Initially my Taiwanese father-in-law did not like me. There were several reasons for this. I was divorced. I was American. I was too old for his daughter (I was 38 years old, she was 31). I was taking her from her home in Taiwan, and I did not have a job waiting for me in the United States when we got there. I would have thought treating his daughter well might have brought him around, but it did not. My father-in-law liked me only after I took him fishing.
When my in-laws visited Manyu and me in Wisconsin for the first time, I immediately bought my father-in-law a fishing license. With only one car, Manyu and her mother would take the two of us to one of my favorite fishing spots on the Mississippi River. They would set my father-in-law up in a lawn chair on shore, and I would fish from my canoe thirty or forty yards from where he was sitting. Then they’d leave in the car, promising to be back in two hours.
As soon as the car was out of sight, I’d paddle into shore, pick up my father-in-law with the canoe, and take him out to where the fish were biting. There were two reasons that neither Manyu nor Manyu’s mom wanted my father-in-law in the canoe. First of all, they both knew that I occasionally flipped my canoe, and they did not want me dumping my father-in-law in the river. Secondly, the tight leg space in the bow of the canoe aggravated his gout, and neither of them understood that an afternoon of fishing was worth a day or two of discomfort. I would watch the time and, after an hour and a half, return the man to his lawn chair. We’d put a few bluegills in his bucket, he’d fish from his chair, I’d paddle back out onto the river, and we’d both pretend that it had been that way the whole time.
Not only did I take an old man fishing who hadn’t fished since he was a kid, but he and I shared a secret from the women in our lives. My father-in-law spoke no English, and I spoke slightly better than survival Mandarin. We did not need a common language to fish or to strike a blow for independence.