; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Somebody that I used to know ;

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Somebody that I used to know

Previously, I've written a bit about the order of nuns I belonged to in my youth. Our order 聖方濟各永久朝拜聖體修女會 had a school and medical dispensary in Wuchang, China from 1928-1949, though a bit longer if you count those staying on after that to continue running the medical dispensary where hundreds of people received medicines every day. Lately I find myself thinking about the Wuchang convent when I drink tea, because I am also remembering Sister M. Rosa Liu. I wish I had a photo of her, but I'm too lazy to go digging through my papers, and all I can find on the internet is her name on a congressional list of American naturalized citizens. Sister Rosa decided to join our order when she encountered the sisters in Wuchang.

Back when I was young, Sister Rosa had a small kitchen space at the motherhouse where she cooked Chinese meals and brewed tea. She stored supplies in a couple of the cupboards. Having a space like this was not typical for nuns. Keep in mind we all ate in the larger cafeteria, more formally known as a refectory. Spaces at the motherhouse, aside from one's own room, are all common spaces. So for Sister Rosa to have something of her own place was rather unusual. In part, I think, the order had become aware that sisters not of the typical American German or Irish farm girl background experienced a massive cultural loss when joining the order. Some found the cultural loss so painful they could not stay. In my day, the order recognized this experience and to some degree tried to make room for self-expression. Perhaps that's why Sister Rosa had her own kitchen space to cook Chinese food.

Now, this small kitchen was also used as part of a conference room, so it wasn't entirely hers. But often on Saturdays, Sister Rosa cooked in that kitchen, or had oolong tea sessions for special guests. I heard she got her teas and cooking ingredients from friends. As a young nun, I was not part of the special guest status, I was more at the shoo-go-away level of annoying sisterhood, the young ones Sister Rosa likely prayed would persevere but didn't consider in the same league. So I never got an invitation to Sister Rosa's meals or her teas, and wasn't invited to the kitchen. In fact if we needed to pass through it we did so on tiptoe even when the room was dark and empty. Wouldn't want to be caught in there without a reason. 

My cup as I write, 1976 Baozhong by Origin Tea, sample through the kindness of Teadb.org

Nuns from Africa, on the other hand, were welcome to use the kitchen when Sister Rosa didn't need it. For example, we had sisters from a Nigerian order  working on degrees at our college, and they lived with us too. They got sick a lot with American viruses, colds, flus and infections, as well as experiencing their own cultural loneliness. These sisters dealt with all that by cooking up Nigerian Jollof rice, a white rice so spicy and hot that not only did it clear out my sinuses, but the heat tasted almost chemical in intensity on my tongue, so strong, and this was the "less hot" version they graciously made for me in a separate pan. Splendid tasting stuff, luscious and reddish, sauced and stirred creamy like risotto. "Sit down, sit down," the nuns said when I hovered in the doorway, a bit fearful of entering Sister Rosa's kitchen. The kitchen took on a warm and steamy feel from the big pots of rice and koinonia.

Nigerian Jollof Rice, by the dailymeal.com

So while I never got to take tea with Sister Rosa, one day she decided I was worthy company to chat with in the Community Room. This room had comfy, if very dated furniture and always a jigsaw puzzle. I happened to be very good at jigsaw puzzles, and often went in to work on the current one after lunch or dinner for a little while. Sister Rosa joined me at the puzzle one evening, and told me a story of how she had to flee the Red Army by swimming across the Yangtze River. It was quite a story. I wish I could remember more of what she told me, but while she was talking a bat flew over us in the Community Room. I dove under the puzzle table.

"What?" asked Sister Rosa.

"A bat!" I screeched, scared to death.

"Oh," Sister Rosa said.

She just went on with her story and the puzzle while I remained under the table, certain I would get rabies at any moment. The nuns kept tennis racquets in a closet in the hallway to deal with the occasional bat in the motherhouse. Sister Rosa made no move to get a tennis racquet, she wasn't especially  bothered. Finally another sister came in with a tennis racquet and swatted the bat. But I had lost all track of Sister Rosa's story.

There is a double loss here, because the first volume of our community history ended in 1949 just before the sisters left China. Sister Rosa's story took place just after the first volume of our history, so it isn't in that book. The second volume of our history didn't recount fully what finally happened to the sisters in China. Unless someone has written down Sister Rosa's story for the archives, it remains a personal story.

Other Chinese sisters in our community had a different view of Sister Rosa and her kitchen. "Oh, her family was comparatively well off," is how one sister explained the kitchen. This could mean several things. One, that Sister Rosa was viewed as perhaps a bit of a privileged rich girl. Another might be that the point of the community is to live in common, not to carve out private space  but, well, Sister Rosa's background meant that this idea had a different meaning for her, or a greater difficulty. Or it could mean that Sister Rosa's cultural loss was misunderstood, even by other sisters from China, or maybe that Sister Rosa's liking for cooking her own family dishes was misunderstood. For all I know too maybe Sister Rosa cooked better than anyone else, a little sour grapes on the part of others? Or perhaps the exclusivity of her guests at a formal tea was the issue.

