The story of my grandfather retold 70 years later…
A dagger that started a revolution. A boat that ended a war. A gun that shook the world. These acts, of both bravery and cowardice, do not boast of a leader, but those that want to make a difference. The voiceless, that created the most powerful voices. But as time recalls, they were the popular, the majority, the stars – my grandfather was not such.
He was a cruel man who followed old traditions and strict rule. But through the stories from family, he had an alter ego. One who was sympathetic, kind, and whose life was dedicated to serving his country. His story began in Guangzhou, China in a small farming village. Most of the time, his clothing was drenched in a perpetual sweat and his knuckles were skinned raw working the field in the merciless sun. Growing up, he met the love of his life in a small corner market. My grandmother was taught the ways of any typical village girl. She learned how to cook all sorts of traditional dishes. She cleaned the house, served the men, etc. Growing up, she also met the love of her life in a small corner market. They soon wed at the ripe age of 13.
At the age of 16, my grandparents boarded a ship for the land of the free and prepared for the 30 day expedition to come. Looking at this realistically, a cargo ship meant for a personnel of 20 and holding a thousand, we can only fathom what conditions they faced. Urine lining the walls – the smell of feces and disease thickening the air. On day 25 of the perilous trip, there was an obstacle. A rather large obstacle.
I awoke to hundreds of other travellers frantically running around diving under beds. Jogging up to the deck, I saw a familiar blue boat docked next to ours. There were two uniformed Coast Guard officers, two on board with flashlights checking every cargo box; slowly, they progressed towards the main basement where we were holed up. I could’ve sworn I was going to be the first 16 year-old to get a heart attack. With the worst agility, I maneuvered my way around the officers to a small group who were stuck in the open. My mind flashed back to the village adjacent to ours when my best friend was in trouble with the police. He had nowhere to go and for three nights we were playing cat and mouse with them. I was interrupted by an abrupt futuristic sound. I looked over the box and saw them talking into a weird black object we now call a walkie-talkie. Suddenly, a voice spoke out of it, “Cargo Ship, Eastbound – be advised.” Abruptly, the white male stopped and whispered to his colored companion. They ran back to their boat where three males stepped out of a hidden door. I sighed with relief and went back to sleep. In the middle of a dream, I had a realization. If the Coast Guard is here, then that means we’re in… I jumped out of the painful bed to see Lady Liberty staring at me, a book in one hand, the candle in the other. Many people had already joined me on deck, but those who hadn’t soon woke up to the droll sound of a dusty horn.
Such a stupid ship. No fans. Nothing. What the hell were these people thinking? Letting a thousand people board a ship with a capacity of twenty. I hope we’re almost there. I probably have like a million diseases by now. Gosh, and my hair. My poor hair. It’s all dirty….
Reluctantly, I dragged my bony legs up the stupid, narrow staircase – only to find the most beautiful view of all. Standing 93 meters high, a green colossus stared at me straight in the eyes. We sailed around it to the bustling harbor right out of Chinatown and Little Italy. There to greet us was a young group of Asian men and women, a familiar feeling tingling down my chest.
“Ne ho!” A robust lady struggled to walk up the narrow ramp that connected us. She escorted us all to a unique building that was labeled “Chinese Hotel.” Many Hispanics and Muslims walked to and from each apartment room.
Wow, very culturally in depth, I grimaced. The place was ancient. It looked like something from the History Channel. There were these statues that were coated with dust that would greet you at every corner. One time, I was walking up the stairs while talking to our neighbor and when I looked in front of me, a statue was staring right at me. The room was even worse, believe it or not. I’m pretty sure if we black-lighted the whole room, we would’ve found some very unsettling substances in very common spots. The closet was unusable because they had sealed it up due to a cockroach problem. At night, I barely slept because of the bug problem. The first night we had stayed there, I woke up to find a spider and two cockroaches exploring my body.
The same day we arrived in the States, I had a chat with Uncle Sam and he recruited me for the army. But he thought my name was Jonathan Smith and that I was 21. Five days later, I said my farewell to Yick and left to fight front-line in the Korean War. At the base, two men separated the whites from the blacks. I stood in the middle and asked, “I’m not white nor black. I’m yellow, like the sun. Which way do I go?” The man hit me with his gun and I tripped over another soldier. I guess I’m white. The beds were a little more comfy than those on the ship. The smell of *** was overwhelmed by a heavy smoke – that’s when I learned to love cigarettes.
