By James Wong
For Northwest Asian Weekly
I didn’t think I would feel this way even six months ago, but I really miss my dad. We’ve had a rocky relationship for most of our lives.
I had never seen my dad in person until I was 8 years old. He escaped China when he was 22 and almost died twice. During their escape, they could only walk at night — afraid of being caught — and it was pitch dark in the mountainous wilderness. Once, he said something didn’t feel right, so he stopped. If he had taken one more step, he would have fallen off the side of a steep mountain. He also had to swim across the Hong Kong bay on plastic floating bags.
I always knew I had a dad in America. I saw pictures of him and was proud of that, but I never spoke to him until my mom and I came to America. I remember landing in Hawaii and my mom told me to call him “father.” As I held tight to my mom’s hand, I uttered to him for the first time formally “Baba.” It was a weird moment that I will always remember — first “encountering” my father.
I think because of our big family and my dad sending money to us from America, although there was not a lot to eat, I never felt poor. No one in our neighborhood had much to eat, so we were all OK with it.
However, when we got to America, I felt poor. I was always ashamed of the places I lived in (the crappy shared housing, the government project, and the small studio apartment that the four of us shared in Waikiki).
And I was ashamed of the job my dad had as a janitor at the Outrigger West hotel. When I was 9, we lived two blocks away from it in a tiny studio apartment. One day, as I was walking to buy some milk for my sister, I saw my dad sweeping the sidewalk in front of the hotel. Instead of walking up to say hi to him, I walked across the street so he wouldn’t see me. I thought I had a father who was a “sow day low” (a guy who sweeps the streets). I never told my parents about my shame.
Then we moved to Seattle and I was ashamed of our apartment. It was an old building that had a church on the first floor. We were told not to run around the house so that we wouldn’t bother the people in the church downstairs. It was across the street from my school. I would go around the block, through the alley and into the house toward the back so no one would see me walking home after school.
And I was ashamed of my dad being unemployed when we first moved to Seattle. When he got a job as a part-time busboy at Elliot’s on the Pier, I was also ashamed that he couldn’t even get a full-time job.
I now realize my dad wasn’t the screwed up one, I was. I lived with a lot of shame and ungratefulness and it was self-imposed. I just needed to change my perspective. My dad did the best he could. He was a brave man. He cared about his family. His schooling was only up to 6th grade in China, and then he became a product of the Cultural Revolution.
When I visited Hawaii several years ago, I saw the first house we lived in and it didn’t look that bad. I also visited the studio apartment in Waikiki and the building and neighborhood was actually pretty great.
I think back to my dad being a janitor at a hotel and I applaud him for working hard to put food on the table for my new immigrant mom, my infant sister, and messed-up me.
About four weeks ago, we had our last appointment with my dad’s doctor. He said my dad’s body was too weak after almost five years of fighting cancer, so he had to cut off his chemo. It was a death sentence. We knew it was the right decision, as we already obtained a second and third opinion.
It was a tough morning, so I asked my dad if he wanted to go to Palisades since it’s a nice American restaurant with a nice view. My dad amazingly said yes. As we sat in the lobby, I asked Dad, “Have you been here before?” He answered, “I’ve been here hundreds of times. As a taxi driver, I just dropped people off and have never been inside.” Wow, what a blessing to be able to spend this time with him here.
Our family had a meeting and we knew Dad wanted to go to Hawaii, as our family had never been there together, so we decided that the 12 of us would all go together and fulfill his wish.
When we arrived in Hawaii, Dad wanted to stay at the Outrigger West hotel where he used to work. We said “no problem.” When we got there, it was really late and they assigned us the last two rooms available. Guess what room my dad got put in — the owner’s/presidential suite. It was the best room in the hotel. My dad commented, “When I worked here, I heard about the owner’s suite.” Now, he got to sleep in it. That was a big blessing for my dad.
I thank my dad for risking his own life in leaving China, then taking additional risks to leave Hawaii with his young family. Now we get to live in such a wonderful place in Seattle and have all of our friends and family around us. I’m proud that my dad was brave enough to make it happen.
Because of my dad’s humbleness, he requested that we don’t have a big memorial service for him. However, around 50-plus relatives and longtime friends showed up at his graveside service to pay their respects. I asked everyone, “Who came to America because my dad first paved the way?” More than 40 raised their hands.
The last few weeks of my dad’s life were full of God’s grace, love, and peace in our family’s life. I got to spend a lot of time with him and my mom. I was at his house every night and sometimes we just watched TV, sometimes we talked, and sometimes we just held his hands without saying a word.
My main prayer was that my dad would sense God’s peace and joy in his last days and be grateful for his family. God more than answered that prayer.
During his last days, we always prayed together before I would go home. About a week before he passed away, my dad prayed that he was grateful to God for his great wife, who loves him, and a family that loves him. He said if God was willing, he wanted to live on so that he could tell people about God, but if God chose to take him home, he was ready.
As I heard his prayer, I tried to hold back but couldn’t, so I wept uncontrollably. God answered our family’s prayers. Dad was experiencing God’s peace and love, which, months ago, he was not.
I’m not really sure how it’s supposed to feel to lose your father. For me, I am grieving. However, I also have this unexplainable peace and joy in me. And it’s not just with me, but it seems to be within our entire family. I think the main reason for this is because there are a lot of people praying for our family, and the peace of God — which transcends human understanding — is on us, and also because there were no words left unspoken between our dad and our family members.
If I could go back to any moment in my life, it would be this: When I saw my dad sweeping the streets, I would run to the store to go buy the milk and pick up an extra soda. I would walk up to him proudly and say, “Hi dad. How are you doing?” Hand him the soda, maybe pick up his broom and sweep the street for him, and just hang out with him. And be proud of who he was and what he was doing for our family.
My parents’ story can be told as a typical immigrant story, in which he worked in a restaurant and my mom worked as a seamstress. But they also lived an extraordinary life that had a huge a ripple effect on dozens of lives, and perhaps thousands.
I am proud of my dad, both as the first immigrant in our family and for all he did to pave the way for our family and relatives.
My dad is a great and brave man! And I wish I could be like him when it’s my time to go. (end)