My great-grandfather starved to death. He died in the 50s. My dad doesn’t know the exact year, or even his name.
He was one among untold millions of Chinese people who died during Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward.” It was a cold winter day; the earth was hard and frosted over. His family was so malnourished that they didn’t have enough strength to dig him a grave. Three years passed before he was buried.
My dad, on the other hand, never feared hunger. He’s been overweight since he was born. His mom, my grandmother, became terrified of hunger after watching her dad, my great-grandfather, die of starvation. She stuffed my dad and his three younger brothers with bowls upon bowls of rice. Food was rationed in those times, so she would buy extra food from the black market.
After eating his fill at dinner, my dad would sit at the table and finish his schoolwork. His one-room house was illuminated by a single bare bulb. There was no running water; every day he fetched water from a public faucet with two buckets suspended from a shoulder pole.
In the summer after fifth grade, he worked at a construction site mixing cement. Chinese child labor laws have always been lax, I suppose. I googled “cement mixer” and showed a picture to my dad. He scoffed. “Those are all mechanized,” he said. “I had to do it by hand.”
He loved working. He loved mixing cement and fetching water and reading textbooks. He loved studying: He was always curious, he wanted to find out why.
He was the first person in his family to go to college, to leave his hometown in Henan Province for school in Beijing. He worked at a factory that painted Jeeps, then as a Ph.D. student in Oklahoma, then as a DNA sequencer in Philadelphia. He’s had the same job since 1997.
I remember visiting his office. My sister and I spent the day playing flash games on the computer. We were bored out of our minds. I remember asking my dad about his childhood, about what life was like when he was my age.
He told me stories that were ripped out of picture books: how he’d go hiking in the mountains or swimming in the river, before it go too polluted.
How he skipped his first day of school by accident. How he’d have to relieve himself in a chamberpot if he woke up at night, then empty it in the public latrine the next day.
The way my dad tells it, he was never particularly smart or talented or gifted. He was disciplined, curious and lucky. He found pleasure in what he did, in what he does. He loves going to work in the morning.
Sometimes I ask him how he can stand to do the same thing every day. When he answers, he smiles. “There’s always a new challenge,” he would say.
My great-grandad died of hunger 60 years ago. My dad came to America 30 years ago. I was born 20 years ago. I never worried about hunger or cold or shelter, never shared a bed with my sibling because our house was too small, never carried water on my back. I went to school, left for college, dropped out and came back home.
I still ask my dad to tell me stories. I’m still learning what work is.