Inspired by my Father
Becoming a father has changed how I observe Father’s Day. As I celebrate my first Father’s Day with my son, I find myself reflecting back on my own father and how much he and my mother have shaped me to become who I am. I wouldn’t be doing the work I do now were it not for my father and his experiences. Today, I’d like to share some of his story.
My grandfather was a military official in China with the Kuomintang (KMT) party. When his party lost to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, he fled to Hong Kong along with my grandmother. They started over in Hong Kong and my father was born there. But soon after, the fear that China might take over Hong Kong propelled my grandparents to move yet again, this time settling in Taiwan. Having nothing but the clothes on their backs, they faced many challenging years as they fought to establish themselves.
My father remembers a difficult childhood in Taiwan, when there were nights when he went to sleep hungry or managed with a meagre meal of rice. Over time, however, the family became established and when my dad was an adult, he became a well-respected pastor.
When the Chinese population in LA began to grow in the 1980s and 1990s, my father received an invitation to pastor there. At the time, various organizations were sponsoring Asian pastors to come and work with the growing Asian community. My father recognized this both as a calling towards meaningful work and also as a better economic opportunity for his family (which is often why people immigrate). I was 7 years old when we immigrated to LA.
Life in America
As with many immigrants, our new life in America was difficult because we didn’t have much money. My father’s first job was as a pastor, working with immigrants who often had lower-paying jobs. Being reliant on the support of his congregants, his income level reflected that of those he worked with. I remember qualifying for free school lunches because our income was so low. After 8 years of serving the community, it was clear that pastoring couldn’t sustain his family so he found another job.
Finding alternative work was a challenge as his selection was limited and he repeatedly faced rejection. He was a competent but non-native English speaker and he often got paid less than his counterparts. He held several jobs over the years – US Postal service, sales and marketing, teaching. But because of his accent and the color of his skin, he had limited promotional opportunities.
He Sacrificed to Invest in Us
Reflecting back on my childhood, I see how my parents withheld from spending on themselves so that my siblings and I could have better opportunities. They sacrificed, scrimped, cut coupons, got things second hand or from yard sales, and rarely went out to eat so that I could have educational opportunities such as violin lessons and Science Camp in the summers.
When I was 11, our family won a raffle for a dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was the first time we were at a restaurant that served free bread and none of us were allowed to touch the bread until my mother confirmed with the waiter that it was, indeed, complementary. Looking at the array of forks and knives next to our plates at this “fancy” restaurant, my father remarked, “Why are there so many utensils? It’s so wasteful to have to wash so many knives, forks, and plates!” As a result of my parents’ frugality, my siblings and I were able to attend university and pursue our careers.
Why My Father Stayed in America
I once asked my father why he moved to and stayed in America, even though life was so difficult. He told me that he doesn’t regret making the move, despite all the inequities and challenges he faced. If he had chosen to stay in Taiwan, he might have had a better career and be more respected, but he stayed in America for the adventure. He wanted a challenge, and he found it.
How My Father’s Choices Affect Me
As I reflect back on my grandfather and father’s experiences, I am impressed by how resilient they were. To move to a new country over and over again – to Hong Kong, to Taiwan, and to America. To live through incredibly difficult circumstances, work hard, and build a life for themselves over and over again. To courageously start over afresh with nothing but determination and tenacity. These qualities inspire me and give me hope.
In Bobette Buster’s book, Do/Story: How to Tell Your Story so the World Listens, the author observes, “…the more a child knows his family’s ‘story’–in other words, the better informed he is about his wider family and obstacles they have overcome in order to survive and thrive–the ‘stronger a child’s sense of control over his life, the higher his self-esteem.’”
I am going to tell the stories of my grandfather and father to my son. I want him to know what the people in his family were able to do and the immense odds they overcame. I hope it gives him a stronger sense of agency in his own life as he grows up.
In terms of my career, my father’s experiences certainly informed why I became a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) leader. Knowing about the challenges he faced motivates me to dismantle systemic oppression and to build environments where people can be their best selves. Looking at my son now, I want to do everything I can so that he doesn’t experience the same discrimination that my father (and I, to a lesser degree) face. I want to make the world a better, more equitable place – inspired by my father, with hope for my son.