Oral histories are intimate conversations between and among people who have generously agreed to share these recordings with BHS’s archives and researchers. Please listen in the spirit with which these were shared. BHS abides by the General Principles & Best Practices for Oral History as agreed upon by the Oral History Association and expects that use of this material will be done with respect for these professional ethics.
Every oral history relies on the memories, views, and opinions of the narrator. Because of the personal nature of oral history, listeners may find some viewpoints or language of the recorded participants to be objectionable. In keeping with its mission of preservation and unfettered access whenever possible, BHS presents these views as recorded.
The audio recording should be considered the primary source for each interview. Where provided, transcripts created prior to 2008 or commissioned by a third party other than BHS, serve as a guide to the interview and are not considered verbatim. More recent transcripts commissioned by BHS are nearly verbatim copies of the recorded interview, and as such may contain the natural false starts, verbal stumbles, misspeaks, and repetitions that are common in conversation. The decision for their inclusion was made because BHS gives primacy to the audible voice and also because some researchers do find useful information in these verbal patterns. Unless these verbal patterns are germane to your scholarly work, when quoting from this material researchers are encouraged to correct the grammar and make other modifications maintaining the flavor of the narrator’s speech while editing the material for the standards of print.
All citations must be attributed to Brooklyn Historical Society:
[Last name, First name], Oral history interview conducted by [Interviewer’s First name Last name], [Month DD, YYYY], [Title of Collection], [Call #]; Brooklyn Historical Society.
These interviews are made available for research purposes only. For more information about other kinds of usage and permissions, see BHS’s rights and reproductions policy.
Oral history interview conducted by Manissa Maharawal
October 29, 2013
Call number: 2011.019.067
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: OK, let's get started. So, this is Manissa McCleaveMaharawal interviewing Janet Pinkowitz on October 29th, for the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations Oral History Project with the Brooklyn Historical Society. And we're doing this interview at the Brooklyn Historical Society. And why don't you just start off by telling me your full name, and where and when you were born?
JANET PINKOWITZ: OK, well, my full name, including my old middle name, I guesswould be Janet Elizabeth Rhoads Pinkowitz. And, nowadays, I'm mostly Janet Pinkowitz, or sometimes I'll put in Janet Rhoads Pinkowitz, depending. And, let's see, my age -- is that what you were saying? (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: No, just where and when you were born, yeah.
JANET PINKOWITZ: [date redacted for privacy] And I was born in Chongqing, China.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Chongqing? That's interesting. I've been to Chongqing.
JANET PINKOWITZ: Oh. And I've been there, obviously, at least once. (laughter)1:00But after -- I don't remember. I mean, obviously, I was just an infant, so -- and we left there back -- let's see, probably within a couple of years, at least, and mostly lived in Canton -- it's now called Guangzhou. Have you been there, also?
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: No, I haven't.
JANET PINKOWITZ: I'm told that Chongqing is very big these days. It's just --it's very different from, from what I've been told it was like before. But I remember nothing about it. (laughter) OK.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So, do you want to tell me something about yourchildhood, or describe your childhood?
JANET PINKOWITZ: Well, let's see. What I remember, in terms of my earlychildhood, is just -- I would say would be our time when we were living in Canton, in China. My family -- well, since I was born during -- still during 2:00World War II, and Chongqing was an area that was not overrun by the Japanese during World War II, after the war was over, we moved back to Canton, which is where my parents had lived before, with my brother. And so, I have vague memories of that. It was probably beginning with, maybe, when I was three or so -- three or four. And we lived on a college campus -- a university campus, because my father taught Chine-- well, he taught English literature in the college. And so, we had a kind of a -- I think it was actually a pretty fancy house. It was -- because it was for university professors. And so, there was a 3:00cook and a gardener, and I had a -- an amah, or a sort of a servant or nursemaid -- someone that took care of me and took care of my brother. And so, I think it was a pretty easy, happy life over there.
And then I went to -- I have a vague recollection of going to the Chineseschool, and that was near the campus. And -- but that's very vague. I'm really not sure. It's -- it becomes vaguer by the -- you know, by the month, I think. (laughter) And my brother, who is seven years older than me, went to a different school. He went to, obviously, a school for -- elementary school, or -- yeah, probably elementary school at that time. So, in terms of that, childhood -- it 4:00was mostly being taken care of by -- or looked after by the servant. And her name was Ah Hau, I believe. And my brother had his own -- had someone who looked after him. And we didn't really have too much to do with our parents, I don't think. We mostly were -- sort of lived more in our own world, to -- for the most -- for the most part, I think. I spent time sort of bothering the gardener, (laughter) you know, as he planted things, or did stuff. There was a -- another university professor who lived with his family down the road from us, again, on the -- on the campus grounds. And I was good, good friends with the 5:00girl, or one of the girls in that family because we were about the same age. So, I would spend time with her, you know, in, in her, her house, as well. I think we played, like, water buffalo or something. You know, just -- as if we were cowboys and Indians. There were some kind of ca-- more wild patch of the -- of the university campus. And so, there was a little bit of playing in, in the woods there, and just -- I guess regular kid, kid games. So -- and we ate a lot of rice, I think. (laughter)
I really don't have too much of a, a recollection of, of that period, because Iwas pretty, pretty young. There was a, a big porch or veranda with a 6:00screened-in porch. And I think my mother did a lot of knitting, so I believe I learned a little bit of knitting from, from her. I have, sort of, just vague recollections of that sort of-- More, more having to do with locations than so much to do with interactions with people. It was just more sort of, kind of little fleeting impressions of, of things. So, so that was sort of the, the first part. And then, my father was given one year of home leave, or kind of like a sabbatical, I guess, or home lea-- well, home leave.
