By Ben Huang
My father was a man with many names. His wife and relatives addressed him by his Chinese given name—Bak fei. Others addressed him with more formal titles:
Huang Jiao-shou, Professor Huang; or Huang Laushi, Master Huang. Neighbors and colleagues addressed him by his English name, Parker, or by the romanization of his Chinese name, Po-fei. And my brother and I addressed him simply as Da.
I begin with my father's names because he loved words and devoted most of his life to them. As a poet, a teacher, a scholar, a lexicographer, a press officer and an editor, he used words as a way to bring cultures and countries together, a way to explore the infinite variety of his experience, and a way to express his inner feelings. In some ways this was a paradox, because he was a quiet, gentle man, not given to argument or self-assertion. Yet he knew the power of words—their power to move people, their power to give meaning to the past, their power to affirm both the beauty and mystery of the universe and the yearnings of the soul.
Some of my earliest memories of him are of him writing. Every Saturday morning, he secluded himself in his study to write. The study had an old wooden desk, bookshelves lined with thesauruses, dictionaries, tomes in both English and Chinese on literature, philosophy, religion, and a framed portrait of his father, a Qing dynasty scholar. There was also an old Royal typewriter, which I would hear clacking away while my mother was vacuuming the living room.
It wasn't just Saturday morning, either. My father wrote everywhere, at any time, on everything. I remember poems written on paper napkins, poems written on the backs of magazines, poems written on bookjackets. There were poems written in train stations, on airplanes, in doctors' offices. His little spiral notebooks and his pens (his favorite being, of course, Parker ballpoints) were ubiquitous. He once told my cousin's daughter Genevieve that after his retirement from Yale in 1982, he diligently wrote at least one poem a day.
My father wrote short, lyric poems in both English and modern Chinese. He also wrote poems using classical Chinese. His poems express his day to day thoughts and impressions. Together they form a kind of poetic diary. There are poems about winter solstices, poems about maple trees, poems about retirement parties, poems about tears.
Many of the poems are about nature. My father loved Nature in all its beauty and splendour—the buds on willow branches, the morning fog in the mountains, the crescent of the moon hanging over the smooth surface of a pond. He loved collecting things—in our dining room in our house in Connecticut, he kept a display of seashells and stones and pieces of driftwood and a menagerie of tiny glass and wooden animals. He had field guides on everything from birds to lizards to butterflies, was a devout reader of the National Geographic and owned just about every Time-Life book on Nature ever published. He loved to visit state and national parks and explore meadows and lakes and waterfalls.
Here's a poem entitled "After a Heavy Snow."
After a Heavy Snow
A bank of whiteness
Is all I see. Have I
tossed away the world
or the world me? Or
is it just a single
moment that I stand on
a sheer precipice
with clouds passing
Some mists sweep the
sky. Some stars elicit
serenity. I feel that
I am gathering the
reflections of a flower
in the water and that of
the moon in the mirror—
no scent, no motion,
yet I sense eternity.
I stop breathing lest
I wake myself. From
where, of what world,
have I come here? I
turn my head and see
there are only footprints
that follow me.
Others of the poems concern his feelings about exile and his desire to unify different cultures. Several poems written during his sabbatical in Hong Kong in 1963 are examples of this, as are some of his Connecticut poems. There's a poem entitled "On the Border," in which the speaker gazes longingly at the bridge crossing the river to the mainland. There's another entitled "Hong Kong Airport in the Morning" in which the speaker wonders whether airline passengers might be able "to build a bridge" and "bring each other within reach" (p.57). Another poem, "Naive Anxiety," describes a scene after a light snowfall in the spring. The speaker personifies the buds on the boughs of the trees, and has them ask: "What/ distance / did the swallows cover on their return flight?"
Here is "On the Border"
On the Border
There is too much,
too little, and
nothing to say.
After trying so many ways,
Crossing a river
There is still a bridge.
Is there none within
Standing on the bank
I watch the sluggish flow.
