Ying-Yen Hsu: a Treasure of History by Monica Hsu Growing up, I always thought of my grandpa as a silent, conservative man who occasionally laughed and only talked when he prayed before meals. My recollection of him was faint, and I only had the fuzzy details of my childhood memories to help paint who he was. Flashbacks of him stowed away in the laundry room came to mind. What was in this laundry room, I will never know. Even as a young girl I knew that trespassing his ingenuousness was unquestionable. Whenever I observed my grandparents, they always communicated in a different language. Taiwanese is what it was called. Not Mandarin, not Cantonese, but Taiwanese. Because of this language barrier, I missed out on half of the words that ever came out of my grandpa’s mouth. As you can see, my grandpa was a mysterious
figure whom I knew scarce details about. I knew for a fact he was a genius. I also knew he immigrated from Taiwan. But what does being a “genius” actually mean? For what reasons did he immigrate to the United States? Shortly after these thoughts came to mind, my grandpa sat me down on a couch to make sure he knew exactly what he was getting himself into. Half laughing, I assured him that this was not any serious or formal matter. I just needed to observe him, take a few pictures, and ask a few questions. My assurance dissolved in his mind, and he was still very questionable about the subject. “How many students are doing this project?” he asked with a quizzical look, as if gaining the knowledge of a specific number would increase his understanding
of my project. In the back of my mind, I knew he did not fully comprehend what I was trying to explain to him. This was merely a short interview for a project at school and my grandpa just had to be himself. Instead, he whipped out a notebook and started jotting down the specifics of my project. The language barrier between me and my grandpa was an exasperating enemy to our relationship. However, I realized that it was an extraordinary case to be able to communicate with my grandpa. Taking into consideration that he was a Taiwanese immigrant, it was astonishing how exceptional his knowledge of English was. Despite the missing articles and varying tenses in his speech, he spoke well enough to have comprehensive conversations. “Monica, you need to learn Taiwanese,” was what my grandpa would always impose on me.
“I know Ah-gong! I’m trying,” was what I would always reply, even though I never actually made a solid effort to learn Mandarin or Taiwanese. Ever since I began speaking English, my grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles would constantly pester me to learn how to speak their native tongue. “Yeah, yeah” was what I would always murmur in the back of my mind. Why did I need to learn Mandarin? Or Taiwanese? Who in the world speaks Taiwanese? No one around me does, so why should I? The population of Taiwan is roughly twice as much as the population of Sweden. However, 76,665 people speak Swedish in the United States while the number of people who speak Taiwanese is so little, it is not recorded in a US census (Languages of the United States). Roughly 70% of citizens in Taiwan speak Taiwanese (Taiwan Language, Culture, Customs, and Etiquette). Most speak Mandarin, some speak both Mandarin and Taiwanese. Even in its own country, Taiwanese is a dying language. The fact that Ying-Yen is an American citizen who speaks fluent Taiwanese is an extremely rare case. Speaking of rare cases, my grandfather surprised me with a hidden fun fact about himself: “Before end of WWII, the US drop the big bomb in Taiwan,” was the beginning of a long anecdote my grandfather was telling me of his experience during the Second
World War. Shocked, I listened to the rest of his story in awe of the fact that he experienced WWII. He mentioned that, “one of the bombs dropped near [his] shelter” and “if that bomb was a little closer, then the whole thing would’ve blown up” (Ying-Yen). The fact that my grandpa is living proof that WWII occurred is a case becoming exceedingly scarcer. The reality is that with each blossoming generation, a set of wisdom disappears. First-hand experiences, historic stories, and wise words are inhaled by a selfish black void. Then we forget our past and where we came from. Individuals like Ying-Yen are the essence of what the younger generation needs to encapsulate. “What kind of question will you ask?” Ying-Yen mumbled. After I completed a short list of topics I would cover during the interview, he stood up abruptly without a word, chair sliding behind him. I did not think much of it. Mysterious acts from my grandpa were a norm. Approximately 5 minutes later, he returned with a rather thick HP laptop. I watched the lights flash within the reflection of his eyes. Waiting for him to finish starting up his computer, I decided it was a good idea to take a candid shot of him. Click! Click! Ying-Yen looked up. Yet again, he left the table and slowly climbed the carpeted stairs. “I should have asked,” I thought to myself.
Just as a worried feeling creeped upon me, my grandpa arrived in the dining room again. Hair gelled and slicked back into a clean side part, he told me, “You can take pictures now”. Relieved, I snapped paparazzi shots of my grandpa as fast as my fingers would let me. Curious to see how my grandpa grew up, I asked him to tell me about his childhood. After about 10 seconds of intense thought and furrowed eyebrows, Ying-Yen took me on a journey to Taiwan, 1934. “I grew up in central Taiwan, Chiayi. My parents went to mainland China when I was 8 years old,” were the first two sentences of Ying-Yen’s life story. The following sentence took me by utter surprise. “My father went missing when I was 9? Oh...(long pause) 10.” After a few questions of clarification, I gathered that Ying-Yen’s father was killed by Japanese police. During the years 1895 to 1945, the Taiwanese fought against the Japanese occupation of their country, but were defeated through the biggest battle on Taiwanese soil (Japanese Occupation of Taiwan). When I asked what it was like to be under the rule of the Japanese, he replied, “Of course you know, it was scary. The Japanese very... Sometimes you had to be quiet and you couldn’t talk around them. The police were everywhere. When the children does not behave well, you say the police are coming, and they will keep quiet (laughs).”
I couldn’t help but marvel over how remarkable Ying-Yen’s memory was. With each year of his life, his detail became increasingly clearer. After immigrating to the United States without anyone by his side, Ying-Yen received an acceptance letter in March of 1976 to attend Kent State University in Ohio. A few years later, his wife and three children joined him to start a life in the United States. He graduated from Kent State with a stunning PhD in Chemistry. A few years later, a professor notified him of a job opportunity at Harvard University. After receiving an acceptance from Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, Ying-Yen began to work where he, “[synthesized] a lot of crystal material for the basic research for their physics and chemistry department” (Ying-Yen). Following his employment at Harvard, Ying-Yen worked at a few large companies such as Timex and Optical Shields. There, he developed several patents that involved a new liquid crystal compound. However, that wasn’t satisfying enough for Ying-Yen. After he retired, he continued his research and developed three more personal US patents. All in all, he received more than 10 US patents. While he was busy inventing new compounds and developing personal patents, Ying-Yen was dealing with a series of major illnesses.
In year 1971, he survived nasal cancer. In year 2008, he went through Coronary Artery Stent Surgery. In year 2012, he conquered a liver tumor. However, nothing was going to stop Ying-Yen. “Ah-gong encountered a lot of difficulties and hardships. But God always supported me,” was how he responded to the trials of his life. Many live by the mantra, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. My grandpa can vouch for that. Literally. After the insanely compelling life Ying-Yen lived, all he wants to do now is relax. Ying-Yen said, “When I was a student, I just study, study, study. After I graduate I have to work and work. Now I am retired.
I can just relax and enjoy the rest of my life”. Study, study, study. Work, work, work. That’s exactly what Ying-Yen did. He deserves a pleasant and calming retirement, residing in a dainty house in a small town with his loving wife. If every person had to go through what my grandpa persevered, we would be living in a much more peaceful world. One full of people who understand the difference between the necessities and desires of life. One full of people who have a more fulfilling outlook on their accomplishments. One full of people who do not take their lives for granted. My grandpa told me,
“Ah-gong only prayed that I could live 60 years old. It would be enough. But now I’m 78. So I got more than I asked!” (Ying Yen).