So, I think it was in 1948 and '49, we, we came back to the States. Because he,himself, was an American of, I guess, English or Welsh -- English -- the British 7:00Isles. He came from that, that famil-- that -- those -- that sort of person. And so -- and he was from Philadelphia to begin with. His grandfather, I think, was from the Harrisburg area, outside of -- (inaudible) to the west of Philly. So, for home leave, we came to -- we spent a year in Philadelphia, and just stayed in an apartment there. And my father's parents were both dead, but he had a first cousin whom we saw quite a bit of. You know, saw her, her and her husband, and her, her two sons. Because they were very close, my father and his 8:00first cousin. So, we -- I do have some memories of that, because the -- I think the apartment was small. It was a smallish, old apartment building on Rittenhouse Square which, I guess, is now sort of like a -- an up-- a popular spot in Philadelphia. It was nice then, and then it went through a pretty bad time, you know, where it was filled with junkies and winos and all. But now it's coming back up. I haven't gone to visit it at all, so I don't know. But when we were living there, I think I would have been maybe three and a half to four and a half or so. And so, I went to the -- a Quaker school. A Friend-- one of the Friends schools. And so -- and that was kind of a kindergarten, I 9:00guess, or pre-K -- I think kindergarten. And my brother also went to the upper grade. So, that's -- so, I have more memories of that, I think, just being in the school and taking naps, you know, for nap time. (laughter) And learning how to, you know, wash and -- you know, spending time washing hands in the bathroom, and sort of little, little things of that sort.
And so, that -- and that is where I apparently started to -- I switched overfrom Chinese to English. I do remember some story of my father's -- and -- which I'm not sure whether I have it right or whether it's just what I remember, because it's very had to, to really know about those things, I think. You know, 10:00sort of thinking about things going back. My recollection is that he told me that, when we were in Philadelphia, and we were -- there must have been some building where there was an elevator. And so, we would go up and down the elevator. And perhaps it was -- I don't know, it was some building where the door-- elevator man would, would say hello to me, or -- and to whoever it was. So, it must have been a f-- relatively familiar person. He, at some point, said hello. And I had previously only, probably not responded at all. But I think that, at some point, I, I said, you know, "Fine, thank you," or something. (laughter) Something like that -- I started speaking in English, and I, I don't know for sure, but I think that, then, when went back to China -- which was 11:00after a year -- I don't know if I spoke Chinese after that. I'm -- I just don't remember. The -- Ah Hau, the, the nursemaid would have spoken to me in Chinese. So, I'm sure I still understood it. But -- and my mother spoke to me in Chinese, but my father al-- I think always spoke English to me, although he had some -- he learned some Chinese when he was over there, but -- and I've heard people say that he knew, knew more than he -- than, than he pretended, in terms of Chinese. He probably just knew enough to get -- to get by if you were -- if were haggling with a shop -- you know, the store people. 12:00
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Right, yeah.
JANET PINKOWITZ: But he might have actually known a little bit more what theywere saying than he pretended to know. So, when we went back-- Well, I have a f-- a vague recollection of the boat coming, coming to this country. And I don't remember going back, but then, I know we did go back. So -- and then, we were there probably or maybe a year or less than a year, because that was during the period of the, the Communist takeover of China. They came down from the north, and then -- and, meanwhile, they drove the, the Nationalists, I guess -- Chiang Kai-shek and those people. They started -- you know, they were driving out, and most of them went to Taiwan afterwards. So, although my parents had 13:00wanted to -- had thought that when we went back that we would just stay and -- I think because it was a, really, very nice life, and, you know, everybody was happy and all that. But it turned out that we really had to g-- to get out, because Americans were no longer -- were, were no longer welcome.
