Sunday, July 3, 2011

My Dad would be 100 Years Old Today

Today is the centennial birthday of my late father who passed away 6 years ago in January 2005. 

I don’t know anything about my dad’s childhood.  Unlike many others, I never got a chance to ask my grandparents “what did Dad do when he …” as I have never met or known my paternal grandparents; they passed away when my father, their only child, was little.  My dad himself did not have any photos nor could he recall much about his parents either as he was raised by his grandma.  Although the family wasn’t well off, he did receive a decent education with his uncle’s help and completed his high school at a reputable Methodist School – the Anglo-Chinese College鶴齡英華中in CangShan 倉山District of FuZhou City in China.  Late in his life when he visited us in U.S., he would tell us he did learn some English at that Christian school but could only remember only a few words.

After graduating from high school, it appeared that he had gone working for the Fujian provincial government.  He married my mother when he was 27 years old (relatively late in those days?) and she was 20.  Eight years later, after Japan surrendered and returned Taiwan to the Nationalist government of China, my father was sent to Taiwan with my mom and 6 years old sister in 1946 as a part of the effort to rebuild a new provincial government.  He was then a low level staff assigned to a government operated liquor distiller in the mountain town PuLi, not far from the scenic Sun Moon Lake.

Although my dad was never an alcoholic nor a heavy drinker, he did tend to drink a little too much whenever he had a chance in social gatherings.  As I grew up, it had become more and more an issue between my parents as my mother fought hard to stop him from drinking completely.  It was probably due to partly her worry about dad’s chronically high blood pressure and partly one of her own brother’s problem with alcoholism.  At the end, she reluctantly settled with a more en-forcible policy of “never drink at her presence except for special occasions”.  Even when dad reached 90 and lost much of his taste buds, he still liked to get a can of cold beer when he did his daily walks.  

My dad had always been a dedicated government employee and enjoyed his work very much.  In most part of my life, I remembered his primary job duty was to monitor and assist the fruits/vegetables and meat wholesale markets (of local governments) in managing the supply and price.  From time to time, commissioners of local markets may stop by our government provided house to visit him and discuss business.  Invariably, with the local custom of never visiting people empty handed, we would end up having some fresh or canned fruits for few days.  Once in a while, some might attempt to leave a “red envelop” which was always rejected.  What struck me the most however was that he never seemed to be listening to what the visitors were saying.  It is not unusual that he and the visitors appeared to be talking at parallel tracks with no intersection.  They were always cordial and polite but at the end, I was never sure what was actually concluded if any.  Was it how discussions were conducted and how things get done those days?  I don’t know and I would never find out from him now.  I do remember I said to myself then that I would not want to end up being like him and that I will listen attentively to people.

Like most men in his time, dad did not do much house chores like cooking or cleanings but he did enjoy taking care of the yards and growing flowers and fruit trees.  He tried to plant grape vines but failed to turn grapes into wine.  When my brother and I had to ride the bus for more than one hour to middle school and high school, he would wake us up every morning before 6:30 a.m. and prepared breakfast for us.  It usually includes a fried egg he cooked, and a bowl of hot soybean milk and a freshly baked biscuits he picked up from the nearby market.  Once when mom was hospitalized, my brother and I were impressed that he was able to cook a pot of soup for dinner with spare ribs and Bok Choy (or Napa Cabbage).  That is pretty much the limit of his cooking skill.  In the summer, he sometimes would take us with him on business trips to see places of the island.  Perhaps that seeded my interest in traveling?

Dad never commented much about daily routines or disciplined us which were more my mom’s job.  But we could all surely sense his concern on our school performance and he was proud when we did well and he was worried when we did poorly.  He seemed to feel his best contribution and support would be to make sure we eat well and be happy.  I still remember his encouraging smile with anxiety as he waited at a distance outside the classroom where I was taking the grueling middle school entrance exam.    

He retired from government service in 1973 when I was fulfilling my mandatory military service after my Bachelor degree.  I never asked him if my dream of going to a graduate school in U.S. had anything to do with his decision of early retirement.  He was the only bread earner in the house and received a meager monthly salary of a little over one hundred U.S. dollars then.  When he retired, he got a one-time retirement benefit of approximately $5,000, of which half was used to buy me a one way airline ticket to San Francisco and to supplement my partial scholarship at the graduate school.  I learned later that the other half went into a failed investment on his friend’s venture of making candles.  I guess after all I was a better return of investment!

Another significant factor of his decision for the early retirement might have been an opportunity to join a private company (which he did) found by a Chinese American businessman that became the first modern slaughter house in Taiwan.  I was probably partially responsible for his 2nd and final retirement as well, when he finally agreed to come to visit us in U.S. in 1983.  When he rushed back home few weeks later, he found out, as he had feared and my mom had predicted that he had been relieved from his General Manager duty and was reassigned to become a consultant.  He never blamed it on me.  And I never asked him how he felt and offered him any words of consolation.  

Few months after my father’s birth, the Republic of China was born on Oct 10th, 1911, rid of the Qing Dynasty with an armed revolution.  Dad liked to say, especially as he grew older, he was of the same age as the nation.  He liked even more to joke about his most “pride accomplishment”, surpassing those of the National Father Sun Yat-Sen and his successor, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek: his two daughters-in-law are from the Sun’s and the Chiang’s.

Dad had a pretty good life, I thought, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law who lived with him and cared for him.  His quality of life did go down quite a bit during the last two years of his life after two strokes.  Gradually he lost the ability to swallow food or drink liquid, then he could no longer speak clearly and later he lost the strength of his limbs as well. The cruelty of it was that he was deprived of two things he loved to do the most: eating/drinking and walking.  He passed away at the age of 93.  I am glad that I did ask and walk with him once on his routine afternoon stroll when we visited him before he lost his mobility.  He led the way down the busy city streets and paused from time to time.  We did not talk much but I could feel the same warmth and security of being able to be right next to him just like when I was a kid.  I wish I had told him how happy I was to be able to have a walk with him.  I wish I had walked with him more.  But it is now too late.  

Few years ago, I brought back from Taiwan an old family photo album that my late sister had put together decades ago.  It has photos of my parents from around the time when they got married.  In a few photos, there are some of their friends and/or relatives whom I don’t recognize.  There were places and background scenes they had been to that I can’t recognize either.    But I will never be able to ask them again. 

Look, don’t be like me.  Ask your parents any of the little details that might sound not so important to you now.  Do something with them whenever you can, as if they might be gone tomorrow.  This way, you would not regret later in your life that you could have known more about them and thus about yourself.  Oh, one other thing, dad asked me privately if I would take him to see a striptease when he was visiting U.S. the first time at the age of 72.  I am sorry that I refused his request as deemed inappropriate.  If I had a chance to do it again, I would make up an excuse to my mom and take him to a show.

Dad, I miss you.  I will see you when we go home.  If there is a heaven, I am sure I will be with you forever after I die.  If there is incarnation, I will be your son again. 

Dad, happy 100th birthday; let us drink to that!

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