Monday, August 11, 2008

Fragments of the Past I

Disclaimer: this post and the subsequent posts can be quite long. While few things said in them will be directly about me, it may be easier to understand where I come from sometimes after reading the following. And before I begin, how many people care or remember about their parents' past and/or even wonder how that affects their lives? Keep that in mind . . .
Father's Past

My parents aren't the kind who go on and on about their lives. What they do tell us come to us in short fragments, usually to highlight a point or just a fleeting moment of remembrance. Here I've pieced those fragments in a semi-linear fashion.

Interestingly my dad was born in India (where exactly I forget). My dad's parents moved to India from China before he was born. My dad's dad was a dentist. And so my dad spent the first 14 years of his life in India where he learned Hindi, the local Indian language, English, and Chinese. Like me he went to a Chinese school (with the very few other Chinese kids in his town). He claims at that point in his life his Chinese was far inferior to what mine ever was.

His house was not huge but respectable. Since they didn't have an in-door toilet he had an outhouse. He recounted once that there was a lizard on the door of the outhouse and he wouldn't go for days as the lizard was just there, stuck on the door. He also said he used large leaves as toilet paper. Monkeys would also wander through his house like everywhere else in India. As a kid, he told us he and his friends would take a stick, twist the end of the stick in a spider's web so the web was wound around the end, and go up to a cicada and poke it so the cicada was stuck to the end of the stick. Then they would run around trying to touch each other with the cicadas stuck to the ends of their sticks. He also told us how he would take the excess wax from his dad's office (that was used to make molds of the patients' teeth) and make candles with them.

Then when he was 14, all the Chinese living in India were exiled. You see, China and India has fought a war and as a result all the Chinese in India had to be exiled (or many of the Chinese living there anyway). So my dad and his family (consisting of an older sister, 2 younger brothers, and his parents) moved to a China that had just experienced the Cultural Revolution. They had to live in the countryside. Since all "intellectuals" had to "return to the land," doctors and dentists weren't allowed to practice or they were jailed or killed. The country's hospitals were left in the crappy care of only nurses and quickly deteriorated. And so my dad's dad practiced dentistry in secret while doing other "legitimate" labor.

During this period my dad worked as an apprentice in a factory that made vehicle parts. My dad never finished middle school as all the schools were closed in that part of the country. No teachers - at least none "government approved," go figure. Everyday at lunch, everyone would stop working to listen to Mao Zedong broadcast over the radio about the wonderful changes the country was undergoing (aka, propaganda). My dad would get a newspaper from his boss which he used to follow along with the radio to improve his Chinese skills.

One day he heard Nixon on the radio berating the Chinese government for being so closed. This was the momentous visit by Nixon to China. After that, the Chinese said they would be more open and would allow some people to travel out of the country, and by that they meant Hong Kong (which was technically Britain at that point still). So my dad's family took this opportunity to get out of China and into Hong Kong. They were only allowed to leave China with $5 (obviously worth much less than the US dollar) and one suitcase between all 6 members of the family. Imagine getting a start somewhere with only $5 and a suitcase between you and your family! Thankfully my dad's parents had a few friends in Hong Kong already who were willing to help out a little (but only a little).

Within a few months they were established, which wasn't easy when everyone spoke Cantonese instead of Mandarin. My dad was able to go back to school though he continued to work. Eventually my dad graduated high school. He had wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps and become a dentist, but at the time there were too many dentists in Hong Kong (or something?) and they closed all the dental schools for 2 years. Not wanting to wait, my dad found a job making mechanical parts. After a year or so, he so impressive his superior that they gave him a scholarship to further his studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic, which at the time was a really good school. I believe he managed to somehow get his tuition was waivered or something. But my dad still worked part-time to make ends meet for the family. And so he studied mechanical engineeering at HK Polytechnic for 2 years and attained some degree (it wasn't a Bachelor's).
That brings us to up to his life in Hong Kong. Tomorrow, part 2. But one last word, imagine a time without the internet, without computers, without TV. Imagine the excitement of the world delayed a day, a week, or however long it takes news to reach around the world. Imagine what it must be like to hear that the Russians sent Sputnik out into space. Then imagine what it was like when it was annouced that the US sent a man to the moon . . .


Zee said...

Good story! You dad lived a pretty interesting life from what it seems. He probably is a well discipline person because of his upbringing.

James said...

No wonder your pops so strict! I would be to after a life that hard. I think it says something very positive about him that he was willing to sacrifice so much to do what was needed to keep his family together. I bet you have a lot and respect for him.

Mike said...

Really interesting posts to read about both of your parents and to hear how different both of their lives were.