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 ]


Roland Hulme said...

Brilliant, brilliant essay. Very moving.

It kind of puts things in perspective. That's a true American immigrant story and you're a true American immigrant success story.

I've always wondering if immigrants appreciate American more than natives, since they've seen another world. Every time I hear an American say: 'I hate living in this country' I smirk because I'd be hard pressed to think of a country it's better to live in.

Great stuff!

Julie Varughese said...

Wow, that's deep. I often think how lucky I am when I hear about the hardships my maternal grandmother faced as a uneducated woman who was treated as a slave by the family she was married into.