I have watched my mother grow into the most amazing storyteller. When she speaks, people lean in, the room becomes quieter, and the anticipation is palpable. She wasn’t always this way. She used to avoid speaking of her history—or about herself altogether— giving only enough details to keep her inquirers satisfied or confused enough to stop probing. Perhaps her privacy made me all the more curious.
As a child I used to get glimpses into her past: mentions of a cruel nun at the Darjeeling boarding school, where she lived from age 4 to 12; her grandmother somewhat constricted by her bound feet; her father taken suddenly and inexplicably to jail; and the months she spent in a Chinese internment camp in India that changed her life forever. I could sense the loss she felt whenever she spoke of her father, who, though still alive at the time, would never again be the father she had in India.
In March 1997, my mother and I spent a week traveling in a camper through the beautiful desert terrain of Death Valley, in California. One evening we joined fellow stargazers for a full moon eclipse, which darkened the sky momentarily, so we could more clearly see the infamous and bright Hale-Bopp Comet. Like the sky, mother and daughter’s timing seemed to be perfectly aligned as well: I was enrolled in an oral history course in college and hungry to understand my family history, and my mother, for the first time, felt enough time had passed to enable her to explore painful memories that led to the dissolution of the family of her childhood. This road trip was pivotal in the growth of our relationship, and also a catalyst for her to share her story.
From the first time she mentioned her complicated history and the months she spent in a Chinese internment camp in India, I felt a deep gnawing for greater understanding. And, as she began to share more freely—following our desert road trip—new questions continued to surface. Eager to weave together her stories, our family history, and this history in a larger context, I decided to write my bachelor’s thesis on the 1962 China-India Border War and the resultant Chinese internment camp. Since this history is largely undocumented, I relied heavily on interviews with my grandfather, Chi-Pei Hsueh, and mother. Through this process, I more fully understood the impact that this war and ethnic divisions had on our family.
When people in the United States learn about the Chinese internment camp in India, they immediately make the parallel to Japanese-American internment, though that was on a much larger scale. It took 46 years for the U.S. government to apologize and offer reparations to the Japanese-American community. The Chinese-Indian community—both within India’s borders and beyond—is still awaiting an apology from the Indian government and the sense of validation that comes with acknowledgement of a wrongdoing.
Before embarking on this storytelling journey, my mother told me it was important that she not emphasize her struggle in negative terms. Rather, she wanted her story to serve as another educational example of the danger of emphasizing divisions along ethnic and racial lines, and its impact on families and communities. She wanted her story not to serve as material for further division, but to inspire more understanding and humanity.
My mother’s relationship with India is bittersweet. On the one hand, the country forced her out, and on the other, it will always be her home.
It has taken an entire lifetime for her to come to terms with this conflicted identity. Now, on the 50th anniversary of Chinese internment in India, she finally tells her story in her memoir, “Doing Time With Nehru,” her account of growing up in India.
Following the 1962 China-India Border War, nearly 2,500 ethnic Chinese were forced from their homes in India and sent to an internment camp in the Rajasthan desert, where some lived for up to five years. Among those interned were my 13-year-old mother, her 8-year-old brother, her father, and her grandmother—age 72 and constricted by bound feet.
Around that time, Chinese families began hearing rumors of—and fearing—the “midnight knock.” When the Indian officials came to my family’s home in Darjeeling, it was my mother who answered the door. The rumors were true; they were visited in the middle of the night, told to gather a few belongings, and taken away without knowledge of where they were going, how long they would be gone, nor why they were being taken. My family never anticipated that they wouldn’t be able to return, and that they would lose their home, their restaurant, their belongings, their community, and their lives as they knew them.
Even neighbors had no idea what happened. When my mom went to her first Darjeeling school reunion, ten years ago, she met Eric. After a few minutes he made the connection, and said, “I know you. We lived in the same building! What happened to you? One day you were there, and the next day you were gone. Where did you go?”
Most people have never heard of this piece of India’s history. And, until recently, I didn’t know much about it either. I started asking questions in college—once I started, I found I couldn’t stop. At that time, 1998, there was almost no information available about the camp, and absolutely none that I could find about the personal experiences of people who lived through it.
While I was trying to find other people to interview for my thesis, my mom suggested I contact the only other person she knew from camp—someone she had coincidentally bumped into in Berkeley. This woman was interned for five years. At first, she agreed, but as the interview date approached, she began having reservations. In the end, she apologized, and told me she realized she wasn’t ready.
More recently, about two months ago, my mom and I met with Kwai Li, who is part of the large Chinese-Indian community in Toronto. She heard about my mom’s memoir through Facebook—of course—and it turns out she just completed her master’s thesis on the Deoli Camp. She was thrilled to meet someone willing and wanting to listen to her story. Kwai Li confirmed that even today—15 years after I was researching my thesis—people are still reluctant to share this part of their past.
This made me realize, all the more, just how vulnerable my mom must have felt recalling and processing memories of her childhood.
When I read the final version of her book, I found myself more emotional than I expected. I had heard most of the stories many times by that point, but even still, they made me cry. I was absolutely transported—experiencing her life as a 13-year-old girl, living in Darjeeling in the 60s, and making life-altering decisions beyond her age.
“Doing Time with Nehru” is both a captivating coming-of-age story and an important record of a largely undocumented history. Beyond filling a crucial gap in our collective history, her memoir is a reminder of how individuals, families and culture, are affected by political circumstances. And, by taking this on, she has given voice and validation to the people who lived it, to her community, and encouragement for others with similar experiences to tell their stories.
I saw my mother transform in the process of writing this book. She has always identified strongly with her Chinese cultural roots—perhaps even more so because of this experience—but only recently have I noticed her also proudly embracing her Indian cultural heritage as well. I see her more at peace than ever and complete in her identity. She is, all at once, Chinese, American, and Indian.
Doing Time with Nehru. By Yin Marsh. Published 2012. 162 pages. $16.95. createspace.com and doingtimewithnehru.com.
Nicole Yuin Marsh wrote her bachelor’s thesis on Chinese Internment in India following the 1962 border war, relying largely on interviews with her mother and grandfather. She is currently Head Librarian at Lincoln University in Oakland, California.