I was born in the land of the free, in a democracy where anything is a possibility. On the inside, I’ve had this longing to find out who I am. My great-grandfather, grandpa, and father’s pictures are mounted just above my mantle, straight, evenly spaced a half an inch apart. I stare up at my incomplete lineage wondering who these people could have been. My father never spoke about his life, nor the mother I never knew. Father was a hard man to understand let alone bond with. When I was five years old, I overheard grandpa and father speaking in a language I didn’t understand. They sounded as if they were arguing, hands waved and tempers flared. Father and grandpa sat across the whitewashed, splintered round table looking away from one another. Father’s eyes were ablaze, his mouth a hard thin line. Grandpa looked indignant, self-righteous even, with his chin held high and mouth grim, downturned. There they sat carefully stealing quick glances at one another until grandpa sighed heavily and wheeled himself from the kitchen, plastered himself in front of the television mashing the remote control buttons in rapid succession.
Father rose up, walked over to the kitchen sink, sagging against the cabinets. Seconds ate away to minutes as he stood in silence, head bowed over the sink. As father looked up, he gazed out the small kitchen window and for a moment I think I see pools of liquid holding just at the corner of his eye. But when he turned and saw me, he stared frowning with disapproval, then all distress was erased from his face. He walked over, took me by the hand and led me to the coatrack where grandpa’s, he and my coat rested. Father lifted my coat from the rack, spun me around, and thread my arms through my coat sleeves. My eyes fall on grandpa, his back is against us. He has sunken into his shoulders looking turtle like. With the zip of my coat and snap of fathers buttons, grandpa sinks further and further into himself. Father lifts his hat from a long line of wooden pegs on the wall, places it gently on his black, cropped, curly mopped head. He takes my hand again; the old floor boards protest under our weight. I look back at grandpa sitting hunched over in his wheelchair, the fluorescent light from the television bathes him, casting his shadow against the eggshell painted wall. There he sat as father peeled back the top lock, turned the knob and filed out first. I step into the hall, looking up at my father and he down at me. Before grandpa is closed off to me, he turns and our eyes meet just as the door shuts with a final click.
Many years blew by before I saw grandpa again. One night just before my thirteen birthday, I was awoken and told to get dressed. Father was moving at lightening speed, eyes bugged from its sockets, and began to sweat. He hastily shrugged into a wool sweater and stepped in to a pair of jeans and slid into his brown loafers. He urged me to hurry up and soon we’re standing at a bus stop. Father was antsy, checking every two minutes for any sign of a bus. He muttered something in a language I never quite learned. I ask him where we were going, he didn’t answer. The bus arrives and we board. Father sat close to the window staring out into darkness. I’m beside him stealing glances, anything to get him to look at me. He didn’t look up until our stop came up. We filed off the bus and walked a few blocks in silence until we arrived at the doors of a hospital.
“Father?” I was now concerned. We entered and was almost blinded by the fluorescent lights above leading to the front desk. He asked for grandpa, his room number, if he could see him. The receptionist asked us to please take a seat and the doctor will be out to talk to father. He looked pass the front desk, pass the nurses who flitted about walking down the hall that squeaked under white padded shoes, into what seems to me, the past, his past. Moments later the doctor arrived and called father’s attention. I repeatedly tap his shoulder; he looked at me with hollow eyes. “Dad, the doctor…” Father blinked and his understanding returned. Pushing himself up from his chair, he extended his hand to the doctor and fastened a smile over his face and slightly bowed. I’d never seen my father smile and for him to do so now seemed a great effort to pull off. Father turned and told me to stay put, as the doctor pulled him aside telling him the news about grandpa. I didn’t make out what the doctor was saying, but father nodded and bowed nodded and bowed then shook the doctor’s hands and gave a final bow. Shuffling back to me, he motioned for me to follow. We walked down the brightly lit hallway, rounded a corner until we stood in front of an elevator. The elevator doors opened to received us as we rode in silence to the second floor. Riding elevators always made me feel as if blood was rushing to my head, stopping up my hearing. We exit and hunt for room 213.