How deep and heavy, it
has carried my sorrow.
Still others have to do with family. There's a poem called "Father's Day" in which the speaker reprimands himself for being impatient with his infant son. Here's the first stanza:
Please let me have some quiet!
This is a small right that still belongs to fathers.
But the baby rolls his sparkling eyes and seems to say:
"Hey, I didn't complain about your snoring in the night, and
Just what are you grumbling about? I merely exercised my lungs in the broad daylight.
You mean you really didn't know?
This, this is a free world!
Although poetry was always his first love, he embraced all the arts. He loved music. He owned dozens of LPs—Mozart and Brahms, Broadway musicals, and Big Band music. Under my and my brother's influence, he even developed a taste for Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and James Taylor. And he taught himself to play the piano and the folk guitar.
He also loved watching movies. Shortly after the outbreak of the War, he spent half his salary to bring my mother to see Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. He must have seen every classic picture from the 30s and 40s. After retirement, one of his favorite recreations was to sit in front of the television after dinner with Mom and me to watch the latest film I'd ordered from Blockbuster. He loved watching everything from Modern Times to Bridge Over the River Kwai to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
If my father's deep love of poetry and his other artistic interests were one dimension of his life, his work as a journalist, a press officer and an educator, and his roles as a husband and father, were the others. The three elided into each other—he was a parent to his students, a teacher to his sons, a poet in his marriage.
His work as a journalist and as a press officer for the British Consulate involved him in the defining experience of his generation—the Second World War. He witnessed some of the major events and figures of that era—the Marco Polo Bridge incident, the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the Chinese civil war. He once met Chiang Kai-Shek in Nanking at a special press conference, and caught a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh in Guilin. In his newspaper work, he even coined Chinese expressions for the new terms "jet airplane" and "atomic bomb."
His second, American career as an educator allowed him to have a more subtle and lasting impact on the world. He spent the middle three decades of his life dedicated to developing Chinese language teaching and nurturing the work of young scholars. He was amply equipped for this because his own father had been a classical Confucian scholar, and had made sure that my father was well-grounded in all the Chinese classics.
He loved teaching—the give-and-take of the classroom, the intellectual discipline of writing, the human interaction between students, teachers and colleagues. His work had a significant impact on Chinese language teaching and on the field of Chinese Studies in general. A list of his former students reads like a Who's Who in Sinology: Sue Naquin at Princeton; Joanna Waley-Cohen at NYU, Sherman Cochran at Cornell. And not just academics: Bob Oxnam, the former director of the Asia Society, studied with my father, as did Bob Kapp, the current head of the US-China Business Association; Mike Chenault of CNN; and even John Withers, our current ambassador to Albania. When I contacted some of his former students about his passing, news spread instantaneously around the globe, and tributes to my father's dedication and excellence as a teacher have been pouring in.
But it was his role as a husband and a father that he considered most important. Whether it was Fate or Luck or Divine Intervention, he had the incredible good fortune to marry my mother, Mabel Pao-chen, whom he had known since his teens. They were planning to celebrate their sixtieth wedding anniversary this summer. Everyone who knew them as a couple knew that they complemented each other like yin and yang. While my father was the poet and dreamer, my mother was the pragmatist. While my father was the Taoist philosopher who practised wu-wei, my mother was the doer who made things work, who kept the bills paid and the car working and the household running. Whatever my father accomplished in his life was based on the foundation of his marriage. For over six decades, she was his closest companion, his confidante, his lover and his best friend.
And she always stood by him. Toward the end, when he was too weak to care for himself, she took complete care of him, feeding him, taking him to the doctors', making sure that he felt both physically and emotionally secure. I remember waking up one morning and hearing my mother washing him in the bathtub, and I thought, maybe this is what love is, to have someone bathe you when you are a tiny infant and someone to bathe you when you are a fragile old man.
