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  • The Oriole's Song: An American Girlhood in Wartime China
  • Cristina Zaccarini (bio)
B. J. Elder . The Oriole's Song: An American Girlhood in Wartime China. Norwalk, CT: Eastbridge, 2003. xii, 239 pp. Paperback $19.95, ISBN 1-891936-336.

Increasingly as memoirs are being produced by the children of missionaries, journalists, teachers, and other professionals who served in China in the early part of the twentieth century, readers are being offered invaluable cross-cultural glimpses of Sino-American interactions during this period. B. J. Elder (born Betty Jean Rugh), a graduate of the Shanghai American School, was the only child of Dwight Rugh, a school teacher and participant in the Yale-in-China program. Rugh was eventually denounced by the Chinese Communist government at a mass rally in 1951, at which time the author of this book returned to the United States. She went on to become a nurse practitioner, marry, and eventually write this memoir after returning to China with her husband and two young daughters.

The Oriole's Song is divided into three parts: Elder's activities in China and first return to that country in 1973-1974 after an absence of more than twenty years, her memories of childhood during World War II and up until 1951, and her subsequent return in 1982.

Like many other Americans raised in China, Elder reflected what many have called a "third-culture syndrome."1 Thus, as the only American girl in the compound where she lived, Elder felt more American than Chinese; however, while on furlough and upon her permanent return to the United States, she felt that she did not belong in the United States either. Elder explains her motivation to return to China in 1973, despite the denunciation of her father as an imperialist spy, as akin to "swallowing bitter medicine," and the reader understands the depth of her need to revisit when she finally arrived in Hunan: "This is more than home. This is where the world was all the time. This is where I have always been" (p. 18).

The circumstances surrounding this return and Elder's initial meeting with friends of her parents during her first trip in 1973 offer readers an interesting glimpse into the waning years of the Cultural Revolution in China. The family was in Hong Kong, where her husband Dave Elder was employed by a Quaker organization that was providing assistance to war-ravaged countries in Southeast Asia. Despite Richard Nixon's recent visit, Elder believed it preposterous that she would be allowed to return. She was, in her words: "the child of a father who had been accused by the current government of being an imperialist and a spy and attempting to rob the people of their heritage" (p. 7). But Elder asked for permission to visit, ostensibly to learn more about the health-care system in Hunan at a time when many Americans were becoming interested in traditional Chinese medicine. This may have helped her case, since at that time Mao had identified traditional [End Page 84] Chinese medicine as a national treasure. To her surprise, Chinese authorities consented.

Part 1 recounts Elder's memories of the compound where she spent her childhood. The Yale-in-China program, with headquarters in New Haven, was originally affiliated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, but the purpose of Dwight Rugh's work was primarily medical and educational. By 1931, when the Rughs arrived, the organization had established a college, a teaching hospital, and a senior and junior high school for boys called Yali. Dwight Rugh was a Christian who rarely spoke about God, but was, according to Elder, an unfailing optimist due to his religious beliefs. He was appointed to assist with the administration of the school and to teach religion. His wife had not received an appointment but worked as a teacher without pay, despite her belief that all work should be justly compensated. While Mrs. Rugh was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she was the least religious of the two and the more prone to worry that something would happen to the family during those precarious times. Elder vacillated between her mother...


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