URS: An Asian dad who didn’t want his son to be a nerd
我的父亲：一位不希望儿子变成书虫的亚裔父亲 Edison 翻译
Try to remember what your dad was really like when you were a kid. It might not be as simple as you think, and I suspect it is always instructive. Time and cultures change, and do so very quickly. If your dad is Asian, that should lead to another few layers of complexity. And, you yourself have likely also changed so much with time. Try the exercise, and you might find interesting things popping up, out of the blue. And Father’s Day is often a good trigger for this.
Growing up, indeed, my views of my Asian dad seemed to change often, depending particularly on my own personal stage of life. Plus, in my case, the world was really hugely changing right before my eyes, complicated by significant moves in locations and cultures, in Asia and USA, which definitely but unwittingly affected my viewpoints. Second World War, Japanese invasion, China revolution, Korean War, Vietnamese War, US Race Riots, all added to the strange mix of cultural complexities.
For most of his life, dad was very busy mostly in private solo practice of family medicine, after leaving his intense life of general surgery. Solo practice however, meant he was on call 24/7, and it did seem that way to us as a family, since dad would often answer calls during dinner times. Nevertheless, dad arranged, on Sunday afternoons, after church, to bring us somewhere to relax.
Dad had been an athlete as a young man, especially in college, and I know he hoped that his 3 sons would follow in his footsteps. So, it must have been a great disappointment that all of us were really rather “nerdy”. As the oldest child, medical school beckoned me to study hard, from maybe age 7! A life in music called for number 2, though he died tragically in college. And a quiet life as librarian for number 3. But don’t you think it is rather weird to have an Asian dad who seemed to prefer we were less nerdy!
I’m sure dad had this athletic instinct in mind on those Sunday afternoons, especially in summer. We would nearly always be at “13 ½ mile beach,” at that time a little-known beach in the so-called New Territories of Hong Kong, a 45-minute drive from home. I learned to swim from him, which, he often reminded me, could save me, in case of a boat sinking in the sea. I never had a chance to test my skills that way, but hey, you never know. World War II was less than 10 years before that, so boat-sinking and naval wars were still fresh for some people.
And for good measure, I remember dad driving me specially to take real swimming lessons, from professional YMCA lifeguards, in backstroke and butterfly stroke, in an ocean swimming pool. This was obviously a further attempt to “de-nerd” me, which unfortunately wasn’t that successful. I think that dad just wanted me to be a more muscular man, and not a bookworm. I think he should be happy that, at least in theory, I can still swim, and I believe I’m OK with any boat-sinking, at least for a short time, minus sharks!
Actually, I did take a bit to one sport: dad had bought me an archery set, and I learned to shoot arrows quite well. I had always been fascinated by Robin Hood and his archers anyway, from my extensive British book readings, so that rather fit my inner nerd fantasy. And the romanticism of bow and arrows has still not left me. Whenever I hear stories about King Arthur and his knights, Ivanhoe or something like that, something magical stirs within me.
I even managed recently to borrow a movie from our wonderful Newcastle public library (I never borrowed anything, let alone a movie, from a public library ever!), on good old Ivanhoe, to re-awaken my English hero fantasy. I kept my childhood archery set at home in Cincinnati for decades up until our move to Seattle, and used them often as I told the yearly Vacation Bible School stories. However, I am not sure if archery really counts as athletics!
Dad actually was quite successful in teaching me one real physically active sport, and I think he was quite proud of that, since he was good at the sport himself. He brought me to play Asian badminton, which is a fast-paced, wrist-twisting sport which I learned to quite like, and wasn’t that bad at. In fact, even as a resident in pediatrics in Chicago, I played Asian badminton nearly every week at the nearby Chinese Union Church gym, and always remembered my dad fondly when I played.
Of course, the American vastly watered-down version of softly lobbying the shuttlecock at lawn games definitely would not be classified as athletic! Hey, what I learned was the real badminton, which is more athletic than tennis, I contend. However, after residency, all hope of sports faded, and I reverted to “nerd-dom.” Even till today…. you could read my irreverent URS “Exercise is bad for your health,” which reflects my real sentiments. Sorry, dad, I know you really tried.
