Monday, March 12, 2018

Discovering the East Bay, Central California, and the Story of Uncle David

Wes says that he would not be here if it weren't for his Uncle David Der, who passed away in February 27, 2018.  We made a last-minute road trip to Central California to attend his funeral.  This man was not only the hero of Wes's mom's side of the family, but also a savior in the Asian American community in Oakland during and in the aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Act, when it was really hard for Chinese immigrants to gain equity in medical care.  He was tough, smart, thoughtful, and selfless, and the entire family will always remember him.  I wish that I could have known him better.

When he was six years old, Uncle David was the "paper son" who came to America from Kaiping, Guangdong, posing as a relative's son to escape the war in China in 1939.  He was one of the Chinese immigrants who risked everything and came to America this way.  At the time, it was the only way to make it through Angel Island in San Francisco Bay because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.  He lived in Oakland and, after graduating high school and working as a dish washer, kitchen helper, and bus boy, he registered to study pre-medicine at City College.  He transferred to Berkeley to continue his studies, but took a "break" to serve in the Army for two years at a medical clinic in Korea.  He then went to Howard University with the aid of his GI Bill to become a doctor, and eventually came back to Oakland to lay down the pathway for all ten of his siblings to come from Guangdong and Hong Kong, including Wes's mom, the youngest of the bunch.  At age four, Wes's mom was one of the children who left China for Hong Kong, but she recalls before so poor in Hong Kong that she and her siblings were peeling ginger and doing other sorts of manual labor for money.  By the time she was given this opportunity to come to America (in 1972), she was 18 years old.

In addition to providing the opportunity for his entire family to live a better life, Uncle David served the marginalized Chinese immigrant community in the Bay Area by organizing, providing, and advocating for health and medical services through his work with the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Asian Health Services, and the Chinese American Physicians’ Society.  He was a key player and worked closely with activists and other Chinese American physicians to see to it that his people were taken care of in their foreign, new home. 

His funeral was in Pleasanton, California, which was up in Central California.  It was clearly important for every family member in Southern California to make the trip up to pay their respects to the man who did it all.  Wes has so much admiration for Uncle David, though he did not get to interact with him much in the past, given his huge family.  Uncle David was the oldest of ten siblings, and Wes's mom was the youngest.  Wes recalls that this uncle always gave the best Christmas gifts, like the full Harry Potter series in hardcover or other spankin' new educational materials from Costco.  I met this famous Uncle David once, at his birthday celebration in Alhambra, where the family rented out an entire room in a Chinese buffet.  There were a hundred people there at least, and I kept thinking of how every adult and child in that room owed his or her livelihood to this frail, but smiling old man.  I did not know of the full extent of what he did for Asian Americans in the Civil Rights era until attending his funeral.  It is truly incredible, what he was able to accomplish.

We hadn't ever been to Central California before this, nor did we ever have a reason to visit, but we ended up discovering some beautiful sights and good eats during our quick trip here.  I gained a whole new appreciation for the rolling hills, grey skies, and cow pies that came with the territory.  It was springtime when we were there, so things may have been extra green.  We were glad to have been able to see this underappreciated part of our state.  We went on a brisk hike in the Las Trampas Regional Park before Uncle David's funeral, and we ate at his favorite Chinese restaurant afterward.  It was a humble place in Pleasanton, and since the family was so huge, we took up the whole place.  As each course came out, his closer family would point out which dishes were his favorites.  It was really sweet to get to sit down with some of Wes's cousins (who were all much older than we were because of the age gap between his mom and her siblings).  I'm used to everyone speaking Mandarin in my family gatherings, but his family speaks Cantonese.  I remember trying to cram in a few Cantonese lessons on a language app on my phone in the car, but in the end almost everyone we sat with spoke English.  I have heard that some immigrants from Hong Kong completely adopt an American way of life and purposefully leave behind any Chinese traditions in order to protect themselves or to separate themselves emotionally.  But it looks like his Uncle continued to connect with his Chinese identity.  Wes and his cousins grew up similarly, with a highly Americanized childhood mixed with Hong Kong influences.  It was nice to be able to spend time with the Der side of Wes's family, and to have the opportunity to stop by Salinas and Pismo Beach on the way home.