My yéye (爺爺; paternal grandfather) was born in rural China and grew up in the relatively tranquil countryside with his mother, grandparents, and two older sisters. Mischievous and energetic, he spent his time – when not in school – playing with the family cow.
Outside his village, though, raged the political upheaval following the end of the Qing Dynasty. When he was ten years old, he and his family were forced to flee from the Chinese Civil War. He would not see his father and his sisters for the next forty years.
Until this point during this autobiographical interview with me, he’d been happy and enthusiastic to reminisce. Here, he could only shake his head and repeat in Mandarin, “It was horrible, absolutely horrible.” He spoke haltingly, his expression stony as he recounted the horrors he saw as he and his mother escaped to Taiwan: the never-ending trail of bodies, piled up to obstruct the refugees; the nauseating scent that filled every breath he took; the thick, black clouds of flies that blocked the sun in the sky.
In Taiwan, my grandfather worked in a cloth factory to support his family, earning about $5 a month. At the age of 20, he joined the Navy and worked as a dispatcher, waving flags to relay messages to passing ships. Despite only finishing grade school, he continued to study and climbed to the top as the captain of a commercial ship.
He fell in love with sailing and traveled the world with his crew, a wonderfully simple and uncomplicated life unknown to civilians on land. Every two years, he’d return to Taiwan to spend time with his wife and children. When I was almost one year old, he and my grandmother immigrated to California to be with their son – my father.
It was a poignant hour for me as I asked him questions. I realized that while deep furrows carved creases in his face and liver spots dotted his wrinkled hands, my grandfather’s mind was still as young and nimble as the sharp sailor he must’ve been.
When he spoke of his youth and his beloved grandmother, his face simply lit up. His memories were not filled with reluctance or agony but instead with vigor. Laughing through his ship dispatcher tales, he nonetheless complained humorously about the nonstop whizzing of bullets and how his calves throbbed when he felt scared in battle. He basked in the glory days of being captain of his own ship; chortled and exclaimed, “Of course, of course!” every time I asked him if he had visited a particular country.
Radiating with pride, he emphasized how, although he’d only received less than six years of formal education, with sheer dedication and resolve, he attained one of the highest scores on the sailing examination. (And, despite knowing no English when he arrived in the States 17 years ago, he’s acquired a strong grasp of the language.) With great certainty, he told me to keep willpower and integrity, the two traits that he learned were essential for creating a strong individual. After all, “failure is only a step towards success.”
Before this interview, conducted nearly four years ago, I’d never really seen my grandfather as anyone else but my dad’s father, whom my father admired above all others and who lovingly takes care of my Alzheimer’s-affected grandmother. He’s always called me a “good child” and constantly tries to give me pocket money when I visit.
In talking to him, I learned that he was also a beloved son, grandson, and brother; a refugee, a factory hand, a captain, an immigrant. He is also the most influential and inspiring figures in my life.