Father’s Day
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Kinmen and Matsu, two islands administered by the government of Taiwan, were often targets of aerial bombings during the Chinese Civil War. Despite the ever present risk of danger this posed, I still chose to work aboard a cargo ship that sailed between my new home and these offshore islands. As I gazed out into the distance, I could still glimpse a view of mainland China, where I was born and raised and now could not return. It was a glimpse that shortened the physical distance that separated me and my father, a glimpse that gave me a sense of comfort and hope for the future….

Matsu Island

View from Matsu Island

Although I often visit my parents’ grave to honor their memory and pay my respects, I recently found myself rereading what was written on my father’s tombstone. When I came to the part that said he had passed away in 1959, I was struck by the fact that he has been gone for so long. Is it possible that nearly half a century — some 50 years — has already slipped by? I simply could not believe it. Time, of course, does not stop to contemplate such things, though it does remind me that our long separation is an undeniable reality.
But actually, if we wish to truly be accurate, I should say it has been a full 60 years since I last saw father.

No one could have predicted that May 1949, the month and year I bid farewell to my hometown of Shanghai, would also be the moment I would say goodbye to father. Although 60 years have already passed, I still feel as if I have never left father, both emotionally and spiritually. It seems as if he is still there by my side, just like before, watching over me with that kind and caring expression of his, as he often did when he spent many a tireless day educating me.

Han Ying, an intellectual from the Han period, once wrote, “When a tree wishes to stand still, there is nothing it can do to stop the wind from blowing. A son may not have been filial to his parents when he was younger, but when his mother or father departs this world, the time for regrets will have already passed. God’s will is God’s will.” Indeed, this aptly worded adage embodies a philosophy of life that can instill a sense of helplessness and misery in the best of us, a philosophy that still floods me with myriad emotions and causes my heart to overflow with regrets and sorrow.

An only child, I was brought up in an ordinary family in the Jiangnan countryside, my late father a primary school headmaster who extolled the virtues of an enlightened education. Throughout my life, father was always my teacher, but when I turned a bit older, he also became my best friend. Although I grew up in turbulent times, what with the chaos and tumult of war all around me, I was still fortunate to be part of a family that lived both modestly and comfortably, that was both happy and supportive, and that left behind many beautiful and unforgettable childhood memories.

Dr. James S.C Chao and Family

Dr. James S.C Chao and Family

But ever since that day in May of 1949, while I was out at sea fulfilling a graduation requirement as part of my college coursework, I would never again get to see my father’s precious smile or hear his familiar voice, for the Chinese Civil War had made it impossible to return to Shanghai. With the family torn asunder, I was overcome with sorrow. Separated by a strait, and with no one to depend on but myself, I began to feel even lonelier, as I plunged into a dark abyss of despair.

The oceangoing vessel on which I was training, the Tian Ping-Lun, followed the route the Nationalist Government took as it retreated to Taiwan. Not long after the liberation of Shanghai, I was able to directly mail letters home to my family, which comforted my parents a great deal. What I did not imagine was that over time I would receive fewer and fewer letters in return, on which were penned just a few simple sentences telling me to take care of myself, not to send any more money back home, and to marry Ms. Chu as soon as possible. Soon after, I wrote back informing mother and father that Mulan and I had already tied the knot; I figured they would be ecstatic over the news and offer their blessings. But just as a stone cast deep into the sea leaves no mark after it has been thrown, so too there was no indication my parents had ever received the letter I had written, nor was there ever a response.

I figured that father, who had been the object of so much government persecution, might have been caught up in one of the many political purges of that era. But it was not until later that I was able to prove indirectly that he had been targeted in the “Three-anti Campaign” of 1951 and the “Five-anti Campaign” of 1952, both of which were initiated by Mao Zedong in an effort to rid the newly formed People’s Republic of China of capitalism and its enemies of state. When father had learned that Mulan and I had married, he naturally must have been delighted to no end, but with his every move being closely monitored, he had neither the means nor the opportunity to express his joy in writing. Despite this, I did not let up and continued to write home, entrusting close friends overseas and in Hong Kong to pass my letters and well wishes on to mother and father through other friends, and to express to them just how much I missed them both.