The first month was the worst. Loneliness. It was worse than a million words; because none were spoken. I didn’t have many friends except for the nice corner market lady, but I didn’t even know her name. Hers was the only market that sold premium meat so her customers usually consisted of businessmen passing through. Most of the time, I was hiding out in the back, where dead cows were hung by their feet and fish sprawled out on the rusted floors.
I remember one day in particular. It was a Saturday; like all the rest, boring and lonely. So I decided to take the train to Little Russia, get out of my comfort zone. It turned out to be a quaint little neighborhood, and many of the immigrants struggled to tell me their adventures coming to America. On the way back home, I had to stop in Sheepshead Bay to get some water. At a decrepit supermarket, there were two shady men lurking through the aisles. Slowly, I moved further away from them, not wanting any trouble. Both looked African-American but I wasn’t interested enough to check. Without my knowledge, one inched his way towards one end of the aisle; I ran as fast as I could in the opposite direction. Out of the blue, the other popped up in front of me. I yelled for help, but one of them muffled me with his hand. My body became numb and my heart was about to explode. This hadn’t happened before, so I didn’t know what to do. They kept shouting derogatory slurs, but I could barely understand their rough English when I could barely speak it myself. Right before they knocked me out, they took the money from my pocket. No one found me in the store, and the register guy was too busy protecting his own. Without saying a word, I slowly dragged my legs out the door; I stopped in the doorway, a sudden surge of memories flashing through my head. The stench on the boat, the way my body couldn’t support itself. Everything came rushing through in one brief moment. My body collapsed on the ground and the sheer force of the concrete knocked me out.
Day one on the battlefield was rough. We were hit twice by artillery and a wave of drunken bastards armed with 88’s who didn’t even know how to aim. But when it came down it, when times got tough, and trust me, they were always tough, we had our brothers in arms to lift us back up and keep us going. Semper Fi. Two words that kept me going when times weighed me down and life seemed like a distant reality. We were stationed in a small rural village just outside Pyongyang, where Kim Il-Sung and his forces awaited our arrival. Our small group consisting of less than 100 men were unprepared, unequipped, and had no idea who we were up against. It seemed like a good plan at the time.
The hollowness inside me grew exponentially by the day. The days were more meaningless than Bobby Darin’s songs. I rarely saw any more Japanese in America after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Luckily, I was still growing up in China at the time of the attack and I was only experiencing the aftermath. Oftentimes, people would mistake me for the people who attacked them just years before. Each day, I learned more and more about the real America. There was no more freedom than in China. Propaganda took the form of commercials and communism, laws. And my partner in life wasn’t even there to save me from it.
For three years, my grandfather had experienced all different levels of pain, from a scratch to multiple gun wounds. Sometimes the pain was so unbearable that he just wanted to end it all. But he fought on for my grandmother, the woman who never lost his faith, nor never gave up hers. It was the pure will of determination that got them both through these hard times.
“Get up, boys!” Sergeant Smith whooped. It was the last day of our three year tour and the war seemed to be dying down. “I’ve some pretty good news,” he walked down the aisles of tents where we all groggily and reluctantly awoke, “The Northerners have decided to sign an Armistice Agreement. Y’all have officially saved this country and ours from those terrorists we call North Koreans. Pack yer bags, cuz we’re all going home!” We all cheered as a military transport aircraft landed in the safe zone. First, the crazies hopped aboard. The ones with PTSD. It was a sad sight, seeing as how they deserved so much better than that. Serving our country for a trip to the psych ward.
I remember my walking past the infirmary and saw several sights that were unspeakable of. Half-dressed soldiers ran around, their bodies positioned in an awkward position as they yelled at the nurses. Others had to be held down at gunpoint until they calmed down.
Then, we slowly marched into our designated spots, ready for what was to come.
There was a knock on the door. First time in ages. It’s two in the morning. What can they possibly want from me? I took the bat from the kitchen and slowly opened the door. A handsome man looked at me with weary eyes. At first I couldn’t recognize him with a goatee. Then I realized. It was the love of my life. “I thought you were dead!” I dropped the bat and gave him a bear hug, never wanting to let go.
Bob lived a very traditional Chinese lifestyle for the next twenty years, never forgetting where he was raised and what brought him to where he was, but never quit the old habits that came with the army. Marlboro ultimately led to his demise and he died from a heart attack, caused by one of the several effects of cigarettes. Although post-traumatic stress changed him into a completely different person, he did not waver in faith to his wife nor his children.