And my m-- so, it was a fairly difficult time, because I'm -- I think we --although I didn't really know exactly what was going on, I know that it had something to do with the, the Communists coming in. And I think my parents tried to protect my brother and me from their concerns about everything. But I think it was -- it was still a, a difficult period. So, we -- then we d-- we 14:00left fairly -- in a fairly hurried fashion. My father packed up all his books, and -- into his crates, and, you know, shipped them -- shipped them back. And we -- well, I think they -- and we had some, some vases. He, he liked to collect vases, so those were all packed up. And there were a few -- a few things that they were able to, to put into crates, and to bring back -- to ship back. But it was a f-- I think it, it was stressful time for everybody. And so, then we came back. And we came back on the President Wilson, which was a big steamship company the Pres-- it was called the President Lines. So, it a 15:00big -- one of those big ocean liners. And so, that was -- I have -- I have a better sense of that trip, because I was somewhat older, and it was pretty go-- exciting being on this big boat, and running around. And, and I do remember, for that time, we came in through the Golden Gate in, in San Francisco. And so, that was -- that was pretty exciting. So, all right, that's, that's my early childhood. DO you have any questions so far? (laughter) I've, I've been talking for -- going on and on. So--
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: No. I was wondering how your father ended up in China.
JANET PINKOWITZ: Well, he had been in -- he had majored in English in, incollege. He went to -- being from Philadelphia, he went to Penn for 16:00undergraduate. And then he went to Harvard for his master's, and then his mother took ill. She started suffering from a series of strokes. So then, he went back to Philadelphia to take care of her. And so, he completed his doctorate at Penn. And then, he had miscellaneous -- a couple of small -- a couple of teaching jobs at smaller colleges in the Pennsylvania area. But after his mother died, which I believe was in about 1931 or '32 -- and my father was born in 1900 -- so he -- I think he just wanted to do something different and more exciting. His first cousin now had a small -- you know, she had a, a young 17:00family. So, she was much more focused on her family. And so he spent -- he didn't spend that much time with her.
And he had heard -- it must have been classmates. He had heard some storiesabout China from, from other people. For some reason, I feel that, you know Thornton Wilder -- wrote Our Town, the play? I think that his brother may have gone to China, and had some wild tales from other there, or-- That's my recollection of what his first -- my father's first cousin told me, that, that he had heard about China, and how it was a really interesting place. And I believe there were -- there was a job -- there were jobs advertised by the, the university. And they were looking for American professors to go over and teach 18:00there. So, I think he just decided to go, because he was kind of at loose ends. He had freedom, because his mother had, you know, passed away. And he didn't have much in the way of family ties anymore. So, I think he was a bit of an adventurer, in some way. (laughter) He was always quite -- certainly an eccentric, in some way.
And so, that's-- And then, when he got there, this university was one thatcatered to, I think, sort of the upper-class Chinese -- the wealthier Chinese families. And so, for instance, students who enrolled in the university spoke 19:00English in class -- at least they spoke English in, in his English literature classes. And I think they were definitely from well-to-do families. And my mother had taken secretarial courses when-- She didn't go to college. She went to a -- I think to a missionary school, and then to a Methodist missionary school. And after she graduated from high school, she took courses in typing and shorthand and all that sort of thing. So, she got a job working at the university, and she was the secretary for the president. And he, he was a -- he was not Chinese. He was -- I think he was an American. So, I think it was not 20:00uncommon in that -- in that time period, at least, for there to be quite a bit of mixing of -- especially for the Western men to meet Chinese women. I think that familiar with -- of my parents' friends, that there were at least a few where they were -- they -- they Americans met Chinese women, and they got married. And that's what happened with my -- with my father's -- my father and mother's case.
So, so that was -- I don't know whether she continued to work at the universityafter my brother was born. I'm -- I never asked her, so I don't know. When we 21:00had a sort of hair-raising situation during -- well, during the war, my father had, had -- was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp in Hong Kong. My, my, my -- my parents were, were in Hong Kong with my brother when Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in World War II. So -- and my father being a -- you know, the, the non-Chinese, he was -- he was put into a camp. And so, then, my mother and my brother went into the interior of China, to Chongqing. That's, that's that connection, because that was not held by the Japanese. And then, when my father was finally released from the camp, he, he was released in what you'd call -- 22:00what -- they had these prisoner-of-war exchanges. And so, he was one -- the Americans were released in exchange for -- I think for some Japanese.
So, my father was sent home. And he stayed with his first cousin inPhiladelphia, and waited for a way to get back to, to China, which he eventually did. It took a number of months, but meanwhile, my mother -- who had these secretarial skills -- had gotten a job with the US Army base in Chongqing. So, she was able to make good use of her, her typing skills and all of that. So, she worked there, and my brother lived there with her. And then my father, eventually, came back. And after they -- the happy reunion, I guess I was conceived. (laughter) And then, finally, we came -- we went to, to Canton, to 23:00res-- to resume university life. That was -- that had been the, the -- you know, that's what everybody was, was counting on. So--
But, in terms of living there, I just have very vague impressions. Like, I doremember always saying to people, when they would ask me, that it was very dirty. You know, it was very dirty, and I'm sure it was. I mean, Canton is a city -- you know, a bustling, industrial city. It was -- it was probably very, you know, not well cared for. So, I had that impression. But I was mostly on the campus grounds. I didn't go -- I mean, it would have been unusual for me to go into the city, I think.
