In Brazil, where I grew up, as in many other countries, International Workers Day is May 1st. While we associate it now with Communism and Socialism, the first May Day was created by the American labor movement and celebrated – with great apprehension about riots – on May 1, 1886 as the rallying cry for an 8 hour work-day.
I am reminded of this by the “Occupy Wall Street” (and other cities) demonstrations that have been taking place, as it dredged up a blog entry I had forgotten to post at the time of writing. Here it is, below:
Original date: May 1, 2011.
May Day 1962, forty-seven years ago today, has the additional personal significance for being the date on which my father left home, ostensibly on a two week trip to a convention in the U.S.
Strictly speaking, he never returned.
I remember that May Day in 1962 because he made light of how long he would be gone and said that it was unnecessary for me to go to the airport to see him off. I can still feel his hands on my shoulders and hear him say, in Cantonese: “No need to change your plans to play with Maico, I’m not going to be gone for that long. Não é nada.” ….“It’s nothing“, to mean that his absence would be of trivial duration.
And he left in the VW “Kombi” van, with the driver and my mother.
The next time I saw him would be over two YEARS later, on June 6, 1964, the 20th Anniversary of D-Day, when he picked up my mother and I at Kennedy Airport in New York. In between those two dates, my mother and I were by ourselves, in limbo, waiting for visas that would allow us to reunite in America. We experienced that period very differently.
My mother spoke little Portuguese and did not work outside the home – she had been a researcher and science teacher in Hong Kong and China – and had no friends outside the dwindling Chinese expatriate community of three other families. (We were the last ones there by the time we left.) She was stranded in Santa Rosa, a small town in the interior of Brazil’s southernmost state and almost 300 miles from the capital, alone with a son on the edge of puberty.
From my perspective, I had become, almost over-night, a de facto adult. My fluent Portuguese was so much better than hers for dealing with officialdom, tradesmen, landlord, so I took over those functions. I negotiated our rent, interpreted at meetings with teachers, bought air time on the local radio-station to advertise our moving sale, and bargained with the buyers (and movers) when the time came. It was empowering on many levels to have this level of responsibility, but it also aged me, though differently from some of my classmates, who were dropping out of school after 5th grade to become shoe-shiners and help support their families. I was ten and a half years old when this period began.
As the weeks without my father stretched into months and his absence became truly open-ended once he found a job, that disproportionately ordinary “good bye” curbside our apartment building never left my thoughts.
Our leave-taking should have been AT the airport and at the foot of the five fold-down steps of the VARIG Airlines DC-3 taking him to the state capital and beyond. There should have a big Brazilian abraço (bear hug) proportionate to the true length of his absence. And I should have been told what I didn’t find out until much later: he was leaving family behind temporarily, as generations of Chinese men had done a hundred years earlier, to find a better future for all of us in the America.
I often wonder whether he thought he succeeded.