The life of an American military family in Taiwan in the early 1960s
Mr. Lee came to our house about two months after we arrived in Taiwan, in the fall of 1961.
My husband introduced him and said we were going to teach him English, which meant I would teach him English, but that was fine. While the Military Advisory Group was there to support the Chinese military, the families were there to help in any way they could. Mr. Lee was Taiwanese.
Our family would spend three years on the island that was once called “Beautiful Formosa”, now Taiwan. We knew almost nothing of the story. We were looking forward to meeting the locals. We assumed they would all be Chinese. While the military received language and customary training, wives mostly received leaflets about snakes and rats.
“110 varieties of poisonous snakes, on this 245-mile-long, 90-mile-wide island. That’s a lot of snakes,” said the young soldier standing by the gate, handing out US government Welcome to Taiwan flyers during the meeting. the orientation meeting.
“If bitten by a viper,” the newspaper said, “stay calm and seek medical attention as soon as possible. Do not put ice on it. It was unclear whether this meant the viper or the bite or both.
Turns out the viper population was exaggerated. There are only 50 varieties of snakes and barely 6 types of vipers. “Pay close attention to the color pattern of all biting vipers so that we can treat you properly,” the flyer helpfully stated.
We adapted quickly, as military families learn to do. 7-year-old First Kid started selling his 5-year-old brother’s action figures to Buy-Buy men who regularly came to the door. Only when she didn’t like him, she pointed out, but she didn’t like him often enough.
We didn’t encounter any of the threatened vipers, but we made lifelong friendships.
Kuney Lee was a young Taiwanese accountant whose father disappeared in mainland China. Mr. Lee lived with his mother and was comfortable that she would choose his wife. Our arrangement was that I would teach him English and he would teach me Mandarin. What could go wrong?
After three months, my best sentence was: “How Bu How, Maymow? which seemed to translate to “How are you, Eyebrow”, It was impractical.
Mr. Lee threw in the towel and admitted that I was next to impossible to teach. Not wanting to accept lessons without giving something in return, he took us to see his island. We met the aborigines in the mountains and visited the Buddhist temple where his mother received her medical prescriptions. In their small house in Taipei, Mr. Lee’s mother and six of her friends cooked us the best meal of our lives.
The people we met on this charming island were kind, smart, dedicated and independent, Taiwanese through and through. They spoke little but had ways of communicating their feelings to us. SuSu, the lovely young lady who helped me get our house in order, found my 2 year old son studying the local language avidly. Little children learn language so fast. They made a game of his lessons. She taught my blond, blue-eyed boy to smile kindly at uniformed Chinese soldiers and curse them in flawless Mandarin. Intention not too subtle but clear.
Mr. Lee and his family visited our Lakewood home a few years ago. He had just retired as the owner of one of Taipei’s biggest companies, and he kindly credited our English lessons for giving him a good start. “I came to thank my friend,” he said.
So one misty August morning, he stood by my husband’s grave, left flowers, wept softly, and said thank you. I asked him the question that had puzzled me all this time.
“Mr. Lee,” I said, “how did you find us, all those years ago? His response was that as American troops and people from all over the world flocked to his little island, he realized that a young man who spoke English would have a bright future. He knew three words of English. What could he do?
A brilliant idea occurred to him. Every day he rode the bus to the US military compound and did a brisk constitutional march around the walls. Perfectly normal. He spoke to every soldier he saw. He knew they would have learned at least some Mandarin. Finally, on the fifth day, my husband responded to him and he was part of our lives forever.
“Don’t forget us,” Mr. Lee said at the end of the visit. “We work hard to stay independent.”
He couldn’t really retire. “There is too much work to do,” he said, “while there is still a chance.”
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This story was originally published August 7, 2022 5:30 a.m.