“At the end of the day, it’s about principal. It’s about character. It’s about living an honorable life.”
These were the words of my father, Danny Chen, spoken recently in our kitchen as he orchestrated a traditional Chen Family Sunday breakfast. Bright-orange yolks spittered in a pan next to a mountain of leftover rice interspersed with crispy scallions. The scent of sesame oil swirled through the house. A whole spread of spices from the previous night’s Hua Gua complemented the table-scape. Around the counter was my Irish-Catholic mother, Russian-Scottish-Jewish boyfriend, and me and my brother’s mixed selves. We all exchanged knowing smiles – Dad had officially begun to ‘hold court’ as we joked. Yet, he had, and always will have, a certain right to.
My father immigrated through Hawaii, around what he believes was the age of 6. A childhood spent traversing the Sun Belt as an army brat with his sister Janie, his mother, and their stepfather eventually morphed into a steady, young adulthood in Long Branch, New Jersey. The only Asian kid in school. Though, his early memories of racist struggles are often leveled by sturdy anecdotes involving well-meaning public school teachers and goodhearted kids.
At 15, he moved out on his own, pumping gas and washing dishes to pay rent. Still, he went to school every single day. Karate, in its balance of physical strength and mental agility, became both his escape and his passion. After a short while, he began to compete and teach classes on campus at Monmouth University: an institution he would eventually graduate from after 6 years, having taken two off to make money for tuition. Through his connections with karate, he then snagged a chance on Wall Street. The ultimate opportunity at the time.
He made friends and he made enemies; but overall, “The Street” was good to him and he remained grounded. The bombing of ’93 found him crawling down the stairs to safety with the rest of Cantor Fitzergerald from the 105th floor of Tower II. September 11th, very fortunately, didn’t find him in harm’s way at all. For that, we are grateful. After 20 years spent commuting into New York day after day, he finally took the leap to start his own financial advising practice.
It has been almost 15 years (??) since he left Wall Street to go off on his own. He was able to be there for my high school antics and my brother’s graduation speech. He was able to be there to send us both to college and help talk many of our friends and neighbors down the right path as well. And, most telling, he has been there, absolutely unfailingly, through our mom’s battle with Leukodystophy.
Because, at the end of the day, it is about principal. It is about character. It is about living an honorable life. This is the Chen Family’s story of the American dream.