My name is Laileen. It means “beautiful lotus.” I was born in Jamshedpur, a steel city with a population of two million, in the state of Bihar, not too far from Calcutta. Both my grandfathers came to India around 1911 from Guangdong Province.
My paternal grandfather was from Shunde. He first worked on the railroads allover Northern India. While there, he was introduced to a Chinese family in the Nainital area, and a marriage was arranged with my grandmother around 1925. She was born in India. Her father, my great-grandfather, was one of about ten Chinese tea experts that the British brought to India around 1890 to grow tea. We still have a picture of him in his pigtail. He went to different parts of India before he found the perfect soil for the Dumlot tea in the Kumaon region in the foothills of the Himalayas. He settled near Nainital, and owned some tea estates, walnut groves, and farms. His wife, my great-grandmother, was from the nomadic tribal people along the India-China border. We were told that she wore a long dress in the Tibetan style. Although not a Han, she was Chinese because her daughter, my grandmother, used kinship terms according to the Chinese custom….
India and China had been bickering over the border for some time and they actually went to war in 1962…. The war and the restrictions really affected me. I was a lost soul at that time. I think as a young person I hated that I was Chinese. I was the minority; I stood out. I could not speak, read, or write Hindi as well as I thought I should. The Indian girls could talk about Hinduism and living in India generations upon generations, but for me only my parents were born in India. Even though it was a private school, kids still picked on you if they did not like you. It was bad enough being teased about your flat nose or slant eyes, but being considered the enemy was very scary. When the war came along, I wished I could just blend in with the majority. I wanted to disown my background….
There was something, thank goodness, that kept us reasonably sane. I remember one incident when I was in grade seven or eight.. I could write an essay in Hindi but did not have the floral characteristics of someone who was conversant with Indian literature. I wrote an essay on Prem Chand. He was an Indian who wrote about Hindu and Muslim conflicts. I guess he hit a nerve, and I took to his books. I sort of purged myself of all the hurt by focusing on the issue and relating to it on a personal level. When I wrote, something simply flowed through me. My essay was so good that the teacher read it to the class. My classmates were incredulous that I, a “foreigner,” a “pugnose,” and a “nobody,” could write so well in Hindi. The teacher, Miss Lily–I’ll never forget her–told the whole class: “I know you are all amazed that a student can write Hindi this well even though it may not be her first language. You may think that this person’s background is not like yours. But sometimes the most beautiful thing is found in the most unexpected place. If this surprises you, just remember that you can find a lotus flower even in a swamp.”
Monthly Archives: January 2005
Being gay and an Asian, I am very blessed. There is certainly a discussion among the gay Asians about not fitting into the Asian communities, nor into the gay communities. The gay male culture is built around the “buffed” Caucasian male: pumped biceps, beautiful body and appearance. If you don’t look like the ads in the magazines, you are marginalized. You are not seen as desirable as others. This is something that some support and discussion groups want to deal with.
When we came out, Mama was teaching in Women’s Studies at SFU [Simon Fraser U.]. This is not a place for the timid of heart because there are women who either have been involved in feminism, are lesbians and out of hiding, or militant! Father is a notary public and has an office in downtown Vancouver. He had been notarizing domestic partnership agreements for a long time. I was twenty-six, and Andy, my little brother, was nineteen. He was attending Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. He had heard that people in Vancouver were spreading word about him being gay. He decided that Mom and Dad would hear about his being gay from him first instead of someone else. He wrote to them saying that he had something important to share with them the next week. And they said, “O god, he is going to quit school and become a poet!” In a separate note to me, Andy gave me warning that he couldn’t keep it a secret any longer and he would have to tell them.
We don’t necessarily consider siblings as sexual beings. He guessed it about me, but I hadn’t a clue about him! We weren’t as close as we are now. I called him saying, “I know I cannot tell you not to write the letter. But you realize that it is going to be a package deal.” He replied that he knew but he had to tell them. He wrote his letter and it arrived. I knew it was coming, and I just stayed out late that evening with some friends. Went home and it was there. I penned my own letter and left it. The next day, my parents went out, so we didn’t talk about it until much later in the day. They said, “Well, we sort of guessed about you, but we never guessed about him. Perhaps a little bit about him.”
It was tough for my parents, harder than they let on. But they have been supportive always.
Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History (Anchor Books, 2003) describes what happened in the camps on the day Stalin finally died.
