Friday, July 24, 2009

A Pilgrimage to a Long Ago Home in China

By Devin Beliveau
Staff Columnist
(Editor’s note: This is the third and final in a series by columnist Devin Beliveau describing his recent trip to China.)
Lindgren Chyi’s story sounds like a movie. It’s the kind of movie where the father is taken prisoner by a foreign occupying power, and the son is forced to grow up fast. And not only does he have to help his mother care for his younger siblings, but he has do so while fleeing a war-torn country, the whole time deceiving enemy soldiers who are capturing refugees. For Dr. Lindgren “Lynn” Chyi, my father-in-law, this was not a movie. This was his early childhood as he grew up in Japanese-occupied China, then escaped the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and fled with his family to the island nation of Taiwan as an 8-year old.
Chyi’s story has a happy ending. He eventually emigrated from Taiwan to Canada, where he met his wife Lucy. Eventually he found his way to Akron, Ohio, where he became a Professor of Geology at the University of Akron. Settled in Ohio, Lynn and Lucy raised their family of three daughters: Lisa, and identical twins Linda and Debbie. This may be the most important part of the story, as the lovely Debbie is now my wife.
At the end of June, Chyi led a two-week trip back to northeast China to visit his hometown of Shenyang. He brought with him an entourage of 13 family members, including his children, siblings, nephews and nieces. I was lucky enough to be on this pilgrimage, to see firsthand some of the locations that shaped my father-in-law’s childhood.
The trip was a mix of visiting both famous historical sites and places of personal significance. A visit to the largest statue of Mao Zedong in China, for example, would be followed by a visit to an old house where Chyi lived as a child. It was clear at each stop how proud the patriarch was to share his story with his ever-expanding family. “It’s a big group and it’s an unusual trip, but I’m very happy,” said Chyi.
Born into Japanese-occupied China in 1941, Chyi’s childhood was surrounded by war, death and destruction. The Japanese had killed both his grandmother and his great uncle. His family was forced to re-locate often, as his father was an undercover spy for the Chinese nationalists, and his family would be at risk if he were discovered sabotaging Japanese (and later Communist) rule. Chyi’s father was captured by the Japanese in May 1945, and most likely only survived his 3 months of torture due to Japan’s WWII surrender in August 1945. For his family’s safety, Chyi’s father eventually fled mainland China for Taiwan to escape the Communists, and made arrangements for his family to follow him there.
One of the most interesting parts of the trip was an excursion to the countryside outside Shenyang. Armed only with an address, our goal was to locate some cousins who Chyi had not been in contact with since the 1980s. When it was discovered that a local bridge could not support the weight of our tour bus, Chyi flagged down 3 cars to ask for help. At first the drivers wanted top dollar from these “wealthy” westerners who needed an impromptu taxi. But as Chyi explained this was a trip to find old family members, the drivers became very friendly and helpful. The small neighborhood buzzed with curiosity as 14 Americans arrived in this place where tourists do not normally venture. Unfortunately it turned out that the cousins had passed away, and the house had been sold.
A regular highlight of the trip was the food. Each lunch and dinner featured grand arrays of 10-20 entrees on a Lazy Susan in the middle of a huge circular table. Dumplings are the specialty of northeast China, and as such most meals featured several delicious varieties of the popular dish. “One of the best parts for me was going back to the hometown, and enjoying the hometown dishes,” commented Chyi. Peking Duck was another Chinese delicacy. The whole duck is carved into precisely 120 pieces right in front of the table by an expert chef, and then the tender pieces are combined with cucumbers, scallions and plum sauce inside small pancakes. Simply delicious.
At Dongbei University in Shenyang, the school his father graduated from, Chyi presided over an informal memorial service for his parents. After Chyi immigrated to North America, he never saw them again. In a quiet corner of the well-kept campus over some pink flowers, the 14 family members talked of the hard work and sacrifices made by Chyi’s parents so that the family could survive and prosper. “When they’re looking down on us, they should be very happy. We brought a bag of soil from their tomb (in Taiwan), and through this we carried their spirit and sprinkled it on the hometown soil. I think they’re enjoying it right now,” Chyi reflected.
Photo caption: Lindgren “Lynn” Chyi sprinkles soil from his parents’ grave at a makeshift memorial at Dongbei University in Shenyang China. (Devin Beliveau photo)