From concentration camp to a success in business
The Kansas City Star
Bambi Nancy Shen got my attention 20 years ago when she decided as a successful businesswoman to help this country, which had done so much for her.
She dedicated 5 percent of her restaurant sales to reducing the federal debt. Shen, a Chinese immigrant, described it as a pebble, which added to other efforts, would make a mountain of difference.
The U.S. could use such a mountain now to reduce the debt, which today dwarfs what had concerned Shen when I wrote about her in a 1993 column. What got my attention again about the 73-year-old was her 2011 book, “The Uncrushable Rose: A Memoir from Concentration Camp to Becoming a Free Woman.”
Until reading the book, it was difficult to imagine that Shen had endured so much yet enjoyed a life filled with success, travel and happiness. “It took some courage to tell all without some sugarcoating,” said Shen, who had co-owned the Golden Palace Chinese Restaurant.
She said her goal for the book was to give “women the courage to succeed and get over those things that challenge us.” One of her greatest obstacles was her mother. Chinese culture then placed greater value on males. “Since I was not the son my mother wanted, time and time again she reminded me that I was her greatest disappointment,” Shen wrote.
“Throughout my life she often told me she cried for weeks after I was born. The nearly constant reminders of her non-acceptance gave me much to overcome in my self-image.”
Shen’s birth was near the start of World War II. Her mother often said, “How inconsiderate could you be?
“Worst of all for a girl, mother saw me as all wrong because she considered me to be very ugly — my face was too round, my eyes too small, and my skin too dark.”
Shen was the daughter of a Chinese diplomat in French Indochina, now Vietnam. He encouraged her and made her feel exceptional. Shen studied French in school and speaks Chinese, French, Spanish and English fluently. A scholarship enabled her to go to college in Kentucky.
But during World War II, she and her family lived four years in four different Japanese concentration camps in Vietnam. “The Uncrushable Rose” reveals a lot about Shen and 20th-century world history from a non-Eurocentric view.
Shen gives readers an idea of what world events were like for Asians. She shared how they endured the Japanese occupation, the horrors of that war, how Vietnam was divided afterward, China’s rise as a communist superpower and the trauma people suffered during the U.S. war in Vietnam.
In the concentration camp, Shen focused on rosebushes. She explained to her father years later: “I will never forget the lesson you taught me while we watched those bushes grow.
“You told me that they, too, were in the concentration camp, but it made no difference to them — their nature was to bloom, and they would do so no matter where they were planted. You said that we needed to learn from them, that we must not allow our outer circumstances to keep us from being what we were born to be.
“You told me I must learn to bloom wherever I am planted or even transplanted…. The lesson I learned from you was to face difficulties in my life with uncrushable courage.”
She needed courage to deal with her first mother-in-law who was bigoted and hated her because she was Chinese. Courage carried her through a divorce with two children after learning her husband was gay.
Courage enabled her to get teaching jobs to support her family with child care from her mother-in-law. Courage got her through a second marriage in which her spouse also was a closeted gay man.
Courage led her to become a successful businesswoman, to value and care for her aging mother, to fall in love and marry again, to work as an interpreter and to lead tours to China and other foreign lands. Her book, now printed in Chinese, English and Spanish, as well as her story, enable her to be an inspirational speaker at battered women’s shelters, sororities, college campuses and international conventions of women writers.
She wants women to recognize their worth and strive to be the uncrushable rose that she has become.
To reach Lewis W. Diuguid call 816-234-4723 or send email to Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.