When I was a child

September 9, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

There’s an unwritten rule that all parents abide by when raising their children. This rule supercedes all other rules of parenting, whether it is applied intentionally or not. Though the following may not be the formal title of this rule, I believe it is generally recognized as the “When I was a child…” method of parenting.

Comedian Bill Cosby once described how his father invoked this rule when noticing that young Bill was none too eager to walk to school. As I recall, his father said, “When I was a boy, my school was 20 miles away. I walked in bare feet, with 30 pounds of books, uphill…both ways!”

My parents never used the rule intentionally, but then again, they never really had to. Having come from China, my parents both lived in stark conditions devoid of all the conveniences we take for granted today, but there was also the ever constant threat from the Japanese invasion during World War II, as well as the communist takeover of the country. Compared to my childhood in the 70’s and 80’s in a middle class neighborhood in San Diego, I didn’t need many reminders – I knew how fortunate I was – I had a happy childhood.

Of course, this now leads me to my problem. I am now a father, who along with my wife, are raising three kids. While I have every intention to continue the tradition of the “When I was a child…” method as it has been passed down from generation to generation of parents before me, I am having a hard time coming up with appropriate examples of my own that would instill a measure of guilt in my own children. So far, none of the examples I have from my own childhood inspire much sympathy.

I’ve listed a few examples and you can be the judge. Here goes:

When I was a child, we didn’t have a remote control to change the channel on the TV. I had to get up from the sofa to change the channel myself until I started ordering my little brother Steve to be the remote control.

When I was a child, automobiles didn’t have child safety restraints or car seats, for that matter. In fact, you weren’t even required to wear a seat belt. When we got in the car, my brother and I were usually in the back of our Ford station wagon with the back window rolled all the way down. Any sudden turn would fling us from one side to the other. It was just a part of growing up. Head concussions build character.

When I was a child, public bathrooms didn’t have sinks that turned on automatically when you placed your hands in the bowl. Back then, there was a button on top you pressed to get the water started and it only lasted .65 seconds every time you pressed it. In order to wash your hands properly you had to perform an elaborate yoga move and place one foot on the button to keep the water running.

When I was a child, we didn’t get anything fancy for our school lunch. Our menu consisted of bean burritos, fish sticks, soybean hamburgers, and milk. Each day during our lunch break, I would try and open the small, individual sized carton of milk, which was nearly impossible because every time you folded back the carton flap, the spout never opened forcing you to jam a finger into the lip of the container to get any milk. On top of that, the school supplied each of us with one straw made from wax paper, which would immediately go limp after the first sip of milk. Struggling to suck milk through a limp, soggy straw one drop at a time, I’d often black out halfway through the carton.

It’s ironic how a happy childhood could lead to a parenting crisis. I’ll put some more thought into it after I finish my soybean burger.

The Tiger Woods of Sons

September 9, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

My son will be the Tiger Woods of tennis.  No, even better, he will be the Michael Jordan of tennis.  Wait, wait, my son will be the next John McEnroe of uhh….well, tennis.

At least that’s my fantasy.

There comes a point in fatherhood where most Dads, foist all his hopes, dreams, and aspirations on his kid.  In my case, I have my ten-year-old son, Tyler.

I think this generational rite of passage starts from a biological urge for fathers to transfer every ounce of ambition and unfulfilled aspiration into their son so that we can live vicariously through them.  It’s bred into us.  We can’t help ourselves.  I believe the clinical term for the condition is “Needtopassthebuckology”.

I see signs of it every time I get together with my friends.  “My son just got an all-star award delivered to our home for baseball!” said one.  My other friend called up to tell me that he’s started coaching his two boys in junior tennis and that one of his boys was characterized as being especially gifted.

In fact, now that I think of it, every one of my friends who has a son who is at least eight years old has told me that their son is especially gifted in one sport or another.  I have yet to meet a father who has an average or “gift-less” child.

All of this, of course, only intensifies my obsession to discover the super human-like talent that must lie somewhere within Tyler.  If all these other so-called gifted boys are that good, then surely Tyler must possess the kind of Schwarzenegger-like strength and cheetah-like reflexes to excel in any sport.

I figured, once we discovered Tyler’s athletic gifts, in short order we could expect opponents to fall to their knees in dejection once they saw the phenomenon that is Tyler and realize that any attempt to compete against him was basically a futile delay of the inevitability of his unstoppable awesomeness.

Perhaps my expectations were a tad high.

I’ve taken him out to the tennis court, since I’m a pretty good player and I figured it was a good place to start.  I taught him the basics, and he gets excited when he hits the ball and gets a little frustrated when he misses.  He is fine when we are on the court, but you distinctly get the feeling he would be just as happy riding his bike or goofing off with his friends.

He has no obsession for the game, and based on my experience with him, the same goes for soccer, baseball, or any other organized sport.  As a dad who loves his son, I’ve come to realize that whatever he does, as long as he tries, is fine with me.

So, after a few weeks of coming to this conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised yesterday that Tyler wanted me to take him out to the tennis court and hit some balls.