But, you know, then we, we came back, and we settled in Claremont, California,24:00which is just east of LA. And we were there for a couple of years while my father was looking for work back in this country. Because this would have been in 1950 or '51. And it was not a good time for someone to be looking for work, because it was during the McCarthy Era. And he, being married to a Chinese, and having spent several years in China -- that was not -- you know, that was not good -- a good time for him. Meanwhile -- so, he traveled a bit, looking for work. And then he finally found something in Springfield, Mass, which is where the Webster's Dictionary company -- the, the real one -- the -- I mean, the main 25:00one -- the, the (laughter) -- is based. And he was able to get a job with that company, as an editor of definitions. So -- and then, we moved to Massachusetts, when I was in third grade, for, for that.
So, in, in California, there were other people who were -- you know, who weren'tjust Ameri-- what I think of as Americans, you know? There were -- because there were definitely some, some Chinese, or Asians, certainly in LA. So, that was -- I've -- I, I don't really -- I mean, back then, I don't really have much impression of, of feeling different from other, other people. And I think, when we were in Philadelphia during that one-year sabbatical, I was too young to be 26:00aware of anything, you know, at all. So, it's just -- I don't -- I just don't have much memory, or, if things happened, I don't -- I don't remember, you know, or I've just pushed them -- pushed them back, I think. I don't th-- I think when you're very young it's hard to -- I mean, I don't know that people tease you that much and that sort of thing. I would -- I mean, that's my impression. Or maybe I just don't remember these things.
So -- and then, when we came -- but when we came to the East, and settled inSpringfield, Massachusetts, and I went to the -- the local elementary school, then I was much more conscious of being the one person that was -- that looked Asian at all. And so -- and for that I would -- you'd get teased sometimes. 27:00Not in school, but sometimes walking home from school or -- always by boys, it seemed -- (laughter) not by -- not by girls so much. So, that was kind of my -- I suppose my first real sense of feeling somewhat different from other -- from other people. My brother looks -- has fewer Asian features than me, and he doesn't have the, the sort of -- the epicanthal fold, or whatever it's called. He's got, you know, a bigger nose, you know? His lips are fuller, and he's, he's quite t-- he's about six feet call, so most people don't think of Chinese as being, you know, that tall. Although my mother was tall for her generation, 28:00and her father was tall. I think it may have to do with -- well, she was from South China, so I, I don't know -- where they're not super-tall. I think they're taller in the -- well, I'm, I'm just -- I don't know. I haven't done -- I haven't read enough about it. But, at any rate, there is -- our height is from our mother's side, actually. I suppose, too, my father, who was -- who was about five-eight, so, he was fairly, fairly short.
So, when we -- so, that was always a big thing for me, that my brother Edwardwas -- you know, looked much more white than I did. And I was kind of jealous of him for that, because I didn't want to look different from anybody else. And I think I've told Emily, my daughter, I used to, like, pull on my nose to try to be -- (laughter) have it be more substantial, so I wouldn't -- so I would look 29:00more like other people, and things like that. That, that took a while, to get over the nose pulling. (laughter)
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Were you aware of your family being different, orjust you being different?
JANET PINKOWITZ: I was very aware of my mother being different. I was aware ofmy father being different because he -- because he was -- especially in Springfield, Mass, there were -- there were (laughter) -- well, he -- at the company where he worked, there were plenty of people with advanced degrees, who -- or who were experts in their field, because they -- the dictionary needs 30:00people who actually know, know stuff -- you know, know what words actually mean, (laughter) and, and provide good definitions of them, and, you know, are, are aware of subtle, subtle differences in, in meaning, and all of that. So, so that company had a very strong -- large number of very intelligent and rather eccentric people. Because these were, generally, people who didn't want to, or weren't able to, get jobs in academia. They know that they just had -- there was something that, that they didn't -- wouldn't fit in so well in a university/college environment, in that kind of teaching setup.
And my father, I think, was -- although he had been a teacher, he, he was alsorather eccentric. So, he was also different from other people, I felt. He 31:00always -- his English was impeccable. He always sounded a little bit as if he had an English accent, because he was very -- he was very much an Anglophile in his clothing, his -- well, really fond of, sort of, a tweedy -- the tweedy look. And rather professorial, and he would walk, sort of, with -- just swinging his umbrella like a proper English -- Englishman sort of thing. (laughter) So, he was already a little bit weird. And, and he had a dri-- he had a, a drinking problem, so that added to his -- just his-- And he had problems readapting to American culture after being away. I mean, he left here in about 1935 or so, and he didn't return, truly, until about 1951. And that was a very -- there was 32:00a big -- a big, big change in -- you know, in, in this country, and just in terms of where he was at, in his own life. So, he was already weird. (laughter) I mean, he was definitely stranger to me than the parents -- the fathers of children that I met through elementary school, because they seemed to be more just kind of happy-go-lucky, you know, all-American fathers. So -- or so it seemed to me.
And then, my mother, because she was really not -- this was a strange country toher. When she came, she really had to try to figure out how to -- how to fit in. And my parents were not very sociable. My father's -- all -- his friends 33:00were all friends where he worked. And so, he had his, his work friends. They would drink their two -- they would have their two-martini lunches, you know? (laughter) And then go back and sort of doze at their desks. And -- whereas my mother really didn't have any social -- any -- anyone that she could -- anyone that she -- who was her close friend. Because she was real-- there were very few Chinese in Springfield -- very few.
So, I took piano -- she had taken piano lessons in China, and then -- and I had-- she had taught me piano when I was very little. And then, I started taking piano lessons also. So, my mother and my piano teacher became somewhat friendly, so that was one link to, kind of, the outside -- you know, the outside 34:00world. But I think she was rather lonely and -- my mother was. And then, I so much wanted to feel that I was an American that I think I really pushed, pushed away the sort of things that I felt to be Chinese and, you know, non-American. So, although I did like Chinese food, there wasn't -- my mother would occasionally try to cook something, we, we didn't -- we could-- we didn't have ingredients there. I mean, we had -- I mean, she was able to get a hold of some, you know, soy sauce that wasn't very good quality soy sauce. And -- but she had not cooked back in China, because we had a cook You know, and she had to learn how to cook. And so, although I liked the, the little bit of Chinese 35:00cooking that we -- that we had, she basically had to learn how to cook sort of plain, American-style cooking, out of the -- The Joy of Cooking, the old -- you know, that old standby. (laughter)
And so, I just -- I really was not as -- I wish that I had been more tolerantand understanding of her -- you know, where she -- her difficulties, you know, kind of adapting to this life. But I was just a kid, and I didn't -- you know, I didn't -- I just didn't think about it. And then, you know, when we would have -- at school, we would have -- sometimes parents would come to school for 36:00special events and such. And I never wanted my mother to wear her, her Chinese dresses, which, of course, were really beautiful. In fact, the, the kind -- you know, the high collar with the -- sort of the, the -- sort of the shoulder, but usually they would a-- sort of, there'd be an opening here, and you could -- it's sort of the classic old-style Chinese dress, very simple and very -- lovely fabrics, and all that. And she had some of those, and -- but I was always afraid she -- that she was going to wear one of them. (laughter) I wanted her to wear something like an American shirtwaist dress, that kind of thing. So, so that was -- you know, that was something I regretted later, that I didn't embrace more of that -- you know, that part of my heritage. Because it was just 37:00trouble for me, really, looking -- feeling and looking different. I didn't -- I didn't want to -- I just wanted to look like everybody else.
And then, people would ask me where I was from, and then -- or that they wouldsay, "Well, what are you?" You know, and I would say, "Well, I'm an American." You know, that's -- and then, then they'd have to say, "Well, well--" Tried to think of some way to figure out what -- why it was that I didn't look like them. (laughter) So -- and then, with my brother looking more American than me, it was kind of just -- again, there was that kind of contrast between him and me. So, it was -- I think especially with the teasing and when I was in grade 38:00school, I would just adopt a technique of kind of staring those boys down, like, just -- I wouldn't say anything, (laughter) but I would just kind of glower at them. And, and then, I think they would get, like, "Gee, she's weird." You know, like-- (laughter) And they would sort of go off and leave me alone. Or sometimes I would pretend that I didn't understand English, which is not a -- that's a useful thing to have. I don't think I could -- I've never -- I mean, I haven't done anything like that in 40 years -- for 45 years. (laughter)
So, so that was kind of my grade school. And then --
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Yeah.
JANET PINKOWITZ: -- I think that, by the time I got -- finally got into -- ofhigh-school age, I started -- I started to -- started to come to terms with, with my, my Chinese heritage a little bit. But I did-- I did not embrace it. I 39:00just did not. And I didn't ask my mother stuff about her own experience. I really knew nothing about her, her own early years except -- I mean, I'm -- I think my father may have told me things, a little bit about her, because he must have had -- I don't -- I -- maybe she shared some of that with him. But with my father -- because, as I said, he had some trouble with alcohol, that would -- sometimes he would be more likely to, to talk about the past. And those things -- more if he'd had something to drink, and then, for me, as a youngster, I 40:00really didn't want to -- I didn't -- I didn't want to, to be near him, you know, or around -- be engaged in conversation with him at those times. So, it was -- that kind of information -- I, I could have gotten more information out of him, I think, or -- had I been, at that time, more interested. And also, if I weren't so concerned or -- if I weren't so uncomfortable with, you know, his having -- you know, needing something to drink in order to, to then, sort of, talk about the past, and this and that. So, it was just complicated, you know, in that way.
I, I really only started to, to feel kind of good about, you know, being half41:00Chinese, really once I got to college. And it was partly Emily's father, Andrew, who, who was just one of your New York City Jewish kids (laughter) who -- with his -- his parents were both from the Lower East Side, and I think either Polish or Russian, you know, of -- you know, not -- they were both born in New York. But I think that their parents may well have been born, you know, in the old country, so to speak. But Andrew, Emily's dad, was much -- he, he really thought it was cool that I was, you know, half Chinese. Because he -- you know, maybe because of growing up in New York and being much more exposed to so many -- you know, many different cultures and, and seeing all that wonderful Chinese art in the -- at the Metropolitan, you know, Museum. And, you know, 42:00just all of that sort of stuff. He, he kind of, in a way, helped me start to embrace that, that side of my, my -- that culture. I mean, that part of me. But, you know, college is pretty late to be -- to be starting to, like, face that, that aspect of oneself.
