Today I took a one day sabbatical to visit Uncle Four, who just happens to live an hour's walk away from Cormac's house. Uncle Four--he has a name, but he and my dad were part of such a big litter that they refer to each other by birth order--has lived in Cupertino since 1974, making him a bit of a community fixture. A true pioneer, Uncle Four was the first person in the family to come to America, abandoning a lucrative bicycle parts manufacturing business in Taipei to start a skin care clinic in a sleepy rural California city, far across the sea, alone. That little city, as we all know, blossomed into the birthplace of Apple, Google, Yahoo, and more, and despite a real estate crisis, several recessions, and the bursting of the dot-com bubble he's managed to eke out a pretty good living. His son Robert once asked him why he lived in super-expensive Silicon Valley despite not being in the computer business, and Uncle Four threw up his hands and said, "Son, I've been here since before there was a Silicon Valley."
Uncle Four has also been sort of a guardian figure to my immediate family. My dad (Six) lived with him when he left the house at the age of ten to go to boarding school, and he was largely responsible for keeping my dad out of trouble. When my dad went to grad school in Kansas after proposing to my mom (she refused), Uncle Four took Dad's engagement ring, booked a flight across the Pacific, and guilt-tripped Mom into reconsidering. Consequently, he and my parents are pretty close. I have many fond memories of visiting his remarkably humble little house in Cupertino, playing with his cat Beginning (black aside from a splotch of white across her naughty bits) and listening to him ramble incomprehensibly about politics in Chinese while my parents smiled and nodded and pretended to listen. We kind of lost touch with him after we moved to Taiwan, but he's always been a pillar of trust in my family; I still list him as an emergency contact on my hospital and insurance forms, even though he lives half a continent away.
Armed with a stronger command of Chinese and a deeper knowledge of Taiwanese history and politics, I have, over the past couple years, made occasional trips to see him again. And it's astonishing how this pleasant, mildly cranky old man from my distant past pretty much turns out to be me.
Turns out Uncle Four used to be a poet--the only writer in my father's family until I came along. He sympathized deeply with my frustration over my parents' inability to understand why I would waste valuable time and energy studying the difficult and unlucrative art of writing. He'd actually shown incredible promise as a young poet, managing to get a volume of poetry (the title translates to December's Lonely Steps, under the nom de plume Qing Fen) published before he even graduated high school, but balked at the difficulty of getting another volume through the publication process and, to his later regret, quit poetry forever. Imbued with an unusually strong sense of right and wrong, he left Taiwan out of frustration with the personal politics of business and the corruption of government, choosing to come to America (Cupertino was an arbitrary location) because it was a growing market and, unlike England or India, was not an old enough country to pigeonhole him into some ancient established caste of second-class citizenry. He religiously read great works of English, Chinese, and Japanese literature, even utilizing his publishing connections to put out a few Chinese translations of well-known English poetry (Wordsworth? Longfellow?) before he gave up on Taiwan entirely. I imagine the rest of the family, being generally very pragmatic, must have found it difficult to understand his fascination with books, but as he was also a successful businessman, they were in no position to judge. Naturally Uncle Four was delighted (and surprised!) that I'd grown up to be a writer, and we have many poignant old-man-young-man conversations. It has been incredibly validating to hear him trump my parents' seniority with comments like, "Go follow your dreams. Don't mind your parents; they're too young to understand."
Uncle Four's politics are also...irreverent, to say the least. Today I got to ask him about the period in which my parents grew up--the White Terror, 2-28, all that--and he interrupted me with a response something along the lines of, "Bandits. That's all they are. Bandits and liars. The KMT swindled the people of China out of their freedom, the Communist Party swindled the people of China out of their freedom. Corruption is the same in every Chinese government; it has ingrained itself deeply into Chinese culture. There will never be any sort of social equality in China until people in China learn what social equality is. Everything you learned in your high school history books is a lie. You want to know the truth, you hit the libraries here in America, where people do not have to be afraid to speak."
That's not an unusual opinion among contemporary Taiwanese-American anti-nationalists, but considering that Uncle Four grew up in the martial law era, and was brainwashed by all the same lies as my parents--it's like going to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall and hearing a member of the Communist Party say outright, "You know, this whole communism thing is horseshit." Uncle Four doesn't pay lip service to freedom, equal rights, self-determination, all these Western values that most people don't actually care about unless they were raised under them, which immigrants are used to paying lip service to just so they can live over here. Uncle Four believed in those things before he became an American. He believed in them even as they made him a member of the radical left in his home country, even as they threatened his livelihood in a period of brutal anti-intellectual violence by a militarist government that was fascist in all but name. He believed in them so strongly that he left everything he knew, everything that was familiar to him, throwing away what would have been a quiet, comfortable life, so that he could speak his mind as he wanted, be treated like a human being, and conduct business with honesty and transparency instead of under-the-table favors and norms of reciprocity. Those things were more important to him than guaranteed status and money. He didn't accept Enlightenment ideals so he could come to America; he came to America because it was consistent with his existing ideals. He is outspoken and opinionated on matters of both American and Taiwanese politics (Taiwanese people are stereotypically meek), he votes in every American election, he makes friendly conversation with his neighbors, he conducts business with characteristically un-Chinese frankness and integrity, and after having been here for thirty-six years he staunchly, resolutely, absolutely refuses to go back to Taiwan. He is, despite not being one bit less Taiwanese than the day he was born, as American as you can get.
