Rekinding Their Love

Friday, 11 April 2008 14:55 Lai Yi-ling
In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and destroyed the delicate stability of post-World War II Asia. The invasion triggered the U.S.-Korean War, but it had other ramifications as well. One such ripple effect occurred in Taiwan, where the United States began to station troops in an effort to prevent the expansion of communism in Asia. For over 30 years, trendy American goods and aspects of American culture seeped into Taiwanese communities near U.S. military bases. The prosperity and affluence seemed like a dream come true to those in the traditional agrarian society of Taiwan. Given such an influence, it wasn’t surprising that many young local women fell in love with tall, strong, attractive American military personnel stationed in Taiwan.

One such woman was Lin Li-hua, a young barber from the countryside of southern Taiwan. She married an African American officer and emigrated to the U.S with him. It was not an easy marriage. For more than 30 years, Lin harbored much grievance and resentment toward her husband and their marriage. Things changed when she was introduced to Tzu Chi. This is her story.

The smiling couple in the black-and-white wedding photo radiated happiness. The bride, Lin Li-hua (林麗華), was only 18 years old. She was already pregnant then with their first child.

This was no typical Taiwanese wedding. The man Lin was marrying was I.W. Harper Jr., a U.S. Navy officer stationed in Taiwan. He was also African American. Although not unheard of, marrying across cultural and racial lines over 30 years ago was not common. If Lin was to survive, she knew she needed to embrace her marriage with great courage and willpower.

Lin grew up in a poor family in the countryside of southern Taiwan. Because the traditional cultural view at the time favored boys over girls, Lin, the oldest daughter, was told to start working before she even completed elementary school. “Grandma said that schooling was of no use for girls. She told me to quit studying and work as an apprentice barber,” Lin recalled.

A few years later, one of Lin’s friends helped her get a job at a barbershop near a U.S. military base. This is where she met Harper, a young naval officer from Arkansas. They spent time together after she got off work and soon fell in love. Half a year later Lin discovered she was pregnant, and she and Harper decided to get married.

Many of her friends and relatives considered it risky to marry a foreigner, especially an African American, but Lin was determined to make the marriage work. She made up her mind to follow and settle down with her husband no matter where he went. When the Navy transferred Harper back to the United States, she packed up their newborn baby and all their possessions and went dutifully with him.

 A miserable marriage
Life in the United States was difficult for Lin. She had grown up in the countryside in Taiwan, and her new environment was just about as foreign for her as could be imagined.

There were signs that life would be difficult from the very beginning. Her baby began to cry after they had just gotten off the plane. Annoyed, her husband turned to her and said, “You know nothing and you shouldn’t have come to the U.S. with me at all!” Lin was hurt and frustrated that her husband would blame her and be so inconsiderate, even before they had begun their new life in this country.

Lin began doubting her decision to move to America. She longed to return to Taiwan, but she had no money. She had no choice but to stay with her husband.

As a U.S. Navy officer, Harper was routinely transferred from one naval base to another. Each time he was transferred, Lin had to move with him. Harper worked hard to support his family while studying towards a Ph.D., but he was a man under a great deal of pressure, and it showed. He was a lieutenant commander who treated his subordinates with the same authoritative military discipline under which he had been trained. The result was a job filled with tension and stress. Frequently, the demands and the stress of his military life would spill over to Lin at home. Whenever Harper was under great pressure or stress, he turned to alcohol and vented his anger and frustration at Lin.

The differences in language and culture, when coupled with the stresses they each encountered, led to frequent quarrels and fights between the two. “My husband would often get drunk and curse me when he arrived home from work,” said Lin. “If I talked back, he would say I wasn’t good enough to talk to him. He threw the fact that I had little education right in my face.”

Sometimes she would vent her anger on her children after being scolded by her husband. She even resorted to beatings when they didn’t behave themselves. Her husband turned her behavior against her, beating her and threatening to report her to the police and have her sent back to Taiwan. Worried that she’d never see her children again if she was sent back, she put up with it all. Under her husband’s hot temper, Lin gradually learned to be tough and strong.

The couple’s rocky marital relationship greatly influenced their three children. Their oldest son grew up with a short, hot temper like his father. He also took to drinking. Their second son was jailed for drugs, and their youngest son, hanging around with the wrong crowd, began using marijuana.

