Thursday, August 10, 2006

My grandfather's funeral (1/19/2006)

Part One: The Taxi Ride

Last week I made a quick trip back to CA for my grandfather's funeral. He passed away on the morning of Sunday, 1/15/06 at the age of 91. He had been sick since Thanksgiving week 2005. When I saw him at that holiday, he was recuperating from Pneumonia and a small fall. He was very weak and not as lucid as he used to be. When my mom called me that evening, I suspected bad news. She said, "Your grandfather is gone."

I arrived Wednesday night, a week ago at the Oakland, CA airport. It was 5 minutes past midnight. I rushed to the curb to catch the Air Bart shuttle connection to the neighboring BART railway station. By 12:15am, I grew impatient and worried that it would not come in time for me to catch the last train at 12:25am. I looked for a taxi, which took me to the BART station. Before I bought a ticket, I asked the station manager if there were any more trains heading north. He said I had missed the last train; my only option now would be to wait for the N bus at 12:51am and connect to the 72 bus in downtown Oakland, which would take me to Berkeley.

Outside the station, I saw a few people: a middle-aged black woman talking to herself, a drunk walking back and forth, a teenager with a band-aid over one eye and a big bruise on his right cheek. He is thin, about my height, tussled hair and has his hands in his sweatshirt pockets. The drunk asked the teen: "Does the 82 still run?"

"Yeah, all night," replied the teenager.

Across the street, a guy yelled toward me, "Taxi?" I ignored him.

A few minutes past 12:51am, the N bus finally arrived—to my relief. However, it did not stop even though the drunk was standing right next to the bus stop. I was about 15 feet away on a bench.

I asked the teenager if it's normal for the bus to pass by the stop. He shook his head. He told me his story: "I was beaten up a few days ago around here and tonight I saw two of the same guys a few blocks away."

I'm growing nervous now.

The taxi driver crosses the street and offers cigarettes to the drunk, teenager and me. I politely refuse. I notice that there is no official taxi across the street. Just a few cars and a big van parked on the curb.

"You need taxi? Where you going?" he asks me in a friendly tone. He is about mid 40s, has a salt and pepper beard, is a few inches taller than me, and thin. He has a Middle-Eastern face and wears a cell phone around his neck on a string. A dark ski cap covers his head.

"Berkeley." I responded.

"I take you there. Normally, it's $30 or $40, but I charge you only $20."

"Where are you from?" I inquire.


"Tehran?" I probe further.

"Yes. I'm Persian," he explains.

"She-lama." I offer him the Farsi greeting "hello."

His eyes widen. "You know about my people!"

"Yes, I have Farsi friends."

"So, I take you to Berkeley, yes?" he confirms.

I'm still reluctant. "Let me ask the station manager a question and I'll be back in one minute." I walked over and asked the manager (who had the phone attached to his ear) about this so-called taxi driver. He didn't know him. The driver followed me and said, "the manager knows me. I'm here every night." He gestured to the manager, "you know me, right?!" At that moment, the manager, still with the phone to his ear, gestured "yes" and nodded.

I then asked the driver for some ID. "Do you have a license?"

He removed his wallet and showed me his driver's license:

Ali Malekzadh
Pleasant Hill, CA
DOB: 1960
Height: 5'11"

The picture on the license was indeed his face. Ali explains that he is a construction worker. "I was laid off a month ago, so now I do this to help my family and maybe make some gas money."

After a few minutes and still with some doubt, I followed him, knowing that this was perhaps not the most prudent action to take. As we crossed the street and approached his van, the teenager was on my right side.

Ali asks me politely, "is it ok for him to come with us?"

I thought the teenager was either catching a ride or they were going to drive me to a dark corner of East Oakland to rob me. I instinctively said, "No."

"Ok boss." Ali agreed.

As Ali gets into the driver's seat, I am still outside the van. I knock on his window for a final check. "How are you getting to Berkeley's University area?"

"I take 880 North, University exit. Ok?" Ali explains. I'm now reassured.

