Nancy T. Waller: A BIC (Born In China) Who Lived Next Door to Pearl Buck in Nanjing (July 30, 2011)
Nancy Thomson Waller is an extraordinary lady with an extraordinary story, at least in three ways:
1. She was born in Nanjing (Nanking), China to American educational missionary parents. Her father James Claude Thomson was the head of the Chemistry Department at the University of Nanjing;
2. She is now three years into her 9th decade and has written a book titled “My Nanking Home 1918-1937”;
3. Her family neighbor in Nanjing and her mother’s friend was none other than Pearl Buck, the 1938 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and author of The Good Earth.
I learned about Mrs. Waller through my friend Mary, whose husband Tom and Mrs. Waller are cousins. I also got to read Mrs. Waller’s book, a copy Mary loaned me. With Mrs. Waller at her advanced age and living in Cherry Valley, NY, I interviewed her via email, and Priority Mail, with Mary's help. Hope this interview, just as her book, will give you a window to peek into another time, another China, which Mrs. Waller calls home, in three parts.
Part 1. Nanjing Home and Pearl Buck
Wen: First of all, thank you Mrs. Waller for writing a very interesting book and for giving me this interview. Since I read your book, my questions will follow the timeline of the book.
You have lots of fond memories of Nanjing. You wrote about the city wall, Purple Mountain, Ku Lou, or the Drum Tower, the soft rose color on old Chinese temples, the flowers around your home, etc. Do you have one memory, one that stands out, whenever you think back to Nanjing?
Nancy: The magnolia tree and our garden.
Wen: You didn’t mention it too much in the book, but I assume that your parents spoke Chinese and you and your siblings grew up bilingual, speaking both English and Chinese. Could you tell us what it was like, communicating among yourselves and the missionary community and communicating with the Chinese, including the domestic workers in your house?
Nancy: Both parents' Chinese was adequate, but not fluent. Daddy's was fine with technical and scientific instructions. And it must have been for lecturing. We children learned from our servants - Chinese was our first language - from our Amah. Jimmy's and Johnny's Chinese was fluent and a great help when we went back in 1980. (An interesting side note: When Nixon went to China, brother Jim was with Howard K. Smith reporting. At a lull in the program, Smith asked Jim to demonstrate how to eat with chopsticks. Enraged letters came from Chinese, saying he ate like a coolie, a peasant.) Sydney's and my Chinese was adequate but we didn't have lessons.
Wen: You wrote about Hillcrest School and described it as a mini United Nations. What classes did you have there? Did you have Chinese language classes?
Nancy: K-9, we had regular American curriculum. There were no Chinese language classes. Johnny, Sydie and Jimmy went to Chinese kindergarten.
Wen: You mentioned that Pearl Buck had a daughter called Carol, who unfortunately was mentally disabled. You said that one reason Pearl Buck wrote books was to make money to get treatment for her daughter. What do you remember about Carol? How old was Carol compared with you? Did you or could you play with her? Did she get better?
Nancy: Carol was about three years younger than I. We would rough-and-tumble with her because it gave her great pleasure. She was a big, strong, happy girl. She loved music. There is a place for people like Carol in Vineland, NJ. Pearl had a special cottage built for Carol and was sure to keep her surrounded with music. Carol has died and was never much better.
Wen: You described how several publishers turned Pearl Buck down, how one suggested that she shorten the manuscript of The Good Earth, and how your mother read it and said “Don’t cut a word!” What a role your mother played in the version of the book the world got to see! How did you feel when you heard that your former neighbor got the Nobel Prize? That was in 1938, the year you were in Switzerland, attending Geneva College of Women.
Nancy: I was thrilled, naturally.
Part 2. Nanjing Incident, American School in Shanghai, and Brother Jim
Wen: I am sorry that your family had to go through the chaos and brutality of the Nanjing Incident, or the Looting, on March 24, 1927. With Dr. Williams, president of Nanjing University, murdered, with soldiers coming to your house and had your father and other Americans lined up to be shot, fortunately not, it was a terrible scene. Tell us again as an 8-year-old girl your experience that day and if and how it affected you in your life.
Nancy: I was nine! Because our parents showed no fear, it hasn't marred any of us or changed our love about China. It has left us with a good story!
Wen: You said your family always went to Kuling in Lushan (Mount Lu) in the summer and that you went to a dance party with students from the Kuling American School there. You probably know that Kuling American School is operating again in recent years, jointly with Nanjing University, offering summer Chinese language classes. Did you have friends who went to Kuling school?
Nancy: Yes. Johnny and Sydney went to KAS in 1937 and 1938 when Nanking was occupied. Harry Allen was my special friend from KAS.
Wen: You went to the Shanghai American School from age 14 to 16. One thing struck me was that your parents would just “push” you and a few other students onto the train to ride for five hours to Shanghai by yourselves. You said you never had any fear riding among hundreds of Chinese. Did you take the train back by yourselves, too?
