Sunday, July 14, 2013

Meme Churton has had an extraordinary life.

The 86-year-old half-Italian half-Chinese woman grew up in Trieste, Italy, during turbulent times. There was the rise of fascism then the devastation of WWII, followed by a move to China where she witnessed the beginning of the Chinese Revolution. Eventually she ended up in Auckland. In her autobiography Memé, The three worlds of an Italian-Chinese New Zealander she describes candidly the various challenges life handed her. "So many things were hard but I have always had a strong sense of destiny and quintessential optimism. "At least two times I could have died during the war but I was not afraid. "I had the most wonderful teenage years. We lived through a terrible period of history, but enjoyed life regardless. "I was loved, cared for and fussed over. I had the life of a little princess. "I was fundamentally Italian. I know I was also Chinese but I was mainly Italian. I always felt like I was a curiosity." The death of her father when she was 8 was a serious blow. Later she was shocked to learn the Chinese woman who brought her up was not her biological mother. "I was so worried people would find out. It's very difficult for the people of today to understand the shame of that." In 1945 she became friends with New Zealand soldier Jock Churton, who was stationed in Trieste. He would become her husband. When her "Chinese mother" decided to move back to China she reluctantly followed. She found work at the Italian Embassy in Nanjing then at the Consulate-General in Shanghai, living the high life among the Italian diplomatic community. In 1949 Mao's army entered Shanghai and the situation became increasingly hostile. She arranged a transfer to Hong Kong but while she was waiting for her exit permit she received an invitation from Mr Churton to holiday in Auckland. She arrived in December 1950 and less than three months later, they were married. The adjustment to life here didn't come easily. Even now, the casual nature of New Zealanders bothers her. "It's jarring to me when I go to the opera and see some people dressed up and others who look like they are going on a picnic. "But there are some wonderful things about New Zealand. You feel like you can be yourself here." Ultimately her love for her daughter, three grandsons and great-granddaughter have kept her here. In the early years of her marriage she discovered she had an entrepreneurial streak. In 1955, despite lacking any experience in hospitality, she ran one of the first European-style coffee bars in Auckland called Ca' d'Oro. She also went on to manage a dealer gallery specialising in contemporary local painting. Ad Feedback Meanwhile she helped out at the University of Auckland Italian department, marking papers and teaching part-time. She was eventually offered a fulltime position and stayed until retirement. "I love Italy and my language and history. I love sharing my knowledge with others." She still teaches Italian to groups of students in her home. Teaching helps her mind stay sharp, she says. "I think my brain has become even more acute as I've got older. I seem to have this incredible memory." She intended to record her history for her family and never imagined it would be published. "One of the wonderful things about getting old, assuming you still have your mind, is you discover your true nature. My conclusion is I'm physically and mentally well at this age because I'm a contented old lady and I love life with all its bad and good parts," she says. - © Fairfax NZ News Meme Churton was a 'curiosity' KARINA ABADIA Last updated 05:00 24/10/2012

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