Today is the 18th anniversary of my father’s passing. He died at the young age of 59, 6 months after being encouraged to retire “early” after a banking merger. I was 27, in my first semester at Harvard Business School, recently engaged to my high school sweetheart. At that moment, the crossroads of my life, his life, my mother’s life were forcibly integrated towards a trajectory that none of us could have planned. Almost 20 years later, I now know the immense influence his life and his death have had on who I am and how I came to choose the work I now do.
My father had been in the United States 21 years when he died, having immigrated from Taiwan when he was almost 40, giving up an aspiring career as a policy analyst to become a data operations specialist at a bank. Like other US immigrants, he was chasing a dream, less for himself, but more for his children. He was a child of World War II. He witnessed the Nanking Massacre, his father almost beheaded, his mother raped. Stories I never knew until my adulthood and detailed by my aunt after his death. He left his parents, his home in China on a summer trip to visit his sister in Taiwan in 1949, not knowing that the Communists would take over control. It would be another 30+ years before he would set foot in his birthplace and see his parents again. It’s impossible for me to imagine the life he experienced. But it has become clear to me that stability was not assumed but cherished by him. He worked feverishly to create a comfortable, stable base for his family, to create a world of opportunity for his children, even as he sacrificed the dreams of his own passion. He put his passion into creating a dedicated and loving partnership with his wife and forming a formidable family foundation for his children, persevering in a culture exceedingly uncomfortable and unnatural for him.
My father’s hopes were conveyed but rarely spoken. He was a quiet man who cherished his moments to read, collect memorable writings and stay connected to family and friends back at “home”. He loved telling stories of Chinese legends, their morality, courage and goodness. He constantly spoke in proverbs, in analogy, which he always explained in a way that was so easy for me to understand. He made Chinese the language in our home without ever demanding it, at a time when it was very unpopular to maintain the Asian culture if one wanted to be accepted as an American. He creatively celebrated Chinese holidays, presenting us with delicacies carefully picked out from Chinatown, all the while teaching us the etiquette and customs of the Chinese culture. As I got older, I realized he made such efforts because he truly loved his native culture and he always wanted us to be connected to our family back in Taiwan and China. His vision was uncanny. Today, I am fluent in spoken Chinese and can seamlessly move in Chinese circles. Because of his vision and dedication, I indeed, have a connection with my family in Taiwan and China. Because of him, although I came to the US at the young age of 6, I am able to possess empathy for the many newly arrived Asian students and professionals who populate so many US universities and corporations. His love for his native culture planted the seeds that allows his daugther to be a bridge for another generation of hopeful immigrants.
My father was an exceedingly modest man who spoke in a discerning manner. You can imagine his disposition did not bode well for him in Corporate America. Year after year, I saw him passed up for promotions, all the while being the one everyone can “count on” to do the difficult tasks. His hopes eventually became dashed and he swallowed the hard pill of acceptance of his plateaued career. Even as he put on his face of acceptance, I knew a part of him died over the years. Especially as he reached his 50’s and saw his previous colleagues in Taiwan become experts in their field, he knew that he had never reached his potential as a human being. And yet, he never complained or lamented. It just was.
More the reason, I believe, my father held such quiet insistence that I follow my passion and dreams. When other Chinese parents were insisting their high school aged children study more and not pursue extracurricular activities, my parents freely let me pursue my passion for student government, trusting my academics would be fine. When my parents were dealing with the issues of race in America, they allowed my brother and me to debate with them about racism, which was very uncharacteristic of “respectful” children within the Chinese culture. When I decided to date “outside my culture”, my parents worried but never forbade me to integrate with the main culture and pursue my emotional passions. In college, when I wanted to major in East Asian Studies, my mother warned me of its impracticality, stating that I should go home and have my father teach me rather than wasting their hard-earned money for my attendance at Harvard, but my father quietly but clearly backed me to follow my passion. After graduation, when I accepted an offer to go to Cincinnati with Procter & Gamble, rather than in investment banking in NY, where I would be minutes from them, they sadly but encouragingly supported my moving even farther away from them. Towards the end of his life, when I had decided to marry a man who was half Caucasian and half African-American, he feared for my acceptance by a culture that had rejected him and that he believed rejected Blacks even more severely. But he trusted my knowing and my passions, as he always had, and offered his support. Six months later, he died.
As a child of Chinese immigrants, I know (as do others like me know), that we have been taught to repay our parents’ sacrifices with our filial piety, respect and societal success. I would say my father and mother would place “living our life purpose” at the top of the list (ok, maybe after filial piety). It may not be characteristic of the Chinese family. But then again, neither my father or mother followed the path of least resistance.
For awhile I followed the path of an immigrant family’s ideal path for their child: a great education and a successful career that is easily trackable and understood. I was Harvard educated. I became the youngest vice president at Polaroid. In those successes, I felt I had redeemed for my father’s sacrifices and what he perceived as his “failures”. But as I traveled along that path it became my own prison, when I no longer knew for what reason I remained. My father’s early death taught me the immeasurable value of being a dedicated and loving parent. And so I made the choice to leave Corporate America in the hopes of having children. In the last ten years, I have come to truly cherish the fact that I have a choice to follow my passion. But it’s not just any choice. The choice to follow our passion is a luxury. A luxury that is enjoyed by so few. And thus, this choice to live our purpose and follow our passion, is beyond a luxury, it’s an obligation. An obligation to express our gratitude for this gift of one life.
As I do my work today, as a cross-cultural leadership development consultant, my hope is to allow others to find their gifts, their passions and to find a path to actualize their true potential in a new culture. As part of my work, my dream holds that we can deeply appreciate each other’s uniqueness and embrace this natural diversity holistically in our communities. Neighborhoods. Universities. Corporations. Nations.
I have been exceedingly fortunate to have had a father who encouraged me to stay awake to my passions and life purpose. I have benefited greatly from his quiet and noble willingness to sacrifice and perservere in the face of exceedingly challenging life circumstances. I have had the great fortune to experience the ever-present love of a parent. In my father’s honor, may I continue to walk the path to stay awake to my purpose, passion and power. And may I help to awake the greatness that resides in each of us.
Thank you Ba Ba. Eighteen years later, you are still with me every moment. With eternal gratitude…