So, it made -- me, now, talking about it, I feel that my -- I think -- I think Iremember that my father -- I must have -- there must have been some conversation with my parents, and maybe with people that were over that -- sort of asking me whether or not anyone ever asked me about my, my Chinese side of things. And -- 43:00because I do have some recollection that I had said something to him that, "Well, actually, it's -- I, I kind of like it," You know, "That I'm feeling -- I'm feeling kind of pro-- more proud or good about that side of things." So -- and I don't think that that conversation was, was after I went to college. So, it might have been more in high school -- you know, I was getting, getting older. And they were -- nobody was teasing me anymore. (laughter) So -- but I did go to a girl's high school. I didn't go to a -- you know, a -- so, the -- and I wasn't around a lot of boys. So, I think it just changes when you get older. The young -- young boys are more likely to, to tease people and -- than, than older, older ones.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: I'm also just thinking about what you said, in termsof the years coming during McCarthy, and how, like -- how the politics of the 44:00time also probably really shaped -- and the changing politics of the time, also.
JANET PINKOWITZ: Yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: By the time you got older, it was more acceptable.
JANET PINKOWITZ: Yes, yeah. Well, one thing I do remember is that, at onepoint, my father was looking for -- trying to see whether he could find other work. And he had applied for a -- there was a job opening down in Georgia or the Carolinas or something, working for a text-- a textbook company. I don't know if -- I don't remember which one, but one of the big ones. And so, I think he actually went down there, and in-- and interviewed -- went for an interview there. But he decided against taking the job because he was concerned about, you know, what -- how my mother and my brother and I would be. How we -- you 45:00know, whether we would be welcomed or not, you know? And so, that was something that I, I do recall. I mean, at that point, I think I would have been in junior high or maybe even high school. So it was later -- you know, later on. But in the South, of course, you know, things are slower to -- in terms of changing. We once took a trip -- I guess when we went to see the Civil War battlefields, or something. We went, like, all the way down to, to Maryland and Virginia and-- But the -- there was something about a, a bathroom -- you know, which bathroom to go to. Because, at that time -- well, this was probably in the early '60s. And there were -- you know, there were some bathrooms that were labeled "colored" and "white," you know? And I remember thinking, "Oh, what am 46:00I supposed to do?" You know, "Where am I supposed to go?" So, it's kind of -- so, I can imagine that, with my parents, that they might have been, you know, just concerned about that environment, just especially in the South. Because I think there would have been much less of that kind of intermingling of, of races there.
So -- but it was strange in Springfield, because, really, there were a fewChinese, but they were very -- because there were maybe one or two Chinese restaurants in a very small area of town. I mean, there are Chinese almost everywhere, I think. And are -- in almost any city, I think, you'll find some. And so -- but my -- it's not as if my mother went to seek them out. I think she 47:00would have felt that they were of a different class of people than, than her. Just would -- that would -- you know, that was not something that she ever considered doing. So, Springfield really was just -- it was unusual, you know, for, for me. And I did feel different, and people, you know, would look at me a little -- you know, a bit. When I got to college, there were more, more Chinese. There was a Chinese classmate in -- living in my -- the same dormitory as me. I think -- but I do think she was the only other Chinese, in fact, at that -- in, in that dorm -- in that dorm. There must have been some others, but there still were not too many Chinese. There, there may have been more Indian -- people of the Indian (inaudible) extraction, actually, though I'm not sure 48:00about that either.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: What college was this?
JANET PINKOWITZ: I went to Smith. So, that was --
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So, nearby Spring--
JANET PINKOWITZ: Pardon?
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Nearby Springfield.
JANET PINKOWITZ: Yes, yes. But I -- and I was a -- my parents splurged, and Iwas an actual boarder -- boarding student. There were -- there were day students. I mean, I could have gone as a day student. It was only a 45-minute drive. But that was never discussed, really. They -- even though it would have been much more reasonably priced for them, but they -- you know, I assumed that I would live there, and they did -- they did, as well. And so -- and it was almost overwhelmingly white, I think, at the time. It's changed a lot, I'm sure. I mean, it's got many, many, many more students from foreign countries. And, in fact, I think it's made as its -- I don't know where you went to college, but -- I mean, it's -- where did -- where did you go? 49:00
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: I went to Sarah Lawrence.
JANET PINKOWITZ: Oh, I see. OK. (laughter)
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Yeah.
JANET PINKOWITZ: Yeah, well, a place like Smith has -- because it's, it'sstill a women's college, it's kind of suffered a bit, I mean, in terms of desirability. So, it's, it's had to reach out to students -- international students, where, I think, it still has a very high rec-- you know, its high-degree of recognition --
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Right.
