He looks into me with soft eyes, and sings in Mandarin: “Look into His face / and your worries will disappear with the light of the sun”.
He’s not bad for his age. Apparently he sings in the elderly folks’ choir at his church. “He’s the only one who can sing!” laughs my dad.
We’re sitting in a hotel restaurant, filled to the brim with Christmastime muzak and chatty customers. I feel the restaurant growing quieter as he continues to sing, a throaty baritone voice growing more confident as I grow more self-conscious at the same time.
My yie yie (爺爺)’s eyes are becoming dimmer with the years, I can see, hiding under bushy, busy white eyebrows and thick, leathery suntanned skin. Coming over with the KMT from the mainland was tough on him. My dad would tell me of Yie yie’s extended military deployments in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. His past is a storied and shrouded one, working for Chinese intelligence doing radio surveillance. After splitting with his unit during the upheavals of the Revolution, he came to Taiwan to work again for KMT intelligence, eavesdropping on the very same people he used to work with.
“Japan was especially nice”, Yie yie recounts with a smile. He was stationed with US troops on a military base, and he tells us stories of watching a movie every night, eating great food. He is a young man, still. He keeps a journal of each movie he sees, and the journal grows thick over the year. A mischievous smile grows over Yie yie’s face as he recounts how he’d smuggle hard-boiled eggs from the cafeteria in his pants pockets, only to spill them all over the basketball court in a pickup game hours later.
How old is he in those years?, I wonder. He couldn’t have been much older than I am now. Does he enjoy Coke? How about mangoes? I imagine him writing his wife, asking about my father as a young boy. The world is a different place. He tells a story of losing close friends in a Vietcong mortar attack in Vietnam, and his eyes grow misty. Smoke rises from the jungles, and I wonder if he ever wonders why he, and by extension my father and myself, are spared.
My dad would never get to see his dad much during those years, and when he came back, most of his memories of Yie yie were of an ill-tempered man he’d tend to hide from. But something happened in the intervening years after Yie yie came home for good. He softened out. Jesus got to him.
I wanted to come here to find myself in Yie yie and his life. I want to know his strength and determination to live, and realize that there is much more beneath the surface of the man that I’ve only seen sitting down, smiling and laughing. What keeps a man rooted even when he is swept about?
Right now, Yie yie’s singing Psalm 23. “Can you remember the words?” my dad asks as Yie yie struggles through the verses. The Lord is my shepherd. He leads me through quiet waters. I fear no evil.
He can remember them just fine.