My grandfather has always loomed at the edge of my imagination. I never met him in life as he died shortly before I was born. My father possesses the taciturn courtesy particular to Chinese men of his generation. He speaks little of his father, yet sometimes a story comes through, a glimpse into another time. My father mentioned that at one time my grandfather owned an Omega worth more than a house. The Chinese Civil War tore many threads tying my family history together as my grandfather retreated with the Nationalist Army to Taiwan in 1949. My parents’ immigration to America in 1981 one year after I was born spread them further apart.
I only recently found out that my grandfather was born in the 1890’s under the Qing dynasty. I knew he was a Christian because he was born a farmer but was educated by missionaries. He earned a scholarship to go to the capital to study medicine through hard work, intelligence, and rigorous honesty. Shortly before he was chosen, he found his desk at school to be miraculously full of loose coins and bills. Despite his poverty he never touched the money and thus passed what we assume was a test of honesty. Many years later my mother passed a similar test at her first employer in Taiwan. Perhaps her boss had a connection to the missionaries. Having limited Chinese language skills, I only know that my grandfather was an Anglican because a church in Flushing, NY has a sign in both English and Chinese. One day my father pointed to it and said “This was my father’s church.” I later read that the China Inland Mission brought famine and flood relief to Anhui province. Perhaps this was the source of my grandfather’s opportunity.
There was an English teacher at my grandfather’s university who was fired for opposing the old system. My grandfather and two of his closest friends gathered at a park. Each of them took a stone and threw it into the lake as they swore an oath to leave the school and never return. “If any of us dares to break our oath, let him sink like the stone.” My grandfather completed his medical training in a military academy. One friend accompanied him, becoming a general who commanded a heroic siege during WWII. He held off the Japanese for months with few men and fewer resources. He survived the war and retired in Taiwan. The final friend regretted his oath and returned. He became a famous surgeon only to die an early death, murmured to be a result of his oath breaking.
The university was in the capital and it must have been difficult for a penniless student to leave. Somehow he found the determination to do it. One story from the old capital is that there was a shop which sold noodles. The sauce pot had been continuously cooking for 400 years. The ancient crockery had a fire burning day and night with new ingredients added each day. It was said to be the best noodles in the city. After graduating as a military doctor my grandfather joined warlord armies as part of the cavalry. Once all the warlords were defeated he joined Chiang Kai-Shek’s air force.
Another story of my grandfather’s time is that he was a spendthrift. Having grown up as a peasant he had no concept of saving money. He had a friend who often borrowed small amounts from him, asking for some money for gambling or drinks. My grandfather never asked for the money back as generosity to friends was an indication of a gentleman. After many months his friend presented him with a heavy gold chain. “What, I cannot accept this gift” my grandfather told him, astonished by his generosity. “This is your chain, bought with your savings” his friend told him. His friend had saved the money for him. Later on after a battle in which all was lost, my grandfather traded links of gold from his chain for food and shelter, saving his life.
My grandfather was stationed at the Shaolin monastery for a brief period during the war. It was a ruin with only a handful of monks remaining. The soldiers would taunt the monks, trying to provoke them into fighting with their famous martial arts. One elderly monk would respond “Look at me. I’m all skin and bones. Do I look like a martial arts master to you?” One night my grandfather was walking around the ruined temple where there was a candleholder on the high ceiling. He saw that same monk nimbly jump 20 feet to the ceiling, light the candles, and just as lightly float to the ground. The monk saw my startled grandfather and nodded at him, aware he was a mild mannered doctor and not a bully like the others.
There was an officer who served with my grandfather who was a vicious bully. One day he ran into an old man while riding his bicycle. He jumped down and beat the old man severely. The old man did not fight back but only shielded himself with his arms as he lay on the ground. Later the officer came to my grandfather because his arm had become massively swollen, blackened, and painful. My grandfather could do nothing for him. The officer sought treatment among the apothecary shops where martial arts masters were known to seek treatment and found a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. He told the officer that he had met a martial arts master who had damaged the qi in his arm by touching his pressure points. The traditional doctor gave him poultices and acupuncture treatments and eventually cured his ailment. Other times my grandfather saw people who died of easily curable diseases like appendicitis because they refused Western medicine and sought only traditional treatments. Tradition cut both ways.
My grandfather was later made a province level medical officer in Henan. It was here that he married my grandmother. My grandmother’s uncle, a prominent merchant, arranged the marriage. My grandmother was a skilled tailor who could make a dress based on a picture in a magazine despite suffering from abnormally small feet from a brief period of infant foot binding before the revolution of 1911. Early in my medical training I met a 100 year old Chinese woman. My grandmother’s experience made me think to examine her feet. I was amazed to discover that she too had been born under the Qing dynasty and had tiny bound feet as well.
The hospital administrators in Henan were used to corruption and visited my grandfather with gifts of bars of gold. They were disconcerted when he refused. They went to my grandmother, who being ever practical, stuffed the gold away in her sewing. Later my grandfather was furious and returned the gold. He was the same man that refused to take money from his desk. Though perhaps that was when he received his Omega that was worth more than a house.
After many years running a leprosy hospital in Taiwan, my grandfather retired. He passed from lung cancer when my father was doing his mandatory military service. Although he was a doctor, he was never told his diagnosis. Recently the movie “The Farewell” focused on an American grandchild’s conflicted feelings about this old Chinese practice of not telling the patient so they do not lose hope.
I do not know my grandfather’s name. I think of him only as “Ye ye,” Chinese for paternal grandfather. I know only that his name is written on our ancestral tablet which my mother brought to American from Taiwan in 1981. I know even less about this Omega of his which was worth more than a house. To be an immigrant whose family roots were torn by war and revolution is to feel the pain of separation. My grandfather and his extraordinary life will always remain at the edge of my imagination. Although I don’t know what became of his Omega watch that was worth more than a house, I have my father’s stories. When I hold an old watch in my hand that existed at the same time as my grandfather I feel a connection to his era and his extraordinary life.