By: Richard C Lin
Legend has it that Dad was once a very different person. San Bo (third paternal elder uncle) shares tales of Dad as a skinny and mischievous scamp. Like the mythical Monkey King Sun Wukong, he would convince San Bo to play pranks on their parents and siblings and somehow leave San Bo holding the bag each time. Da Gu-gu often relates how Dad would get in trouble with his teachers and then bribe or blackmail her not to inform their parents when they returned from school each afternoon. Xiao Shu-Shu (little paternal uncle) describes Dad in reverential tones, as a Taiwanese Clint Eastwood, the Man with No Name, who spoke sparingly and smiled even less, an antihero who always stood for justice.
Even Wai-Po, who, along with Wai-Gong, did not approve much of Dad, pronounced him to be the Taiwanese Alain Delon with his smoothly chiseled good-looks and self-assured manner. Most importantly, Mom selected him out of a pack of bold would-be suitors because he was so cool and confident. Plus, he never coddled her like all the other men.
However, something happened to Dad after leaving Taiwan in January 1967. The journey started well enough for him. Mom, his parents, his six siblings, his A-ma, his little aunt, along with a few cousins and neighbors thrown in for good measure, all took the bus to the airport to see him off. Back then, flying abroad was a significant undertaking, akin to a lunar launch for Americans, so entire clans would go to the airport to send off their sons or the occasional daughter. Mom accompanied him to the airplane’s boarding stairs, and his Er Ge (second elder brother, my Er Bo), the photographer of the family, captured in grainy black-and-white images his stoicism and Mom’s sorrow as he boards the plane.
In the US, his Da Ge (first elder brother, my Da Bo), welcomed him to the States. At the time, Da Bo was working on his PhD in history after having already earned a couple of master’s degrees in political science and history. Da Bo was a free spirit, very much in tune with the times. He had once hitchhiked his way across America, sharing food, drink, pot, and the occasional bed or even shower with those he met along the way. In sharp contrast, my father was serious and studious to the extreme. According to Da Bo, here might have been a typical exchange between the two:
Da Bo: “Hey, let’s go watch a movie.”
Dad: “No, I have to prepare for a test.”
Da Bo: “I’ve got some good hash. Might enhance your preparation.”
Dad: “No. I seriously have to study.”
Da Bo: “Let me introduce you to these girls I recently met from Sweden. We can seriously study them.”
Dad: “No, my exam is on heat transfer and fluid dynamics.”
Da Bo: “Cool, I’m sure these girls would love to learn more about heat dynamics and fluid transfer from you if you know what I mean.”
That one word, “No,” pretty much summed up Dad after arriving in the US. “Just say no” and “No means no” became his key phrases long before they were made famous by Nancy Reagan and the Consent Movement.
Somehow his transition into a foreign land transformed him. Being the Clint Eastwood or Alain Delon of Taiwan did not translate to the US. Suddenly he was just one of over a million immigrants from Asia now allowed into the country after the Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had abolished the system of national-origin quotas.
One of over a million was a far cry from being one-in-a-million like he had been in Taiwan. There he was tall and handsome, with a long, straight nose, high cheekbones, and creamy smooth complexion that made him highly attractive. There he had studied at the most prestigious university. But in the US, he was just another non-descript Chinese engineer with an accent, an aptitude for math, and an inclination for hard work.
Granted, despite all the faults, challenges, and biases that made it such a rough and tumble place for immigrants to survive and thrive in, the US was still the land of opportunity. A Chinese foreigner with the will and wherewithal stood a much better chance of making it in America than in, say, Czechoslovakia, Ghana, or Kuwait. Additionally, unlike the Pakistani doctor who became a gas station attendant, the Iranian lawyer who turned into a cab driver, the Filipino teacher who became a manicurist, or the Vietnamese general who transformed into a prep cook, Dad came over as an engineering student and became an engineer. Additionally, he had it much better than millions of others who came over as the result of war and revolution in their homelands. Some of these immigrants had once been among the elite, served by the masses. Now in the US, many ended up serving not only the elite but the masses as well.
The sixties were probably one of the most troubling, tumultuous, and traumatic periods for immigrants to arrive in the US. The space race, the Bay of Pigs debacle, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, not to mention the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Toss in Mississippi Burning, race riots in Harlem/Watts/Newark/Detroit, and the assassinations of JFK/Malcolm X/MLK/RFK, and it was a hell of a decade.
America was at war with the world and itself, and parachuting into this landscape changed Dad fundamentally. Thankfully he had landed in Provo, Utah, to study at Brigham Young University. Utah, the relatively innocuous realm of Donny and Marie Osmond, was, fortunately, a far cry from the bloody battlegrounds of the inner cities and deep South.
