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Lessons from my father

My father was never a rich man, but this has more to do with circumstances than ability.

He was born in a village in northeast China. His grandfather used to own a lot of land.  After the communists took over China in 1949, all landlords were rounded up and were either executed or sent to labor camps. The government distributed landlords’ belongings such as cattle and land to farmers.  Since half of the village was related and shared the same family name, my great-grandfather wasn’t treated too badly. Still, he lost all his property. My father was basically born into a very poor farmer’s family. 

I learned many lessons from my father. One is that you shape your own destiny. After my father graduated from junior high, his family couldn’t afford more education for him. He was destined to become a farmer just like his ancestors. 

He heard from his friends that an electrical vocation school in Beijing was recruiting students. If he passed an exam and was admitted, the school would pay for room, board and tuition.  My father sneaked on a train to Beijing with only five yuan (less than a dollar) and a pen in his pocket. After he arrived at Beijing Railway Station, he found the school representatives and explained his situation. He talked them into allowing him to sleep at a desk in a classroom and pay him a minimum allowance so he could feed himself until the exam day. Later, my father passed the exam easily and was admitted by the school.

A couple of years later, the Beijing government combined several vocational schools into a university, and my father became the first university student from his village. It turned out that my father’s gutsy move in his youth also saved his life. During the great Chinese famine in 1958-1962, people living in the city at least had food rations, while people who lived in villages didn’t have food rations and died by the millions, including my father’s baby brother and great aunt.

Another lesson I learned from my father is that money is not the most important thing in life, but pursuing one’s dream is. When I had the chance to study in America, I hesitated because the $2,000 per semester tuition was an astronomical figure for my parents. Even though my mom was a doctor and my father an engineer, they were paid the same as factory workers, so they never made more than $20 per month.

I wanted to quit, but my father told me that even if they could support me for only one semester, I should still go. I remember him saying, “(We) will never regret it, and we will always be proud of you. You will experience and learn so much even with only one semester in America!”

To help me realize my dreams, my parents had to put their pride aside and borrow money from everyone they knew. Mom kept a little notebook which was full of names and the amount borrowed. It took them five years to pay everyone back.

My father also taught me to be a disciplined learner. He made me recite traditional Chinese poems and he would test me on weekly basis. I used to hate the whole exercise and considered it a waste of time. However, I appreciate his training now.  I still remember many Chinese poems and they help me to remember my mother tongue even though I haven’t lived in China for more than a decade.

 My father never stops learning new things. His curiosity only grows with his age.  At the age of 70, he learned how to use a computer. I remembered how excited he was when we first spoke via Skype. Whenever I told him a new place I visited, he would look it up on his world map and quiz me about the population, climate and culture. Therefore, I always make sure my Google search is turned on at the same time so I can answer his questions.

Of all the lessons my father taught me, the most important one is that you can be the master of your own destiny. Thanks to my parents, I live the kind of life that they would never have dreamed of. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

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Helen Raleigh

Helen Raleigh, CFA is the owner and Chief Investment Officer for Red Meadow Capital, LLC, a Colorado Registered fee-only Investment Advisory Firm, which focusing on providing clients with honest and sound financial advice. She has more than 10 years experience in the financial services industry ranging from pension funds to risk management. Helen is the author of an autobiography, "Confucius Never Said."  She writes insightful columns and blogs for a variety of media outlets and her writings can be found at the Wall Street Journal, the CFA Magazine, the Denver Post and her blog postings. She can be reached at: helen.raleigh@redmeadowadvisors.com

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