PARKER PO-FEI HUANG
When I heard of Parker Huang’s passing, my immediate response was a tearful smile. The tears were heartfelt – he was a remarkable man, who made a deep impact on me as he did on all students, and now he is with us no more. But the smile was just as deep – he was someone who urged me to do more than study and think, he also prompted me to muse about things Chinese, to find real joy in the process. It certainly was not rote education, nor just cerebral education, it was cultural and emotional education as well.
Although I only took one course with Parker Huang – a tutorial in intermediate Chinese back in the summer of 1965 – it was a most unusual experience. Yes, we went through the texts, and it quickly became apparent that I was not a natural linguist. I really tried hard, too hard in Parker’s mind, because I ended up making translation an exercise in scanning dictionaries and trying to get the details right. What I remember best was the way in which he tried to loosen me up, to get me outside the characters and the sentences, to try to see the broader shape of the language, to get a sense of what was being conveyed even if I didn’t get every nuance right.
“Think of it as a journalist,” he said one time, “it’s a story, you don’t get it all, but it’s a puzzle, and it’s fun to figure it out.” He then leaned back and told me about China back a couple of decades, before the Communists had gained power, back when Chinese journalists were trying to figure things out in a very confusing period.
I suddenly realized that Parker was so much more than a language teacher; he was really a remarkably-successful thinker and writer displaced from his original profession by the tumultuous course of 20th-century Chinese history. He told me of his own poetry writing and even showed me some samples on various scraps of paper. One day, during a break from our reading, he smiled and began chanting some ancient poetry, his voice filled with vigor and vibrancy, his student transfixed with wonderment.
And so, our tutorial proceeded in most unexpected directions, mixing attention to my unsteady efforts in reading intermediate Chinese with his insights and anecdotes about a China that I had never visited (and in 1965, it seemed quite unlikely that an American student would get there in the foreseeable future). Curiously, I must have seemed like the super-serious Confucian-style student, learning how get beyond the task at hand from a remarkable gentleman who clearly represented the best of traditional China, but also the best of an urbane, cultured modern China.
One day, when I was really bogged down in a text, Parker suddenly stood up with a twinkle in his eyes. “How about doing something new? Would you like to learn taiji?” Stunned, I also stood up, and watched him move, smoothly and gracefully, through the first few segments of a taiji exercise, describing each movement as he did it. I followed him shakily, listening to his words – “slowly now, it’s about balance, about breath, about being centered, about emptying your mind. If you can find the spirit of the exercise, it’s more important than getting all the little gestures right.”
Yes, I am tearful that Parker is no longer with us. But I am smiling as I remember what I learned from him, all that I learned from him. Our text was in Chinese, but the course was not just about language or even just about China. It was an education about life and learning, about unleashing the potent force of curiosity. Parker Po-fei Huang was a man of many parts, but he was, perhaps above all, a great teacher.