JANET PINKOWITZ: -- you know? And, and I think it's probably still a greatplace, but it's, it's suffered a lot as a r-- as a result of not, not being coed. And so --
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Yeah.
JANET PINKOWITZ: But, at any rate, that's just there.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So, you were saying, in high school you started to embrace--?
JANET PINKOWITZ: I think so, maybe just a little bit, you know? (laughter)Because I feel that that conversation with my father and his friends where -- I 50:00don't think that would have been in college. I think it would have been in high school. So, I think that when people asked me where I was from, I start-- I stopped just saying I was an American. You know, I started saying that I was born in China, and then people would ask me about it. And then, I do remember, I would often say that it was kind of a -- that, you know -- that, that I remembered it as being rather dirty. You know, again, that, that was kind of something that I remembered about it. But I never went into any kind of detail about anything. I guess my memories are, are so, you know, slight -- or so, so fleeting, of there -- of that -- from that time period.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Do you think it was similar for different -- foryour brother? Or his -- you, you sort of sa-- have said that he looked 51:00different than you, but he was also older, so would have more memories, and--?
JANET PINKOWITZ: Yeah, I think he remembers a lot more, but his memories arevery selective, as he has confessed (laughter) himself. So, it's been a bit frustrating for me to ask him, "Well, what do you -- what do you remember?" (laughter) And -- because I would like to try to, you know, salvage some of that time for myself, too. And -- but we have a somewhat -- we've never been extremely close. I know he cares a, a lot about me, and I care about him. But, because he was seven years older, that's quite a difference in terms of, of age. And then, he was also a lot more outgoing in high school, and he had a lot more friends than me. And they were just -- you know, it was a-- I don't know 52:00whether people ever even were aware that he -- that he had a Chinese mother. I mean, maybe close, close friends would. But, looking at his, his high-school yearbook, you -- one wouldn't necessarily know something. I'd -- I always feel that I can tell if some-- if, if there's -- if there are -- someone is of mixed race. Or, I always -- you know, I think -- and Emily and I have talked about this -- you know, there's a certain kind of blending -- or of the -- it just -- it just looks a little -- there's a little bit of a difference, which-- And she has said the same thing -- that people will say, "So, what's the story?" (laughter) You know what I mean? "What are you?" In a -- and in a way that -- with my brother, I think, I would see it -- that kind of -- the mixture. But it's not -- it's not -- it's not that blatant, at all. So, I don't know. 53:00
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So, do you think because it's less visible for him-- how did he take it on, or did he take it on differently than you?
JANET PINKOWITZ: Well, that's interesting, because when he went to college, hemajored in Chinese history. So -- and he and my mother were quite close. They were -- and she -- they were just -- they were very close. And I think it's partly from pr-- may have stemmed from his time with my mother, way back when he was just a little, little kid. And he and my mother were together, and my father was at the -- in the camp, and then had to be home. And he was probably gone for, perhaps, almost a year. So, the two -- the two of them would have 54:00been -- you know, were, were very bon-- they really bonded. And I think it stayed, you know, through -- throughout my mother's life.
But, in terms of college, my, my father had encouraged him to think aboutChinese as, as a major, or Chinese history, and all that. Because, you know, China was beginning to come up in the world, and he, he graduated in 1960. He went to Yale, and Yale was a -- actually, a, a place -- there was a -- there were some very distinguished professors of Chinese history, like, some of the [Wrights] I think. And then, they had a very active Chinese-language program, and the Army -- I'm trying -- the Army Language School, I think, may, may have 55:00been at Yale. And there's a whole Yale in China program. So, there's been a long connection between those -- Yale and, and China. So, he, he followed my father's advice, and he majored in Chinese history, took intensive Chinese. He learned both Mandarin and, and Cantonese. And, and so, so that was interesting, because he is the one that has -- although the Chinese are often surprised if he starts, you know, making -- requesting things off the menu, and -- in a Chinese restaurant, you know? (laughter) They're -- they always, like, "Oh!" You know, "You speak Chinese so well." So, they tend to look to me first, you know, to-- (laughter) But I say, "No, no, he'll, he'll order instead." 56:00
So, so he is the one that really was -- became -- embraced the, the culture, and-- or at least the study of the culture. And he is the one who has kept it -- kept up, or kept the connection between us and the -- my mother's relatives, who are still in Hong Kong. Because he can speak, and he can write. And then -- and he has a very-- So, it's just much more comfortable for him to have interactions with them. When we went to Hong Kong about six, seven -- six or seven years ago, my brother was out there teaching for, for a couple of semesters at a university in Hong Kong. And so, I took that -- I chose that 57:00time to go out to visit him, and actually Emily and my son Ben went, briefly, as well. And so, we met all of those relatives, you know, of my mother's out there. And then we had a big dinner, and all of that type of thing. But it was my brother who would -- who was definitely the main person talking to them. They, they spoke Chinese. The younger ones spoke English fine. But it -- I still felt awkward, you know, with them, whereas he could lapse into -- or they would lapse into Chinese with him.