Failing to maintain a happy marriage and raise well-adjusted children depressed Lin immensely. There were moments when Lin even thought of taking her own life. But in the end, she never followed through with her thoughts. Despite their flaws, she loved her children very much and could not bear to leave them on their own. Although it was hard, she remained strong and never gave up on them. “I used to ponder all that had happened to me. I wondered if I had done so many bad deeds in my past lives so as to deserve so much misfortune in this lifetime.”

A shift in perspective
When Lin first came to the U.S. with her husband, she found a job working in a bar. The job lasted about five years. Eventually, she was able to open a barbershop of her own. Fearing clashes with her husband when she got off work, she often spent hours after work wandering around instead of heading directly home.

A friend of hers, Zhang Cun-rong (張純蓉), happened to be a Tzu Chi commissioner. One time after Lin had quarreled with her husband, Zhang invited her to have dinner at her place. She encouraged Lin to join a study group attended by local Tzu Chi members. She also gave her some cassettes of lectures by Master Cheng Yen.

“Two months later, Lin returned the cassettes to me,” Sister Zhang recalled. “All of them were still sealed just as they were when I gave them to her. She told me that even if she had tried to listen, she would not have been able to understand what the Master was saying, nor would she have taken the Master’s words to heart.”

It was not until two years later that Sister Zhang gave the cassettes to Lin again. By this time, they had become closer friends. This time around, Lin listened attentively to the cassettes. Deeply touched by the Master’s messages, Lin started thinking about what she could do to benefit others. She decided to put her barbering skills to good use by offering free haircuts whenever Tzu Chi volunteers held relief distributions or free clinics.

In addition to working to benefit others, Lin began speaking more kindly. “Every time my husband and I quarreled, he would become even angrier if I talked back. Sister Zhang taught me not to get irritated and argue with my husband. Also, the Master says that good words are like lotus flowers blooming from your mouth, and bad words are like poisonous snakes hissing from your lips. From that, I realized we should only speak to others in a kind and gentle way.”

From then on, whenever a quarrel was about to arise, Lin would chant the Buddha’s name silently in her heart or divert her attention by tuning in to the Master’s talks on Da Ai TV. Harper had no one to argue with when Lin chose not to respond to his anger. As a result, he began to lose his temper less frequently.

Lin put several English Tzu Chi publications in her barbershop for customers to read. Sometimes customers would unburden themselves to her, telling her of their unhappy or unsatisfactory lives. Lin tried to lift their spirits by sharing thoughts from Master Cheng Yen’s book, Jing Si Aphorisms. She even donated the tips she received to Tzu Chi in her customers’ names.

At 4:30 every morning, Lin woke up and listened to the Master’s daily Dharma talk. The Master reminded Lin of the grandmother who had raised her and guided and educated her on the principles of life. She found strength every day from the Master’s talks, and she was able to begin her day with a joyful heart. She felt transformed from the inside out, and she began to replace the negative feelings toward her husband with a positive mindset. She thought to herself, “My husband has worked so hard to support the family. I should show my gratitude by making sure the house is clean and tidy and by taking care of everything at home so that he can go to work without worries. If he gets angry and stressed at work, I should leave him alone and give him time to calm down.” Lin began realizing that although what had happened to her in life was very painful, she could still be grateful. She had at one time contemplated taking her own life; now she chose to be thankful for being well provided for and for being able to dedicate her spare time to volunteering for Tzu Chi.

 A transformation
While serving as a Tzu Chi volunteer, Lin came to realize that the simple, pure desire to protect the environment prompts many volunteers to join in and take up recycling. Lin knew that recycling could be done anytime, anywhere, as long as one had the desire to do so. So she began dedicating her time after work to recycling, often spending four or five hours at a time sorting trash.

At first, her neighbors would shake their heads and comment, “Your husband is a military officer! Do you really need to collect trash like a homeless person?” Even policemen who saw her loading recyclables into her nice van would approach and inquire into her “suspicious” activity. Despite such social opposition, Lin persisted in using her spare time to help with the recycling work.

“To change others you have to first change yourself.” At Sister Zhang’s suggestion, Lin began showing concern for her husband and his drinking problem. She placed an English edition of Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms by her husband’s bedside in the hope that he would flip through the pages and gain some inspiration.

However, it was not until Harper was diagnosed with stage II prostate cancer that he came to understand his wife’s concern and love for him. Suddenly, the luster of his life faded in the face of his own mortality and the impermanence of the world. Harper entered the hospital for treatment, and for more than ten days Lin tended to him and took good care of his daily needs. Gradually, their icy relationship began to thaw.