In essence, he is the exact reverse of my father.
I may be the last of my kind, but I am not the first.
All these years--oh man, this is what he was rambling on about. And now that I understand his politics, and, bizarrely, have independently come to agree with them, he and I share a weird sort of bond. It's hard not to look into that smirking, mildly sardonic, age-worn face, that face that is strikingly similar amongst all the males of my family, and see a mirror into my own future. A face I'd known all my life, and not until now had been old enough to recognize as my own. He's got so many of the same mannerisms as my father, down to the verbal tics, but what comes out of his mouth are things my father would never say.
So this is where all those genes come from. So many times I've looked in the mirror, not recognizing the person looking back at me, flipping through my parents' wedding album and seeing Local Kids, the apathetic Taiwanese twentysomethings who stocked baozi and onigiri at every 7-Eleven and flirted amongst each other behind every pearl milk tea stand, all those alien National Geographic people who had no hopes or dreams or curiosity about the world and were content to drift aimlessly up and down the status letter, and for the life of me not being able to imagine how an accountant and a chemist who listen to Richard Clayderman and randomly arrange the default prints that come in $15 frames across their living room managed to produce an idealistic, passionate, morbidly introspective, perennially discontented writer/programmer, who can look at a painting for more than 5 seconds without getting bored and have more to say about it other than "it's blue"--sometimes the most striking traits are recessive.
And my American paternal cousins, too--the male ones all look exactly like I would if I was about four inches taller, had muscle tone and a GQ-worthy physique, and was 10 to 20 years older. They also behave like alternate universe mes as well. A bunch of them have that same anger, that same tendency to quiet, brooding introspection, but it manifests itself differently. David in Chicago (son of dearly departed Uncle Three) has tamed the nasal warble into a sort of drawlish baritone, and projects the quietness as a blunt, smoky confidence that aids him spectacularly in both his career as a chiropractor and his exploits as a fortysomething ladies' man. His brother Anthony let the warble loose and tapped into the quietness to produce a sweet, pensive sentimentality that makes him vaguely resemble Ross from Friends. Robert, Uncle Four's son, turned the brooding anger into an excuse to get into fights all the time in his adolescence, and gradually transformed it into an amicable paternality that serves him well in his bedside manner as a dermatologist (and makes him the papa-bear figure in an enviously gorgeous nuclear family). Me? I just write poetry I will never show anyone in frenzied rages at three in the morning, and talk quickly in a low, psychotic mutter that women either find sexy or annoying.
To Uncle Four's equal parts chagrin and amusement, Uncle Four made a point of not pushing his children towards taking the family business, and they both went into the family business anyway. Li Wei got a masters in computer science--useful in dot-com bubble Cupertino!--and then went to work for her father, where she continues to work still, the ownership of which if, God forbid, Uncle Four's time comes, may ultimately pass to her. Robert decided to become a doctor, provoking the opposite reaction in Uncle Four that it would in most Asian parents ("A doctor? Do you really want to devote that much of your life for money and status?" "Dad, what have I been telling you? Money's not important. I'm doing it anyway.") And then Robert pissed him off even further by not telling Uncle Four, until Robert had a clinic of his own, that he had become a cosmetic dermatologist. It's kind of like how my own parents were amused that I chose to go to college in Ohio, about four hours' drive from where my own father had gone to pursue his PhD, and then gone to work in lower Manhattan, where my mother had taken her first job immediately after. I guess some life experiences are so deeply hardwired into who we are that they repeat themselves over generations: a young man staring out over miles of Ohio wheat, a suicidally unhappy fresh grad nursing coffee in an enormous glass canyon, a small child grinding powder in his father's pestle.
We're clones. That's it. That must be why we look so similar. Everyone in my father's family must be clones of the same person, which explains why the females tend to give birth to sons and the males all look alike, and we're all part of a grand experiment that always goes awry because we keep reproducing sexually. (Silly females and your tricky double X chromosomes!)
