What I Learned From The Man With Nine Lives
A daughter’s ode to her father
On August 31, 1983, my father arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport to start his journey to China. His flight would take him to Seoul, where he would connect to another flight to Hong Kong, and then take a ferry to Canton to join his family. My mother, brother, and I had already traveled to China a few weeks prior so that my father could sell the food truck he owned and make other arrangements before the family sojourn.
Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was a full flight. At the counter, the receptionist asked my father if he would not mind giving up his seat to a man who had to rush back to China to attend his father’s funeral. The airline would offer him a seat on the next day’s flight and a compensation of $70. Although eager to rejoin his family, my father decided that there was no hurry; and the extra money did not hurt. He took the offer and went home to our Lower East Side Tenement.
All 269 passengers and crew members perished.
Two days later, my father arrived in China with a benevolent extension to his lifeline and $70 extra in his pocket. My brother, at 5 years old, and I, at 2.5 years old, proceeded to have a normal childhood.
We grew up with a father who cut round slices of oranges for us before bed, who crammed us and five cousins into a car on a road trip to Disney World, and who cultivated in me the joy of understanding the world through an appreciation of culture, history, and philosophy.
Since that near-death disaster, my father survived several close calls and near death experiences almost every five mortal years:
A severe battery assault a few blocks away from home in Brooklyn, contracting meningitis whereby final words were being exchanged at the hospital, and then liver cancer, with a prognosis of living three to five years.
However, like a cat who fell off a tree, my father licked his wounds and continued life with full force. That is, until the next time he found himself clinging onto a tree branch and looking down towards his fate. With the doctors and oncologists gaping at another round of positive results, he saunters out of their office, whiskers relaxed and tail high in the air, in a more sprightly condition than when he walked in.
Now, at age 75, he meditates for two hours at the break of dawn and has a full set of thick gray hair that has grown plusher after chemotherapy. He openly tells anyone who would listen about his battle with cancer, and emphatically proclaims that he has “no liver, all tumor.” When I remind him that he actually still has a functioning liver despite having two tumors, he shakes his head incredulously and reaffirms—No liver. Only tumor.
Chuckling at my father’s seriousness in the absurd, I admire how he charmingly writes his own life’s script based on the raw material that he is given. Regardless of outside and natural forces, my father lives believing that only he could control his own destiny.
Living through famine as a child during the Great Leap Forward and then being thrown into social upheaval during the Cultural Revolution, he decided that he could still influence his life’s outcomes. He and my mom managed to escape to Hong Kong and eventually started a new life as refugees in New York City.
Not speaking any English, my father hit the ground running. He worked in Chinese restaurants, eventually starting a family-run Chinese fast food restaurant, becoming a real estate agent servicing Brooklyn’s growing Chinese community, and starting various businesses that provided comfort and security for the family. Throughout the years, he survived muggings, burglaries, and serious illnesses. He treated every stroke of misfortune as a temporary obstacle to getting to the next chapter in his book of choose-your-own-adventure.
When my father’s tumor started to metastasize in his liver again, he took matters into his own hands. He walked out of his oncologist’s office and did not look back. Seizing his internal locus of control, he turned to an alternative pathway to combat his cancer. He then treated himself to an all-inclusive holistic clinic in Mexico to heal his mind and body. There, he signed up to be the first to see the doctor every morning to discuss his condition. Like a cat waiting for his fancy feast, my father would stretch-walk back and forth in front of the office and pounced as soon as the door opened. While the doctor poured himself his first cup of coffee, my father was already launching a stream of questions at him.
After several weeks, he returned home boasting his renewed energy, even as his tumor continued to grow.
Worrying about my father’s condition, I coaxed him into seeing his oncologist again. After a two-year hiatus, my father walked into his oncologist’s office, swishing his tail back and forth in agitation. But in usual fanatical form, my father worked to orchestrate the outcome he wanted to see by bringing in his portfolio of blood test results to prove that he was in good health. After indulging my father, the oncologist recommended a new treatment for liver cancer. Following the usual performative tail thumping and hissing, my father not only agreed to the new treatment regimen, but embraced it head on, as if it were part of his plan all along.
Born on Christmas day, my father seems to have eternal luck on his side. With a dogged determination to control his destiny, he bulldozes through obstacles and pushes his life forward in earnest gusto. Through my father, I have learned what is possible when you refashion a vision for yourself based on growing out of adversity and seizing the fortunes and the flukes of life.
Sitting around the dining table, my father meticulously peels an orange for his grandson, as he did for me and my brother before we went to bed as kids. My son is now about the same age as I was when my father narrowly missed boarding the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 that was shot down. As every new year unfolds into the next, my father’s tenacity continues to collide with chance and outside forces, creating a cascade of gratitude in our family for our everyday existence.