Monday, January 17, 2011

Dream On

My sister recently sent me a picture she found and scanned that I've never seen before. It's really surreal to look at this picture, not because of how enormous my head is but because it's a barometer for how much my life has changed since that particular instance. It causes me to visualize the experiences behind how I got where I am today and how important family is.

Grandparents house in Tainan, circa 1984

I was born in Tainan, Taiwan on January 30th, 1984. My father was studying at Michigan State University while my mom raised my sister and underwent labor with me in Taiwan. I date this picture at about 3 months old, since we joined my dad in Michigan when I was 6 months old. As you can probably tell, my parents and grandparents did not come from wealthy means.

My grandfather on my mom's side was a fisherman, and had to feed a family with 7 kids. They lived in the An Ping district of Tainan, and lived in a shack. Literally. This shack was in a state of disrepair and was constantly leaking during rainstorms. All 9 people fit under a roof in one room. My mom has a phobia of rats, mice and snakes because they used to crawl all over her in her sleep while growing up. It wasn't until all the kids were adults that they could afford a better place to live.

My grandfather on my dad's side was not much of a father. According to my aunt, he was constantly out gambling and playing mahjong, leaving my grandmother, dad and his siblings to fend for themselves. I learned this recently and it helps me understand my father much better. My aunt told me there was one time where my grandfather didn't come home for several days and my dad, at around 14 years of age took off looking for him. When he found my grandfather gambling, he cursed at him, hit him, and managed to drag him back home.

Don't see it

I can't get that visual out of my head, not only because it shatters how I perceived my grandfather growing up but because of how uncharacteristic that is of my father; he is a gentle and caring man with a quirky sense of humor. My grandfather has always spoiled me because I'm the only boy who can pass our surname, which explains why I've always held him in a positive light. While gender equality has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past 40 odd years, you gain so many advantages just by being male in an Asian household.

This is what happens when you grow up around all girls

There are a few disadvantages in the male role model front though, for me at least. All my cousins are female, except for 3. One whom I just learned existed in August, one in Taiwan 6 years my junior, and one my age who drowned in the South China Sea when we were 13. My father was constantly gone on business trips, doing his best to provide for our family...which is probably the result of my grandfather never really providing for his family and my father not wanting to emulate him. Ironically, this caused my father to be gone a lot while I was growing up.

All these factors left me to fend for myself a lot, and forced me to develop my own sense of self and what it means to be a man. Friends contributed, as did the media, but a lot of it was through trial and error because it ended up being something I had to discover on my own. The biggest thing I gained from the culmination of these experiences has been independence.

I am independent, to my very core.

Independence for Taiwan and everyone else

Being independent has led me where I am today, though I'm unsure where it will lead me tomorrow. From my decisions with my finances to my personal relationships, I don't let anything tie me down. If you're truly independent, you're free to do what you want, whenever you want. You aren't influenced by any external factors, and you can march to the beat of your own drum. To hell with what anyone else thinks. The only person that has control over your life, is you. Some people love this idea of freedom, while others abhor it. A parallel to this is being single; some people love it while others hate it. I guess it really depends on how independent and secure in yourself you really are.

I remember when I used to be deathly afraid of doing anything on my own; eating at a restaurant I wanted to try, watching a movie I wanted to see at a theater, visiting a place I wanted to experience, and so on. I was always concerned about what other people thought of me if they knew I was alone, until I realized what they thought of me has no bearing on how to live my life. Most likely, they're too preoccupied about what's going on in their own life.

Life's too short for you to wait on others to do something you want to do, and far too short for you to be concerned about what others think of you. You get one life; no cheat codes, no retries, no 1up's, nothing. People and things come and go, but time is the end of the journey, what matters is how you feel you lived your life.

Right now I'm very happy with how life is going, and I have to thank my parents for all the sacrifices they've made. I never really appreciated it as a kid growing up, but the older I get the more I can relate and understand. They've been through so much and done so much, just to ensure that I will have a better life than them. Through their experiences and my upbringing, I've been able to become independent and pursue my dreams. Though my mom tried to raise me like Amy Chua in certain instances, I was given free reign to pursue anything I wanted by my dad....stories to follow.