Throughout the last years of his life, political prisoners hoped and prayed for Stalin’s demise, discussing his death constantly, if subtly, so as not to attract the attention of informers. People would sigh and say, “Ah, Georgians live a long time,” which managed to convey a wish for his death without actually committing treason. Even when he grew sick, they were still cautious. Maya Ulyanovskaya heard the news of what was to be his final illness from a woman she knew to be an informer. She responded carefully: “So? Anyone can get sick. His doctors are good, they will cure him.”
When his death was finally announced, on March 5, 1953, some maintained their caution. In Mordovia, the politicals studiously hid their excitement, which they feared might earn them a second sentence. In Kolyma, women “diligently wailed for the deceased.” In one Vorkuta lagpunkt, Pavel Negretov heard the announcement read aloud in the camp dining hall. Neither the commander who read out the notice of death, nor any of the prisoners, said a word. “The news was greeted with a tomb-like silence. Nobody said a thing.”
In a Norilsk lagpunkt, prisoners assembled in the courtyard, and solemnly heard the news of the death of the “great leader of the Soviet people and of free human beings everywhere.” A long pause followed. Then a prisoner raised his hand: “Citizen Commander, my wife sent me some money, it’s in my account. I have no use for it here, so I would like to spend it on a bouquet for our beloved leader. Can I do that?”
But others openly rejoiced. In Steplag, there were wild cries and yells of celebration. In Vyatlag, prisoners threw their caps in the air and shouted “Hurrah!” On the streets of Magadan, one prisoner greeted another: “I wish you great joy on this day of resurrection!” He was not the only one overwhelmed by religious sentiment: “There was a light frost, and it was very, very quiet. Soon the sky would be turning blue. Yuri Nikolaevich held up his arms and with passion declared, ‘To Holy Russia let the cocks crow! Soon it will be daylight in Holy Russia!'”
Whatever they felt, and whether they dared to show their feelings or not, most prisoners and exiles were immediately convinced that things would change. In exile in Karaganda, Olga Adamova-Sliozberg heard the news, began to tremble, and put her hands over her face so that her suspicious workmates could not see her joy. “It’s now or never. Everything’s got to change. Now or never.”
Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History (Anchor Books, 2003) describes what happened when the German Army’s Operation Barbarossa in 1941 threatened camps full of Soviet prisoners.
The experience of being on a prisoner train during an air raid was relatively unusual, however–if only because prisoners were rarely allowed on the evacuation train at all. On the train leaving one camp, the families and the baggage of camp guards and administrators took up so much space that there was no room for any prisoners. Elsewhere, industrial equipment took priority over people, both for practical and propaganda reasons. Crushed in the West, the Soviet leadership promised to rebuild itself east of the Urals. As a result, that “significant proportion” of prisoners–in fact, the overwhelming majority–who [former Gulag system chief administrator Victor] Nasedkin had said were “evacuated on foot,” endured long forced marches, descriptions of which sound hauntingly similar to the marches undertaken by the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps four years later: “We have no transport,” one guard told an echelon of prisoners, as bombs fell around them. “Those who can walk will walk. Protest or not–all will walk. Those who can’t walk–we will shoot. We will leave no one for the Germans … you decide your own fate.”
Walk they did–although the journeys of many were cut short. The rapid advance of the Germans made the NKVD nervous, and when they became nervous, they started shooting. On July 2, the 954 prisoners of the Czortkow jail in western Ukraine began their march to the east. Along the way, the officer who wrote the subsequent report identified 123 of them as Ukrainian nationalists and shot them for “attempted rebellion and escape.” After walking for more than two weeks, with the German army within 10 to 20 miles, he shot all those still alive.
Evacuees not killed were sometimes hardly better off. Nasedkin wrote that “the apparat of the Gulag in the frontline regions was mobilized to ensure that evacuating echelons and transports of prisoners had medical-sanitary services and nourishment.” Alternatively, here is how M. Shteinberg, a political prisoner arrested for the second time in 1941, described her evacuation from Kirovograd prison:
Everything was bathed in blinding sunlight. At midday, it became unbearable. This was Ukraine, in the month of August. It was about 95 degrees [Fahrenheit] every day. An enormous quantity of people were walking, and on top of this crowd hung a hazy cloud of dust. There was nothing to breathe, it was impossible to breathe …
Everyone had a bundle in their arms. I had one too. I had even brought a coat with me, since without a coat it is hard to survive imprisonment. It’s a pillow, a blanket, a cover–everything. In most prisons, there are no beds, no mattresses, no linen. But after we had traversed 20 miles in that heat, I quietly left my bundle by the side of the road. I knew that I would not be able to carry it. The vast majority of the women did the same. Those who didn’t leave their bundles after the first 20 miles left them after 130. No one carried them to the end. When we had gone another 10 miles, I took off my shoes and left them too …
When we passed Adzhamka I dragged behind me my cell mate, Sokolovskaya, for 20 miles. She was an old woman, more than seventy years old, completely gray-haired … it was very difficult for her to walk. She clung to me, and kept talking about her fifteen-year-old grandson, with whom she had lived. The last terror in Sokolovskaya’s life was the terror that he would be arrested too. It was difficult for me to drag her, and I began to falter myself. She told me to “rest a while, I’ll go alone.” And she immediately fell back by 1 mile. We were the last in the convoy. When I felt that she had fallen behind, I turned back, wanting to get her–and I saw them kill her. They stabbed her with a bayonet. In the back. She didn’t even see it happen. Clearly, they knew how to stab. She didn’t even move. Later, I realized that hers had been an easy death, easier than that of others. She didn’t see that bayonet. She didn’t have time to be afraid.