Once we located the room, father stood a foot of the door and blinked multiple times. He placed his hand cupping the knob, turned and pushed the door open. He enters holding the door for me and lets the door close with a soft click. Grandpa squirmed and removed the face mask from his face and soon his breathes become ragged. With five smooth strides, father placed the mask back over grandpa’s face. He waves his hands in a bothersome motion then calmed himself. Father pulled a chair from the small desk that held a glass of water. He sats himself at least a foot and a half from grandpa, and I take post standing behind my seated father. Grandpa turned his head and stared at father, he not avoiding his father’s gaze, stared back. They never uttered a word to one another for the three hours we were posted in grandpa’s room. They stared at each other off and on until the dreaded sound of a flatline filled the room. Grandpa stared lifelessly at his son as father rose and shut the lids of grandpa’s eyes. Soon nurses poured in and escorted us out.
I could never understand their relationship, not until the day father died. When I was clearing out my father’s house, I stumbled over some old journals that was tucked away in the corner of the basement, covered in cobwebs. To my surprise my great-grandfather, grandpa, and father kept an account of their lives. Great-grandfather wrote many journals to his son, and my grandpa to my father, and my father to me! This was the way that they communicated. In the journals that I read, this was the common theme: home. A foreigner’s peril is to be stuck between two lands. A land where you yearn to go home again but can’t and a land in which you never quite fit nor was accepted in in the first place. Father wrote extensively about a woman, Kim Chung-Ae. He wrote that her name meant “righteous love”. He met her while on a short business trip in Seoul, South Korea. He wrote that she was the most beautiful woman that he’d ever seen. He’d been at a loss for words. This isn’t strange since father never spoke much anyway.
Chung-Ae was a receptionist at a huge hotel empire. Father wrote that he walked up to the front desk as she rose from her seat, bowing slightly. Her spirit he said, was as light at the air itself and that she was more radiant that the sun or the moon. Kim Chung-Ae was my mother. For the first time, I’d been able to see my mother. Father left stacks of photos tucked away in each journal he wrote and even a small photo album. Mother always wore her jet black, straight hair in a chignon with wisps of hair falling, framing her face. Her eyes were round and wide, coffee-colored, without the cream, and she favored nude lipstick over the popular red tube that a woman could be labeled a harlot over. Sometimes she was business casual, other times she wore floral print as if she herself were going to spend a few days lavishing at a spa. Mother had a smile that any man would fall for and women would be envious of. I inherited her smile. Father wrote Chung-Ae was the happiest thing that ever happened to him, the second, when she was pregnant, and finally when I was born.
While my birth made him happy it also broke his heart. Father lost mother moments after I was born. She just stopped breathing, father writes. Father pleaded with the nurses and doctor to save her, they tried, but there was nothing that they could do. After mother died, dad wrote, her death dealt him a severe blow that he feared he’d never get over. The next stack of journals were written in a chaotic manner, none of the words touched the lines but were scribbled aimlessly over each page. The last and final stack looked as if father had gotten his bearings together. These were journals about me, how proud yet crushed he was as I grew. He wrote that it was no fault of my own, he had a difficult time looking at me because I favored my mother so, had ways similar to her. Sometimes when I was asleep, he wrote, he’d stare at me, because when I was sleeping, I was more bearable to look at. He continued that he’d been proud of me, of everything that I’d accomplished, that he was sorry for being a poor father. He wanted to show he loved me but was too afraid if he had gotten too close to, he’d lose me as well. He’d lost his homeland, Taiwan, to war and poverty. He’d lost his wife during the happiest time of his life, and his father ultimately died from the effects of a severe heart attack. Chung-Ae recovered from the ashes in the form me, Fa Chueng Xi, her son. I am left without anyone in this free land. My greatest peril is to leave a land that I’m at home with in exchange for a land that I would be a foreigner in.
Now as I look up at my great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and my mother’s pictures that are mounted just above my mantle, straight, evenly spaced a half an inch apart, I see me in them and them in me. A foreigner’s peril doesn’t have to be perilous at all, I think, as I settle into my new high-rise in Taipei. A foreigner’s peril can be awe-inspiring, soul fulfilling, life affirming, and a road map for others who may find themselves on this same journey. We are all foreigner’s in a strange land even though we were born in the land of the free, in a democracy where anything is a possibility.