Even the story of fleeing the Red Army evoked one confusing comment. "Sister is inclined to exaggerate," another nun said with an eye roll. I'm not sure if this means it never happened, or if talking about it was the problem. Sisters don't go on very much about painful experiences, and plenty of nuns had horror stories to tell. I know of several nuns with severe post-traumatic stress disorder from literally dodging bullets in Central America. It's all in a day's work, offer it up to Jesus, suffer in silence, we can think of others who had it worse, don't make a big deal of anything. I certainly had my own stories already back then of going through a school shooting, and of teaching seven whole grades all together in one-room mountain schools with a single textbook, a blackboard, wood stove and wormy dogs throwing up in the dirt outside. If we all start talking "emergency room" stories, none of us would ever shut up. Fleeing the Red Army is no big deal, apparently. But the story was important enough to tell a young nun who wasn't important enough to invite for tea. I tend to believe the story, though, the severe part anyway. Because we all got ours for sure. That we do.

All I know of the Wuchang convent is what's written in A Chapter of Franciscan History by Sister Mileta Ludwig (New York: Bookman Associates, 1950), and from Sister Mileta's history lectures to us novices when she was 90 years old and I was 20. Our sisters were invited by a bishop in Wuchang to open a school for girls, and did so in October 1928. By December, the sisters were already speaking Chinese. The next summer the sisters welcomed boys into classes because the boys were showing up anyway. Building a bigger school began.

Our original convent in Wuchang, 1928-1931, photo in M. Ludwig, 1950

But in August 1931, just after the new school dedication, the worst flood in the Yangtze Valley since 1870 destroyed the convent and dispensary. The sisters took in a few more nuns and thirty abandoned babies from a nearby Hwang-Shih-Kang convent and huddled up in the second floor of the school for more than a month to wait out the flood.

1931 flood at Hankou, flickr.com

After the flooding receded, half the nuns got sick. So the healthy ones began working in the nearby hospital to help with the famine and cholera epidemic. Sisters walked the neighborhoods two by two bringing medicine and food without permission, because their superior was hospitalized. The sisters moved over to Hwang-Shih-Kang and re-opened the medical dispensary, but the school didn't get going again until the next Chinese New Year. 

The chapel at the motherhouse.

Sister Rosa joined our order from Wuchang in 1932 and traveled to Wisconsin to get her religious and teacher training. One wonders what role, if any, the previous year's flooding had on her decision to seek admission to an American convent. In 1936, however, she finished her training and returned to China and the nuns now at Hwang-Shih-Kang. But more disaster was looming. As relations between Japan and China deteriorated, the sisters received orders to leave the country by the Consul General in Hankow (romanization of Hankou). But they felt like they couldn't leave the children and the school nor close the dispensary, "they preferred to remain, and die, if necessary...(Ludwig, p. 373)." The Japanese bombing of Wuchang began on September 24, 1937, and continued on a daily basis until October 26, 1938. The sisters turned their convent compound into a refugee camp. One sister wrote home to Wisconsin in summer of 1938:

"I dislike mentioning our fears and doubts and hopes and presentiments for the future. Oh, if only these days were shortened! We are at the beginning of something very serious. The bombing surpasses anything that you could imagine. Would that it were a thing of the past! Not a day passes on which we are not bombed. Generally planes come twice a day. Yesterday, the raid killed 1550 people; that is, so many have been unearthed from the debris. Many are still buried under the ruins or in dugouts. The whizzing of one particular bomb which found its bed in the river made all the sisters feel the house was cleft in two...It would seem like suicide to try to stay here with the children. We hope to find some place of safety. The future looks dark (Ibid, pp 373-374)."

On August 10, 1938, Japanese planes dropped paper bulletins warning that within the next ten days Wuchang would be destroyed. In actuality, the destruction took two more months. All but four of the nuns left, including Sister Rosa, taking the orphaned children with them. The remaining four nuns stayed because four to five hundred refugees remained in the compound and refused to leave. The bombings were horrific, destroying almost everything. Near the convent grounds was an electric plant, and on the other side, a cotton mill. Both of these were enemy targets, however the Japanese planes bombing the area hesitated, as if they didn't want to hit the refugee camp. The Red Army saved the camp too by destroying the electric plant with dynamite, and while the windows in the school were blown out, not one nun nor refugee perished during the dynamiting, nor in the continued bombing of Wuchang. 