Dad likely counted down the days for his beloved to join him. However, Mom’s arrival exacerbated the pressure on him to make ends meet while striving for his master’s and PhD. For Mom, gone were the days of carefree togetherness, of dancing at the university mixers, and walking hand-in-hand along the gorgeous Bitan River. Her once-dashing and suave beau had become a severe, drab bookworm, one who had gradually lost the means and will to continually delight her as he emptied his soul into his post-graduate studies. She had come to America for love, had run away from her disapproving parents for her man, and ended up discovering that both love and man had changed.
Still, there were some pleasant memories of the time. Mom recalled Dad showing her how she could drink water straight from the tap and use perforated toilet paper rather than last year’s page-a-day calendars. They had a wedding in a trailer home. Although she did not wear white and had only Da Bo and a fellow classmate as the two witnesses in attendance, immediately after the wedding they went on a delightful “honeymoon” of watching a whole slate of evening movies at the university cinema. Mom particularly liked riding back each week from the grocery market on a second-hand bike. They placed a bag of groceries in the front basket, and Dad pedaled furiously with a quarter of his ass on the bike seat. Mom occupied the rest of the seat behind him, with another bag of groceries and me still in her belly stuffed in between.
Into this cauldron I was born, a baby with hair of black and eyes of brown surrounded by a sea of fair-haired, blue- or hazel-eyed babies. While I was in the hospital, the name over my headboard was mom’s name, Grace. My parents had not yet figured out a name for me. Then Dad settled on Richard, for Richard Cœur de Lion was one of England’s greatest kings, and Richard Nixon, though disliked by Dad, was the current President-elect. Never mind that the Lionheart beheaded over 2000 Muslim prisoners-of-war after the fall of Acre or that Nixon would resign in ignominy six years later. He figured a king and a soon-to-be President would make meaningful antecedents for his son.
As a young child, I brought equal measures of joy and difficulty to my parents. I picked dandelions for my mom despite being allergic to them and presented them to the “Most Beautiful Mom in the Whole Wide World.” Each morning I pretended to be frightened when she put on her Noxema “monster face.” We watched Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood together in the morning, and, just to be fair, All My Children and The Young and the Restless in the afternoon. Mom taught me how to make paper airplanes, fashion parachutes out of plastic grocery bags and tie my toy army men to them, and threw the best birthday parties replete with games she invented. When I grew restless or perhaps when she needed a break, she would encourage me to knock on the doors of our neighbors in BYU’s Heritage Halls to inquire, “Do you have a little boy in your house I can play with?”
Mom was a lonely young mother, and I was a lonely child, but we were not so alone together. Dad was too busy and under too much pressure to have the luxury of feeling lonely. However, sometimes he would take us all over campus: to the library, to the Wilkinson Center student union, even to class as my parents took care never to leave me with any babysitter. Dad would later credit me for charming his professors so that they were more lenient on him when it came to his thesis review.
On the challenging side, I was a sickly child often plagued with colds, fever, wheezing, and worse. Mom, a first-time mother with no family or friends nearby, raised me literally by the book. She religiously adhered to Dr. Spock’s principles, one of which was to feed the baby only at certain intervals of the day and in specific amounts. She never thought to deviate from this, even when I wailed in hunger. Other times she followed old-school approaches such as throwing me into an ice bath when I was stricken with an alarmingly high fever. Unfortunately, this triggered severe shivering that only served to drive the fever higher.
On one such night, I went into convulsions. To prevent me from biting on or swallowing my tongue, Dad quickly stuck his finger between my clenched teeth. He then rushed out of the house into the snow to borrow our neighbor’s car, drove urgently yet carefully over the icy roads, and finally handed me over to the nurse in intensive care. He fretted in the ICU lobby for a while before the kindly nurse brought him a hospital gown. In his haste, he had gone out wearing only his undershirt and underwear. With the morning sun, my fever had receded and I was good to go. However, my father had started to shake and shiver by now, and we exchanged places at the hospital. He had gotten infected from my bite and ended up staying in the hospital for a whole week with a high fever.
Years later, after this early period of innocence and duress, I would look at the many photos my father took at the time. I looked for signs of joy and serenity and spotted some. Pictures of them in San Francisco riding a convertible with the top down and Da Bo driving. Of the two standing on the snow on the precipice of a frozen river, looking hopefully at the horizon despite the turbulent waters swirling just beneath their feet. One with Dad holding me close and kissing my baby cheeks. Another with Mom looking on bemused as I howled because I did not get my way. These pictures had faded with time, but the smiles they captured still shone through. As I moved through our photo albums chronologically to more recent years, the photos became increasingly more vivid in color and clarity. However, some of the smiles had started to fade slowly over time to grey.
After thirty years as an executive in the corporate world, Richard Lin recently retired when Covid-19 decisively taught him that there is much more to life than struggling to get into a Zoom meeting at 2 am. He now focuses instead on writing, philanthropic efforts supporting young adult orphans in China, and a raucous family comprised of one wife, three kids, and eleven hamsters. His short stories are starting to appear in The Dillydoun Review, Drunk Monkeys, and other literary journals.