“I was in medical school in Tokyo at the time. Of course, supplies were scant because of the war, so our training was mainly theoretical. That soon changed when the Americans started bombing the capital – we were thrown in to treating the wounded without having finished our schooling.”
I ask him about life in Japan as a colonial subject – how was he treated? Did people make fun of his clothes, his accent?
“Make fun? Most people did not realise I was not Japanese. My parents could speak Taiwanese, of course, but they always spoke Japanese at home. Likewise the whole of my schooling was in Japanese. I went through childhood and adolescence only speaking Japanese, which was supplemented by English in college.”
We converse in a mixture of Mandarin and English, which is marked by a heavy Japanese accent, quite unlike the accent foreigners in Taiwan are accustomed to hearing from Taiwanese people. His Mandarin is also halting, and he often has to stop to think of the right word, adding in words from English, Taiwanese or, in desperation, Japanese, when he wants to get the point across.
“This Guoyu (Mandarin), it’s hard for me. When I was transported back to Taiwan a couple of months after the war ended, I started to learn Taiwanese – now I speak it as well as anyone else. But Guoyu, that’s another matter. My patients, my family, my friends, they all speak Taiwanese with me, so I have little opportunity to improve in Mandarin. By the time I started to learn, I was already too old – my head was like a stone.”
Returning the topic to his time in Japan, I ask him what his defining memories of this distant past are, already sixty years dusty. The cold is the first thing he mentions, the biting cold of a Tokyo winter. Clothing and fuel rations were short, so most people just slept in their clothes, piling on the layers to try and keep out the chill. Next are the recollections of working with the burns victims of the horrendous firestorms resulting from the Allied bombing.
“The history books tell you about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, these two events were terribly important in ending the war, but the significance of the atom bomb didn’t really sink in until some months later, when I was already back in Taiwan – honest news was hard to come by in Japan, so all they really told us was that the Americans had a cruel new weapon. But the fires in Tokyo, they constituted my up-close experience of the war. They are still vivid in my head. The other thing I remember was Hirohito talking on the radio, announcing the surrender. No-one really knew if it was him, or what was going on. It was only in the following days and weeks that we realised it was true – the war was over.”
He seems to be torn between different stages of his past, unsure of where loyalties lie and morality stands. I ask him what his perception of himself is; does he see himself as Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese or a mix.
“Not Japanese, not even when I was in Japan. Japanese was my first language, but I have always considered myself Taiwanese. And how could I be Chinese? Of course, I am descended from Chinese, most of us in Taiwan are. But China is something political I do not identify with.”
As he mentions politics, I ask him about his views of the current political climate in Taiwan. He sighs heavily and throws up his arms in mock surrender.
“Ah, they are all rotten. The politicians all want something for themselves. For so long, we native Taiwanese wanted power, wanted control over our own destinies, not to be ruled by old men from China. Now we have it, and I am glad of it, but politicians are still politicians, whatever colour they are. And as long as the Chinese continue to bully Taiwan and have the rest of the world in their pocket, what hope do we have? We have power, and it means nothing.”
I say my goodbyes at the end of our interview and he holds up one arthritic hand to wave me on my way. I think about the man as a metaphor for Taiwan’s recent past, a past that has never been in the control of the people here. A confused identity, a sense of frustration and injustice combine to produce the man, in his twilight years, who still embodies the split personality of this island nation. The resolution of Taiwan’s situation, the acceptance denied to it, is reminiscent of Old Huang’s own search for the definite.