A Duck for the Ages

September 3, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

What is that old saying?  Absence makes the heart grow fonder?

It’s a common saying that usually pertains to how you feel when a person you care about is gone for an extended period of time.  The longer they are away, the more you look forward to them coming home again.

I’ve discovered that this rule applies to any number of things that might be missing in your life.  For example, I’m growing more and more fond of pizza by the minute.

My ever-growing fondness for pizza notwithstanding, I think the perfect example of this axiom has to do with my dad.

Ever since I can remember, from the time that I was a little boy, I can remember times when Dad would reminisce about his past.  My dad does not have a very good memory, so when he does remember something, especially if it’s something good, it tends to stand out.

So what would be the one pleasant memory my dad will consistently bring up?  Coming to America to start a new life?  No. Getting married and watching the love of his life walk down the aisle?  No.  The birth of his children?  No.

He talks about the one time my mom made a roasted duck for dinner.

She made this duck before I was born and this was no ordinary duck dish.  This was a duck made with taro, and according to Dad, it was dee-licious.

You have to remember – the duck in question was roasted in the early sixties.  This duck was hatched during the Kennedy administration.  There have been twelve Olympic games held since that duck was served.  I was born shortly after the duck and while I’m sure he was very happy holding his first born son for the first time, I imagine he was thinking how much better the day would be if there was another roasted duck waiting for them on the way home from the hospital.

But it was not to be.  In fact, my mom to this day, despite my dad’s frequent requests, has never made that duck dish again.  And if she knows what’s good for her and him, she never will.

Oh sure, she’s roasted plenty of ducks since then. She made ducks during the Johnson administration, through Watergate, and during the cold war.  But not that particular duck recipe.

There was no taro in all the subsequent ducks.

I know how my dad feels.  Along with the celebrated duck, my mom once made sweet and sour pork.  Now, we all know how easy it is to find sweet and sour pork.  Every Chinese restaurant makes it every single day.  But my mom made it once and only once.  No repeat performances. I can understand someone trying out a recipe and never making it again if it turned out badly.  But in the case of dad’s duck and my pork, it turned out great.  It was good.  Very good.  It was drool worthy.

On the other hand, Mom attempts to make a Thanksgiving turkey every year and every year it comes out so dry it’s closer to beef jerky than a roast turkey.  It’s so dry that any gravy in the vicinity of the turkey turns to powder once the turkey sucks all the moisture out of it.  This we get every year.

I’m not sure I understand the logic of it.  I suppose if there were some way we could change the constitution so that ducks and sweet and sour pork replaced turkey and gravy during Thanksgiving, we’d be all set.

The problem is, it has been so long since Dad enjoyed that single, solitary duck, that his enjoyment of said duck has grown to mythic proportions.  The way he talks about that duck nowadays, you’d think this duck was manna from the heavens.

I don’t think any chef, much less my mom, could roast a duck in a way that could match the expectations my dad has created.  A duck that is served only once every forty years?

I’m afraid dad would pass out from the anticipation.  It might even coin a new saying.

Absence makes the heart have irregular palpitations.

A General’s Generational Tale

September 3, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

Between 1928-1936, General Chen Ji Tang was the supreme ruler of southern China. He was a leader in the ruling Nationalist party at the time, and was a rival to the party leader, Chiang Kai-Shek.  General Chen wielded enormous economic and military power in the region, and was commonly known as the “King of the Southern Skies” due to his military might.

I bring up this somewhat arcane fact not because I’m particularly interested in this period of Chinese history, nor to relate this to some facet of China’s position in the world today.  Instead, I sometimes reflect upon his life and times in a very personal way, as a contrast to my own life.  You see, General Chen was my grandfather.

He lived and led during a tumultuous time in his country’s history, when decisions had life and death consequences.  At times he led his military to fight the Japanese invasion of China, and at times he fought against the emerging Communist movement, which would ultimately lead to the retreat of the Nationalist party, pulling back to the island of Taiwan.

Growing up, whenever my father’s family would get together for a reunion, grandfather’s exploits on and off the battlefield were often the topic of discussion.  While many of the stories were undoubtedly true, I suspect through the haze of time that his legend in the family has only grown.

I have heard stories on how he single handedly led the way to modernize Southern China’s infrastructure.  I’ve heard that during the tumult of World War II, he received requests from the leaders of both sides of the war to recruit his support for their efforts.  He is said to have traveled in a bullet proof car which he acquired after machine gun fire was sprayed all along his previous vehicle while he was in transit.  I’ve been told that at a particularly dangerous period, grandfather would have his aides frisk his own children before allowing them to come into the house in case one of his enemies had successfully turned one of his own against him.

Yet even with the enormity of the times, it’s the few personal anecdotes my father tells that stand out most in my mind.  By all accounts, my father was not the favorite of grandfather.  Caught up in the drama of his times, along with having 15 + other children among his three consecutive wives, grandfather could be dismissive, distant, blunt, and bad tempered to his children, and particularly with my father.

My dad was a sickly child, constantly in and out of the hospital, and his condition in the eyes of his father was often in stark contrast to the vitality, ambition, and spirit of his closest older brother, who happened to be the favorite of the family.  I’m sure this is one of the reasons why my father does not often speak of his childhood.

In the few times my dad has spoken of his past, his life was often at odds with a family of tremendous wealth and power.  His living quarters were in a separate building from the main residence, where his parents and his favored siblings lived.  His room was sparse, with a cold, concrete floor, furnished with a hard, uncomfortable chair and a bed with very little padding.  He was often scolded for being sick, and because his illnesses affected his schooling, his grades suffered as well, which would only bring more scorn and ridicule from grandfather.

The piano was a refuge for my father, a way of escaping the starkness of his life, enabling him to revel in the beauty and peace of Mozart and Beethoven’s music.  Unfortunately, grandfather often berated him mercilessly for playing the piano too loudly while he was trying to work or nap.  He stopped playing shortly after that, and it was only a couple of years ago that he started playing again.  I suspect that may be a reason why dad always pushed me to learn the piano.

With all this, it’s one brief encounter between my father and grandfather that is the most vivid to me.  As I recall, my father, a slightly built eight or nine year old, was just berated by one of the servants of the residence.  He sat, alone, on a wood bench, looking forlornly and glum at the floor.

Grandfather, entering the room, sees his son, sitting alone, and decides to sit alongside his dejected son.

Quietly, and very tenderly, Grandfather raised his son’s small and slender hand into the air, and placed his own open hand against the palm of his son.  He looks down, into the eyes of his son, and says, “Everything will be alright.  You see?  Your hand is much smaller than mine but it is the same.  You are a part of me.”  This is my dad’s favorite childhood memory.

My grandfather passed away long before I arrived.  I wonder how he would have fared in today’s world, where our greatest struggle of the day is often just getting through the daily commute without spilling hot coffee in the car.  I wonder how I would have fared during the tumult of his times.  I suppose these are questions that were never meant to be answered.

In the end, you live your life the best you can in the times you are in.  The important thing is to honor your past, and to do your best to live up to it.

These two men – they are a part of me as well.