They came to this country, fleeing a war-torn land, with two suitcases, two hope chests, and three hundred dollars. Like many immigrants, their lives were improvisational. While Da was studying at Stanford, he worked full-time for a Chinatown newspaper, and Ma taught at a Chinese school. Ma got pregnant and had Alan. They bought and ran a grocery store near Golden Gate Park. Da found a job teaching Chinese at the Monterey Army Language institute. And so on. Their lives really didn't stabilize until they moved to New Haven in 1954.
Together they raised my brother and me in a culture which was radically different than their own. They gave us, in some ways, a typical American experience, with pizzas, drive-in movies, high school science fairs and camping in national parks. At the same time, though, our family was different, and different in ways that, to a child's eyes, often seemed absurd. Whereas other boys' fathers watched the World Series, mine practised t'ai-chi and read the Tao Te Ching. While other dads ate steak and eggs, mine had a taste for yogurt and wheat germ. While other dads built bookshelves, mine wrote poems. Although I didn't realize it then, my father had a holistic, spiritual, wellness approach to life which had yet to enter the American mainstream. What I had thought was an embarassing resistance to adapt was really a foreshadowing of the Asianing of America. It wasn't that Da was uncool, it was that his adopted country still hadn't caught up with him.
Unconsciously, and with much resistance, I absorbed from him the values of a tradition which I was initially embarrassed by, but came eventually to reclaim. The books on my father's shelf—the Book of Odes, Mencius, the I Ching, and the Chinese myths and legends he recited to me at bedtime, were seeds planted in my psyche which lay dormant for many years. As was my father's way, he never forced me to study this tradition, but found a way of cultivating an affinity for it which eventually was to bear fruit.
He was, in fact, a paradox, a Confucian scholar in New England, a Chinese Transcendentalist, a Mandarin and a new American. And these contradictions were not easy to negotiate. In retrospect, I realize that his gentleness, modesty and lack of guile made life difficult for him in a society which valued money over poetry, and status over sensitivity. And Yale, in spite of its humanistic pretensions, was a hard place for people who didn't have the right background or pedigree. Yet my father didn't let himself become bitter. He never thought his career was more important than his family, always believing that his career was for his family. Although his position at Yale was meager in salary and never secure, he still gave himself fully to his work because he felt his first responsibility was to us.
While at Yale, my father became a Christian. He was baptized quite late—in his forties, by the University Chaplain, Sidney Lovett. Later he served as one of the deacons of Battell Chapel under William Sloane Coffin. Once converted, he never wavered in his faith. He attended church every Sunday as long as he could, and studied the Bible every day. His book of Daily Inspirations, which is still sitting on our coffee table, is plastered with post-its and annotations. And one of my final memories is hearing him in the early hours of the morning during Christmas reciting psalms and prayers.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says "Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the earth." In the days since my father's passing, this Beatitude has been echoing in my mind constantly. For my father was meek—not in the sense of being unmanly, but in the sense of understanding that violence must never be answered with violence, that the blessings of Nature far outweigh the superficial rewards of society, and that Love is the foundation upon which we must build our lives.
The long poem that was my father's life is now complete. As any poem must have its final line, so every life must have its final day. Yet, like any poem, the silence at the end is part of its music and meaning. As saddened as we are by losing him, we should remember that for my father, the purpose of poetry, and of life, was that it should be celebrated and shared. He saw life as an occasion for reflection and renewal, rather than for resignation and despair. Every moment for him had its special meaning, and the quest to catch that meaning was what gave his life richness and depth.
For my father, the end of one poem also always stirred the impulse to write another. And so as we regard his legacy, we should remember how all his words and actions ripple through our lives like concentric circles in a pond. His individual life has ended, yet in the lives of his family, his friends, his colleagues, and his students, his heart and spirit live on.
Da, we are grateful for all you gave us, and want you to know that as you stand on the precipice with God, with the clouds passing through you, gathering the reflections of a flower and the moon in the mirror, we are your footprints. And we will love you forever and always, and pray for your eternal peace.