Ali has been in the US 25 years since 1979. He's married with two daughters: six and four years old. The older daughter has a Farsi name meaning "butterfly." He earned his BA in Arts and a MS in Engineering from a university in Pennsylvania. And most recently he was laid off from his construction job. The more details he gave me, the more comfortable I felt about the ride.

"Yeah, some ladies -- and gentlemen are suspicious and ask me detailed questions. They don't want to be raped or robbed."

After a few minutes, Ali tells me that we're low on gas. "Tonight, I was at my mother's and she made me dinner. But, I was in such a hurry to get here that I forgot my dinner and money. So is it ok to stop for gas?"

"Ali, if we're low on gas, we have to stop for gas." I replied. Now, my doubts returned.

We turn off the highway for gas. He is lost and meanders a few blocks. "Is that a gas station right there?" he asks me weakly.

"I don't know. Why don't we stay on the main road?" I tell him. I become a little more anxious. After 5 minutes or so, we pull up to a Shell gas station. He has no gas money and asks me politely for a few dollars. I give him $3.

As he fills the tank, I suggest to him that he print some business cards. "Go to Kinko's and print up 100-500 black and white cards. Nothing fancy. Just your name, phone number, and a title like 'Ali's taxi service.'"

"Yes, boss, great idea, but this is temporary. And not Ali—people think I'm a terrorist. Alex's taxi service."

"That way, you look more official and potential passengers will be more willing to trust you," I explained.

We take off again for the freeway. As we approach the Emeryville IKEA, Ali says, "This is the land of opportunity. You can make it here with nothing."

"Or very little," I added.

"You can come with $100 in your pocket and do well. You see that building? An Iranian built it!" Ali beamed with pride.

When we arrive at my destination, I said. "this is my grandfather's house. He passed away a week ago."

"He's now in a better place, by God," said Ali.

I gave Ali $20 and some change for his tip. I shook his hand. They were rough and calloused. The hands of a laborer. I gave him my card and asked for his phone numbers. "Next time I return to Oakland, I'll call you. I hope that I won't be able to find you because by then you should have found your next job!" I encouraged him.

"By God, thank you so much! God bless you."

Grandfather’s Funeral: Part 2—Funeral Day

In the car ride from grandmother’s house to the chapel, I ride with my grandmother’s niece. Grandmother’s sister and I share the back seat. She does not speak to me. Her white hair is combed tightly. She hosted us in Kowloon, Hong Kong for a night in August 1982 when we were transiting from China to San Francisco. She picked us up at the Chinese-Hong Kong border and delivered us to the Kai Tak airport. I remember walking along quiet Hong Kong streets, her apartment, new clothes for a new life in America.

Inside the chapel are my parents, sister and brother-in-law. And my cousins—my mother’s older brother’s family. I have not seen them for many years. My uncle is missing a few front teeth. He looks tired. He bears a close resemblance to grandfather. He is wearing a white shirt inside a black windbreaker. His hair is salt and pepper.

I see Eddie Ho, the husband of my grandmother’s niece. He greets me with a big, warm smile. Eddie works as a computer programmer for Safeway. There must be a title for him in Chinese. However, I call him Eddie. He was the first person I met at SFO in 1982 when my grandfather came to pick up my family upon our arrival from China. Eddie shakes my hand and pulls me in for a quick hug. I am surprised. Chinese never hug or are that affectionate in public.

I sit in the pews and talk to Justin, my 14 year old cousin. “What do you remember about grandfather?” I ask him.

“He always wanted a hug. And he always removed the egg yolk.” He said quietly.

“Do you still do this to the egg?”


Chris, my other cousin greets me warmly. I have not seen him for many years. He dropped out of Berkeley High School. He holds his son in his arms. I greet Cindy, Chris’s older sister. She used to work at DiCon, my old fiberoptics company in Berkeley. I was there for only 7 months in the Human Resources division. She spent a few years—on the factory floor covered in a white smock making fiberoptic switches at $8 an hour. She is very thin, has long black hair and wears glasses.

Family members sit on the left side of the aisle in no particular order. Friends sit on the right side.

