Updated: Jun 25
| This is the 501st story of Our Life Logs |
When looking back at those days, I marvel at how far I have come. Maybe it was luck. Maybe it was desperation. Maybe I will never find out.
My journey began in Nantou City, Taiwan, on June 6, 1938. Yes, that certainly was a long time ago. Back then, Nantou City was purely a rural farming community. It is in the middle of mountains and a river, and is only miles away from the everlasting kiss of the Pacific Ocean. I grew up as the third of five children, virtually the middle child, of my parents, Lin Zhuanchen and Lin Hongzu. Father worked as a goldsmith and my mother came from a poor family, so she was uneducated and illiterate. Even with my father’s career, we were poor, but we did our best to get by with what we had.
Not long after I was born, my father started drinking to cope with our financial strain. But it was something else that would begin our family’s capsize. In 1939, my two-year-old sister fell asleep in the corner of a room. Her tiny body silent and still. Someone who was wearing the Japanese-style Geta wooden sandals accidentally stepped on her, crushing her little body beyond recognition. This death devastated my parents.
The death and our financial strain weighed down on my father. On top of caring for his own family, with ages ranging from the oldest being six to the youngest being just a newborn, my father was also supporting his younger brother, who at the time was studying in Tokyo to become a lawyer. It did not take long before my father’s regular drinking became complete alcoholism.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
On a cold December night when I was three, my father, who had been out drinking, had come home only to continue his binge. Beyond his limits, he stumbled to a bottle and tipped it into his mouth. Unfortunately, he didn’t know that what he picked up was not alcohol at all. It was a chemical used to clean precious metals. Immediately, the chemical shut down his organs and killed him.
Just like that.
My mother became a widow with five young children with no other financial support. That was when my life began to change. Shortly after my father’s funeral, my mother told me I had to help the family earn money. I was barely a child, yes, but starvation always has the final say. My mother started making anything and everything, including turnip cake and fried Chinese donuts. After she finished, she ordered me to go out in the streets and sell it.
Once she was done making the fried Chinese donuts, my mother would have a selling tray prepared for me, and I would have to be ready to go. The tray was made from a desk drawer with two nails on either side. A string was strung on the shelf to put around my neck. I would then go out and sell the donuts in the neighborhood.
My mother would let me eat the leftovers of the turnip cake, but only the leftovers from the cloth she baked them on–but never the donuts. If I secretly ate a donut, my mother would notice the minor difference in money earned (she always noticed), and I would get punished (and these were not light punishments). I had no choice but to obey her wishes if I knew what was good for me.
As time went on, I had a routine established. In the early morning, I would get ready for work. After that, I would get ready for school, come home afterward to study into the late night, and the routine would begin again. My older and younger brothers did help, but not until I was in secondary school in Taichung. After school, I would buy bread from the local baker and take it home for my brothers to sell the next morning before they headed off to school.
This cycle continued throughout the rest of my childhood and into my teenage and young adult years. I knew I couldn’t live like this forever. I decided that I would work as hard as I could to get out of my situation…and out of the country. Let me explain.
Although we faced hardship, our personal life didn’t compare to what was going on in our country. A little historical background: In 1895, China lost Taiwan to Japan, and from then on, Japan ruled Taiwan until they lost in the Second World War in 1945. From that year until 1949, the country was pure chaos as there was no government or laws to adhere to. As different groups fought to gain power, every citizen had to fend for themselves. My family tried to stay away from the chaos as best we could.
Then in 1949, the new government arrived in Taiwan, the Kuomintang Party, or KMT for short. As they set up, everyone thought there would be peace and laws. But the new government had all the citizens fooled. The officials had an agenda to do anything and everything to prevent communism from ever coming to Taiwan. The KMT had been waging a civil war in China, the Communist Party. By 1949, they had been soundly defeated, and its leader Chiang Kai-shek and those loyal to him fled China and arrived on the island of Taiwan.
On October 10, 1949, the island became the Republic of China. Their hatred of communism had them impose an iron fist on all citizens. They went around and used propaganda to root out those they suspected were communists or sympathizers. A year after the KMT had come to Taiwan, Communists from Mainland China arrived in Taiwan for a battle. That only made the KMT views against communism more hardcore.
At one point during my secondary schooling, fliers were going around urging citizens to turn in anyone who they thought were potential communists. I never gave much thought to that until, one day, this affected me directly.