Of course, with my outlandish expectations once again quickly re-established, I readily obliged and we headed to the courts.

On the court, Tyler ran around, trying to hit every shot, including ones he couldn’t realistically reach.  He kept at it, and only took a break just to get some water.  We played for 90 minutes and for the first time, he seemed to revel in the game.

Time to work on those sponsorship deals again.

Once we were done, we came home and he wanted to get some more water.  He opened up the refrigerator, and all at once, one of the side drawers fell off and a number of glass jars burst on the floor.  Tyler looked a bit stunned, and I told him to step away from the broken glass but that it was OK and that these things happen sometimes.  Yet, he looked dejected.

I told him, “It’s OK, Tyler.  It’s just an accident.  I’m not mad at you.”  He said, “I just wanted this to be a perfect day, and now you have to clean up this mess.”

Not quite understanding what he meant, I asked him, “What do you mean you wanted this to be a perfect day?”  He said, “You know, the card I gave you this morning, you and I spending time together today.”

Then I realized what my ten year old meant.  That morning, he gave me a card.  For the last few years on that day, he’s given me a card.  A father’s day card.  And now I realized, he played his heart out on the tennis court on that day…for me.

At least for me, it was the best father’s day a father could ask for.

A Bouncing Ball and a Bruised Ego

September 7, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

There comes a time when you look back on your life and recall the moments when you truly accomplished something special.  For some, it might be a physical act, like climbing Mt. Everest or finishing a marathon.  For others, it could be a creative  act, like writing a best selling novel, or inventing a better mousetrap.

When I look back,  I am proud of being a good father and husband.  But, the more I contemplate my accomplishments, the more I keep going back to the one success that towers over the rest.

I finally beat my mother in law in a game of ping pong.

Immature, you say?  Insignificant, you proclaim?  Let me explain.

My mother in law was born and raised in Taiwan.  Every day during lunch, as well as three nights a week, she gets together with friends to play ping pong.  She is consistently the league champion.

As for me, I get as competitive as you can possibly imagine.  I will risk serious bodily injury and humiliation in order to win a point.

When she arrived in San Diego, my first instinct was to play nice.  After all, I was the future son-in-law,  and the reason that her daughter was moving from Taiwan for good.  Fairly early on, she suggested we play ping pong.  Sounded innocent enough, and while I don’t play that much, I figured heck, I’ll even let her win.

The first match set the tone.  Not only was she beating me, she was blowing me away, and to make things worse, I could tell that she was taunting me in Chinese as well.

“I’m sure you can beat me”, she said.
“Should I hit it softer?”

For the next few days, I knew my mission in life.  No need for sleep or food. I became one with the ping pong paddle.

We played over 30 matches.  I never won, but at least I heard some new taunts.

“Maybe you should try playing left handed…or maybe I should.”
“Where are my glasses?  I can’t believe I’m winning without my glasses.”

The next day, she was gone, back to Taiwan.  My official ping pong record was zero wins, 35 losses. With each day that passed, I muddled through with no purpose in life.  A broken shell of a man.

Fortunately for me, a few months passed and she called to say she would be visiting us again.  The clouds lifted.  Time for a rematch.

She arrived, and after exchanging pleasantries, we got down to business.  The first ten games were a replay of the last trip.

But then came the 11th game. I could do no wrong.  I have never played so well, before or since.  Final score: 21-18.  Game over.  My new record: one win, 45 losses.

She wanted to keep playing, but there would be no rematch.  I would finish my career with a win.

Does it make any difference that she had jet lag from her 12 hour flight here, or that I’m twice her size, 20 years younger or that she still has a 44 game advantage over me?

Nah.  A win is a win in my book.

Then There’s the One About the Herd of Meatballs

September 3, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

Don’t believe everything you read.  If there’s anything you might take away after reading this column, I hope you believe that simple fact.

Hmm…I think there’s something wrong with my point, but I just can’t put my finger on it.

Anyways, the point I was trying to make is about how in this day and age, the internet allows anyone who has a keyboard to write just about anything they’d like for public consumption, which makes it tougher for everyone to discern fact from fiction.

Case in point:  The mystery of the genetic robo super-chicken.

My father is a very educated and wise man.  He came to this country from China nearly penniless, and yet he’s gone on to become a respected university professor, written a text book, and owned several businesses.  He and my mother managed to raise my brother and I, support us through college and send us on our way to make our own lives.

Yet for most of his life, as with most people of his generation, when they read something in a newspaper, book, or magazine, they could usually trust that the information they were reading had been thoroughly vetted by an editor or publisher.

So you can understand how an errant e-mail might distort my dad’s “reality field”.

Let me just say, before I begin, that I did not make the following up.

Not so long ago, a friend of the family forwarded an e-mail to my dad with a disturbing report.  The e-mail, written entirely in Chinese, claimed that Kentucky Fried Chicken (now known as KFC), in an effort to cut costs and boost profit margins, had managed to genetically alter the DNA of a chicken so that these new chickens no longer had feathers, bones, a beak, wings, legs, or heads.

