TEN THOUSAND STEPS
By Emily Wang
He walks in the dark, alone.
My grandfather arises every morning at precisely 4:30AM. The
sun is still trembling below the horizon, ready to burst forth,
but delayed from its entrance by unfinished dreams. The city
will awake in an hour, redolent with the smells of freshly baked
dough and warm soymilk. But for now, it wishes for more sleep.
The late night partying is over, the cats are silent, the stars
have faded, and the moon has left to shine elsewhere. At this
moment, at this time, there is only my grandfather, and the deserted
In the gray dawn I patiently wait in the largest room of my grandparents’
five-story residence. It is his study on the third floor, which
also serves as the dignified living room of the house. The chamber
imparts a traditional Confucian aura. Two wooden armchairs, a
glass table, and a long sofa constitute the uncomfortable Chinese
furniture arranged stiffly in the space. The rosewood structures
display manually carved ideograms. An earthen teapot with cold
water hides among bottles of medication. However, an ebony desk
stands as the most prominent object. Papers, books, and documents
infringe upon its imposing surface. In the middle of the clutter,
a worn stack of playing cards awaits another game of solitaire.
My grandfather, respectfully called “Ah Gong” by his eighteen
grandchildren, emerges from his bedroom. “Zao,” I say,
“Good morning.” Ah Gong nods, wordlessly heading for the staircase
to begin his disciplined, daily walk.
We descend to the first floor, and step into the narrow, dirt-filled
alleyway. It reeks of urine and pollution, and the putrid stench
stings my nostrils. The sticky air clings, teeming with flies.
As we approach the main streets, I realize that it is not nature
which illuminates our pathway, but the artificial light of downtown
“Can I ask you about your life?”
“Let me ask you a question first,” Ah Gong brusquely cuts me
off in his guttural, yet eloquent Mandarin Chinese. His voice
rolls in undulations, starting off low, ascending to a raspy,
high pitch, then back down again, trailing off like the fading
sound waves of a gong.
“Sure,” I offhandedly respond, waiting for a typical query about
school, family, or future goals.
“What is ninety minus eight-six?”
“Four. Wait…what? Why did you ask me that?”
“I am going to die in four years,” he states.
“What do you mean?” I blurt out.
“I am entering the last few years of my life. I am going to die
in four years.” He states this as a simple matter of fact. I
can detect a twinge of resignation, but not despair. Speechless,
I look over at him, and am startled that my five feet, three and
a half inches tower above his delicate, shrunken frame. Deep
creases enwrap his eyes, like crevasses filled with unknown secrets.
His tight-lipped mouth pulls downwards at the corners. His hair,
wispy and whitened, pastes to his wrinkled forehead. Weathered
hands grip a knotty wooden walking stick, on which he leans slightly.
Ah Gong’s countenance is grim, determined and almost angry looking.
Leaving behind his comments about his death, Ah Gong begins to
recount his despondent childhood. “My father died when I was
six. After my father’s death, my mother fell in love with another
man and deserted me to live with her new husband. Because my
mother was adopted, there was no one but her foster parents to
raise me. I was basically an orphan.” Ah Gong, then ‘Shui Ching’,
was penniless and had to find a way to survive. “I began planting
vegetables and selling them for money. At eight years old, I dragged
loads of vegetables to the market to sell. This became my life
during my elementary school days. It was the only way I could
stay alive.” But for Shui Ching, acquiring money was not the
only obstacle for survival. At age ten he spent weeks on the
brink of death after being infected with a serious disease. Yet
he recovered and resumed his drudgery, working harder than ever.
Ah Gong stops to wave at a street-cleaner, whom he passes every
morning. His friend points questioningly to me. “Your granddaughter?”
“Mei Guo Xiao Hai,” my grandfather nods. “An American teenager.
All American teenagers disobey their parents. They are huai
dan. Rotten eggs.” I flush as the other man laughs in accord,
returning to his work.
Ah Gong paces silently for a minute, then continues. “When I
was thirteen, I got a job delivering newspapers that paid forty
cents a day. This gave me more stability and time to sit down
with my books.” During this period, Shui Ching developed a strong
belief in good education. He strapped himself daily to a chair
and studied for six hours at a time, nonstop. Ah Gong recalls
a memorable incident. “At the time, Japan was in control of Taiwan.
All Taiwanese were considered inferior to Japanese. But a Japanese
family hired me instead of a Japanese teacher to tutor their children.”
Ah Gong was proud of this because he felt he was supporting his
To emphasize his patriotism, Ah Gong brandishes his cane at a
large billboard of Lien Chen, sole rival of Taiwan’s current president
in the impending election. “Kuomintang,” he spits in disgust,
referring to the Nationalist party that invaded Taiwan nearly
60 years ago and persecuted many native Taiwanese, including himself.
“They won’t win. We Taiwanese won’t let those scoundrels take
over. We’re small, but stubborn.
“However, as I approached my eighteenth birthday, I was in despair.
I had no money to go to college, and further education was the
only possibility of pulling myself out of the mire. This is why
I always tell you youngsters to study hard. It pays off. Studying
is--watch out!” Ah Gong suddenly grabs my hand, just as a motorcyclist
narrowly avoids hitting us as we step off the curb. “Fa Fong!
Those stupid lunatics!” Ah Gong angrily shakes his cane. “Can’t
they let an old man cross the street? Why, I could just…what
was I saying? Oh, right, then something lucky happened. A Japanese
soldier, Kwan-Wu-Shu, told me about a competition in Tokyo where
I could win a scholarship to college. I won. The government
of Japan sponsored me to go to a college in Manchuria.” Ah Gong
says this flatly, showing no pride over the fact that he was selected
over thousands of other students for this advantage. Suddenly,
his voice softens, wrought with emotion. “Before I left for Manchuria,
Kwan-Wu-Shu came to see me. He knew how cold it was in Manchuria.
But he was just as poor as I was, and had no money to buy me warmer
clothes. So he took off his only jacket and gave it to me. I
vowed from that day on to help others whenever I could.”
After two more blocks, we descend into central Taipei’s newly
opened underground shopping arcade and subway station. Stepping
into the air conditioned, spotless, marble tiled tunnel is a huge
reprieve. Ah Gong’s traditional padded blue jacket stands out
among the spiffy modern boutiques. His ancient features contrast
with those in the slick posters of movie stars and super models
swamping the passageway.
“My college life was rough,” he sighs. “During the holidays,
I had no money for meals and no place to go home to.” The government
had given him some pocket money, but he heard that his mother
was struggling. In an act of absolute filial piety, he sent all
the money that he had to his mother. This left him with nothing.
The only place where he could find food was the ocean. “I can
still smell the salt water. I remember digging for hundreds of
oysters with my bare hands. The water was so cold…”
“After college, I went back to Taiwan and married your grandmother.
There was no romance in this marriage. A matchmaker arranged
it. It was simply a young man’s duty back then to have a wife,
and a young woman’s duty to have a husband. But we were happy
together. Then, I founded a paper manufacturing company.” He
says this apathetically, but this was the beginning of my grandfather’s
material success. Ah Gong ran this company for forty years, becoming
the first in his country to use waste to be recycled as paper.
The company brought him financial stability for the first time
in his life. It enabled him to raise his growing family and to
acquire a house.
Ah Gong suddenly grips my shoulder. “But, do you know what I
am the most proud of?” I shake my head. “Throughout my life
I loved to help people, and whatever I did to them they poured
back to me. And I can always remember those who were so poor,
but still reached out to give me clothes, advice, money, lodging…anything.
This pureness of humanity is so important, so powerful. This
is how you truly measure success.” Ah Gong gives me a vague smile.
“I want you to write that.”
My mother and her siblings recall that whenever they came home
from school, the living room was always filled with visitors who
came to ask for help and advice. Many were in financial trouble
and some had issues with work. They all came because Ah Gong
was virtually the only person who was willing and caring enough
to guide them through their tough times. Helping these people
carried a long way. When Ah Gong’s children immigrated to the
United States, all were taken in by friends he had assisted long
Ah Gong may have been good to many people, but above all, he
was an exceptional father. In old China, daughters were generally
disregarded if there were sons. Ah Gong had three sons and four
daughters. He never ignored his daughters, all of whom he sent
to the US to get a better education. “I was deprived of good education
because of my poverty. I wanted all my children to have the advantages
I didn’t have. I wanted them to be successful.” When my mother
told Ah Gong she wanted to attend Harvard Business School, he
encouraged her. “Don’t worry about the tuition. I’ll cover everything.
You just have to work hard and get into the school.”
We stop, and Ah Gong checks his pedometer. He grunts with dissatisfaction.
“I’ve only taken 9,998 steps,” he announces. He takes an extra
two paces to make 10,000, then turns toward a staircase. “Let’s
go up to the garden now.” Taipei’s “gong yuan,” or city park,
is Ah Gong’s daily destination.
We begin the ascent upwards, carefully mounting the muddy staircase.
Ah Gong climbs skillfully and swiftly, never stopping to catch
At last we reach the garden, stunning in all its splendor. Even
in the faint dawn light I descry luxuriant bushes heaped with
roses, marble footbridges, and crystal ponds teeming with golden
scaled fish. Engulfing me is the tranquil, yet riveting presence
of nature. The feeling tingles on my skin, passing into my bones
“Don’t wander too far,” Ah Gong instructs me. “I’m leaving in
ten minutes.” We separate, Ah Gong to his strict routine of Tai
Chi in the shade of the trees, me to wandering.
I stroll around, pensively. Scattered throughout the park, elderly
women and men exercise, sweat exuding from their weathered skin,
their breath sucking in the rich air.
Just then, from behind a rose bush I catch sight of my grandfather.
The scenery, the aged, the sweat, and the air all suddenly melt
away. There is only one soul who exists.
Yes, this is a man who is eighty-six. This is a man who gets
up at 4:30 to walk eight miles a day, not a step more, not a step
less. This is a man who raised himself from extreme poverty through
years of agony and travail. This is a man who was never rich himself,
because he saved everything for his seven children and future
grandchildren. This is a man who never wears new clothes, never
goes shopping, and never wastes anything. This is a man who was
successful, who was triumphant. This is a man who has resigned
to the prospect of death.
The morning sky blushes with the arrival of the sun. I look
up, taking in the new day, letting it run through my blood. When
I glance back down, my grandfather is gone.
I reach him just as he steps out of the garden portal. “Xie
xie ni gen wuo jiang hua. Thank you for the interview, ”
I say. Ah Gong is silent; my only answer is the tapping of his
cane against the dirty concrete.
Gently, I slide my arm into his and we walk home.