In all, the NKVD evacuated 750,000 prisoners from 27 camps and 210 labor colonies. Another 40,000 were evacuated from 272 prisons, and sent to new prisons in the east. A significant proportion of them–though we still do not know the real numbers–never arrived.
Eamonn Fitzgerald’s Rainy Day blog, whose diary entries were among my first inspirations to start my own blog, has been commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (by the Soviet Army) by posting diary entries from that era. Who wrote the following entries? Rainy Day has the answers. Just scroll down.
- 4 December 1940 “Watch the newsreel with the Führer, who is very pleased with it. The shots of London burning make a particularly profound impression on him. He also takes careful note of the pessimistic opinions from the USA.
Nevertheless, he does not expect the immediate collapse of England and probably rightly. The ruling class there has now lost so much that it is bringing up its last reserves. By which he means not so much the City of London as the Jews who if we win will be hurled out of Europe, and Churchill, Eden, etc., who see their personal existences as dependent on the outcome of the war. Perhaps they will end up on the scaffold. We can expect little resistance to them from the masses at the moment. The English proletariat lives under such wretched conditions that a few extra privations will not cause it much discomfort. There will be no revolution, anyway, because the opportunity is lacking. England will thus survive through the winter. The Führer does not intend to mount any air-raids at Christmas. Churchill, in his madness, will do so, and then the English will be treated to revenge raids that will make their eyes pop.”
- 21 May 1941 “Sonnenstein has long ceased to be the regional mental asylum. The SS is in charge. They have built a special crematorium. Those who are not wanted are taken up in a kind of police van. People here all call it ‘the whispering coach’. Afterward the relatives receive the urn. Recently one family here received two urns at once. We now have pure Communism. But Communism murders more honestly.”
- 1 July 1942 [Holland] “New measures again. Not only are we not allowed to cycle any more, we are not allowed to ride the trams either. We have to be off the streets by eight, and we are not allowed inside non-Jewish homes. Shopping is restricted for us to the hours between three and five p.m. It’s a mess. I’ve moved back home. I couldn’t stay with the Fernandes’ [non-Jewish friends] any more. I did have a wonderful time there. At my last meal with them last night, I read them a poem of thanks I had written. We were all so moved and depressed because of the new measures, and crying so hard about everything, that we ended up sobbing with laughter. It was a comical tragedy, really.”
- 22 March 1945 [Bergen-Belsen] “The weather affects the mood of the camp most profoundly. Had it not been such a gloriously fine spring day today, we would all be feeling as dejected as on our worst days.
Last night a transport of two thousand people arrived from Buchenwald concentration camp. The shouting, abusing, crying, taunting, groaning, cracking of the whips and thuds of the beatings could be heard throughout the night.
This morning behind Hut 16 we saw hundreds of corpses being dragged onto a heap and stripped of their clothing. They also removed the gold teeth from their mouths. Never has it been as bad as this. All day, the heap of emaciated, naked bodies was left lying in the sun. Their facial expressions are frightening. They seem to know what is being done to them.”
- 6 May 1945 “Last week I would not go to see the Belsen horror-camp pictures. I felt the ones in paper quite dreadful enough. They were shown again tonight, as requested by someone. I looked in such pity, marvelling how human beings could have clung to life: the poor survivors must have had both a good constitution and a great will to live. What kept them alive so long before they dropped as pitiful skeletons? Did their minds go first, I wonder, their reasoning leaving nothing but the shell to perish slowly, like a house left untenanted? Did their pitiful cries and prayers rise into the night to a God who seemed deaf and pitiless as their cruel jailers?”
Just five survivors remain today from the three Soviet divisions which liberated Auschwitz concentration camp in January 1945. I am the youngest – I was only 19 when the war ended. But the events of 60 years ago are as fresh in my memory as if they happened yesterday.
I come from Vinnitsa in Ukraine. But my mother took me to Moscow in 1934 because of famine. In the summer of 1941 I went to help my grandad in Ukraine with his vegetable garden. I arrived on Saturday June 21, and the next day we took his cow to the market. At noon, we heard on the loudspeaker that war had begun. Money became worthless immediately. We could have got twice as much for the cow, but it was too late.
Although I was just 15 years old, I was immediately conscripted. We were kept in reserve, but when I turned 17 I was sent to the front. I had my baptism of fire in January 1943, when we kicked the Germans out of Voronezh. The following month, we liberated Kursk. It was a bloodbath: a whole regiment was killed in three hours. Later, I was badly wounded in the chest in the battle of Kursk. On recovery, I caught up with my regiment, under the command of General Vasily Petrenko, who died not long ago. He was a great commander. Under him we liberated Lvov in the summer of 1944, and on January 19 1945 we freed Krakow, a beautiful ancient city
At about 4am on January 27 we approached Oswiecim (Auschwitz). It is a small town on the Sola river. We didn’t even know there was a concentration camp there.
“Where’s the power?” was the question John Gunther always asked in his travelogue of mid-twentieth-century America, Inside U.S.A. In the late 1940s, the answer was often the local party machine. Power now was here, in this restaurant [Bistango, next to a Japanese bank], dispersed among many more people and much less accountable, for the issue was simply profit, disconnected from political promises or even geography. Orange County’s global corporations were merely home bases–which could be removed in an instant in response, for example, to tax increases.
“What kind of business is being transacted?” I asked. “Biomedical, pharmaceutical, genetic engineering, chips for fax machines, and all kinds of software-multimedia,” [Orange County Business Journal editor Rick] Reiff told me. “Then there are firms, big firms, that specialize in teaching English to Vietnamese, Chinese, and other Asians and Latinos. Global trade and workforces are everything for us. Orange County is roughly one percent of the U.S. population, but it has three percent of Fortune 500 companies. Every time there is a conflation of the publishing and multimedia industries, power shifts slightly to California from New York, because the future will favor multimedia over mere books.”
Later, back at Reiff’s office, I leafed through more than a hundred editions of the Business Journal and found stories about this group of Iranians or that group of Taiwanese or Pakistanis or Mexicans from Sonora buying this or that technology company. Ethnic Indians and Chinese predominated. Seeing Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Mexican faces in an Orange County computer factory owned by a Pakistani and two Chinese some years ago, Polish journalist Ryzsard Kapuscinski noted that the culture of the new workforce here “Hispanic-Catholic family values and Asian-Confucian group loyalty,” with hiring done through family networks….
“Will this place fight for its country? Are these people loyal to anything except themselves?” I asked.
“Loyalty is a problem,” Reiff said. “Only about half the baseball fans in Orange County root for the California Angels [whose stadium is in Anaheim, a county municipality]. I root for the Chicago White Sox. So many people here are from somewhere else, whether from the U.S. or the world. People came here to make money. In the future, patriotism will be more purely and transparently economic. Perhaps patriotism will survive in the form of prestige, if America remains the world economic leader.”
Rather than citizens, the inhabitants of these prosperous pods are, in truth, resident expatriates, even if they were born in America, with their foreign cuisines, eclectic tastes, exposure to foreign languages, and friends throughout the world.
SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 99-101
The Plaza Hotel in Nogales, Sonora, and the Americana Hotel in Nogales, Arizona, both charged $50 for a single room. But while the Mexican hotel was only two years old, it was already falling apart: the doors did not close properly, the paint was cracking, the walls were beginning to stain. The Americana Hotel in Nogales, Arizona, was a quarter century old and in excellent condition, from the fresh paint to the latest fixtures. The air-conditioning in the Americana Hotel was quiet, unlike the loud clanking across the border. There was no mold or peeling paint in the swimming pool outside my window. Here there was potable tap water. Was the developed world, I wondered, defined not by its riches or a lighter skin color but by maintenance? Maintenance indicates settlement rather than nomadism; faith in–and thus planning for–the future, rather than the expectation that what is here today might be gone tomorrow. Maintenance indicates organization, frugality, and responsibility: you don’t build what you lack the money, the time, and the determination to maintain. Maintenance manifests a community and a system of obligation, without which substantial development is unlikely. Maintenance reflects the prudent use of capital.
SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 139-140