From SIGN: A collection of stories by the members of Seventeen Syllables, curated by Guest Editor, Grace Loh Prasad (introduced here)
On March 19, 2017, I was surprised to see a Facebook notification that Milo T. had accepted my friend request. Two nights before, I had read Milo’s obituary in the Bend Bulletin, an Oregon newspaper. He passed away on March 8, at the age of 79.
I had sent the request several months before, when Milo commented on a photo I posted about my dad’s passing and memorial service from earlier that summer. Milo and his then-wife Judith were close friends with my parents when we lived at Taiwan Theological Seminary in Taipei from 1968-1971. They were American missionaries on the faculty of the seminary, and my dad was the dean. Their young daughter Elizabeth was my brother Ted’s earliest playmate.
Scrolling through Milo’s timeline, I figured out that the most recent activity — including the friend acceptance — had been posted by his son, Richard. The last time Richard and I saw each other was sometime in the 1970s, when his family visited mine in New Jersey. I have a blurry snapshot of five kids lined up behind a birthday cake: Elizabeth and Ted in the back row in their early teenage years, and the younger kids Katy, Richard and me in the front row. I look about eight years old. My guess is confirmed by the eight candles on the cake.
Earlier black-and-white photos from the seminary show Ted and Elizabeth squeezed together on a single swing, legs akimbo, smiling and laughing. Another shows Ted on a large tricycle with Elizabeth standing on his right side. In front, balanced on the handlebars, is a six-month-old baby with a serious expression: me.
Richard and I were so young that these photos stand in for any actual memories we might have of each other. What I do recall is that his dark hair and Asian face made him look more like Ted and me than his blonde sisters Elizabeth and Katy.
Richard’s family forever changed the life of my family. I wonder if he remembers?
Of course he remembers.
Milo wrote a memoir called Fireproof Moth that was published in 2011, about his involvement in a clandestine mission that changed the course of Taiwanese history. The book describes his relationship with Peng Ming-min, a prominent activist and dissident.
Peng was a professor of law and political science when the Kuomintang (KMT) recruited him to advise the Republic of China delegation to the United Nations. He became disillusioned with the abuses of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime during martial law and secretly wrote a manifesto calling for Chiang to be ousted and for Taiwan to become democratic and declare independence. Peng was imprisoned in 1964, then due to public pressure from Amnesty International among others, he was released to house arrest where he was under constant surveillance by the KMT.
During this time, Peng met Milo and Judith, who became sympathetic to his cause. He visited them from time to time at the seminary, trailed by KMT agents. Although Milo and Judith had no political or diplomatic experience, they joined a loose consortium of friends and activists who collaborated to help Peng escape to freedom. They had one key advantage: as foreigners they flew under the radar of the KMT security forces.
My mom met the famous dissident only once. One day Judith offered her a ride down the mountain to go to the market. When she got into the car, she was startled to see Peng sitting in the backseat. Judith introduced the two of them, but after saying “hello” my mom was speechless for the rest of the 15-minute ride. She was star-struck, but also afraid: although Peng was a hero among Taiwanese people, his presence was toxic. As a known enemy of the government, being associated with him was extremely risky. Everyone knew what the KMT was capable of during Chiang’s dictatorship.
On January 2, 1970, in the quiet lull after new year celebrations, three families went about their routines. My parents were preparing to celebrate my first birthday, unaware that their friends were leading a double life. Across the street, Milo and Judith tended to their adopted newborn son, Richard, who was finally starting to gain weight and thrive. The call from the adoption agency had come at the worst possible time, in the middle of delicate preparations to help Peng flee the country, but they did not hesitate to say “yes.” Peng gave the baby the Chinese name Tang Chih-min, meaning “intelligent, wise leader.” That night, in the final hours before the plan was set into motion, there was nothing more Milo and Judith could do except pray.
Peng, who had been staying with friends, slipped into his home one last time after midnight. He tiptoed into the bedrooms where his wife, son and daughter slept and bid them a silent goodbye, unsure of when or if he would see them again. They knew nothing about the plan or the great danger that awaited him in the next 24 hours. This was for their own safety. In advance he had prepared two media statements: one that would be published if he was captured or killed; and one that would be used if he managed to escape.
The next day, aided by an elaborate disguise, fake passport, and a network of volunteers at various checkpoints along the way, Peng boarded a flight for Hong Kong and eventually landed in Sweden where he was granted asylum. His dramatic escape made headlines around the world and was a major embarrassment for Chiang and the KMT.
A seemingly impossible goal had been achieved, but the impact continued to reverberate in Taiwan. One year later, Milo and his family were surrounded and detained by KMT security forces at their house at the seminary. My parents closed the curtains and watched nervously from the window. Two days after that, Milo’s family was deported back to the U.S. and their passports were revoked, putting an end to their missionary work overseas.
Although my parents had no involvement in the plan, their friendship with Milo and Judith put them at risk. They were being watched by the KMT, and heard a rumor that they had been blacklisted. Then, miraculously, my dad was offered a job in New York, which he immediately accepted. I was two years old when we left.
Fast forward two decades… martial law was lifted and Taiwan eventually became democratic. After more than 20 years in exile, Peng returned to Taiwan to a hero’s welcome. In 1995, he ran for president in Taiwan’s first democratic election.
My parents also returned home after almost 20 years abroad, but it was too late for my brother and me. Our exile lasted so long that Ted and I were forever changed. We grew up American by accident, like wayward seeds on distant shores.
And now here I am reconnecting with Milo’s children on Facebook, decades after the dramatic events that upended our lives. I think again of those old black-and-white photos and I wonder: does my lost childhood exist in the pages of their albums, just as theirs exists in mine? Does Richard feel the same sense of loss and rootlessness, and carry the same scars of that violent separation from our homeland?
I send him a friend request, and wait for a sign.
Grace Loh Prasad was born in Taiwan and raised in New Jersey and Hong Kong before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. Grace received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, and she is an alumna of the VONA workshop for writers of color. Her essays have appeared in Longreads, Catapult, Jellyfish Review, Ninth Letter, Blood Orange Review, Memoir Mixtapes, The Manifest-Station, and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Grace is a member of The Writers Grotto and Seventeen Syllables, an Asian Pacific American writers collective. She is currently finishing her memoir entitled The Translator’s Daughter (www.translatorsdaughter.com).
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