The prologue is past, so let’s begin at the end: A graying old man in a house on a hill, peering over the top of a newspaper to watch a basketball game.
My father was born in 1929, six months before the stock market crashed to mark the beginning of The Great Depression. This meant little to a Chinese kid growing up in a poor village in Guangzhou province. Life in China for the poor was the same during any part of the pre-war era. Old photos I dug up in my parents’ house showed smiling barefoot kids wearing rags on narrow dirt streets. The older children – the ones who knew better – were not smiling. They stared blankly into the camera, as if they knew their lives would never get much better. All they could realistically hope for was a good enough harvest, food on their tables and a roof over their heads. I became very familiar with this blank look decades later, when Afghan men stared at us American centurions as we stood post at the edge of the U.S. empire.
World War II began when my father was still drooling. I’m not talking about December 7, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. I’m not talking about 1937, when the Japanese Army invaded mainland China. It was in 1931, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, that the war arrived in a big way in Asia. This violent specter loomed over much of his early life.
The major events of the 20th century flew around Pop like pages off a wall calendar. The Rape of Nanking, the U.S. island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. Mao’s guerilla campaign against Chiang Kai-Shek, the chairman’s rise to power and the tumult that followed.
Far away, America prospered. Many yearned for what Chinese who joined the California Gold Rush in years past called the “Gold Mountain.” My father was no different. He met my mother while working in a Guangzhou shoe factory, which was not exactly a hotbed for advancement. My parents didn’t have much schooling, but they were smart enough to know that the odds were stacked against them at home. A real future – for them and the children they would have – was far away.
In 1958, pregnant with my brother, Mom said goodbye to Pop, who departed not for America, but for Mexico City, where he had friends who could help him start a new life. Pop started as a dishwasher at a friend’s coffee shop in a rough part of the city. He eventually showed me the place and his old dishwashing station. It smelled like sewage and was overrun by hungry cats.
“Boy,” he said, “this is where it all began.”
Years went by. In his 30-plus years in Mexico City, he worked his way up from dishwasher to server, from server to shift manager, from shift manager to owner of a coffee shop and a four-star Chinese restaurant near Embassy Row. All this time, he squirreled away his money – sending some to Mom and my brother in Hong Kong, and saving the rest.
They went years without seeing each other, the only communication coming from letters, pictures and an occasional long-distance phone call. Eventually, Pop saved enough money to bring them to the United States for good. The family settled in Los Angeles, where I was born in 1973. The family saw Pop more often – twice a year for a few months at a time. He eventually bought a house sitting on top of a hill. It’s the one he and my mom live in today.
I wish I could say I appreciated everything from the beginning, but I was an insufferable pain in the ass, the blackest black sheep. Like many fathers and sons, he and I did not have a perfect relationship. We picked fights over reasons large and small – politics, school, my career. He expressed himself indelicately; I took things the wrong way. As Mom used to say, this was a match made in hell. Dinners were sometimes painfully silent, broken only by my abrupt announcement: “Thanks, I’m finished.”
Yet I always had an abiding respect for him, especially how humble he was with his charity. When we were out for dinner, he was regularly approached by people I’d never met who thanked him profusely – for a reference, a loan, a gift for a newborn baby. I half-suspected he was the godfather of a triad. (Would that make me the Chinese Michael Corleone? Or Fredo?) One day while I was home, he held up a photo of a stone plaque, which displayed mug shot photos of him, my mother and three family friends. The mug shots were accompanied by a Chinese inscription I couldn’t read. I asked him what it was.
“Cornerstone,” he said, “of the school we built in our old village.”
We managed to bond over one thing: Los Angeles Lakers basketball. “Showtime” is tattooed in my memory – Magic running a fast break, flipping no-look passes to Kareem, Worthy, Scott, Nixon, Rambis, Kupchak, Wilkes, Green, Divac and Michael Cooper. Pop maintained a stoic demeanor 95% of the time, silently reading a newspaper or watching Spanish-language TV news without expression. The other 5% of the time, he was watching a Laker game.
We could go days without speaking with each other, but a Laker game could bring us back together in front of the same TV. Neither of us would have to acknowledge being wrong; we could simply just watch the game. This seems silly now, but it was important to both of us then. He pushed my buttons because he wanted me to be better and he was always right. I pushed back because I never thought he was proud of me – and because I was always right.
During games, profane outbursts were frequent (from him): “Fuck! Vlade Divac is useless.” “A.C. Green – why can’t you make a free throw?!” Our family room sofa still bears a dent he made when he once pounded his fist into an armrest in frustration.
When I told my father I had joined the Marines, he was quiet, but a look of utter disappointment creased his face. He sat with that same stoic silence watching the news as the drumbeats of war grew louder in the weeks before we crossed the line of departure into Iraq in 2003. Mom was the spiritual one, praying underneath the picture of Jesus they hung over the staircase. Pop was the sensible one, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
At some point, he decided to write me a letter. I received it weeks later, at a checkpoint outside a farming village in Iraq. It was only a few lines long, written in my father’s shaky handwriting:
I’m proud of you.
He turned 83 at the end of May. Despite his protests – “plane tickets are expensive!” – I flew home to take him out to dinner. Over the long weekend, I tape-recorded the NBA playoff games we couldn’t watch live. We sat on the couch with the dented armrest as we complained about the sad state of affairs of the current Lakers team, which was knocked out of the second round of the playoffs for the second straight year.
“Kobe is getting old,” my 83-year-old father said. “The whole team is old.”
When I called to wish him a Happy Father’s Day on Sunday night, he was watching the NBA Finals.
At halftime with the Miami Heat ahead by one point, he said, “I think the Heat are gonna win.” Final score: Heat 91, Thunder 85. Right again.
I imagine he had a newspaper in his hands and a grimace on his face because the Lakers were nowhere to be found on the court. I also imagine a slow walk upstairs to his bedroom after the game, to lay his head down for a peaceful night of sleep.
I’m proud of you. And thank you.