My grandfather is in repose in his casket. His hands rest on his stomach, the left hand over his right hand. Glasses adorn his face. He is wearing a black graduation gown—the scholar look. How appropriate. As a good Chinese, he always valued education. Whenever he returned from one of his overseas holiday trips, he would invariably give me a pen as a gift. During our occasional dinners, he would always probe my sister and me about English grammar, usage or some Chinese proverb. Every interaction was always a lesson. A new proverb. An old proverb. A test to see how much we had learned in school.

Eddie reads grandfather’s brief biography from the funeral program in Cantonese, then translates into English, “Chan Ming (AKA Duan Hong Xi) was born 1914, August 15 in Hunan Province, Chenzhou city, Duan district. In his youth, he obtained a degree in railroad management. During World War II, he immigrated to Hong Kong, where he continued his studies at Jian Dao Shen Institute. Later, he lived in the US 30 plus years. He was kind to friends, his wife, children, loved them, and treated them warmly. He was a good student. Books never left his side. In 1992, at the advanced age of 78, he received his Associate Arts degree from Laney Community College. His daughter and grandchildren graduated from UC Berkeley and have contributed to society. It is evident that his descendants diligently studied his example.”

The biography is antiseptic and neat. It leaves out all the nuances of grandfather’s life. All the footnotes. It ignores the fact that he had to abandon his family in Hunan Province when the revolution was looking for him—the landlord—the bourgeoisie, who had to be crushed. My mother was one and my uncle was three years old when grandfather left. The next time my mother saw him was August 5, 1982 when we landed at SFO—day one of our new life in America, the land of cheeseburgers and hot dogs.

The biography ignores grandfather’s desperate escape to Hong Kong, where he had to change his name from Duan Hong Xi to Chan Ming. He would eventually meet some missionaries in the New Territories of Hong Kong who offered him a deal: study the Bible with us for 2 years and you’ll get food and lodging. He agreed and soon accepted Jesus Christ into his life.

The ministers read from Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

1 “The words of the teacher, son of David, king in Jersualem:
2 Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is Meaningless.”
3 What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.

The ministers continue their sermon. They proclaim that only people have souls.
“Animals do not. After a dog is run over by a car, no other dogs in the neighborhood remember that dog or have a ceremony to honor the memory of that dog.”


Tammy Chen, god-daughter to grandfather, begins in a solemn voice. “I came to this country 25 years ago from Taiwan. When I first met Mr. Chan Ming, he tried to find a husband for me. I have always felt welcomed by him and his wife and their daughter Grace and her husband Michael. Without Mr. Chan, I would not be the person I am today. I now am married and have three children.”

Zhong Fan, a family friend to grandfather tells a story about the time she had to go to the hospital for a brain scan. Grandfather was concerned for her, so offered to drive her there and back home again. During lunches, “he would ask me about politics. Unfortunately, he spoke the Hunan dialect, which I do not understand. So, my husband had to translate into Cantonese for me. When I responded, he could understand clearly.” These lunches lasted a while.

A stout African American gentleman comes to the podium. He has on a plaid shirt and orange tie. I don’t know if he gave his name. “I knew Mr. Ming when he got his AA (Associate Arts) degree from Laney Community College. I loved Mr. Ming. He was a dear friend. He always encouraged me: ‘you can do it!’”

At the end of the service, guests lined up to pay their last respects. Grandmother, mom and uncle, and my other aunt Grace stand in front of the casket to receive handshakes or hugs from friends. Some bowed three times to grandfather.

Guests and family received two small palm-sized envelopes: a white one with a piece of candy and a quarter; and a red one with one dollar. On our way back home to Sacramento, my mother throws out the white envelope with candy, saying it was bad luck to have that in the house. She kept the red envelope.

The casket floated on the shoulders of friends, my uncle Michael and his 14 year old son , Justin. On the top of the El Cerrito Hill, overlooking the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, the ministers read from the gospels:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in God. In my Father’s house, there are many rooms; If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you…” John 6:1-6