My dad, Philip Kwock Yin Young, was born in Honolulu on August 21st in 1945, just a couple of weeks before the end of World War II.
At that time, his dad, Kenneth, was a sergeant in the army, in charge of protecting a local water reservoir in case of attack again by the Japanese forces.
There is a series of beautiful, tiny black and white photos taken on the family’s front porch on August 20th, the day before my dad was born. My grandmother, Frances, is in a gauzy, white cotton dress and white sandals, eyes glittering with excitement through her round glasses. My grandfather is hugging her shoulders and holding her hand wearing a Hawaiian shirt and white linen pants. These photos are labeled, “Waiting,” “Waiting patiently,” “Any time now.”
I can imagine that my grandparents were not only waiting for their first child to arrive, but also waiting for the war to end, waiting for the Pacific to feel safe again, waiting to see if Hawaii would stay under U.S. domain and become a state, waiting to see what life after the great war might be like.
I can imagine that all these curiosities helped shape my dad’s love of history, of learning, of travel. And set a course for all his many serendipitous intersections and accomplishments that were within his reach, but otherwise unfathomable for previous generations.
I thought I would share a few of these remarkable moments in my dad’s life.
My dad grew up with a close band of cousins, neighbors and friends of many backgrounds and nationalities.
They grew up swapping comics, playing music together, and not wearing shoes (even to school). My dad loved his friends (many of whom he was close with his whole life) and he loved playing the ukulele and guitar.
The Youngs were a prominent and storied Chinese family, owners of the first open-air market in Chinatown founded in 1904 by Young Anin — my dad’s great grandfather, who came from Guangdong as an indentured servant at the age of 11 to earn $5 a month on a rice plantation. He died at 86 a wealthy philanthropist, who supported Sun Yat Sen, and was the first Chinese person in Hawaii to own a car. If you go to Honolulu today, that market is still there. It’s a national historic landmark and I can imagine my dad passing through its majestic red awnings after school for shaved ice, rice candies, and fresh lychees with his friends.
When my dad went to college in Hawaii, he became president of the Chinese fraternity and worked at the East-West Center alongside Ann Dunham, who would sometimes bring her 6-year-old son, Barry Obama (later known as Barack) to the office on days he had off from school.
As part of the East-West Center he organized a protest against the U.S. bombing of Vietnam. He received a handwritten thank you letter from Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, praising Asian student groups like theirs for their solidarity with youth in Vietnam.
Leading up to the Civil Rights act of 1964, my dad took his first trip to the “mainland.” He was one of two young people recruited from Hawaii to teach guitar at Camp Bloomfield, the only racially integrated summer camp for children living with visual impairments and physical disabilities. The camp directors wanted to include counselors from every state in the US, including Hawaii. My dad remembered being a counselor there as one of his favorite jobs. In particular, he was so moved to work and learn alongside young Black people from the South who, because of segregation, had never had the chance to have friends or teachers of such diverse backgrounds. In particular, he was in awe of children who had been without sight and navigated the world through heightened senses, completely unassisted.
My dad went on to get his masters in international relations at Columbia University. He lived at the International House on the Columbia campus and from what I gathered, survived mostly on Chinese takeout. This was Morningside Heights in 1967 and you can imagine there weren’t too many restaurants. The first time he picked up his order at a small takeout joint, my dad made the mistake of asking for duck sauce. The Chinese proprietor looked at my dad quite sternly and replied, “You are Chinese. I cannot give you duck sauce. Duck sauce only for Americans.” My dad never asked for duck sauce again.
But he did, however continue his graduate studies. He went on to NYU, where he met my mom, Ilse, in a statistics class. They later bumped into each other at the Astor Place subway stop and my dad asked my mom out for dinner. He knew he couldn’t simply order Chinese takeout, so they went to a Spanish restaurant and he said it was the most expensive dinner he ever paid for, about $35 and the same amount he paid for his rent for the whole month.
He went on to pursue his doctorate at NYU and he was the only person of color in the PhD program and the economics faculty. This is important, because my dad believed that is the only reason why he was assigned to teach an extra course called, The Economics of African American Communities. I happen to think it was also because he was deeply interested in economics at the community level, and because of his dissertation work on Korean immigrant grocers in Queens. Regardless, my dad took the extra money he earned from this course to buy a ticket to visit my mom in Caracas, Venezuela, to meet her family and later, propose to her.
My dad became an economics professor and a global consultant. And he went everywhere. He went to Poland in the early 90s, shortly after the end of the Cold War to provide training for an outpost of Colgate-Palmolive. My dad was someone who was always exploring, always curious, and always wanted to experience things first hand. So, he ventured into a store in Warsaw to buy toothpaste. He figured that he couldn’t give his first seminar to the Colgate team without understanding what the local toothpaste market was like. Well, my dad did not speak Polish and when he returned to his hotel room to brush his teeth with what he thought was “authentic, local” toothpaste, he later realized it was in fact shoe polish. I imagine it made his teeth very shiny, but it was not very tasty.
My dad traveled all over the world and at his busiest he traveled 250 days out of the year. I was lucky enough to go with him on trips to London, Brussels, Beijing and Manila, where we risked our lives to walk across nine lanes of unmediated car traffic to get to a particularly delicious restaurant for blood stew and halo halo.
But actually the most time I got to spend with my dad was in the past two and a half years, when he became sick. He moved into the same building with me and I hung out with him a lot in the hospital and went on doctor’s visits.
Sometimes, doctors would give my dad very grim news, explaining the odds of treatments, telling him how much time he would have to spend at the hospital, all the potential side effects, what he could and couldn’t eat, etc.
When my doctors asked my dad if he had any questions, his most common one was: “Can I go on Zoom to teach a class?” My dad never stopped learning, teaching and even traveling throughout his fight with cancer. In the first year of his chemo, he completed an online course in digital transformation at MIT, from the hospital. And yes, he took Zoom meetings from the cancer ward of Mt. Sinai.
Like the rest of my dad’s life, the timing of historical breakthroughs benefitted him greatly. He was able to access treatments that were approved only months and sometimes weeks before he received them. And he outlived every prognosis given to him, except his last.
When he was last admitted to the hospital this July and it became clear he was not coming home, my family and I brought the world to him.
I read to him from his treasure trove of Chinese and Hawaiian history books. My brother and I brought him Persian, Thai, and Japanese foods. Our Aunt Kennette and Cousin Wan made him fried rice and brought him dumplings from Anthony Bourdain’s street food market. He spoke to his friends in New York and Hawaii. He had two live guitar concerts in his hospital room and he became friends with all the nurses and doctors from all over the world. The last song he played on the guitar was “The Girl from Ipanema” and when he finished, the nurses cheered for him, chanting: “Go, Mr, Young. You still got it!”
It can feel impossible to imagine that someone so full of life could die.
In the Buddhist tradition, death is not the end — it is a new beginning. My dad’s Chinese name, Kwock Yin, means my country of origin or homeland. It is a Chinese tradition that when you die, you return to be buried in your home village. My dad asked that I do something Buddhist for him after he died. With help from many friends in my tradition, I’ve directed him to Sukhavati, the Pure Land of the Buddha of Compassion — Avalokiteshvara (in Chinese, Guanyin ). Dad — please enjoy your spiritual homeland of Sukhavati, where you will continue to study, learn, meditate, and swiftly attain the permanent peace of enlightenment.