Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption. -- Yad Vashem Memorial, Israel
By the time I arrived at the hospital, my father's hands were already cold. He looked so pitiful, his belly bloated and tubes running down his nostrils. The doctor said he had gotten worse, but I did not expect to see him gasping in heavy pain. As I held my father's hands, his eyes desperately searched mine, and words struggled out of his mouth. I could not understand. My mother bent over him.
"He wants to go back to Hong Kong."
My father, a proud, stubborn, hard-working immigrant, died 51/2 years ago in New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital, a few days before the beginning of my sophomore year in college. I've been thinking a lot about him lately. I'm about to return to Hong Kong, to take a job there, after being away almost 20 years.
I felt relieved by my father's death, not only because the pain of his illness had ended, but also because with it had ended a long, strenuous life in three countries. It was my father's misfortune to have spent the prime of his life amid the chaotic conclusion of the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. To escape from the communist victors, he had parted with Guangdong Province (in southeastern China) and the stubborn earth his ancestors had tilled for generations, gone to Hong Kong, where he farmed once again, and set out for America a few years later to toil for his children's future.
"Now there is no more suffering," I said to my mother.
Not until my father died did I come to understand how my father's life had tied together all the disparate strands of my own life. Named Eng Tai Wai, I was born in May 1957 in a country doctor's office, and I lived in Hong Kong for the first 5 1/2 years of my life. I came to America with my father in 1962.
But, unlike him, I found it too agonizing to live between two cultures. For years I rejected the old language and customs he brought here with him. Only later, in the slow process of trying to understand my past -- a process sparked by my father's death -- did I come to accept the fact that my identity resided somewhere between two different worlds.
I never knew very much about my father. Until my college years, I was just too involved in trying to adjust to life as an immigrant here to really care about my family history.
And then there was the language problem. While I was rapidly losing what Cantonese (a dialect spoken in southeastern China) I knew, my father, who strongly resisted most gweilo ("barbarian", i.e., Western) customs, never really learned English. He always spoke to us in Cantonese. So when I grew increasingly interested in my father's past, I was less and less able to ask him about it.
But my father's death made me realize in an instant how much the traditions he clung to actually meant to me. In the three years before my father's death, my grandfather and my great-grandfather, also stubbornly traditional immigrants from Hong Kong, had died in New York City hospitals. And so when my father died, I felt as if he had taken an entire generation and a way of life with him. Since my father's death, then, I've tried hard to keep remembering Hong Kong, the old world all of us had passed through.
Hong Kong is now heralded the world over as a polished model of sustained, high-rate economic growth. Sons of farmers and kitchen workers have become bankers and businessmen. Once empty land is now terraced with new housing complexes, modern factories and high-rise office buildings. But when I grew up in Hong Kong's New Territories in the late 1950s and early 1960s, almost every aspect of life was elemental.
Through the years my family has kept a worn-out shopping bag filled with hard, yellowing photographs taken in a patch of countryside called Red Water Bridge. There my parents and their five children survived by raising a couple of hundred chickens in a small yard. In some of those photographs you can still see the short, simple wooden shacks that housed our makeshift beds, makeshift toilets, makeshift everything.
My father began the day at dawn. One of his first chores was to fill a bucket with rice and feed the chickens. His days did not end till dark, and there were no "weekends." Like the vast majority of the Hong Kong Chinese of his generation, my father did "human work," simple, strenuous manual labor demanding very long hours.
In 1959, two years after I was born, an unskilled laborer in Hong Kong brought home from 44 cents to just over $1 a day. Wages must have been on the lower end of the scale in the New Territories; these areas, which border on China's Guangdong Province and have served as first stops for countless Chinese fleeing the communists since 1949, have always lagged far behind main Hong Kong island economically.
In Red Water Bridge, there was a saying -- it was a neighborhood folk saying almost -- that children used to tease one another: "I have something to eat. The dog next door has nothing to eat." If you were caught with nothing in your hands, someone would sing- song the words while holding high a piece of food. It didn't bother me the first time someone said it to me, but I later realized that "the dog next door" referred not to some animal, but to me.
The fact is we often scrounged for food. I'll never forget the day I cowered in a corner in a neighbor's house and watched my father and several other men club a dog to death. It was someone's aging pet, and it was already bleeding from one of its frequent fights with our own dog. Well, they decided that this animal, like everything else in world, could not go to waste, and so they strung the huge yelping beast by its hind legs and whacked it mercilessly with sticks until it grew quiet.
I managed to erase this scene from my mind as I tasted the stew later. What mattered at the moment was the food.
I was sick much of the time. Our house was too flimsy to protect us from the mosquitoes in the summer and the chill in the winter. Drinking water came from a sandy old well from which we occasionally had to fish out drowned rats. To this day, my mother insists on boiling water before drinking.
