Commentary: Some life lessons from my Chinese father-in-law

The Sacramento BeeFebruary 11, 2013 


Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton.

SCOTT LORENZO — Sacramento Bee/MCT

My father-in-law used to love Chinese New Year, which is being marked today by 1.5 billion people from Sacramento to Shanghai.

Dad was born and lived in mainland China until political upheaval displaced his family and brought them to paradise – Los Angeles, California.

He didn't speak a word of English when he first arrived in the intolerant America of the 1940s and '50s.

In those years, racial hostility was often out in the open and justice could be hard to find.

We easily forget how things used to be not so long ago. Some people get angry at the mention of indisputable historical facts.

The Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese immigration in 1882 – after thousands of Chinese came to the United States to help build its railroads – was not repealed until 1943. In many states, Chinese were denied property rights until 1965.

In those years, Dad lived the life of a Chinese immigrant, one in which his world was the small orbit of Chinatown and home. For years after segregationist laws were repealed, the sentiments behind them preserved an invisible wall that separated the Chinese from neighboring communities.

To venture too far out beyond safety would invite an unpleasant or frightening experience with a bigot.

And those old habits died hard.

I remember an early 1990s day trip around tourist locales of Los Angeles with my mother-in-law and being stunned when she mentioned it was her first visit to Hollywood after decades of living in the area.

Years later, when my in-laws visited us in Sacramento, I'd try not to stare at the bulging veins in the backs of Dad's legs – a testament to his toiling on his feet for 10 hours a day, six days a week.

That man earned everything the hard way and he deposited those earnings in a little house in a middle-class neighborhood. It may be an everyday occurrence for most of us, but a quiet triumph of mobility for a humble man – and a sign of progress in our country.

Still, Dad's children also faced racial taunts, which were still around in the 1970s and '80s.

As a boy, I loved the groundbreaking television show "Kung Fu," which had as its creative force the crossover star Bruce Lee. Even so, Lee was considered to be "too Asian" for the lead role. It went to David Carradine instead.

I also remember watching cartoons where Asian males and Asian accents were mocked openly on network television. I remember hearing kids of Chinese and Japanese ancestry being taunted at my elementary and junior high schools in my native San Jose.

Yet, in that era, Dad just kept working. He kept coming home, exhausted physically, but emotionally devoted to one goal: His children would go to college.

His children would have it better than he did.

It would have been easy for him to grow angry based on his experiences, but he never did. He became a naturalized citizen. And his focus was always on better years ahead.

This is the gift that immigrants bring to the United States.

The people of Dad's generation started businesses, put their kids through college and put down roots. And today, California is energized by the descendants of people once targeted by racist laws and the antipathy they spawned.

The ideals of America were renewed and revitalized by a man I was honored to know.

When I first met him in the late 1980s, I was the young suitor for his daughter's hand – the one who was most definitely NOT Chinese.

Relatives said otherwise, but I knew my man was not thrilled with the idea of me messing up his gene pool. I would bet money that in private moments, Dad imagined a target on my 25-year-old head. Don't all fathers do that?

Maybe, but this dude was a card-carrying member of the NRA. He did venture outside his small world enough to make friends on gun ranges, which drew people from across all income levels and racial barriers.

In our first meeting, he enthusiastically told me about his hobby, looked me square in the eyes and, with a wily smile, added: "You know, I'm a really good shot."

I got the message.

I also got a friend for life and insight into California's history with Chinese people.

The amazing success of Asian students in California universities today did not come easily. Those kids are where they are because their ancestors relentlessly drove themselves to make it happen, even when the system was stacked against them.

I only wish Dad were around to see the progress of his dreams. He died on my birthday in 2005. We think of him often, but especially today as the world celebrates Chinese New Year.

It's a day of family and hope. Dad lived those ideals and passed them on to us, and today we'll raise a toast to him – a toast of gratitude and love.

Happy New Year.

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