Dream on.


At January 18, 2011 at 4:30 AM , Blogger Jinny said...

Uh, Howard, if you sat up independently at 3 months, you were some kind of superbaby. Most infants don't get that kind of motor coordination until 6-9 months. You also look way too big to be 3 months old.

At January 18, 2011 at 6:05 AM , Blogger Care said...

great post. thumbs up, howaaa

At January 18, 2011 at 8:47 AM , Blogger Howard said...

But I was a superbaby with telekinetic powers...don't you see the size of my head??? I may have to doublecheck the date

At January 18, 2011 at 10:18 AM , Blogger Amy said...

good point: male mentors needed in this world!!!

one of my new year's resolutions is to be less independent. hehe.
i think living overseas definitely breeds independence, which is probably what has pushed me to that extreme. over time i'm also learning that there's beauty in sharing resources. i often don't like people all up in my space. but i believe we are communal beings.

At February 18, 2011 at 2:41 AM , Blogger 淑卿 said...

Dear Howard:

It is surreal to see your baby picture on internet, with the old house in Tainan serving as the background. Your Ah Gong used to call you "Big Head" when you were a kid. It sounds better in Taiwanese, with a sense of intimacy that cannot be translated into English. For sure, you are your Ah Gong's favorite grandson.

All the children in the Chen family are hardworking and independent. We were forced to become responsible and self-reliant in an early age because we didn't have the means for us to fall back on. While we were growing up, we used to feel quite bitter about your Ah Gong, mainly because of the hell he put Ah Ma through raising a big family all by herself. But, in a way, we have a lot to thank him for. I think your father and uncles learn to be better father by not making any mistake Ah Gong has made. And because we were all hungry for paternal love and a positive father figure, they know exactly what the kids need and expect from a father.

I never really hate your Ah Gong even though he was not much of a father while we were growing up. I am not sure whether your dad had hit Ah Gong, but I remembered he confronted Ah Gong and asked him to never come back and caused trouble. I think what I remembered is quite the reverse of what Da Gu Gu did. Ah Gong had since calmed down and become a loving grandfather in his 60s, the time when you were born.

Ah Gong, too, had his story, and a rather unusual journey. Near the end of WWII, Ah Gong, then around 20, was drafted by the Japanese Army to be a medical aid in a field hospital in Hai-nan Island,in Southern China Sea. At the time, Taiwan was under Japanese colonization. According to the laws, each of the family has to contribute the eldest son to Japanese Army. It was not Ah Gong who was drafted, because Ah Gong was the second son. The eldest son was already married and was expecting a child. Ah Gong, then single, came forward to go to the War in place of his brother.

Ironically, my eldest uncle was killed in a car accident during the time Ah Gong was away in Hai-nan Island. A year later, the War ended, Ah Gong came back to Taiwan. Since Japan was defeated, they did not have the means to arrange transportation for the Taiwanese soldiers. It is said he walked back from Kao-hsiung harbor to Tainan. By the time he arrived at home, He was so haggard and disheveled the family can hardly recognize him. Ah Gong married his brother's widow, who is also your Ah Ma. The child my eldest uncle was never able to see is your DA Gu Gu.

I used to think Ah Gong was taking up too much burden and too much responsibility too early and too young. He experienced War to spare his brother the danger. He married his brother's widow because my grand parents were so fond of my mother,your Ah Ma, they didn't want her to leave the house and married someone else. He never had a life of his own. That explained why he was out so often seeking the life he didn't have while he was young, even though he was so misguided about what it means to be free. It seemed that he needed to get it out of his system. Ah Gong was very smart and very independent. In a lot of ways, you are just like him. Ah Gong was not given the chances in life to put his intelligence into good use. But you are. You are exploring life and enjoying the freedom he never had.

Your Aunt


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