When my father took me to town, we went down a road with several little tea houses on each side. Like other customers in those places, my father and I would routinely pick cooked flies out of our bowls of rice before eating. All this caused constant sickness, and sickness meant not anxious visits to the doctor -- who could afford that? -- but waiting out the discomfort and the pain.
My parents' families were too poor to give them good educations. On the mainland, my father had only six years of grammar school, while my mother's family could not send her to a single class. They both wound up teaching themselves slowly, even after they emigrated here.
I had a few months' schooling before leaving Hong Kong, and it was not much better than my parents'. The local schoolhouse, a creaky, barracks-like shack down a dirt road from my house, was not something to be taken very seriously. There were few books and pencils, and little paper.
Frail as I was, my mother kept me home when it rained, so during the long rainy season, I spent many school days inside watching my older brothers slosh down the road. In this atmosphere, motivation was difficult to come by. One afternoon, when I didn't come back home, my father came to the schoolhouse to look for me. He found me in a classroom, curled up beneath my desk, fast asleep.
My grandfather, who had been in the States for a few years, brought us over in 1962. From a Pan Am flight one dizzy November afternoon, I saw Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor receding into the distance. It was my first plane trip, and I spent much of it throwing up.
But through all the years I've spent in this country, I've never really left my birthplace behind, although for years I denied the things that linked my Hong Kong childhood with my life here.
The only link I could not deny was its physical effect on me. During the first years here, I suffered severe asthmatic attacks that confined me to bed for days, coughing and wheezing till my jaws and chest ached. I also had to contend with allergies and anemia. They all should have been treated much earlier, the doctors said. I didn't think about it then, but of course it was Hong Kong that was responsible: the cold nights, the dirty water, the rice with flies. Sometimes I wonder if my father might still be alive if he hadn't spent his youth in even worse conditions.
What I could and did deny was the old culture, in the person of my parents and the work they did.
From the day he stepped on American soil to the day he grew fatally ill, my father ran a Chinese hand laundry on Manhattan's upper East Side. His father, who retired to Chinatown, passed it on to him. At that time, the great majority of immigrant Chinese started out in America ("the beautiful country," they call it) by toiling in laundries and restaurants.
My father's laundry, like most others, was a family operation. My brothers and I helped out after school and during the summer. But we helped out very reluctantly. With my classmates giggling at any evidence of my ethnic background -- my "rice bowl" haircut, my Chinese snacks for lunch -- I felt almost forced to hate that little store; it was so undeniably, quintessentially Chinese.
"Chinese Hand Laundry," announced the bold red-and-white sign above the door. Pots of miniature "mandarin" orange trees sat by the counter, and long calendars with Chinese characters adorned the walls. My parents did business in fractured English and we -- "the cute little Chinese kids" -- helped out by mediating disputes and delivering laundry to customers.
We lived just across the street from that laundry for many years, and I insisted that my friends not walk me home because I did not want them to know what my father did. If they asked, I could never bring myself to tell the truth. "He is a guard downtown," I would say. He is this, he is that, anything but a laundryman.
I reacted just as defensively about the Chinese language classes in Chinatown I went to for almost four years. "Chinese people have to know the Chinese language," my father said. But to my brothers and me, it was just a waste of the weekend -- we would never have any use for Chinese characters anyway -- and worse, it made us look and feel even more Chinese. I resisted, sliding from the top of my class to the bottom, till my father finally relented and let us stop going.
My father was also saddened by the gradual break-up of our weekly family trips to Chinatown. Like many other New York Chinese, my father made it a point of going to Chinatown every Sunday to be with his own people. Many of his friends ran shops in various parts of the city; on Sundays they gathered in noisy tea shops or at the Chinese People's Benevolent Association building to chat about their families and their businesses. As my brothers and I grew older and more resistant to this ritual, my father increasingly went alone.
Despite the disappointment I saw in my father's eyes, I had to distance myself from him and try to blend in with the gweilo. It was just too painful to be so different. Throughout grammar school and high school in the city's Yorkville neighborhood, composed then mostly of working-class and lower-middle- class Western European ethnics, I often felt hounded by racial prejudice.
It seemed as if every time I walked around the neighborhood, younger children would stare wide-eyed at me, tug their mothers' sleeves, and point at me. "Mommy -- Chinese!" they shouted. The older kids, idling on tenement stoops, would chant, "Ching Chong Chink!" as I walked by, and I only hoped it would end there. I remember rushing home from school one afternoon -- I was 11 or 12 years old -- and desperately staring at the bathroom mirror andfor praying to God my face would miraculously turn Caucasian. Racial prejudice cast a shadow of depression over all my other problems, and only fear of pain and death kept me from committing suicide.