And, and he is the -- he is the one who, who still communicates with them,somewhat. And I have -- I have much more anxiety about, about even attempting 58:00to do that. I'm then one who keeps track of the relatives on my father's side. (laughter) So, I, I fill my brother in on who the various cousins are, or the cousins' children. So, we've kind of divvied up the -- those responsibilities (laughter) in that way. So -- but I have to say that, once I came to New York, you know, it was like -- there was a -- it was a very different scene, because there are just so many -- such a variety of different cultures and people, and there's plenty of Chinese, and Koreans, Japanese. You know, plenty of people with dark hair, you know? (laughter) And I live on the -- I've always -- well, aside from living in Brooklyn just briefly, Emily's dad and I moved to the Upper West Side early on. So, that's -- it was just very -- a real mix of cultures 59:00there. And then, after I started working at Columbia, which was back in 1983, they were a very, very strong presence of Asians. So, probably more Asians, at this point, than non-Asians, I would say. So, it's kind of like, "Gee, there's already -- there are so many Asians around here." (laughter) You know, I, I actually -- it's -- and they are -- you know, they're, they're very hip. They seem to be very -- you know, very -- they're -- I, I mean, I'm, I'm a lit-- I'm generalizing, of course. But they just seem like they're very cool, very with it, you know, and very savvy. Not, not, not like someone who is a first-generation -- a first-born Chinese American. 60:00
So, after coming to New York, I just stopped thinking -- I really stoppedthinking of myself as being, you know, Chinese -- you know, half Chinese, half, half American, or half, you know, British Isles, sort of, American. I just -- I just don't -- I generally don't think about it at all. And I'm not sure whether I should or not, (laughter) but I just -- I mean, I don't speak any -- English is my language. It's my -- I don't think I speak with any kind of accent. And my mother spoke with a bit of an, an accent, which I, I didn't really -- I wasn't really aware of until my ex-husband, after he met her, commented on the 61:00fact that, "Oh, she has her -- has quite a strong Chinese accent." Because he was hearing her completely separate from any long history of having been her daughter or anything. So, so, so that was an eye-opener for me, because I would never have thought of that. But it makes sense. I mean, she learned English probably in, in middle school or high school. So, that would be perfectly normal, not to -- not to -- I mean, it would be normal for her -- there -- to be a trace of the Chinese -- the influence of Chinese. But, I mean, in New York, everybody is just so -- that's just -- you, you just are who you are, I feel. That -- if you can speak -- if you have a good command of, of English, and know your way around, and know what you want, and all of that, and you're not a tourist. And so -- 62:00
END OF AUDIO FILE
JANET PINKOWITZ: That's just -- so, that -- I guess that's why I really don'tthink about 63:00 64:00 65:00 66:00 67:00 68:00 69:00 70:00 71:00 72:00 73:00 74:00 75:00 76:00 77:00 78:00 79:00 80:00 81:00 82:00 83:00 84:00 85:00 86:00 87:00 88:00 89:00 90:00 91:00 92:00 93:00 94:00 95:00 96:00 97:00 98:00 99:00 100:00 101:00 102:00 103:00 104:00 105:00 106:00 107:00 108:00 109:00 110:00 111:00 112:00 113:00 114:00 115:00 116:00 117:00 118:00 119:00 120:00 121:00 122:00 123:00 124:00 125:00 126:00 127:00 128:00 129:00 130:00 131:00 132:00 133:00 134:00 135:00 136:00 137:00 138:00 139:00
Oral History Interview with Janet Pinkowitz
Janet Pinkowitz lives on the Upper West Side and just retired from Columbia University where she was a librarian at the Law Library. She was born in China to a Chinese mother and white American father of Welsh descent. Her family moved here when she was 5, she was raised in Massachusetts, she attended Smith College and moved to New York City shortly after graduating. Her daughter, Emily Pinkowitz also has an interview in the archive.
In this interview the Narrator reflects on her early childhood memories of growing up in China and then moving to the United States because of Communism in China at the age of 5. She describes the discrimination her and her family faced as being a mixed family in the United States at this time, in particular during the McCarthy era. She reflects on these experiences and how she was ashamed of her Chinese mother and "Chinese-ness" generally. She talks about how this changed as she got older and how her first husband helped her to appreciate the Chinese side of her. She talks about a trip she took with her daughter and son 6 years ago when she went back to her family home in China. She reflects on her time in New York City, being retired from her job, religion in her first marriage and how people are always confused if they see her name to find out that she is Asian.
CitationPinkowitz, Janet, Oral history interview conducted by Manissa Maharawal, October 29, 2013, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.067; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Pinkowitz, Janet
- Chinese Americans
- Communism -- China
- Interfaith families
- Passing (Identity)
- Racially mixed families
- Racially mixed people
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Guangzhou (China)
Finding AidCrossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection