Most immigrants to the United States come with dreams and families in tow. But Leslie Chang's mother arrived with dreams and little else as an 18 year-old orphan. She was forced to leave three younger siblings behind in Taiwan.
In a book reading last night at Loker Commons, Chang read passages about her mother's life from her first book, Beyond the Narrow Gate: The Journey of Four Chinese Women From the Middle Kingdom to Middle America. The book chronicles her mother's journey from China to Taiwan in the late 1940s and finally to the United States in 1955.
Chang described the hardships her mother faced with one arm leaning on a plush red Loker couch.
Her uncle committed suicide in 1947, as the Communists gained momentum in their civil war with the Nationalists. As Communist victory seemed apparent in 1948, her family fled to the Nationalist island of Taiwan. Her mother died in 1950, leaving her to care for her three siblings at the age of 13.
Chang described the life her mother faced in mainland China before she fled.
"Inflation swept the nation and destroyed fortunes in single strokes," Chang said. She said a bottle of Coca-Cola cost $83 in Shanghai in 1947 and her mother paid her school tuition in rice.
"People carted their money around in wheelbarrows just to do morning shopping," Chang said.
And while the immigrants left China, they did not expect to be exiled in Taiwan.
"The mainlanders may have left China, but they were determined not to have China leave them," she said. "None of them thought Taiwan was forever."
She said her older relatives still "blanche" when she calls Taiwan "Taiwan" and not "China".
The title symbol of Chang's memoir, however, is that of the 'narrow gate' which marked the entrance to her mother's high school, the First Girls School, or Bei-yi-nu, in Taiwan.
Chang's mother was the guardian for her three younger siblings at home. When she entered the narrow gate, however, she felt "relieved" and not "restless" like most schoolgirls, Chang said.
Gaining admittance to the school represented another sort of gate, she said.
"Once you're in, you're safe," she said. "You go to college, or you go abroad. The main goal is to go to the United States."
In 1955, Chang's mother did just that, choosing to attend a college in Virginia. Chang's grandmother was dead and her family's former concubine--who had served as a friendly aunt-- married and moved away. And her relatives wanted the family to leave.
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