In 1948, my grandfather flew to Nanjing on a clandestine mission. He was 20 years old.
China was at war. Although Japan had been defeated, war remained, waged now between Communist rebels and the Nationalist government, pitting Chinese against Chinese.
As the airplane accelerated, emotions of fear and excitement captured his mind. It was his first time on a plane. His heart pulsed at the importance of his mission. In Nanjing, he would join an underground Communist cell, living a life of sabotage and secrecy deep in the government capital. The adventure of a lifetime, he thought.
My grandfather was born Aug 23, 1928, in Qingdao, a large port city in the coastal northeastern province of Shandong. As a child, his days were filled with swimming and fishing, cementing a Shandonger’s taste for seafood that lasted into adulthood. With a boisterous personality, he had a deep love for adventure and camaraderie.
My grandfather was nine when Japan invaded. He hated them. “Little Japanese devils,” he called them, a typical Chinese slur for the invaders. Yet his true hatred was reserved for the Nationalist government. They were corrupt bureaucrats and criminals who pillaged their own people, he would say, a deep frown spreading across his forehead. With his youthful rage morphing slowly into militant patriotism, the underground Communists recruiters must have noticed this perfect emotional powder keg and approached him, offering a crusade. He joined without hesitation, his mind swirling with visions of adventure and intrigue.
* * *
In 2007, I deployed to Iraq. I turned 21 on the plane as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
My thoughts were a jumble of excitement and nervous energy. At 18 and to the horror of my mother, I joined the Army after a subpar high school career in California. My parents, like most Chinese immigrants, valued education as the ultimate achievement. The military was for dumb people, the bad students—not for good Chinese kids.
Yet I yearned for a different life. I hated school and its parade of stale tests and monotonous routine. I hated the stereotypes thrust upon me in America: perpetual yellow foreigner, “model minority,” weak, passive, keep your head down, be a good student, middle management, and a suburban cul-de-sac.
At 18, I wanted to prove myself. I craved the adventures found in my favorite books and movies, scenes that seeped into daydreams as I sat restless in classrooms, ears open, but mind closed to the droning boredom of periodic tables and proper semicolon usage. The day I enlisted, my recruiter convinced me with a simple question.
“How would you like to be an interrogator?” he said, and in those words, I saw visions of adventure and intrigue.
* * *
It was 10 p.m. when a bomb exploded outside my grandfather’s Nationalist Party telegram office. The blast shook his desk, knocking over a cup and several pencils. From the window, he could see a thick plume of smoke rise from the central train station.
The date was April 23, 1949. Communist troops had reached Nanjing. An air of apprehension permeated throughout the Nationalist telegram office. In the chaos, my grandfather felt ecstatic. Of course, he hid those emotions. His coworkers were clueless to his double life as a member of an underground Communist cell.
My grandfather was a busy man. He relayed pertinent information to the Communists courtesy of his position as a government telegram clerk. He learned first aid and garnered supplies to assist Communist troops should the fighting reach the city. At night he posted propaganda posters on buildings, sprinting away on young legs before discovery, his heart pumping with adrenaline. Once, he hid a fellow underground member from a police raid, saving the man’s life.
Around 3 a.m., a jeep sped toward the telegram office. Because of the fighting, looting by bandits was common. Fearing the worst, my grandfather and his coworkers organized a makeshift defense, arming themselves with loose bricks and spare wooden table legs fastened into hasty melee weapons.
The jeep stopped when it reached the building. My grandfather looked out the window. Even from a distance, he could tell it wasn’t looters. They were Western journalists. My grandfather left the office and approached them. One of the journalists handed him a message.
“Reds Take Nanking.”
* * *
It was 2 a.m. when my team arrived at the raid site. A small storm of rocks and dirt trailed behind our speeding Humvee. In front of us, a multistory apartment building. My Iraqi source coughed behind me in the backseat. We were looking for a bomb maker.
In Iraq, I found a country trapped in the perpetual normalcy of civil war. The enemy, a confusing mélange of infighting groups, wore no uniforms, melting like salt in water among an ocean of civilians. In Iraq, I was busy. I patrolled in the heat of daylight, doused in a monsoon of sweat, my gear encasing my body like a clumsy turtle shell. At night, the world appeared a ghostly green, courtesy of mechanical night-vision goggles slung before my eyes. In cities and villages, I recruited and interviewed countless Iraqi sources, drinking gallons of sugar-laden chai in rooms thick with cigarette smoke.
My Iraqi sources came from all walks of life: shopkeepers, tribal leaders, soldiers, and police officers. Some were motivated by money and power, while others were driven by a sense of patriotism and altruism. A few were insurgents ratting out rival insurgents. All lived double lives.
It was past 2 a.m. when other vehicles joined us at the apartment. Heavily armed soldiers, both American and Iraqi, assaulted the building. By surprise, they took the enemy. Several men were detained, along with weapons and bomb-making material. I took pictures of the detainees and showed it to my source in the vehicle.
“That’s him, that’s the guy,” he said, pointing to one individual. A smile spread across his face.
* * *
For years after the war, my grandfather’s service was ignored. Many commanders in the Communist army didn’t trust the underground cells, which they viewed as barely above criminal rabble. In classic, fractured, insurgent organization, the various cells were kept hidden from one another. There were individuals my grandfather had assumed were collaborators, only to be revealed decades later as fellow underground members.
Despite the neglect, my grandfather stayed loyal. Even when the Communists sent him to the countryside as a peasant laborer in 1966, courtesy of the Cultural Revolution purge, he stayed resolute.
Many years passed before he was finally awarded, treated as a revolutionary hero. Did he ever have doubts? Anger that bubbled underneath his patriotic demeanor? Perhaps in the secrecy of his heart, there was a whisper of discontent.
* * *
After the Army, I went to college. Ironically, I now relished the classroom my younger self had dreaded. The military was the past and I was determined to leave it behind.
Yet, every day, I thought about Iraq. What happened to the Iraqis I worked with? The people I broke bread with? The Iraqis who risked their lives? As ISIS took vast swaths of Iraq, the entire war felt pointless. Any tactical success my team achieved made no strategic difference.
What did I achieve in my war? The government paid for my school. America glorifies the military. But this is the same country that denied my California-born little brother a high security clearance when he enlisted “due to too many foreign connections to China.” Now, no longer in uniform, I am just one of many faceless others in a sea of civilians, stricken with an ethnic connection to an enemy of America.
* * *
When I was a child, my grandfather visited California. My grandfather didn’t like America, a land he considered filled with corrupt imperialists. But he loved the fishing. “It’s cleaner here,” he said. Once, my grandfather caught a crab, its claws gripping the fishing line as he reeled it in. But the claw grip was tenuous. The crab loosened its grip and fell, inches away from the water. My grandfather shouted. By instinct, I dived into the water and grabbed the fleeing crustacean with bare hands. Triumphant and wet, I lifted my prize high above, its sharp, hard legs twisting in the air. My grandfather cheered.
In 2019, my grandfather passed away in China. Sometimes, I daydream about him.
He is 21 again, dressed in the revolutionary Chinese Communist Party garb of his youth. Standing across is myself, the same age, dressed in an American uniform. How would he react, seeing his future progeny clad in the uniform of a non-Chinese master? Would he yell in anger, call me a hanjian, a traitor to the Han Chinese people? If we had met on the battlefield, would I treat him as an insurgent? Interrogate him? Recruit him?
Yet there remains a connection. We are both family and foe. On the opposite sides of a different war, we served as freshly minted 21-year-old men, staring at each other across a battlefield.