When my mother was in college in Taiwan, one day she looked at the chalkboard and asked her friend, “Who’s writing is that?” You see, Chinese characters tell a lot about a person. It’s a bit like drawing, and it can reveal many things about you – whether you’re playful, imaginative, disciplined, strong in different ways… It turns out that the person who wrote the characters on the chalkboard was the T.A. in her class, my father. And this is how my mother first became interested in my father – because of his handwriting.
My mother and father came from very different worlds. She was a social butterfly. She had many suitors from China and Taiwan and from different places around the world. They called her the “Black Rose” because she didn’t have the white, porcelain skin of classical beauty and because when a man tried to woo her, they would most likely be hurt. She never lacked any confidence, and I think this is what made her truly beautiful. She was a very kind, honest, generous, fun-loving spirit, but also immensely gracious. When I was young, I was very shy around boys. She told me, “Why should you be afraid or embarrassed? When a boy looks at you, you should think or pretend they are nothing to you.” But she advised that if I truly liked a boy, I should keep myself at a distance. She said, “If you show your interest too soon, the boy will not like you so much. But if you keep your distance, he will grow fonder.”
At any rate, my mother, who had so many men courting her, eventually fell in love with my father. Her mother objected because my father was poor. He could hardly afford to eat and ate many bananas, which were cheap. He had passed the rigorous exam to enter Taiwan University, but he could not afford the tuition. Because he could not afford books, he studied what he could from books in the bookstores. He tutored a young girl, took the exam again and passed, and her father eventually offered to pay for part of his tuition, and this is how my father came to be a student at Taiwan University.
My father never told me these stories. He is rather silent about his life, and much of what I learned about him came from my mother. For seven years, my mother could not marry my father because her mother objected, but eventually she got the blessing of her father. During this period, her mother passed away at the early age of 44 from stomach cancer. After they married, my mother had a much harder time of things. She didn’t even know how to boil water when they were married. And the first dinner she made for his friends was a disaster. She put a chicken in a pot and just let it cook and cook, and by the time his friends arrived, it had been in the pot so long that the chicken disintegrated so that they basically ate soup (with the bones).
My mother was an amazing woman. By the time I was a child, she was in America, sewing our clothes (she was also very talented in knitting), cooking delicious meals every day, taking care of the bills, taking care of the children, working here and there as a data processor or in the local library. She wallpapered our entire dining room and one of our bathrooms beautifully. I don’t know how she did this by herself or where she learned how to do it. After coming to America, she had few possessions. My first baby crib was apparently a cardboard box, and my parents truly struggled to make ends meet. But my mother loved my father immensely. The only person she loved more than my father was God. (She went to Catholic school in China.) Her English was never as good as my father’s, not nearly, and she struggled with this all her life.
They had few possessions, but there was one thing she kept in a bank vault. These were the letters (aerograms) that my father wrote her every day after he came to the U.S. to study for his PhD. It was not easy at that time for Chinese people to come to the U.S., and so my mother and father were separated for more than three years. But every day, he wrote her a letter. And my older sister who was only a baby at the time in Taiwan would jump with joy every time they got a letter from my father and say, “Papa’s letter!” These letters were the most precious things to my mother, enough that she would keep them in a bank vault, and my sister and I now have them but, unfortunately, with our limited Chinese, we have a hard time reading and understanding them (especially because many of the characters are written in cursive letters).
When I noticed later that my mother’s handwriting was quite similar to my father’s, my father did tell me something. My mother practiced my father’s handwriting.