Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Herculean Father

My father is the strongest man in the world.

When he was six years old, his parents abandoned him, his brothers, sisters, and their hopeless village lives behind in search of a promising life elsewhere. At that age when we were loved and pampered by our parents, my father was to learn to fend his own demons.

In 1985, my family and my uncle's family immigrated to the "Land of Opportunity". Having heard of tales of streets paved with gold, my parents eagerly anticipated the improved life that would surely await us there across the Pacific. Little did they know of the hardships that we would face as "fresh-off-the-boat" immigrants. We settled in New York City's busy Chinatown. All nine of us crammed into a run-down, one-bedroom apartment that was to be called home for the next three years. It was all that we could afford, after paying off the debts to our relatives for the trip here.

My father was thirty-five when he came to the United States. All his life he worked in the rice fields. But New York City didn't have any rice fields for him to work in. He had to familiarize himself with a whole new profession, all over again. Due to his illiteracy in English and Chinese (his poverty stricken childhood prevented him from getting formal education) he had to resort to washing dishes in a local restaurant. It was an extremely endless and merciless job. It was also the only way he could pay the bills and put food on the table. Till this day I am still haunted by the nights when he came home with sores all over his hands. Over the years his responsibilities deepened as he ascended to a position in cooking. Now, instead of coming home with sores from washing so many dishes, there would be scars on his arms from the hot stove.

There is a saying that goes, "It is from adversity that strength is born." My father would always say in our native dialect Taishanese, "I've eaten more salt than you'll ever eat rice." It is true. I never had to experience the suffering my father went through. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a comfortable environment and still be able to understand the grief and poverty existing in this world. Growing up, I was never deprived of the education, love and support (like my father had) that is so vital to a person's upbringing. When my father stepped off the airplane at JFK airport in 1985, he didn't expect a better life for himself. He had already experienced the worst that could be during his thirty years in China. He came to the United States because he didn't want my brother and I to go through a similar childhood. He wanted us to have everything he didn't have.

As I've matured and learned my father's true reasoning, I push myself even harder in all that I do. I don't believe I could ever forgive myself if I didn't. I owe it to him, the strongest man in this world.

[ written in Autumn 1997 ]

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Caribbean’s Best Kept Treasure

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It all started with the glittering turquoise blue Caribbean Sea.

And then, a thatch-roof airport. This was the sight that greeted me as the plane descended on the runway. Swaying coconut palm trees. Rocking on a beach hammock. A morning jog along the coast to watch the sunrise. Thatch-roof huts glowing in silhouette against the sunset. An endless array of colorful fruits of papaya, pineapple, passion fruit, mango. A postcard paradise. Welcome to the Caribbean’s best kept treasure: the Punta Cana resort in the eastern tip of Dominican Republic.

What brings most people to Punta Cana is vacation; what brought me and fifteen other journalists to Punta Cana was a week-long seminar, “How Environmental Issues Influence Our Daily Lives: The Nexus Between Environment, Economics and Business” by The New York Times Institute on the Environment. We came from diverse ages, experience, and media backgrounds. From spread out locations of New York, New Jersey, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington DC, California, Montana and internationally, from Johannesburg, Montreal and Santo Domingo – we all united in Punta Cana resort with one purpose: to learn about the current environmental issues. It is my first time to Dominican Republic and the first time to the Caribbean. I hope staying at a luxurious resort will not inhibit me from having a real experience.

The Punta Cana resort was founded by Ted Kheel, and his partner Frank Rainieri over 30 years ago. A labor lawyer from New York he invested in this eastern part of Dominican Republic at a time when the area was barren and unknown. As a result of the resort and tourism, the region’s economy has been transformed, providing all sorts of employment for the Dominicans. But not just the locals benefit, also benefiting are their neighbors, the Haitians. These two countries share the island of Hispaniola, a significant historical location as it was first stop for Christopher Columbus when he first arrived in 1492 on his way to America. Ever since reading: Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I’ve been intrigued by how history and environment affects a country’s economy. Though Dominican Republic and Haiti share the same island, with similar environments, resources, climate, and a history as former colonies - their current situations are totally different. Haiti is one of the most impoverished nations on earth and is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. So poor are the Haitians that they escape to Dominican Republic to become ‘environmental refugees’.

Less than a century ago, Haiti was still a lush country with 60% forests covering the lands. Since then, the trees have been cut down and today Haiti only has 1 percent of its land covered in forest. Its neighbor, Dominican Republic on the other hand has environment that is protected. Its economy continues to grow and there is interaction with the international community. From this simple case study, I learned how vital it is for a country to be aware of its environmental problems. Unlike most resort owners in the world, Ted Kheel believes and supports environmental sustainability. He understood early on that the business of tourism is also a business of preserving the natural environment. Punta Cana Ecological Foundation was established to preserve the coastal zone, monitor water quality and has a recycling center and an Ecological Park and Reserve. Punta Cana Resort is setting an example of how it’s possible to develop a region, maintain economic growth and still preserve the environment.

Each day the journalists had the seminar classes in Ted Kheel’s resort home, Casa Guayacan. We had a field trip one afternoon that took us outside our Paradise-land to the shantytowns. Located in an area around the resort, this is where the resort workers and locals live. People are poor, with homes made of plywood or sheet metal. Our van passed by fields of migrant workers, of all shades of skin of black, chocolate and caramel, working on building the roads, gardening the plants, etc. We visited a medical clinic and an elementary school, all established by the resort owner to help the people in the impoverished area. Journalists get the rare privilege to view things differently, seeking out the extraordinary in the ordinary – just by definition of their profession. And whether in written words or photographs or moving images, they transcend what they have learned to others. Environmental journalists especially, I feel are humbled by their exposures of what they see. The interactions during the week-long seminars, both in and outside of class were tremendously dynamic - and because of all of them, Punta Cana was not only alluring for the sight but also stimulating for the intellect too.

As I sat on the plane heading back to New York City, I thought how Punta Cana turned out to be the perfect location for an environmental/economics seminar and a great introduction to Dominican Republic. It was as one fellow journalist said, “A rejuvenating experience learning about environment, socio-economics and life in general that left me with a great will to travel more and do better work". The experience has made me eager to return to the Caribbean. The next time I hope to be speaking with the locals in Spanish and making some great films. But until that next opportunity, I will always have the image of the coconut palm trees swaying in the foreground of the turquoise blue Caribbean Sea.

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