Posted By: August 06, 2013

We spent the better part of that year, from midsummer1980 until midsummer 1981, in Taiwan.  As United States Foreign Service officers and representatives of several other government organizations, we were enrolled in a total-immersion language course that would raise our Chinese (Mandarin) to a level fitting us for future assignments among Chinese-speaking populations.  Our classes were held five days a week, six hours a day—and as a self-imposed discipline, we strove to continue speaking Mandarin even during our off-campus interactions with each other.

Our teachers, all of Taiwan and Mainland Chinese origins, were diligent about leading us in discussions of current international issues.  They made sure that we were fluent not only in the words of everyday diplomacy (“nuclear weapons,” “unequal treaty,” etc.), but also in those that dealt with unique situations then troubling our world.  “Iran hostages” was one such concept that received a lot of attention.  “Irish hunger strikers,” on the other hand, was an issue that occupied very little classroom time. Our teachers dealt with it only with the greatest reluctance.

Those of us who had made a geographic area specialty of China, steeping ourselves in the study of Chinese history, geography, economy, politics, arts and culture, knew why.  China’s ancestral memory of famine and starvation stretches back over millennia and remains strong.  Each year, in the area near the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization and the major source of its staple rice crop, anxiously-awaited spring floods held the potential either to adequately water and fertilize the wet and the dry paddies or to wash away the entire crop.  Spurred by this kind of anxiety handed down through generations, Chinese are trained from childhood to eat fast, to avoid conversation during meals, and to leave no grain of rice uneaten in their bowls.  To such a people, the idea of voluntary starvation as a means of shaming a hostile government into ceasing its oppression is simply unthinkable.   Our teachers literally didn’t know how to lead any sort of in-depth discussion of such a situation.

Nor did the Taiwan media know how to give anything like adequate coverage to unfolding events concerning the hunger strike.  Since Taiwan and the U.S. had broken off official relations in 1978, our school was run by a private organization.  We U.S. government officers-turned-students lacked our normal access to the kinds of official channels that could have provided us with the inside information I was seeking.   As an American of Irish descent and as a Catholic dedicated to praying for those ten brave and resolute men, I was frustrated at every turn in my efforts to stay up to date on events in Ireland.

By the time the last hunger striker died on 2 August 1981, I had left Taiwan and was just beginning the process of settling into my next assignment in Hong Kong.  News of the strike in a (then) British crown colony was only marginally more available than in Taiwan, although for obviously different reasons.  The essential, statistical information (ten men dead, like so many notches on a gun barrel) reached me, to be sure, but the opportunity to accompany each of those men on his individual journey to Calvary was sacrificed to the demands of service to country.

Perhaps that’s why, each year most strongly between the months of March and August, their souls cry out to me.  Something makes me aware that they continue to need my prayers, my offerings, my  remembering.   Something reminds me most forcibly that being remembered is the least that they have deserved.  Or maybe it’s just that we all need our proper time to grieve—and I was denied mine.

Sharon Clark Chang is a tenth-generation Virginian. After an 18-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency’s Clandestine Services, she worked in advocacy for Americans of Asian descent. Her first book, Escaped Alone: A Memoir of an Incomplete Southerner, was released in March 2013.