China Dreams: Growing Up Jewish in Tientsin
Posted by nliakos on October 20, 2012
by Isabelle Maynard (University of Iowa Press, 1996)
This memoir is one in the University of Iowa series Singular Lives, which probably explains why I couldn’t find it in the library, so I actually had to buy it (I almost never buy books I haven’t read yet!). Maynard (née Tsimmerman) is a Russian Jew whose family fled the Russian Revolution and ended up in China, in the city now known as Tianjin (where my friend Kelly is from), not too far from Beijing. She writes about her childhood and education there. It was a whole world unknown to me (although, coincidentally, my father worked for a while in Harbin around the same time and knew some Russian émigrés there as well, including Nina Rimsky-Korsakova, whose namesake I am. That Nina was not Jewish, though.) Being Jewish in Tientsin, like being Jewish pretty much everywhere at that time, meant dealing with slights and snubs from the other Europeans in the various concessions wrung from the Chinese, who became the servants of the interlopers who disdained them. Maynard recounts how it never occurred to her to learn to speak or understand Chinese, and how she never even knew the name of her Chinese nurse. It seems amazing today, but at the time it was pretty standard. I wondered if Kelly’s grandparents lived through that time, and whether they had any contact with these disdainful people.
The family find themselves forced to flee yet another revolution as the Communists enter the city, and Isabelle and her mother leave her father behind when they leave for California. She describes her father’s improbable escape just ahead of the Communists in the penultimate chapter. Eventually, they are reunited in San Francisco, where they begin life anew once again, and Maynard’s father promises, “Now we stay put.” And they did.
I enjoyed reading about Isabelle Maynard’s “singular life.”