It's odd. After coming back from Taiwan, I've had the opportunity to meet so many members of my parents' generation, and relate to them so well that they find it disturbing. Your parents? Your parents are so cool. They protested the Vietnam War (or fought in it), they listened to some of the best music of all time, they saw Star Wars as it came out, they reacted to the impending nuclear apocalypse that never came and followed the news and bought the first pocket calculators and oh my God, for the first time since the beginning of the century they managed to control the insanity of the changing times enough that my generation can actually use the previous generation's experience as a meaningful reference point for how to live their lives. (We have legacy! The generation gap is finally closing!) You've got folks my age engaging their parents in earnest political debate, sons and daughters of activists continuing the struggle for world peace and sons and daughters of environmentalists continuing the fight against global warming and sons and daughters of civil rights activists taking the struggle from race to sexual orientation. You have a continuous society, finally, one in which each generation can build upon the work of the previous generation instead of tearing it down over and over again. Even the parents of other Taiwanese kids--I can look back on fascism with them, and the end of martial law in 1993, and relate to their motivations of bringing folks my age to America rather than deal with an uncertain future in Taiwan.
But my parents? My parents don't give a shit. The Beatles passed them by. The Vietnam War passed them by. The war with China passed them by. Nuclear proliferation passed them by. (The massacre of artists, writers, intellectuals, and dreamers during the White Terror didn't pass them by, but, well, that's partially because that was sort of my grandparents' fault. My maternal grandfather was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good person.) Fascism, democracy, it's all the same to them--as long as they can live comfortably and feed me, who cares. A lesson my father has tried to teach me over and over, and repeatedly failed, is that it is foolish to worry about ideology when that energy could be more productively spent on personal gain. It's so easy to write that way of thinking off as the product of a brainwashed generation under fascism, one that sees life as a simple interplay between the rewards of obedience and the perils of disobedience. But if that were true, why do so many of the others who grew up in that same environment not think that way? It's not like my father grew up in an isolation chamber--he moved out of the house at an early age, living in a dormitory with his older brother, a person of such diametrically opposite politics. Like all his other siblings, he greatly valued the traits of self-sufficiency and independence, and was introspective enough to think about where life was taking him. All my rantings about the brainwashing of the system sound hollow, given my father's childhood experience, and the open-mindedness of so many of his peers. No, if my father truly believes that living like a slave is the best way to go, it is unlikely that the forces of history conspired to make him so--he must have decided it on his own. As his only son, one who learned so much about the world from him, that intensely worries me.
Maybe I'm not at war with an entire generation, and the judgments it made on mine, but, ultimately, just two people who somehow managed to break free of it. If that's so, what's the point of fighting it at all?
Man, every time I think I've got my relationship with my heritage all figured out, reality comes along and fucks it all up.
One major highlight of my visit to my uncle's is that I got to see Lucas, the first and currently only son of my cousin Li-Wei and her husband Scott. I was the ringbearer for Scott and Li-Wei's wedding, some twenty-odd years ago, so watching the little guy progress from abdominal bulge to wide-eyed meat blob to adorable stumbling tyke to tiny wandering soul has been an astonishing source of joy (and, as is one of the natural benefits of hanging out with older people, a nice forewarning of what the parenting stage of my own life may be like). Scott and Li-Wei's wedding, the first I'd ever witnessed, and Uncle Four and Aunt Lucy's adept handling of it may be the primary reason why, on a subconscious level, I don't really think of white people and Asian people as separate races. It doesn't look wrong, the way it does to some other Americans, when I see people of different ethnicities marry because the prototype for my entire concept of marriage is Li-Wei and Scott--two very, very different-looking people. It's also why I don't twig different-looking people in general as somehow being automatically wrong for each other. I've never understood the double standard that a marriage between a Chinese and a Korean (relatively recent historical enemies) is somehow more socially acceptable in Asian-American society than a marriage between a Chinese and a Tamil.
And one look at eight-year-old Lucas confirms beyond all doubt that there is not and never has been anything unnatural about it. He's amazing. He natively speaks both Chinese and English, code-switching between the two effortlessly, making him sound, probably uncoincidentally, like a little NEHSer. He's picked up all sorts of American social mannerisms--the mischevious grin, the looking over his shoulder for his parents' attention, the up and down inflections at all the right places to show enthusiasm and excitement--but when he goes into Chinese mode he gently puts his utensils down on the table, puts his pleases and thank yous in the right places, and differentiates between the four tenses with ease. (I pray this aptitude for both tongues doesn't ultimately handicap him in both languages, as was the unfortunate fate of most of my former Bilingual Department classmates. Chomsky's language acquisition theory was correct, but is exploited at terrible risk...) He's apparently quite good at his schoolwork, despite a short attention span (which is very Asian of him), and like many eight-year-olds he is very energetic and his parents wear themselves thin trying to get him to sit still for any reasonable length of time.
