Knoxville seems like an odd place for a Chinaman. Yet that’s where my father landed as a college student in 1950. It was his first taste of America.

After Dad died, Mom showed me his diploma from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Dated 19 December 1952, it awarded to my father his Bachelor of Science in agricultural engineering.

Dad’s diploma

He left the South soon thereafter for a job in Los Angeles. As far as I know, he never returned to Knoxville. So I’m going to do it for him.

Knoxville 1915

Aside from Dad, the other famous resident of Knoxville, Tennessee is James Agee. Born in Knoxville in 1909, Agee lost his father in a car accident on 16 May 1916. Agee captures that moment when life was still whole.

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. […] May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.

James Agee, Knoxville: Summer 1915, The Partisan Review Vol 5, No. 3 (1938)

After Agee died in 1955, his poem was republished as the preface to his novel, A Death in the Family. That novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. Still later, Samuel Barber set a condensed version of Agee’s poem to music. Dad had a recording of Dawn Upshaw singing “Knoxville: Summer 1915.”

Knoxville 1950

Dad arrived in Knoxville in the summer of 1950. He went to Tennessee straight from Taiwan on the heels of the Communist Revolution that would bar him from home for most of his life. Knoxville was his American home.

Dad had been raised reading and speaking English. My grandfather, who spent his own college years at MIT, must have told him something about American life. But no one had apparently explained water fountains for coloreds and whites, let alone where a Chinaman fit between such fraught choices. Dad arrived in Knoxville with one pair of shoes which he wore to class in his guise as a student and out in the field as a day worker.

Dad reading The Knoxville News Sentinel circa 1950

For amusement, Dad had newspapers, music and an astonishingly vibrant Chinese community dispersed across the Mississippi Delta. Dad and his pals would drive for hours to meet other Chinese. To dance, to eat, and maybe play some mahjong. On the ride back to Knoxville, they would drive with the headlights turned off so as not to attract the attention of local police.

Knoxville today

Technically speaking, Knoxville does not belong to the collection of Southern counties known as the Mississippi Delta. But this is where Dad went in search of his fellow Chinese. Some of these Chinese had come from Guangdong Province after the Civil War. The Chinese were seen as an alternative to slaves.

The Chinese didn’t like picking cotton. Instead, they opened grocery stores and laundries. They lived carefully in a black and white world, keeping to their lane and their own kind. Their names were Lum and Quon, Wong and Fu. They had their own cemeteries and schools though not always out of choice.

Dad had a friend from the Mississippi Delta who also moved to Los Angeles. As a child, this friend always puzzled me with his Chinese face and Southern accent. Generations later, Chinese in the Mississippi Delta are still asked where they come from and how they learned to speak English.

There’s a mini-documentary on the Mississippi Delta Chinese that focuses on their food. That, too, has acquired a Southern accent. Fried rice with bacon? Sounds good to me! But these Delta Chinese no longer speak the language of their forefathers. Nor do they seem to use chopsticks.

After Dad’s first stroke, he lost much of the control over his right hand. Yet he continued to eat dinner every night with chopsticks. He remained faithful to the foods, language and customs of his childhood until the end.

All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.

Knoxville: Summer 1915