Nancy: We probably took the train back by ourselves - maybe an occasional parent but I don't remember any.
Wen: There have been some famous Shanghai American School alumni, as you mentioned in the book, including the late James Lilley and Shackleton Roy, or J. Stapleton Roy as I read, who became ambassadors to China. You said your Class of 1936 had a reunion in 1986, the 50th. Did you meet any of them again later?
Nancy: I remember Stapleton Roy at age four and thought "What a name to be saddled with." The 86' Reunion was the best of all, but we have had many reunions here and there in this country. I have attended five.
Wen: I read your little brother James C. Thomson Jr.’s essay “Recollections of a Cultural Imperialist” in the Atlantic magazine. It was very moving, especially when he said that he cried when he heard those first sounds from Beijing on the television in the spring of 1971. He also wrote about his China homecoming trip in 1978. And he became quite a scholar and expert on China and Asia. Could you say a few words about Jimmy, who was the only BOF (Born on Furlough) among siblings of BICs (Born in China), but said he was a CIC, Conceived in China?
Nancy: Jimmy was a marvelous, brilliant, funny person. He was an excellent writer, had a brilliant career at Yale, was the chairman of the "Yale News" Phi Beta Kappa, Mellon scholar at Cambridge in England. Worked in Washington and the West Wing under Kennedy and Johnson. McGeorge Bundy called him "my favorite dove" when Jimmy resigned in protest of the Vietnam War. He was the head of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard for 12 years. Over the years he taught Far Eastern studies and journalism at Harvard, Tufts, and BU. He died much too soon.
Part 3. China Relieft Work, Family Trip Back to Nanjing, and P.S.
Wen: I read that you worked at United China Relief in the 1940s, at Time-Life, Inc. and taught French later. What were you doing when Nixon went to China, and how did you feel when the U.S. and China normalized their diplomatic relations in 1979?
Nancy: Of course I was thrilled. When I was working at United China Relief, Pearl Buck visited the office and was delighted to see me as I was to see her.
Wen: What about your other siblings, Johnny and Sydney? What kind of career did they have?
Nancy: Johnny taught Far Eastern studies at the U of Wisconsin and later worked for the CIA, translating newspapers from the Far East. His final job was teaching at The Foreign Service Institute in Washington, telling all new foreign service officers how not to be Ugly Americans abroad. Sydney married Robert McAfee Brown, a very liberal active theologian. They were a great team. She's been a strong activist - starting an organization to help Vietnam vets to get jobs, fighting pollution in San Francisco Bay, sometimes taking in refugees - very active in her church, pushing churches into social action.
Wen: In 1980, as you wrote in the book, the Thomson “Gang of Four” went back together to China, visited Nanjing, and toured your old house at Nanjing University. Could you tell us one thing that struck you on that trip forty-three years after your family had left China?
Nancy: One thing was the openness in the hotels. We didn't lock our doors! The friendliness of the crowds around us. The drab colorless clothing worn by all adults.
Wen: Your parents left China in 1948 after living and working in Nanjing for thirty years. Their work will never be forgotten, as one Chinese representative told your brother Jimmy in 1978. Did they live to see U.S.-China normalization in 1979 or at least see it coming? What did they say about China in those years when China was closed?
Nancy: They didn't live to see the opening of China. My father especially had a deep, deep sadness. I think part of it was about the church being suppressed, and that some of his brilliant students were confined. One of his students was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but the government wouldn't let him go.
Wen: From your book and photos, one can see that new generations in your family, your daughter and grandchildren have also connected with China and Nanjing. Has any of them followed your brother Jimmy’s footsteps in studying China?
Nancy: David Auerbach went to Yale and then spent two years in Changsha, teaching at Yale in China. He is now working in Kenya on a great project to help in the slums. Becky Auerbach has been working in Africa and the West Bank on health problems.
Wen: Thank you again Mrs. Waller for your book, for your memories, especially for "the deep affection and hope" that you hold for China, the land of your birth.
P.S. Mrs. Waller added a few words after the interview:
"Except for working for United China Relief during the war, my growing up in China hasn't influenced my life but it has given me a very broad view of the world."
"In my teens, I decided Nationalism was the root of all evil. I remember giving an impassioned sermon on the evils of war. When my sister and I came home, we shared our ideas. Much to the embarrassment of our parents, we refused to pledge allegiance and salute the flag at the summer missionary retreat. When I had the first chance to vote, I voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate. The rest of my life I have been a democrat. I've been very active politically, protested against our wars, been in League of LWV and in the church through Outreach, pushing people's awareness of inequalities, and working on Prison Reform."
"I think growing up with a sense of the world with China being my home base freed me in a unique way."
To find out more about Nancy Thomson Waller and get a copy of My Nanking Home, please visit this site: