Write It Poetry
Critic's Picks: MEMOIR

Editor's Comments:
In this touching piece, Emily interviews her grandfather about his life experiences. There is much wisdom in everything he tells her, and great compassion in the way she captures his voice in this memoir.


By Emily Wang
age: 16

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 streets.

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 Taipei’s streetlamps.

“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 country. 

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 ago. 

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 his breath.

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 and heartbeat.

“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.

Poetry    Essay    Memoir
Short Fiction    Humor
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