My grandpa - Zhiyen Wen, birthday November 5th 1931 - passed away over Father’s day weekend on Saturday June 17th 2023 at approximately 9:15PM at the age of 91. He passed in the most peaceful way possible, surrounded by family and on comfort measures in the hospital. Even though it was expected at his age and in his fragile medical condition, I still feel shock knowing that he’s gone. The first death in our immediate family. The first time I saw a dead body.
He had a profound impact on my entire family, and in the moments and days following his death, we’ve all been reminiscing about days past. He also wrote an autobiography of sorts - really a collection of short stories - which my cousin Andy and uncle Mark (and chatGPT) helped to transcribe digitally and translate. I’m sharing paraphrases of his story along with some of my own experiences so that you, the reader, can understand a little about what kind of man my grandpa was.
“I was born in 1931 in Northeast China in a community of Hui Muslim Chinese. The exact date is unknown since during those times nobody really paid attention to birthdays. My cousin told me it was the 14th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar (September 9th), but when I started working the records stated October 28th, and my passport when I immigrated to America said November 5th. Nowadays the children celebrate my birthday in November.”
His father was a Chinese medicine practitioner selling wares on travels throughout Northeast China until he opened a pharmacy and his mother managed the farmland back home. Without formal schooling, he still learned with a voracious appetite, able to recite classic stories from memory and excelling in mathematics beyond the grade level for his age. He kept up this yearning for knowledge into old age by going to the library every three weeks to rent new chinese literature until his eyes couldn’t read the text anymore. Funnily enough as a teen, he kept learning by spending time with his older brother and friends, and through them, learned how to play games like pai gow, chinese poker, and other card games; it was through these games he learned to use an abacus, hah.
Times would get tough throughout his life. While considered somewhat prosperous in the early days, his family would eventually struggle with scarcity during droughts, the Japanese invasion, the Cultural Revolution, and immigrating to the USA. I think these struggles shaped his tenacity for survival, and his enterprising spirit.
“Once, as a child of around 10, I purchased large 1kg sugar blocks for 25 copper coins each, because I observed that the large block could be broken down into 50 smaller single blocks that children would buy for 1 copper coin. During the winter, I bought and sold 3 or 4 kilograms, earning some money for my mother to spend.”
I smile at that story because when I was in middle school, my friends and I realized we could buy 100 pixie sticks for around $25 in bulk and resell them for $1 each. We peddled the candy on campus and sold out in just two days. I’m proud to know that even with 60 years between us, my grandpa and I share these similar stories as children. The rest of his childhood stories are written in his 100 page autobiography. Maybe we’ll share that one day.
In my childhood, grandpa was always the watchful eye, picking me up after school ended and cooking for the household before my parents returned from work. In elementary school, every Friday I would beg him to buy me a popsicle for $1 each. Most times he’d say no, but the times he said yes sparked a lifelong nostalgia for Flintstone’s push pops and Popsicle brand firecrackers (I know you know the red, white, and blue popsicles). In middle school, he would pick me up at the back of the track field. He was never late, and I could depend on seeing his figure in the distance after the school bells had rung. He drove an iconic white Toyota Tercel from 1990 that lasted more than 20 years. In high school, it was the same, and he would be a driving force of discipline when I came home. All I wanted to do was play video games with my friends (League of Legends in 2011, lol) but he would always remind me to do my homework first. I wrote about one such scene in my college application essay, depicting my grandpa as the paragon of discipline, integrity, and hard work ethic, desperately trying to convey to colleges that I wanted to be like him one day. I’m confident the essay was terrible but the subject couldn’t be truer, and hey, I got a degree in the end. Reading his stories, I appreciate the privilege of receiving a formal education even more, knowing he was denied one.
As an adult, my admiration of grandpa only grew. He was a man set in his routines. Every day, he would take a walk with his wife of nearly 75 years - my grandma Shuying Ma - almost a mile away and back. He would return to soak in the sun while she napped. He would pick us up from school, cook dinner, and recline for some evening television. In line with his thirst for knowledge, he would watch the news (even weather reports) until his last day. Every three weeks he would go to the library for new books. He even had designated bathing days. At the end of the night, he would make sure the water boiler and water filter were filled, all the lights were off, all the windows closed, and all the doors locked. When my grandma had to move to the nursing home and grandpa couldn’t handle the 1.5 miles of distance on his daily walks alone, he reduced it little by little until he was doing 200 paces in the backyard every day with a walker, a refusal to stay idle. He did this every day for nearly 30 years.
There is so much more to say. His father and his grandson - my cousin Andy - practicing medicine. He (as a journalist and newspaper editor) and his grandson - my brother Shawn - loving writing and politics. He and I loving cooking and some personality traits like striving for easygoingness. I wear a watch because he wore one. His love and impact on our lives shape the path we walk daily. And we felt that love deeply. In these recent months when I would come home to Sunnyvale from San Francisco for a night or two, he would smile and shake my hand, telling me he thought of me often when I wasn’t at home. There are so many memories like this.
Death is only hard for the living. His passing was smooth, on supplemental oxygen and morphine and surrounded by family; to him, he had fallen asleep for the night and simply didn’t wake up. I didn’t know how I would handle the grief, since this is the first death in my family I’ve experienced. It comes in waves. Some moments it almost seems like things are normal. Some moments I choke up having thought some random thought. Knowing that he won’t be in his room watching tv when I come home, or that I might not taste some of his recipes again, or hear his laughter, or see him sitting in the sun.
Zhiyen Wen. I am thankful to have known him, to have been raised by him, and been loved by him.
An excerpt of his autobiography. His life, summarized in his words.
Looking back on my life, it can be divided into four periods of 20 years each. The first 20 years were from my birth until 1949. During these 18 years, it was a chaotic era of wars and turmoil. My childhood and youth can be described as a time of disorder. I experienced the rule of the Republic of China, the Japanese occupation, the puppet state of Manchukuo, the chaotic post-Japanese surrender period, and the era of the Liberation War.
The second 20 years were from 1949 to 1969. These were the years of my active participation in work and striving for progress. In August 1949, I joined the railway work. I started as a trainee, then became a switchman, and later a station master. I was transferred from a fourth-class small station to a third-class station called Sanchahe. Then I was transferred to Harbin Railway Bureau to work as a train dispatcher. In 1956, I was transferred to the Railway Administration Bureau as an assistant chief dispatcher. Later, I took on other roles such as an armed officer and a secretary, eventually becoming a cadre at the divisional level.
The third 20 years were from 1969 when I was transferred to Harbin Railway News until my retirement in 1993. I worked in the news department for 23 years, starting as the head of the editorial department and later becoming the head of the news department. Due to the lack of a university degree, I couldn't be promoted further. So my cadre level was raised to Deputy Division Chief, which was considered a decent position for retirement.
The fourth 20 years mark the period of settling in the United States. This was something I had never imagined before. The opportunity came about thanks to my son, Wen Zhigang. He was able to study abroad through his own efforts. I never thought he would be able to study abroad. He went overseas, got married, and in 1991, he gave birth to a grandson. This created the conditions for us to settle abroad.
In early 1993, right after my retirement, my son arranged the immigration procedures for me. My wife had already gone to the United States in 1991. I retired in January 1993, and in April of the same year, I immigrated to the United States. I initially lived in Spokane, Washington, and later moved to Seattle. Eventually, my wife and I lived together with our eldest daughter, Wen Wei, and her family in California. My later years can be described as very happy and fulfilling.