Kinmen and Matsu, two islands administered by the government of Taiwan, were often the targets of aerial bombings during the Chinese Civil War. Despite the ever present risk of danger this posed, I still chose to work aboard a cargo ship that sailed between my new home and these offshore islands. As I gazed out into the distance, I could still glimpse a view of mainland China, where I was born and raised and now could not return. It was a glimpse that shortened the physical distance that separated me and my father, a glimpse that gave me a sense of comfort and hope for the future. It goes without saying that I terribly missed both my parents and my hometown.

But in life, you do not always get what you hope for. Separated by a strait whose depth could not begin to approximate the despair I felt, I was left with no alternative but to wait.

Although I had been hoping and waiting for so long, I still had a feeling that “there would come a day when we would reunite.” It was not long after I arrived by myself in the United States to study that I received a letter from a relative, saying that father had passed away on March 15, 1959, because of a serious illness that could not be treated. This sad news came as a shock to me, completely extinguishing any glimmer of hope I once had of reuniting. Utterly beside myself, I felt my verve and vitality slipping away, as if I were teetering on the brink of emotional collapse.

But our benevolent and merciful Lord bestowed on me a loving wife named Mulan, a deeply passionate and thoughtful woman who knew how to temper her toughness with gentleness, and who always cared for others right down to the very smallest detail. Although we were an ocean apart, Mulan still wrote to me from Taiwan almost every day, which gave me enormous support and encouragement to carry on. My staunchest supporter, Mulan was the one person who could boost my spirits and help me rediscover the man I always was, a man filled with confidence and hope for the future. As husband and wife, the two of us crossed many a river together, always hand-in-hand, always navigating as one the ebbs and flows of life’s incredible journey. To repay father for all of the blood, sweat and tears he poured into raising me, I was determined to accomplish something tangible to express to him my love and appreciation.

James and Ruth Chao

Ruth & James Chao

Since the time of his death, father would forever enjoy a special place in my heart. No matter what the issue, no matter what critical juncture I had reached in life, no matter what new challenges I faced, I would always ask myself — how would father handle this if he were alive today? How could I deal with this in a way that would make him both happy and honored to be my father?

Today, I am not only a father myself but also a grandparent who is blessed with many, many children and grandchildren. When I speak with my six daughters, I often recall stories of the time I spent together with father. Although these are by now commonplace in our house, my daughters listen all the same with great enjoyment.

There was this one time, while my daughters were recounting an old tale passed down from that era, that my tender grandchildren suddenly became curious about their great-grandfather and all realized — “If great grandfather had had such a big influence on grandpa, great grandfather must have been an amazing and important figure in his time.” Unsure about how to respond, my daughters first looked at one another, then at me.

“Great grandpa was an ordinary man,” I said. “He did not have a celebrated government position, nor did he have a flashy title. He was simply a farmer who devoted himself to educating those in the countryside, so that those children might have a better life. His entire life, great grandpa was hardworking and honest, plain and thrifty. Ever the optimist, he always sacrificed himself for the betterment of others. He loved his country, and his fellow man, and embodied the essence of virtue and upstanding moral character. Your great grandfather not only gave me my life but also enlightened me through his education. Supportive and encouraging, great grandpa taught me that no matter what difficult situation I found myself in, I would always have my hopes and dreams to help tackle any challenges I faced. Great grandpa believed that this enduring spirit would bring a lifetime of success.”

Thank you, Father! I have passed on to your grandchildren and great grandchildren the values and principles you have instilled in me. Although times have changed, when I see the younger generation still following your philosophy of bettering oneself through education and by living a healthy life, you can rest assured that your legacy of leading a virtuous life will continue to enlighten and strengthen future generations to come. We are extremely gratified and honored by the moral compass you have passed on to us from your ordinary life.

Father, there is a widely known poem that reads, “God has summoned you, and while today we must part ways for a time, we strongly believe that we will meet again in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I truly pray that there will come a day when you, mother and I, along with your daughter-in-law, Mulan, will all meet again in the Lord’s Paradise, where there are no cares and no worries, where we can rekindle and relive the happiness we all once shared.