Essentially, KFC had created a living, breathing, full-sized chicken nugget.

Upon further investigation, I was astonished to learn that when these boneless blobs of chicken roll around vigorously in their chicken coops, they sweat honey mustard sauce.

OK, OK, I just made up that last part.  But, it’s not like after reading about this robo-chicken that someone’s going to read my little fib and say, “OK Wayne, now you’re just being silly!”

Seeing as how my father has always loved eating at Kentucky Fried Chicken (as does all of the Chan family, which probably has something to do with his DNA being passed along to all of us), he was immediately taken aback and aghast.

In fact, he was so repulsed by what he had read that it prompted him to write a letter to the president of KFC to seek out the truth.

In his letter to the president of KFC, my Dad wrote:

Dear Sir,

I have enjoyed eating KFC products for many years.  However, I am writing to you today because of an e-mail I recently received that deeply troubles me.  The claim I’ve read is that the reason Kentucky Fried Chicken has changed it’s name to KFC is because KFC no longer serves real chickens.

I would appreciate it if you would respond to these allegations so that I might be able to continue enjoying your products.

Thank you.

Surprisingly enough, KFC did manage to reply to my dad’s thoughtful letter.  In it, they assert that this rumor was an urban legend and that KFC serves the same type of chickens that we all might buy at our local markets.

Fair enough.  The only problem I have with their explanation is that it doesn’t exactly give me a vote of confidence when the last time I visited the supermarket I bought a big tube of boneless ground chicken.

Getting a jump on the competition, unless you’re playing checkers with your son

September 3, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

A few nights ago my eight-year-old son Tyler came rushing to me with tears streaming down his face, sobbing uncontrollably, with the most broken hearted expression I’ve ever seen.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, out of genuine paternal concern for an obviously traumatized and distraught young boy.  Looking at his face, a rush of dramatic images flash in my mind.  Who hurt my son?  How did he get hurt?  What do I need to do?  Do we have any ice?

“Beth beat me in checkers!” he said, choking the words out in between sobs.  Beth, by the way, is Tyler’s nanny.

Still not quite understanding the situation completely, I began asking a few follow up questions.

“And then what?”  I asked.  “What happened after that?”
“Nothing.  That’s it!”  he said, gasping for air.

“So what you’re telling me…” I continued, “…is that the reason you’re so completely beside yourself is because you lost a game of checkers.  Beth didn’t throw the board up in the air while celebrating and hit you in the head with it?  She didn’t scream ‘Tyler is a loser!’ and dance the chicken dance around you?”

“No” he said, sullenly, as if he had suddenly lost any reason for living.

“Then, the only reason for all of this is because you lost a game of checkers?” I repeated.

“But I beat almost all the kids at school!”  he said, beseechingly.

As a responsible parent, I immediately ascertain that an earnest “father/son” talk is necessary.  I spend the next few minutes explaining how important it is to be a good loser as well as a good winner, that he’s only eight years old and he should know that he’s at a distinct disadvantage when playing an adult because an adult has a lot more experience at checkers as well as life experience.  I finish delivering my words of wisdom by telling my son that as he gets older, he will also improve at nearly everything, including checkers.

At the end of my little speech, we hug each other as only a father and son can, he wipes away his remaining tears, and goes off on his merry way.

A few minutes later, Tyler comes back – smiling, but this time, he’s holding the checkerboard set in front of him.

“Ba Ba, would you play checkers with me?” he asks, very innocently.

As a responsible parent, I immediately ascertain that part two of the “father/son” talk is necessary.  I agree to play, but I spend the next few minutes explaining that if we are going to play checkers, I am actually going to try and win.  I explain that it does him no good for me to lose on purpose and that when I win, he needs to remember our earlier discussion about being a good loser.  At the end of “Part Two” of my series of checkers playing etiquette, he nods his head in agreement.

OK…I think you know where I’m going with this.

We begin playing, and I take each turn – with one eye on the board and one eye on the TV.  After all, it’s OK to win but I should at least keep it close – he’s still only eight years old.

I’m not sure when I realized I was about to lose this game.  Maybe it was when Tyler started rushing me.  “Hurry up, Ba Ba – what’s taking you so long to move?” he’d say.

Maybe it was when I got up to turn off the TV and started to brew a cup of coffee.  Maybe it was after I started responding to my wife by saying things like “Can’t you see we’re trying to play a game here?!?”  every time she said it was time for Tyler to go to bed.  Maybe it’s when I shouted, “He can do his homework tomorrow!!!”.

In the end, I accepted the situation, told him that he’d won, and carried him up to bed as he hugged me, as only a father and son can.

Needless to say, we played another round the following day, and this time with me carefully considering each move as well as frequently referring to the book “Checkers for Dummies”, I ended up on top.  Tyler, to his credit, took the loss well.

Now if my dad ever reads this, I know he’s going to sit me down for part three of the “father/son” talk – only this time I’ll be doing most of the listening.

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.