I had a core language teacher whom I highly respected, but he was openly sympathetic to communism. When one of my classmates’ parents turned him into the government because of his loyalties, he disappeared. There one day and gone the next like he had never existed. We found out that he had been executed without trial. It was from this incident forward that I detested anything to do with the KMT.
My family also suffered at the hands of the KMT. My father’s younger brother had come to live in Taiwan to start his career. His wife was a member of the KMT and she thought our house was too good for us. She was resentful of the fact that my paternal ancestors had property and wealth that had been passed down to us, and they had no property. She and my uncle had nine children and were living in a government dormitory. With her connections, his wife had us thrown out of our home and onto the streets so that she could move in.
Without housing, we had nowhere to sleep. Thankfully, a banana farmer who passed by took pity on us. Alarmed, by our situation, the banana farmer offered us a place to stay, and he headed to Taichung to alert my uncle of what had taken place. My uncle was horrified. He rushed back to Nantou and made his wife give us our home again.
My drive to escape poverty and get out of Taiwan was stronger than ever. I spent the next 20-odd years working hard, studying at university, and saving while I started my own family. Finally, in 1973, I achieved my goal, was able to leave Taiwan and get out of the hold of the KMT. But…where was I headed? Ah. Brazil. It was a perfect escape…except…I didn’t have a visa. Thankfully, I had a family friend who helped me get into Brazil by entering Paraguay. No one knew the difference.
As my family and I settled in Brazil, I could feel the difference in the air. I could feel the freedom. Shortly after my arrival, I was told that Brazil at the time was constructing a new dam at Itaipu. By this time, I had already received my degree in civil engineering. The same friend who got me into the country helped get a job with the company and learn Portuguese. With classes and extra tutoring, I learned the language and was able to communicate.
From there, I became a part of the team that helped to build the water dam. With a better financial state, I was finally able to give my two oldest children the education that they deserved. The hydroelectric dam was completed and in use by 1976.
I wish that was the end of this story. No, there is more trouble to come.
In 1979, Mainland China had taken notice of the dam. High-ranking government officials contacted me and wanted to hire my whole company to help them build the same type of dam for them. This dam (now known as The Three Gorges Dam) is located at the Yangtze River. My boss, a group of civil engineers, and I bought our own plane ticket to Beijing, China, and there we began the talks and negotiation process.
I later learned they had never planned for us to help build the dam. They had tricked us just so they could steal our technique and claim it as their own. When my boss found out, I got into a lot of trouble for duping them. Because of this debacle, I lost my job, and from then on, I hated China and will until my last breath.
Without a job, my life had been turned upside down again. I tried to find another job but was unable to. At the time, Brazil’s economy was in bad shape. But there was a silver lining. This gave my family and I the opportunity to move to the United States. We moved to San Diego, California, where my youngest daughter was born in the mid-1980s. Not long after her birth, I struggled to find work because the need for civil engineers was low. With a baby to feed, I decided to change careers to make us money. After I made the decision, we moved from San Diego up north to the San Francisco Bay Area and I became an acupressure technician.
This career continued until I closed down my business in 2009 and officially retired that year.
When I look back on all the hardships I’ve faced, I see that for each one, I looked for a solution. My life has always been about survival. I learned that the best way to escape poverty and misery is to work hard and persevere even in times of hopelessness. For, if you are a mountain, what is wind and weather to you? It took me a long time to reach a state of calm and retirement, but all my hard work has given me and my family a better life. That is the greatest gift.
Now, in my twilight years, I look back, and although I begrudged my late mother for what she did, I am thankful that she instilled the value of hard work into me.
This is the story of Shu Nan Lin
Shu Nan Lin, or “Paul” to his friends, is retired and enjoying his twilight years in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Growing up in the Silent Generation, Shu Nan Lin not only lived through hardships at home but also through the turmoil of an unstable political environment. He knew he had to escape for a better life and did whatever he could to get there through hard work and perseverance. Now living in the US, he is more than happy to be enjoying the fruit of his decades of labor. He previously worked as a civil engineer, a government position working in the housing sector, and an acupressure technician. In his spare time, he likes to walk and do yard work as exercise. His most favorite hobby is to play Mahjong in order to keep his brain working.
This story first touched our hearts on January 20, 2020.
| Writer: Jan Lin | Editor: Colleen Walker |