotine haze as the train rocked back and forth and a hundred male heads bobbed in unison. Those men swayed with an unmistakable sense of purpose. They wore the executive uniform of power. They were commuting to New York City, and I was along for the ride. The fading gold constellations on the ceiling of Grand Central Station confirmed my awe of Manhattan. This was where the heavens unfurled and the dots that really mattered got connected. And the way my father marched, rapidly and directly, without a second’s hesitation or distraction, made it clear that nowhere in the city mattered more than the UN. I had to trot to keep up with him across the four long blocks to the familiar geometric buildings where flags of the world snapped in the wind whipping off the East River.
I made a game of seeing how many tours I could pack into a single day. I think my record was eight. By age nine I could tell you who was the Secretary General, what the exposure of ductwork in the ceiling of ECOSOC was meant to symbolize, which Ghanaian leader had donated the giant kente cloth that hung in the hall outside the General Assembly, and which countries—in addition to the permanent five (United States, China, Great Britain, USSR, France)—made up the Security Council. At day’s end, as I trailed my father around whichever reception preceded our return tromp to Grand Central, suave middle-aged men would roar their approval at my recitations. It was a foregone conclusion, at least in my mind, that I would grow up to guide my own tours of the UN and then, most likely, go on to a career in the foreign service.
My family’s history supported this romantic forecast. My parents had met in Washington, DC, during WWII, when my father was a correspondent for the China News Service and my mother wrote for the women’s section of the Washington Star. Dad was born of an American mother and Chinese father in Shanghai, where he picked up a dapper British accent and a fondness for Borsalino hats and single-breasted suits. My mother came from Scottish and German stock in Milwaukee, and in DC she fashioned herself into a cross between Audrey and Kate Hepburn. Our family’s true nationality, according to my mother, was “international.”
In part, her label referred to our mix of heritage, but it had more to do with my father’s career. He joined the UN shortly after its inception in 1945, working for refugee relief. His posting to the documentary film division gave us our two years in India. And he would spend more than a decade running the guided tour service. In truth, Dad was a career bureaucrat. Mom, however, insisted that she had married an “international diplomat.”
The primer that seemed to have clung so naturally to my father’s canvas began peeling before it was even dry. My UN visits ended when I was twelve. In college, I took no classes on foreign policy or international relations. I began writing, tried editing magazines and trade papers, then shifted into cable and TV news production. But my beats were psychology and health, never global affairs. I co-authored self-help and reference guides, where words like United Nations, foreign service, and international didn’t get much play. Yet the strands running through my heritage were still profoundly present, if quiet. Like strings in a piano, they would always be part of me. I could choose to ignore them and perform safely in a higher octave, but a smarter, richer choice would be to incorporate them into a new piece that worked the entire instrument of my identity. For me, that new piece was fiction.
In 1989, as NPR captured the sound of gunfire and tanks rolling over pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, I felt as if I were listening to an echo of my own family history: my father’s father had been a pro-democracy activist against the Manchu dynasty that ruled China in 1900. Like the students in the square, he was a scholar revolutionary, a poet, calligrapher, protester, and strategist. After the Manchus were toppled in 1911, he became a politician and a true diplomat. He attempted to unite the warring factions of his fledgling government and to negotiate fair treaties for China with the Japanese, the Soviets, and Western Powers. He married an American beauty with great style, and they raised four children through the Warlord Era, but his commitment to politics ultimately cost him his family. As WWII approached, my grandmother decided she’d had enough of the danger and uncertainty that came with her husband’s chosen career, and she moved with her sons and daughters back to America. My handsome, distant, inscrutable father was their eldest son. I had always known this history in a vague, preoccupied sort of way. But both these grandparents had died before I had a chance to know them, and before 1989 the gap between their ancient lives and my modern world seemed too immense to bridge. The events unfolding in Tiananmen Square told me that gap was vastly smaller than I’d realized. It consisted of a single generation, which my fingertips could span on a keyboard – in this case, the keyboard of my computer.
My family’s story was more than a tale of star-crossed lovers; it was the source of questions that had pulsed beneath the surface of our “international” identity for as long as I could remember. What would motivate the union of a man and woman from backgrounds as different as nineteenth century China and America? What possibilities did such a union represent? What were the consequences of its failure? How did this legacy play out in the lives, talk, and choices of such a couple’s descendants? The truth I’d never dared mention to my parents was that, when visiting the General Assembly as a child, I used to doze off as the simultaneous interpreter’s voice droned in my earpiece. When scanning the memoranda on my father’s desk, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could penetrate international bureaucratese. I might have memorized the tours and enjoyed the building’s important atmosphere, but my early exposure to the UN had left me with a secret dread of the actual work that was done there. The story of my family, however, offered a living version of international relations, and when I delved into it as a novelist, I found it anything but dull.
For the first time in our lives, my father and I spent hours talking as I researched his history. He told me about the night in 1916 when his mother came down with diphtheria while escaping from a death threat against his father in Peking. He recalled the racist bullying he endured from his British classmates in Shanghai. He showed me wartime letters from his father scrawled in English with a calligrapher’s brush. In 1939, my grandfather had written from Chungking to his estranged wife in America, “My house in Hankow was burned by government order before they leaved there. Then in Nanking, in Kuling, in Hankow, my property will be lost all. The condition in here will be passed quickly. I do not know how to do in future.” My grandfather had been a refugee just a few years before my father began working in refugee relief.
These slips of history danced like notes in a melody that kept morphing into new variations. The more I learned, the more I needed to know. I began to view my parents not as the dominant figures in my life but as characters in a story that encompassed us all. My job was to write that story as completely and as truthfully as I possibly could. One novel based on my international heritage multiplied into two, then three. A few months ago, I began work on a fourth. Each new story unfolds the past in a way that opens my future.
My father died last year at 95, in my childhood home in Connecticut, with my mother and me by his side. We had made our final trip to the UN a decade earlier. By then, Dad had been retired for twenty-five years, but the way he strutted and beamed as we passed those familiar snapping flags and entered the lobby beneath Foucault’s Pendulum made it clear that this was still where he felt he belonged. As we approached the public information desk, it became just as clear that my father’s legacy had evolved. Waiting to lead us on the tour that Dad himself had created was a guide he never would have conceived of hiring: a young man. My father looked at me with a wistful grin and lifted both palms in that universal gesture that asks, What are you going to do?
Causes Aimee Liu Supports
PEN USA, Academy for Eating Disorders, Women for Women, UNICEF, Amnesty International