"TELL ME, did you ever go to the Drum Tower Nursery School in Nanjing?" "Of course I did. My father founded it." "Then, you are the I-Ming from my childhood. We were best friends in kindergarten and first grade!"
We gray-haired gentlemen stared at each other, amazed. Here as first-time tourists in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, we'd struck up a conversation. It had been 57 years since we'd met. And yet that evening in a hotel courtyard the bonds of friendship were immediately reestablished. I could still recite the poem I'd written: "I have a rabbit lantern, I-Ming . . ." He remembered my sisters' names and the summer with us in the mountains when Mother would tuck us into bed and kiss us good night. Now I-Ming is someone I see whenever I go back to China.
The Drum Tower Nursery School was special. My sister and I walked down the lane to it every morning when we were 4 and 5. It was a Chinese society in which we felt welcomed and comfortably absorbed, as was normal. We were born in Nanjing. The Victorian house at the edge of the university campus where our father taught chemistry was our home. It was at the Drum Tower school that I first tried to read Chinese. I regret to say that my method was to memorize the words by the pictures above them in the text. It gave me authority. But while my spoken Chinese has served me well -- "Ah! I tell by your accent you come from Nanjing" -- my reading "skills" have vanished.
The tranquil Drum Tower Nursery School experience came to an abrupt end in March 1927 when the Northern Campaign (of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists combined) captured Nanjing, looting and threatening foreigners. As children in this exciting time, we noted that the same soldiers who looted us one day became our honor guard the next as we were escorted down to the waterfront to be taken down river on American gunboats, as refugees, to Shanghai. The next year, on our return to Nanjing, our schooling was the Calvert system. Texts and tests came out of Baltimore, and Mother, in the custom of the community, served as our teacher at home. This was obviously a trying arrangement and Hillcrest, the Nanjing American School destroyed in the looting, was quickly reopened. That first year, when real school life began again, we had six teachers (five of them our mothers) and 15 students.
Hillcrest wasn't strictly American, but it was intended to train us for American schools and colleges when we went "home." The only restriction was that at least half of each class should have English as its mother tongue. Our classmates were American, English, French, Austrian and Chinese.
Within the American community a conflict arose when Mother, concerned for our future social adjustment, introduced "dances" as home entertainment. This split the community -- as it would have many an American small town. At a prayer meeting, which Mother missed, one of the members proposed prayers "for a dear friend, who is doing such a bad job in raising her children." Mother was always grateful to know that another member immediately rose saying, "Margaret Thomson is doing an excellent job. She doesn't need our prayers!" and the issue was dropped. (We had our own problems. When Bob McCallum was asked why he wasn't dancing his answer was, "Oh, Mrs. Thomson, I'm shy.")
In the Hillcrest years we always went home for lunch. We had four daily one-mile walks in the course of which we'd see people on rickshaws, men pushing wheelbarrows while others carried farm produce in baskets on poles, troops of donkeys walking slowly under loads of bricks or trotting rapidly back for the next load. Along the way we'd pass farmers, inside the city wall, plowing their fields using water buffalos. ("Tin Can," whose father had the farm next to our house, warned me to stay away from his buffalo who "didn't like the smell of foreigners.") IN 1935, after a serious drought, hoards of peasant refugees camped in a Buddhist temple ground just below our school. Having lost everything, they begged for money, holding out their hands to us. We felt helpless at the sight of them. If we'd given to one, we'd have been overwhelmed by the rest. A Chinese friend suggested that we hold a fund-raising activity. This became our "County Fair," where we raised $65 -- a lot of money in the '30s. And our lead inspired other groups, Chinese and foreign, to help with jobs and relief.
For the most part, our Hillcrest school life wasn't much different from what it would have been in smalltown America. Our classes were modeled on American classes -- with special attention to Chinese history. Of course in my grandparents' town of Middlebush, N.J., I'd not have chatted with workers cutting new roads in the countryside or spent my 50 cents allowances bargaining with them for old bronze mirrors. ("Genuine," a dealer told me, "very old, very very common.") For me a favorite subject was manual training. I made a chest from our backyard camphor tree. I built my first canoe, which I'd load onto a rickshaw and wheel out through a city-wall gate to a lake. I'm told the Nanjing American community used it right up to Pearl Harbor, when it disappeared for ever.
Our sports were tennis, track and soccer. For fun we'd wander city streets buying shao-bing (baked biscuits) fresh from the sidewalk ovens. Shao-bing were parent-approved because they were piping hot. We weren't allowed to touch the candied fruits, which were much visited, of course, by flies. (Shao-bing are hard to find in America because, as street food, they're beneath the dignity of an established chef.)
Going off to boarding school in Shanghai was a change, one we looked forward to. In Shanghai our student body was larger and there were many schools for interscholastic competition. Of course, as an American school, we played football, which other schools did not, so we substituted six-man teams for the usual elevens and played on campus. Lt. Funk of the U.S. 4th Marines led our Scout troop, and Pvt. Kilbourne served as his assistant. In soccer our overwhelming opponents were the Seaforth Highlanders, whom we never defeated. But then no other school team did either. The joy of our school days was that, whatever the activity -- sports, plays, the chess club -- there was always room for each one of us. I still delight in having been Boris Kolenkhov in "You Can't Take it With You."
The years at the Shanghai American School were interrupted -- for one semester -- when the Sino-Japanese War started in 1937. We were upriver in the mountain summer resort of Kuling (now Lushan) when the Japanese attack closed our return routes to Nanjing and Shanghai. The Rape of Nanjing occurred, and it was a traumatic time for everyone. We high-schoolers, however, enjoyed that fall semester in the Kuling American School. Classes went on normally until, at Christmas vacation, we had to evacuate. Limited to one suitcase and a back-pack each, we hiked down the mountain, took a river steamer upstream to Hankow and then caught the "Last International Refugee Train" (with flags flying) to Canton and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong we camped on cots in the mezzanine of the world-class Peninsula Hotel and swam on New Year's Day at Repulse Bay. Next, in a routine manner, we boarded the Conte Biancamano and steamed serenely up the coast, back to international Shanghai behind the Japanese lines.
For our class of '39, the last year-and-a-half before graduation couldn't have been more normal. We brought out our yearbooks and papers including the What'sa Gonna Happen Nooze. We selected colleges (28 of 31 of us got our first choice). I chose Swarthmore to be like Ted Herman, our English teacher and soccer coach, whom I much admired.
It's impossible to repeat school days in China but, if I could, I'd do it at the drop of a hat.
John Seabury Thomson is China-born and raised and has re-visited China often in recent years.