Wuchang rubble, 1938, photo wuhantime.com

The next night was a massacre, and local citizens outside the compound also attempted to set fire to the buildings. But the refugees and sisters got the fires out in time. Wuchang surrendered to the Japanese the following day. Sister Rosa and the other nuns returned shortly afterward, but a boat with more nuns arriving to help in early 1939 got detained at Shanghai, and these sisterly reinforcements never made it. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, all communications with the Wuchang convent were completely severed. News of the war years came via notes from the International Red Cross, finally arriving to the motherhouse in early 1944.

The nuns had carried on teaching, providing medical services and caring for orphans and refugees until February 19, 1943. On that day all American missionaries, including all but two of our religious sisters, were forced onto a boat to Nanking, and then transferred to Shanghai where they spent five weeks in a concentration camp with at least a thousand people. But Sister Rosa and another native Sister Dominica Chen were not taken with their American sisters. After five weeks in the concentration camp, the American sisters were released to a convent in the French Concession in Shanghai. These sisters helped with a school there for over two years and one died of smallpox.

Meanwhile back in Wuchang, the Japanese army took over the convent and school compound. Sister Rosa and Sister Dominica were kept in a few small rooms and put on limited rations. They ran the school by themselves for almost three years with Japanese officers staying in the rest of the convent building. The American sisters were finally able to return to Wuchang to help after the war ended in 1945. By late 1948, the school numbered almost 400 children living there permanently.

By 1948, the revolution had arrived at Wuchang, and refugees were welcomed once again at the school compound. But the situation got too dangerous. Our motherhouse removed eight of the sisters by order of obedience in late 1948. Native sisters including Sister Rosa, remained to run the school until spring 1949, and later several sisters returned again to the medical dispensary. Sister Rosa later went to Taiwan for a time, and Sister Dominica spent time working in Yemen which seems almost unimaginable today.

I've left out the religious context, the old-fashioned idea of converting "pagans" to Christianity in China and other countries, what we now consider euro-centric colonialism and proselytizing. This perspective was a widespread idea at the time and even today. It's a theological reason why the sisters were in China along with many other western, Christian groups. And somewhat embarrassing, producing a kind of conflict for me.

I don't have narratives to read from the people who attended the St. Joseph school when the sisters were teaching at Hwang-Shih-Kang, nor from the refugees and local citizens dealing with the reality of "concession" districts. I struggle with it. And I don't know what's worse, emphasizing the positive or leaving out the embarrassment which avoids a crucial moral heart of all these issues. One thing I can tell you is that the whole conversion attitude was gone in my day, replaced by a respect for all religions, and stance of learning, and concern for mutual human community. Sister Dominica's words at the end of her life (linked above) speak for themselves. I know our sisters from China would not be the nuns they are without meeting our American sisters in Wuchang. All went on to other countries and worked on behalf of others their entire lives. The only path to the truth will be through multiple perspectives, many of which I don't have access to. All I can do is defer to a kind of relativism, and present the perspective I do have access to, while acknowledging the conflicting issues and missing perspectives.

So, Sister Rosa made her choice of what she wanted to do with her life, and she remains a member of our order. At one time I was her sister in religion, she is my elder and she has my respect. Not least for shooing me out of her kitchen. But more for the fact that she ran a school with one other sister during the Japanese occupation of their city and right inside their own house. I know what a spoiled little brat I am when I get horrors over plumbers fixing the pipes in my bedroom ceiling, or when I get scared about bats. Sister Rosa knows what 1550 dead bodies buried in rubble looks like, smells like, while listening to the wailing of hungry, homeless small children for years on end and still writing her lesson plans every day in the midst of it all. Sister Dominica's words tell how a very personal spirituality is the reason behind how nuns live.

And I feel a pang when researching and writing this just now, the horror of all those events in China, and then thinking of my own life too when I knew Sister Rosa a little, and leaving it behind. But mostly it's all just so long ago, a quarter century for me and more than half a century for her. Time, like a bomb, levels all of it under a rubble of our daily struggles. I don't know the full story of Sister Rosa, and next to nothing about her kitchen. That's the truth. Like a Gotye song going through my head, returning to a once-great  love, perhaps "addicted to a certain kind of sadness... you're just somebody that I used to know."

Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4
Double Ten Day Wuchang Uprising (1911), October 10

Requiescat in Pace
Cwyn, formerly of the 聖方濟各永久朝拜聖體修女會.



  1. That 1976 Baozhong is really something. Tastes almost alcoholic for the first two steeps and then very earthy.

    As for the story about Sister Rosa, it's at the same time a very heart-breaking and heart-warming story. You're truly a talented writer, unlike me. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    1. I like to think tea with Sister Rosa would include a tea as good as the 1976 Baozhong. Thought it might be dried up leather but the tea was surprisingly easy to coax. Thanks for your kind words. Some stories write themselves, but I have to credit Sister Mileta for originally writing much of the material of the Wucang convent.