Contributed by special guest writer, Dan Chinn
Here I am with my parents.
Fast forward many years to now. Thinking about my dad and the time we drove to Ellensburg, WA. It was the first time that my dad and I went anywhere out of town together. Dad was around 80 and I was 48. It was one of my most satisfying trips ever. Dad was easy-going and loved to eat food with salt in it. Which was forbidden him by my mom. We would talk about whatever was on our minds. Sometimes we would talk about family history. Especially his side of the family. Things he told me never ceased to surprise me.
My dad came to the U.S. in 1930. Right after the Stock Market Crash. He was 12-years-old and came with an uncle to Ellensburg where he lived like most Chinese men did in the 1920s and 1930s, in a bachelors boarding house/hotel. He went to American school during the day and worked part-time after school at both the Chinese laundry and the Chinese restaurant. Sometimes sleeping in a backroom on a table. Here is where my dad told me something surprising. He told me that he couldn’t remember what his dad looked like. My dad had a decent memory for things. So I started thinking. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese laborers from coming into the U.S. and his father was able to come here and stay because of his Merchant Visa. Which entitled him to come to the U.S. and stay for 4 or 5 years before having to return to China for one year before reapplying. That was why my dad had trouble remembering what his dad looked like. He had spent little time with him. A year when he was 7 and part of a year when he was 11. His father was getting too old to travel back to the U.S. So he expected his son to take over for him and earn money and send it to China to support the family. His father had lost his wife to disease after having four girls and an adopted son. He remarried and my dad was the first-born in the second family. His arrival caused his adopted brother to lose status, further increasing his responsibilities. Adopted brother went to NYC and loosened his ties with the family. The day my father got on the boat, his father told him that “the future of the family rests with you.”
Dad was a great patriot. He went to the war due to the draft but he could have just as easily gone back to China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was still in place. He jokingly said, “It’s just my luck, they bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7 and by January 21, I was in the Army!” Like a lot of Chinese men of his generation, being in America was extremely important not only for their own futures but for their families living in China. They were transplants, but they were willing to fight to earn their right to stay. So I chuckle when I see this picture of Dad posing as the Statue of Liberty because I know it was no joke to him. Like the old cigarette ads for Tareyton, he’d rather fight than switch.
This a picture of my mom working at the Moreland Presbyterian Church cafeteria where The Loaves and Fishes program feeds seniors. They serve food to shut-ins, too; meals are delivered by Meals on Wheels’ volunteers. When my mom worked there in the kitchen, she and supervisor Thelma Skelton received a citation for having one of the most efficient Loaves and Fishes kitchens in the whole U.S.! Less wasted food and good use of resources. They sent an observer to see what they did differently from other kitchens. They found my mom chopping up the leftovers to make hearty soups which were favorites of the large group of seniors that ate there. Mom hates to throw good food out. Way to go Mom and Thelma. When the Loaves and Fishes program moved to its new kitchen at the Sacred Heart Retirement complex at SE Milwaukie Ave and Center St., it was named after Thelma Skelton. She had run the non-profit for most of the years it was at the Presbyterian Church and my mom worked part-time with one other server for most of the years at the new kitchen, too. They were a good team.
Pictures of my mom through the years. This black-and-white picture of my mom is when she was back in China as a 17- or 18-year-old. She was dubbed “The Atomic Bride” by her friends. She was considered to be more modern than others in their village. My dad met my mom due to the War Brides Act of 1946, which allowed American GIs to go to a foreign country and bring home a wife without having to go through normal immigration procedures and detainment. He had gone to China to see his family and to do what people in his generation did – “go bride shopping” – in the villages adjacent to his own. All of the mothers would bring their unwed daughters to the Dim Sum house in hopes of meeting a husband. My dad told me my mother was taller than average for that part of China. 5’4″ where the average was 5’1″ judging by the height of a lot of her friends and relatives. Most of the population was malnourished in southern China due to the drought and war with Japan. My mom told me people were eating wild grass roots and if it hadn’t been for the bamboo blooming, many people would have died. Bamboo blooms every 25-40 years. My cousins who had lived through the communist take-over and stayed in China until the 1980’s, told me that they only ate twice a day. When I went to China in 1985, I was much taller than the average 20-year-old male. The tallest guys I saw in Guang Dong were 6 feet. Thirty years later, I revisited the city and noticed the height of people had increased 2 to 3 inches! I was still taller but not so much as before. That area of China was eating three meals a day. I had good nutrition and never missed a meal until I went to college.
This color photo of my mom was taken last year. We think she’s 88 or 89. Not sure how accurate her birth certificate is. I did a rough calculation, and she has cooked me 14,304 meals!! And still counting, because for the past 45 years, she is still cooking for me once a week! Love ya Mom!
Bio: Dan Chinn was born to Suey Q. and Faye K. Chinn, Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Benson Polytechnic High School (Pre-Engineering, Electronics) and attended PCC and PSU (Electronic Engineering, Poetry, Film Making, and Marketing). He worked at Bell Telephone, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Portland Branch, Tektronix Inc., and Intel Corporation before retiring in 1998. Dan is now a writer, poet, photographer, artist, and musician.