The increasingly bitter dispute between China and Japan over islands most Americans have never heard off is hard to understand from our distant shores. Why so much frothing rage, especially on the streets of Chinese cities? Yes, the government is fanning some of it as part of a propaganda war. But step back and consider how we might feel if Japan had invaded the United States and savaged it in a brutal occupation. Seven decades can’t wash away the resentment in China, even though victims who endured the cruelty of Japanese soldiers have passed into memory or soon will.
One victim, my deceased Chinese father-in-law, never appeared to hold a grudge against the Japanese. Perhaps he had mellowed by the time I knew him. News of the island dispute reminded me of what he disclosed one evening during an exquisite meal he had cooked. Calm and almost serene, he recalled life as a boy of eight in Hong Kong struggling to care for his mother and siblings during the occupation. Bodies littered the streets. Food was more than scarce. “I ate grass,” he said, his voice dispassionate as if describing someone else. He ate grass to stay alive and stretch the few rations the family found. It’s no wonder he became a chef, and one who spun magic in every dish.
So when I see images of seething faces in Beijing and elsewhere in China, I picture my father-in-law as a child plucking blades of grass for his next meal and as an adult unburdened by hate I surely could have never shed.