This was originally published in the AARW collection “Asian Voices from Beantown” in 2012. Link to the original Asian CDC blog post.
My family did not believe in buying gifts for birthdays and Christmas. They always gave me red envelope money for the Chinese Lunar New Year and my birthday with good wishes and something about saving the money for the future or letting it grow baby coins in the bank. Every year my cousin, Albert, could pick one toy for a Christmas present and I was invited to go along. I just helped Albert decide: a train, a toy gun, or a cowboy outfit. I would just look in the shiny cases at the department store, wishing our parents had mutually agreed that they would keep it simple “lo lo sit sit” and not buy gifts for each other’s children requiring a return gift, a polite way of repayment. It was considered an unnecessary frivolity in our frugal immigrant life.
My tall and handsome Uncle Eddie had a wife and six children in China and was a waiter at the Cathay House on Beach Street. He lived alone in Chinatown but he came for dinner on the men’s “day-off-foo” and holidays. One day he brought me a Gift.
The gift was two books. One was called “The Sun” and the other, “A Book of Natural History.” I was amazed and thrilled to receive a Gift. I had never owned a book and aside from the Maryknoll nuns no one ever gave me a gift. I would pore over those two books every chance I had. Aside from my Comics collection, they were the only two books I owned. The illustrations of the fiery sun with its black sunspots and its planets and the beautiful pictures of great varieties of plants and animals mesmerized me; their categories and their evolutionary history intrigued me.
For my Secondary School graduation he gave me an expensive Omega watch by which I checked my time all the way through College. He encouraged me to go to a good graduate school. I have always kept that Omega watch. When I look at it, I think of him and his respect for me.
When I was twenty-four years old and before China opened to tourism, we traveled together to China with visas from Canada. He wanted to see his wife and grown family. I was just curious to see the land of my parents’ birth. He had not seen his wife and children in over twenty-five years and never met his grandchildren. As the train chugged into Guangzhou from Hong Kong, we conversed and admired the verdant green rice paddies and he talked to me about his younger days in China. This was a time of return and reunion for my sojourner uncle and for me, his American born niece, entrance into an unknown way of life. For five weeks he had family dinners and conversation and rejoiced in the warm company of his large and loving family. Just five weeks out of a lifetime.
I have now, in the many years that have passed, lost the Sun book but have kept “The Book of Natural History” with its dog-eared pages and torn and frayed cover and binding. I keep it at my Cape Cod house where I planted a large garden. I experimented with a variety of seeds, mulches and soil mixtures augmented with truckloads of manure and topsoil. I became a teacher of science to young children. Planting seeds and Spring bulbs, studying the patterns of the night sky, the Earth, the Sun, the Moon and the Stars I felt like a traveler in the immense Universe. Gardening and cooking, teaching and experimentation, and studying science phenomenon continue to give me great personal joy.
My Uncle Eddie’s granddaughter, Megan, told me how lucky she feels to be living in the United States, with its many opportunities. I paused and thought how very lucky I am for her Grandfather, my tall and handsome Uncle Eddie, who gave me the gift of two books, for the possibilities he saw in me before I saw them in myself.
For the dreams I helped make come true for him and his family, I hope it was a good enough repayment for a more than good enough Gift.
Written in loving memory of Moon-Fun Yee, who Cynthia called “Ai Sook”, Eldest Young Uncle.”
Cynthia Yee was the first Chinese American homeroom teacher at the Josiah Quincy School in Boston’s Chinatown.
She was voted “#1 Teacher” by the Brookline Tab, and also honored as “Outstanding Mentor and Master Teacher of Young Children “ by Northeastern University School of Education.
Cynthia grew up on Hudson Street, where the greatest density of Boston Chinese immigrant families were allowed to take root after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Her Uncle Eddie was also a Hudson Street resident, and one of the many sojourner casualties of the Chinese Exclusion Act.