My dad left his home in Sri Lanka to travel across the seas to the great New York City, to pursue a graduate degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Columbia University. I wish I had the photos in my hand of his departure from Sri Lanka – I saw them at my aunt’s home more than 10 years ago, when my sister and I took our families to Sri Lanka to reconnect with family. I recall being so impressed with the formality of my grandparent’s, and particularly my grandfather’s, sending off their oldest son. They went to the Buddhist temple, and my father would have given offerings, and received some kind of blessing to send him safely on his way.
My grandfather, who I grew up referring to as Pithu, was a government official in the Sri Lankan government. Initially under British rule, and then for several years or maybe decades, employed by an independent Sri Lankan government, when SL gained independence in 1947. He was a committed Buddhist, and I don’t know if he ever travelled outside of Sri Lanka. If he did, I would imagine that he would have only gone to India to see the sites of importance in the Buddha’s life. He was devoted to his family, and he didn’t necessarily have great professional ambitions. In fact, he retired early, to devote the rest of his life to meditation and charitable giving, and devoting himself to buddhist practice. I knew him when he was in his sixties, I believe, and he was a doting grandfather to me.
But, I can imagine his horror on learning of his oldest son’s marriage to an American. A woman who my grandparents did not know, a wedding which hadn’t been blessed (or expected). Weddings in Sri Lanka are spectacles of ritual and elaborate traditions. Getting a marriage license in the office of the Justice of the Peace, as my parents did, would be unheard of.
And, my father never earned his degree. He cut classes at Columbia and drove to Pennsylvania, where he got a pilot’s license, and earned money teaching flight lessons in small aircraft. When my parents married, they moved to Lockport, NY (why there, I have no idea!!), and he got a job as an auto mechanic working on foreign sports cars. (I’m not certain how much my grandparents knew about this part of their son’s life).
Whatever he knew or didn’t know of my father’s studies (or lack thereof) and extracurricular activities, my grandfather disowned his son.
What did my father think of this action on the part of his father? I’ll never know. I’m sure he felt he was in the right (as any impetuous young man would). Was his ashamed of himself? I doubt it. did he ever have regrets? No, I think he was incapable of regret. He loved my mother absolutely, even after the divorce (oh, another horror that I’m sure my Sri Lankan grandparents had difficulty accepting).
Many years later, with much water under the bridge, my father returned home, after never realizing his dreams in the United States, and struggling with figuring out his place in this country. He returned home to Sri Lanka, and I remember getting letters from him complaining of how dull it was, how there was no night life (!), and how much he hoped to be able to bring us, his family, over to Sri Lanka to visit (and perhaps to live permanently). I think my father arrived back in Sri Lanka before his father passed away, but I’m not totally sure of the timing.
If he did have a chance to talk with his father, I wonder what they spoke of? I hope that they had the chance to reconcile…
Headmaster Percivial Chen is a proud Chinese born man who runs English language school during the cusp of the Vietnam War. In his refusal to accept his adopted country’s turbulent times, his gamble becomes a life changer. Join From Left to Write on November 15 as we discuss the The Headmaster’s Wager. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.