Dad was always involved in church work. He was a church deacon, which meant he had to serve and help the minister to take care of the church. He did voice frustrations quite often when the committee meetings got too complicated and tedious, and he had to return home late. He had this traditional “Asian” scolding style, so I could hear him complaining at times to his cousin, who worked for dad in his clinic. I think in traditional culture, they tell me “scolding means love,” so I heard quite a bit of that around me. It did seem normal to me, however.
Photo 3A: Rare photos during the World War II years when we were brought back to the ancestral village to escape the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, where dad started me on my love of the water, in nearby waterfall reservoir (safely with life ring).
照片3A：其一：一些珍贵的照片 – 二次大战时我们逃离日军攻陷香港到我们祖籍村里，父亲在附近水坝里(有游泳圈)启蒙了我对水的爱。
Dad faithfully brought all 3 of his sons, every week to Sunday school. This was probably quite an act of discipline on my dad’s part, which few dads might have done at the time. Of course, the way that it was put to us, it was not probably a choice kind of a thing, but hey, whatever worked, worked. Mom went to the American English-speaking church. Even though we 3 boys were all native English speakers, dad somehow prevailed that we should go to the Chaozhou speaking church, which our cousins went to also. One of my brothers, Freddie, however decided later to join mom at her church, but Danny stayed.
Because of the Chaozhou church, I acquired a verbal fluency in Chaozhou language that was really fun, and which has lasted, after a gap of decades, to this day. And my strong spiritual foundation at the children and youth Sunday School there, was a tremendous blessing for all my life, for which I am eternally grateful. In fact, I am sure the reason I instantly started a Sunday School, after we began the Cincinnati Chinese Church 47 years ago, was directly due to my upbringing, knowing full well how critically important early childhood training is to a church, and to the future for the kids. I never deviated in my life from being super conscious of this perspective, and you can see it permeates nearly everything I do. Plus, it fits perfectly my pediatric instincts.
Dad could be a gruff man, related to the “need to scold” in Asian culture, but he seemed very gracious with his patients. I have been told often that he gave free care to many of them when they had financial problems. His surgical background, I think made him a very versatile doctor, able to handle simple surgical procedures even in his clinic, and knowledgeable about both surgical and medical conditions.
During my high school years, the office clinic was actually attached to our home, so I saw dad in action with the patients and could even watch him stitch up cuts in the faces or limbs of naughty boys, right on the surgeon’s table. It was “exciting” to watch! There was a partition between the clinic surgery table, and the X-ray room, and he allowed me to climb up onto the top of the partition from the X-ray room, to look down on the operation. I’m not sure the law would allow that today!
For smaller cuts, dad liked to do his stitching without local anesthesia, “tough love” style, because he claimed that the anesthetic injection was just as painful. I doubt it, but it was great fun to watch, especially if the “victim” was some kid I knew from church or in the neighborhood, like I was in the gallery of a hospital operating room. I’m sure it helped “inspire” me to dream of actually becoming a surgeon.
Photos 4 & 5: Dad loved to take pictures, especially in Hong Kong. Theses picture are of family with medical missionary friends who served the Hakkas in China. At this non-nerdy Sunday at the beach, I’m obviously flaunting my “oldest son” status, with younger brothers, including white brother Stan, who still today respectfully calls me tai ge (older brother, in Hakka).
照片4 & 5：父亲在香港时很爱照相。这些是我们家和在客家族群事奉的医学传教士友人们。一个在海滩上充满活力的周日下午。我很明显的在炫耀身为大哥的身份。我和两个弟弟和白人小弟史丹（Stan）。史丹到今日还是尊敬的称我为大哥。
To conclude, not only was it strange that my dad was “pushy” about my becoming an athlete, he never pushed me to study harder, at least that I remember. And I only did piano for 6 months, but that is another story… So, wouldn’t you agree my Asian dad was rather unusual? Not at all like a stereotypical Asian dad at all. Maybe except for the gruff scolding part.
Which is a reminder that each dad is truly unique, and God given, not someone we chose, but uniquely for us…. If I had not had my dad……. I cannot really imagine my life. Looking back, every step of the way I can see his fingerprints all over me, his DNA effects (good health, sorry, minus athletics), his scolding or subtle teachings (get some exercise, don’t study all the time!), and my going into medicine (he never urged me, he just expected it). Gratitude with reverence is how I really remember my quiet and frugal dad. I think he was proud of me, even if I remained a nerd.