But what really makes Lucas stand out is that rare, powerful soulfulness. I love Scott and Li-Wei, but if anything they're pragmatic, rational people--they're more like my mom and dad than they are like me, and while they're impressed by Lucas he really wears them out. Lucas does things that are sometimes hard for his parents to understand. The last time I visited, maybe four years ago, when he was barely able to walk and his speech wasn't quite comprehensible, we were leaving the Chinese restaurant where we usually eat during family gatherings and Lucas just stopped. "Come on!" Scott shouted, "time to get in the car!" "Come!" shouted Li Wei in Chinese. But Lucas wouldn't move. He was just standing there, his hand in his mother's, staring at a little white butterfly on a leaf. Not at some more exciting stimulus behind it. Not at a toy he wanted. Just at this butterfly, sitting there, wings flapping. He was utterly captivated. I don't think he'd ever seen a butterfly before. He was so taken by the sight we pretty much had to drag him off, and as we drove away he kept looking behind him to see if it was still there.
"It's a butterfly," I told him then. "The first of many."
Today, Lucas must have remembered, because after our meal he got up from his seat and said to me, "Uncle Kevin, we go for a walk. I wanna show you somewhere."
"Where?" asked Aunt Lucy. "Not far," replied Lucas mischeviously.
So, with Li-Wei's permission, Lucas escorted me several blocks down to the Mountain View City Hall courtyard. It was a tiny place, maybe the size of a mini-mall ice cream shop, but to Lucas it must have been impossibly vast. He jumped up on the rim of the fountain in the center and started running around it in circles. "This is my favorite place!" he shouted. He pointed up at the sculpture in the center of the fountain, an enormous mobile of objects in orbit around a giant sphere. "Do you know what that is?"
"It's a sculpture," I explained, chasing after him.
"No, silly!" he laughed. "It's not a scup-toor! It's the solar system! There's Erf, there's Mercuwy, there's Mars..." And then he leapt off, skipping across the tile, me surging forward to keep up with him (worrying he'd go careening off into the street or something), and he ran off into a little wooded area by the side of the courtyard, leading to another sculpture--a man and a woman holding hands.
"Do you know what this is?" I asked Lucas as he pond-skipped across the foundation stones of the sculpture.
"Yes," said Lucas, rolling his eyes, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "it's art."
And then we had this conversation.
KEVIN: Do you know what art is?
KEVIN: Try to remember, then. Look at me, I'm twenty-five years old and I don't even know what art is.
LUCAS: I like this art. It's pretty.
KEVIN: Do you know why it's pretty?
LUCAS: (Thinks.) No.
KEVIN: That's art.
LUCAS: (Runs off, finds a poster for a Dr. Seuss musical taped to the wall.) They had this last time.
KEVIN: And maybe it will be there next time. I grew up with Dr. Seuss, too, long ago.
LUCAS: Does Mommy remember Dr. Seuss?
LUCAS: Does Grandma remember Dr. Seuss?
KEVIN: Maybe? Dr. Seuss has been around for a long time. We all grew up with Dr. Seuss.
KEVIN: When art is really amazing, it lasts forever.
LUCAS: Like Grandma remembers Pink Panther, and Mommy remembers Pink Panther too?
KEVIN: Just like that, yes.
LUCAS: Does Grandma remember these bwicks?
KEVIN: When your grandma was your age, all these bricks were just an idea in someone's head. And now you're running through it.
KEVIN: Every brick was put here by someone.
LUCAS: (Points to a slab of concrete with "JONAH WAS HERE" scrawled on it.) This one too?
KEVIN: Especially this one.
LUCAS: (Skips across the courtyard gleefully.) I remember the butterfly.
KEVIN: Do you remember what color it was?
LUCAS: Blue, red, white, orange, green....
KEVIN: Have you ever seen a purple butterfly?
KEVIN: Then that's one more kind of butterfly for you to see.
This kid is eight years old.
It's weird. I look at my mom and dad, and recognize them as my mom and my dad, but not as my own people. I look at my uncle, and I see someone who has become like I have become, but, well, it's been a long road. And I think of all the women I've been intimately close with, and all the possibilities beyond speculation that entails, and the strangeness of the unknown, and the ephemerality of the concept of races compared to the solidity of the concept of people. And I look at this little guy, and feel a deep, sheepdog-like need to protect him, like a large furry male animal looking startledly at a tiny whelplike version of itself emerging from its mate's swollen body, and instantly recognizing the similarity. It's ambiguous whether Lucas is of my ethnicity, but he is definitely of my people. And, God willing, he will be around long after I am gone.
I feel a little less alone.