Under Lin’s encouragement, Harper started watching Da Ai TV. Bit by bit, he came to understand what Tzu Chi was all about. After some time, he told himself, “I must change my ways.”

Harper was already in the habit of collecting recyclables that looked new and were still useable even before he became familiar with Tzu Chi. When Sister Zhang talked with him about Tzu Chi’s recycling efforts and invited him to join in, he happily agreed. However, deep down in his heart he doubted whether the proceeds from selling the recyclables would really go to relieve the poor and the suffering.

His doubt evaporated when he helped to hand out scholarships to students at the Morita Tzu Chi Elementary School in Tijuana, Mexico. It was that trip that convinced him that the income from selling recyclables was put to good use, such as helping children from poor families get an education.

The trip made Harper realize that everyone’s recycling efforts, when pooled together, could have a huge impact. He began dedicating more time to recycling, as much as four hours a day. On his days off, he’d work up to ten hours. He became so occupied with recycling that he no longer felt the need to drink. “I’ve found the right direction in life and no longer need to seek solace in alcohol. Through recycling, I’ve come to understand the joy of giving without asking for anything in return. I hope that my efforts contribute to bringing about a better world.”

After he started serving as a Tzu Chi volunteer, Harper often had the chance to talk to others about the foundation. To learn more, he even attended a training camp held last November at the foundation headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan. With the help of interpreters, he took notes during every lecture. He intended to take in Tzu Chi’s ideals and spirit and spread them locally after returning home.

Harper has discovered the meaning of his life in service to others. “The Tzu Chi path is the correct path on which people should walk. I don’t know how many people I can help to change in my life, but I’m confident that if you can change even one person, you will influence many more people.”

 New insights
After Harper was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he and Lin came to realize how impermanent life could be. They realized they should make the best use of their time to do good. This is what prompted them to dedicate themselves to volunteer services, such as recycling. Just as their small yard is piled high with recyclables, so are their hearts full of joy.

However, their children still cause them quite a lot of worry and concern. Every week, Lin writes three letters to her second son. He is still in prison serving a sentence for drugs. She hopes that he can use his time in jail to reflect and improve himself. “I include lines from Jing Si Aphorisms in my letters to him, hoping that someday he will absorb those wholesome messages.”

Harper also changed his ways of interacting with his children. After reflection, he decided he was too autocratic. He didn’t know how to listen to his children and respect their thoughts. In a loving move, he decided to try all he could to support them in starting their lives anew, no matter how difficult it might be. He resolved that henceforth he would not make any decision for them. Instead, he would be at their side, sharing his life experiences with them.

Harper is also grateful to his wife for being a good model for him. “Seeing how much my wife has changed and the more meaningful life she now leads truly has had an impact on me.” He has confidence that his children will also change for the better.

Harper now works at a prison. Influenced by Tzu Chi, he no longer believes in the autocratic way of management he used to uphold. Tzu Chi has taught him the importance of compassion. Now he believes that only when people are willing to communicate, trust, and forgive one another can they work toward harmony and greater efficiency.

The couple is now involved in a project that works to guide and care for youths that have run away from home. After work, Harper and Lin help provide hot meals for these youths. They also show support by being attentive listeners when they pour out their hearts. They love and care for these run-away youths with the same hope they have toward their own children. Their hope is that the wayward youth they counsel will find the right path in life and never go astray again.

As the sun set, the clear sky glowed red and purple. Lin steered her van through a bustling neighborhood and stopped beside a dumpster behind a local supermarket. The evening wind was a bit chilly. Lin swiftly picked up a few flattened cardboard boxes, piled them into her van, and then headed for another place to collect more.

At the same time, Harper was in another part of the city driving his old surplus military vehicle around. He too was collecting used cardboard boxes. Wearing a camouflage hat, casual clothes, and work apron, he cut open the cardboard boxes one after another with his pocket knife. Whenever he runs into Tzu Chi volunteers he knows, he greets them with a big grin on his face.

After more than 30 years of unhappy marriage, this couple has finally found new meaning in life through their involvement with Tzu Chi. Despite differences in culture, education and language, their hearts have grown closer again and they now understand each other better than ever before. Sharing the same firm resolve, they vow to walk hand in hand into the future on the Tzu Chi Path.

Translated by Evelyn Yi-chih Sung
Photographs by Yan Lin-zhao

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