Fan Yin Lee died March 9 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 88 years old. In Chinese phonetics, “eight” is pronounced much the same as “prosperity.” Double 8 is even luckier; an auspicious age to begin the journey to a next life.
Mr. Lee grew up in a remote Chinese village. After graduating college — a rare and expensive event — he taught math and physics near the village, and lived in his childhood home with his wife, four children, and mother. They were considered well-off. Their cement house had a watchtower for safety.
Mr. Lee rarely spoke of how, during the Communist Revolution, covetous villagers turned on his family, how he was imprisoned and tortured for his perceived wealth, how the family was beaten, and allowed into the watchtower house only to sleep at night. Decades later, he would not tell his youngest son where the village was. He still feared for their safety.
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More unelaborated chapters followed: the release from prison; everyone fleeing in shifts to Hong Kong. Ten years and three children later, they left the comfortable life he’d created in Kowloon and moved again — into two bedrooms of a sixth story walk-up in Boston’s South End. Mr. Lee and his wife were dreaming the immigrant’s dream of their children’s betterment.
He’d been a businessman in Hong Kong, but became a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Salem. The work was hard, and he was painfully flat-footed. But he liked the food. Many years on, after an expensive American meal at a harborside restaurant, he complained. “Waste of a good lobster,” he said. “They should have cooked it the Chinese way.”
In America, he devoted himself to the generations he’d brought over. He visited his mother daily in her nursing home, and cared bodily for his wife in their apartment after her stroke.
Waiter’s English left him unable to speak fluently with his adored American grandchildren. But that didn’t matter. He gave advice when babies were sick, cooked soups, beamed throughout family events he’d organized. He kept the Chinese calendar of everyone’s birthdays, and whenever he saw a grandchild, he gently touched his forehead to theirs.
The first time severe illness landed him in intensive care, he practiced his customary tai chi from the bed. The second time, as one of his sons sat beside him, he scribbled two Chinese characters: “fast death.”
After he died, his family received an undelivered letter from China that had been mailed months earlier. It contained a check Mr. Lee had written, to the wife of the man who helped to free him from prison. He had been sending her money for decades, and had told no one.
Did you know Fan Yin Lee? Share your memories in the comments section.