Click here for Part One.
In a long series of surprises, the first one was this: Knight was only 27 years old. As he spoke to me animatedly, the innocence in his eyes was the only indicator of his youth. The ridges in his skin, the wrinkles around his eyes, and the weathered skin of his hands all belied long years of suffering. His unique story began with an unusual pairing — a Chinese merchant and the daughter of a Korean client. The two were married in Beijing against the wishes of both sets of parents. By the time Knight was born, his father was already caught in the destructive power of alcoholism. After a few more years of enduring her husband’s neglect and infidelity, Knight’s mother packed her belongings and took Knight back to Korea with her.
The moment five-year-old Knight set foot in Seoul, he felt like an outsider. Even at a precocious age, Knight had an uncanny insight into the motives and judgments of others. To the Koreans, he was fatherless, poor, illegitimate. Worst of all, he was impure, a half-breed, a mutt. While Knight’s mother was welcomed back to Korea by her family, Knight was treated as a mistake — an accidental B on a report card of As. Knight’s grandparents encouraged their daughter to find a suitable Korean husband and advised her not to tell anyone Knight was her son. By the time Knight was an official adult, he had lost his father, his mother, and his identity. By then, Knight had learned that the only way he would survive was by fighting.
And fight he did. Instead of a university education, Knight enrolled in a school of martial arts and graduated with a black belt. While the external release was gratifying for him, his internal battle had just begun. In search of a deeper meaning in life, he left his home that never was and flew to Thailand. Not speaking a word of Thai, he began to pick up English to converse with natives. From there, he traveled to Vietnam, Indonesia, and finally India. Most of the time, he relied on the goodwill of people to feed him and shelter him. By the end of his voyage, he had developed a longing for America. There, people told him, was where he would find what he’d been looking for all his life — a place in which he’d be accepted.
Unfortunately, traveling to America was neither feasible economically or legally for Knight. In his last days in India, as he wondered where he should head next, his father gave him a phone call. It was the first time in years Knight had heard from him. His father explained that he’d bought a small apartment complex in the heart of Dali and offered Knight a room to stay in. Hoping that he and his father would be able to reconnect, Knight took the next flight out of Mumbai and returned to his birthplace. Upon his arrival, his father showed him to his apartment and told him that rent would be 150 RMB per month. Then, he turned around and left. Knight wouldn’t hear from him again.
Soon, Knight discovered that China hated him as much as Korea had. When he attempted to establish a career as a martial arts instructor, the few that hired him were the same people that had excluded him from their society — Chinese, rich, and pretentious. For the most part, the Chinese turned a blind eye to Knight’s physical mastery. They were jealous, Knight explained to me. They didn’t want me to be successful at anything. They wanted me to remain at the very bottom of the totem pole, where I belonged.
She was what saved him. Although I don’t recall her name, for the purpose of this post, I’m going to call her Mei. At the time, Knight was working as a janitor in her high school. Although she was only 16, she was mature in a way that bridged their seven-year age gap. For the first time, Knight had found someone who accepted him for who he was and who loved him unconditionally. Unfortunately, their relationship was taboo in the eyes of the high school administration. The principal threatened to expel Mei and her parents begged Knight to stay away from their daughter. For the next two years, the two maintained their love for each other in their hearts and eagerly awaited the day they could be together.
After Mei graduated from high school, she and Knight spent long hours together speaking of their future and of possibility. Unfortunately, when fall came, Mei had to leave Dali to attend university in a town an hour away. For the next two years, they continued a long distance relationship. When Mei would visit him, she would clean his room and cook him food. Finally, Knight had a motive to get his life together — he wanted a family, a child. He began to take on clients he would have previously rejected and tolerated their demeaning attitudes. When he met me that day in John Li’s tea shop, he was preparing to get certified as a teacher so he could get a fulltime job.
At last, he had finished his story. For a moment, neither of us spoke. I felt so honored to be a witness to this great man’s life. My mind felt like it was being physically stretched to new limits of comprehension. Then, Knight smiled sheepishly and said, “You is first know my story for the girl. Nobody know this; only you do. So in fact I would say thanks you!”
Awed, I shook my head in disagreement. “No, thank you, Knight.”
When he spoke again, he was grinning mischievously. “So now I want know your life story.”
Although I would never be able to match Knight’s perseverance, vivacity, and love for living, I was happy to outline the first 18 years of my life for him. While I was already impressed by Knight’s history, it was his reaction to my words that cemented him in my mind as the wisest man I’d ever met.
To be continued…