I went away to college in 1975 largely to escape the stifling traditionalism of my parents. But at the University of Chicago I came to realize that I was going the wrong way.
I was surprised to find very little prejudice in college. That helped enormously: For the first time in my life I had the mental room I needed to be myself and not allow other people to define my identity for me. It also helped to meet foreign students who cherished their own cultures and Americans who studied Chinese history and culture -- the same things I was jeered for earlier! Shielded by the seclusion of the university campus and open-minded classmates, I began to reconsider my past and, especially after my father died, my father's role in that past.
My first clue was my family. From a distance, I could see them much more clearly now. In them, I could see the natural divisions resulting from our experiences in three countries and two cultures.
My two youngest brothers, Paul and John, were born in New York. There is nothing "Chinese" about them; they are in every sense as American as anyone else.
But my two oldest brothers, Francis and Joseph, were, like my parents, born on mainland China, and they are close to my parents' generation. They speak and write Chinese fluently, listen to Chinese music, and their friends are almost all Chinese. It seemed natural for Francis to marry a Chinese woman, make sure his 3-year-old son knew Chinese and, like many of their friends, take the subway to Chinatown every Sunday morning to see familiar faces.
I and my two other brothers, Thomas and James, are somewhere in between. We have Chinese friends, but also many non-Chinese friends. While we are interested in our pasts, we are not that much more interested in Chinese culture than many native Americans. We can speak some Chinese, but are not fluent in it.
My father's death made me realize how much he and my mother had tied together a family with such differing cultural experiences. They were our "common denominator"; only they had lived and worked in all three countries.
And for Francis, Joseph, Thomas, James and me, my parents had also joined together the lives each of us spent in the old world and the new. As they had done in China and in Hong Kong, my parents did "human work" here. They toiled in that laundry six days a week, 15 hours a day -- Sunday only required a few hours -- and in the 12 years they did this together, they never missed a single day. In China and in Hong Kong, my parents began to give us what they themselves never had -- decent meals and educations, some financial security and, most of all, freedom from constant physical hardship. They continued that mission here, washing clothes instead of tending chickens or plowing dirt.
Three years from now, all seven of my father's sons will have graduated from college, and at least three will also have graduate degrees. I remember the way my father used to lean over the dinner table and, his bloodshot eyes trailing over each of us, talk about the importance of schoolwork. "Study hard," he said, "and you will not have to do what I have to do. Working in that laundry is such sweat." Then he would point a stiff finger at us for emphasis: "Don't you remember Hong Kong?"
While my father spoke of Hong Kong as the old, poor, luckless world he wanted us to leave behind -- at least physically -- it was also the world he adopted after fleeing his birthplace. Mainland China remained "the big continent," the true homeland: Born in 1920, nine years after the founding of the Chinese Republic, my father had seen his homeland go through decades of civil strife, the brutal Japanese invasion and the communist takeover. As long as the communists ruled it, he said, he would never go back there. "Whatever you want to do, they will not let yforou do it," he said, heavy regret in his eyes. So for my father, resigned to never seeing again the little hamlets of Guangdong Province and isolated from America by language and cultural barriers, Hong Kong was the only place he could return to to reunite with his past. Hong Kong had given him haven and had preserved, in a democracy, his cherished language and culture.
From my own 51/2 years in Hong Kong, I knew other reasons why my father wanted to go back there to die. Life was hard in the New Territories, but it was not unfair; we worked with nature there, and it gave us back what it could at the time. My health suffered severely in Hong Kong but, oddly, I also feel warmth in looking back.
I remember helping my father feed the chickens in the early morning, throwing them rice with one hand and shooing them with the other so they'd stop pecking my bare legs. I remember standing stiffly at attention in the school yard, pledging allegiance to a flag mounted over the school gate. There wasn't much in Red Water Bridge, and there was a lot that was wrong, but life seemed intense and free from distractions. Everything had that magical property of mattering.
My mother still runs that laundry. When I visit home now, though, I see it not at all as a "Chinese laundry," but as a proud immigrants' sweatshop where all my opportunities were created. I am relearning my native language, so I can return to find out more about Red Water Bridge and the mainland Chinese village my parents came from.
I am sure that when I return to Red Water Bridge, those rundown shacks will have long disappeared. That will get me thinking about how long I have come since my childhood there, the same thought in my mind the day we buried my father.
"Cry for your father," my mother said that hot September afternoon 5 1/2 years ago, as my brothers and I watched silently while they carried my father's casket to the funeral car. "He used so much human work to bring all of you up," she said. "Don't you know?"
After so many years of denying my father and my past, I think I finally do.