A Mark in History

Rosita Choy - Washington, District of Columbia
Entered on June 21, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
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As an Asian American immigrant, I grew up in the living quarters above a small corner grocery store in East Los Angeles, believing that my purpose in life was to make a mark in history. My parents worked downstairs and lived a kind of life deferred—all their dreams and desires suspended in the present to be realized in the future, through their children. My parents and I had immigrated to the United States when I was a year old. I felt a heavy responsibility to make something of myself to repay them for their sacrifice. And my goal had to extend beyond mortality.

My father didn’t speak much about his past. Upon our arrival to the United States, he bought that small corner store in East L.A. and tended to it with my mother until he retired two decades later. It was only when I began thinking of college that he told me he had a bachelor’s degree in economics. A chance encounter with a mail-order catalog was the first time I heard the word “rattan” and learned that my father had once been in the import-export business in Hong Kong.

When he found me staying up late one night reading a novel, he explained that he had done the same as a youth, had begun a literary magazine, and had translated books from Russian to Chinese. An article I wrote for school led him to mention his reporting from the front lines of World War II. Finally, during one visit home after college, I asked him to tell me his entire life’s story completely and chronologically so that I could thread together the anecdotes to write his story.

As I grew up, I learned that no matter how important one’s deeds or ideas, they would not be a part of history if they were not written down. I became fixated on recording my father’s history when I discovered that he hadn’t always lived a quiet, unremarkable life.

My father died several years ago, and I have yet to begin to write his life. At the funeral and during the days after, friends and family expressed more than polite sympathy. Their grief rose from genuine fondness. I realized that old-time customers from his corner store did not love my father because of his learnedness or past accomplishments. They loved him because he always smiled, asked them in Spanish about their lives, and offered them credit without questions or interest until the next paycheck. Family and friends loved him for his quiet interest in their lives and unconditional support. With my father, what you saw was what you got: a gentle, upstanding man with one big smile. That was his mark in history.

I gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. In some ways, I’d been preparing it for most of my life. After the service, a family friend said to me, “Your father was a good man. His influence can be seen in the person you’ve become.” It was at that moment that I lost my obsession with making a mark in history and repaying my parents’ hard work. At that moment, I began to believe that my true purpose in life is to have at least one person say about me, as so many have said about my father, “I knew her, and my life is a little better for having known her.”

I finally understand that as long as I live my life with this belief, that will be repayment enough for my father.

Rosita Choy taught bilingual kindergarten for three years in the Oakland, California, public school system. She then spent the next eleven years in Oakland, Boston, and Washington, DC, working for nonprofit organizations concerned with immigrants’ rights, human rights, and women’s rights. Currently, she lives in Vermont with her partner.