Eulogy for Yue-Eng Gail Wang

Yue-eng Wang, who was known to people outside the family as Gail, left this world on November 9, 2011 following a long, brave fight with an aggressive cancer that lasted almost exactly one year.

WangYue-eng was born into preindustrial Taiwan soon after it was ceded to China following the defeat of Japan, at an inflection point in Taiwanese culture. The fifth daughter in a family of eight children, she was adopted out to a poor family in accordance with a Chinese custom and lived in near poverty until she was able to rejoin her birth family in her late teens. Despite adversity, she was a precocious student who performed at the top of her classes. She received the unusual honor of entering the most highly ranked high school in Taiwan, Taipei First Girls High School, without being required to take the entrance examination. She scored at the top of the university entrance exam to enter the prestigious Chinese History department at the country’s best university, National Taiwan University, and graduated first in her class. Yue-eng was in a way a belated child of the May 4 Movement and the New Culture Movement (新文化運動), Taiwan’s first modern generation, that rejected the familism and contradictions of traditional Chinese society as well as the political legacy of Nationalist China. About half of the women with whom she went to high school emigrated from Taiwan and her classmates in the NTU History department either emigrated to the West or stayed behind to eventually form the governing class of democratic Taiwan.

As a youth in Taiwan, Yue-eng was an avid reader of translated Western classics and loved the beauty and solitude of Taiwan’s mountains. On holidays such as Chinese New Year, she would forgo parties and banquets to spend time reading on the quiet National Taiwan University campus. Her fondest memories of those years were hiking alone in Taiwan’s central mountain range.

Yue-eng left Taiwan in 1971 to study Cultural Anthropology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. As she describes it, she arrived with two suitcases and $200 to make a life in America; she was never to live in Taiwan again. Her dissertation, Natural Support Systems and the Rural Elderly: A Missouri Case, was based on a nine-month field study in the old German community of Hartsburg in central Missouri. She and her future husband, William Gabrenya, met at the Center for Research in Social Behavior, an interdisciplinary institute directed by his dissertation supervisor and with which her supervisor was also affiliated. She was offered a faculty position in one of Taiwan’s best universities and would have been the country’s first female Anthropologist had she not chosen instead to remain in America and raise a family.

Yue-eng and William were married in May, 1980 while he was a postdoctoral research associate at Ohio State University and she worked as a gerontological social worker for Catholic Social Services, teaching Anthropology night classes at Franklin University as an adjunct. They moved to Melbourne, Florida in August 1981 so William could take a position in the School of Psychology at Florida Institute of Technology. Yue-eng bore their first child, William III, in 1982 and their second child, Annamarie, in 1984. As there were no professional opportunities for an Anthropologist in Melbourne at that time, her practical, resourceful and always forward-looking nature led her to return to school for a Master’s degree in Computer Science at Florida Tech. It was only through her considerable ability and conscientiousness that she was able to successfully transition from History and Anthropology to computer programming, all the while raising a family. It was during this period that she met her lifelong friends, Richard and Grace Tai and Joseph and Joyce Chen. She became a U.S. citizen in the 1980s and always considered the U.S. to be her home, identifying substantially more with America than with her heritage culture in all ways, with the exception of food.

Following completion of her degree and a few, relatively brief jobs, she took a position at Harris Corporation and remained for 17 years. Her coworkers were rarely aware of her educational background and even of her age, as she worked with customary industriousness and dedication, forming strong working relationships with colleagues that lasted much of her career. Despite her immigrant background, after much effort she obtained a security clearance and worked on a variety of military and civilian projects at Harris.  Upon realizing that the new hires at Harris were younger than her children, she retired in late 2010 at age 62. She enjoyed perhaps one month of retirement before the symptoms of her cancer appeared. During this short retirement she had the opportunity to reread some of the Western classics of her youth, such as Tolstoy, in English.

Yue-eng’s greatest joy was travel. She loved American National Parks in particular and relished many vacations hiking and camping in the western and eastern mountains. Usually accompanied by her husband, she visited Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and the U.K. She enjoyed Germany in particular. She was happy to be healthy enough to attend her daughter’s Munich wedding to Daniel Hoenig in September, 2011. The family of five honeymooned together in the German and Austrian Alps, when she rallied to take her last hikes among the Alpine forests and lakes.

WangThe most pleasant and stimulating experience in the latter part of her life was living in Bremen, Germany in Fall, 2008 while her husband was a visiting professor on sabbatical at Jacobs University.  They lived in the 40-square-meter attic flat of an 1895 Bremer House in the Viertel (Quarter) section of central Bremen and enjoyed, too briefly, an urban, European lifestyle in a vibrant, elegant, city. They traveled intensely and had the opportunity to celebrate the American Thanksgiving holiday in Munich with Annamarie’s future in-laws.

In addition to travel and mountains, Yue-eng loved her husband, her children (of  whom she was tremendously proud), her extended family (especially her nieces), work, reading classics and highbrow sci-fi, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre, Ada (her dog whom she named after a programming language), delicious Chinese food, oak trees, good American food, creative people, New York City, Hilary Clinton, and thoughtful films.  She was not fond of parties, small talk, Florida, the beach, postmodern thought, unconscientious people, inconsiderate people, fundamentalist Christians, inequity, rituals of any kind, and eulogies.  She had little tolerance for those who rejected science and Enlightenment values, and detested Sarah Palin. She was a private person who was normally content to be alone with a book despite valuing strong relationships with many old friends and a sharing a close connection with her sister, Yue-Fong.

Her cancer gradually stole away her ability to enjoy much of what she loved. To the end, her essential character hardly waivered: concern for her family, intellectual, organized, forward looking, practical, and rational. She spent the last month of her life sorting and packing her clothing to distribute to her sisters, making to-do lists to help her husband assume her household responsibilities, emailing old friends, reading, and talking with her family. Death to her was simply another transition and her only wishes were that her children visit her one last time and her ashes be used, along with Ada’s, to plant a tree in the mountains.

To her family, her death was a catastrophe that left a void as they realized the extent to which her quiet countenance formed the center of their web of life, of past, present and anticipated lives, as they pursued their chosen paths throughout the world.

Annamarie’s stream of consciousness about her mother:

Loves chocolate, creamy, dark, covered with nuts; or cold as fudgy ice cream; also: mini, rich truffles, filling the pantry, the fridge, the freezer with this craving, savoring one little bite, or maybe one bowl, just one nugget, sometimes leaving the rest to the joy and temptation, indeed torment of her family,

Is an immigrant, imperfect English, never quite secure, blending Chinese and American culture but somehow outside of culture; maybe never fully understanding the teenage angst of her American children,

Holds the family together, planning, organizing, working, saving, a world-class memory – where are my keys? – in the study, next to stack of papers, hidden underneath the desk - silly, why can’t you remember anything? sacrificing, working and hoping for the success and happiness of her children, her next travel adventure,

Loves Chinese, Taiwanese food, oyster pancakes of her childhood, chewy glutinous rice cakes, salty sticky rice, tangy, steamed fish, musky thousand year eggs, sweet, delicate moji; never learning to make more than a few dishes, always pining for the time when she could travel to California or New York to immerse herself in the complex flavors of her childhood,

Listens, patient, readily offering advice, but careful in her advice on personal issues of consequence, talking every day to a lonely daughter when fortune brought them together a few short months in Germany,

Rejects religion, knowing that what was important was how she lived her life, her family, her values; but,

Believes in frugality, saving money, 90% off sales, deep deep discounts, buying in bulk, sales, filling a closet with discounted clothing never to be worn,

Is quiet, thoughtful, somewhat reticent, often surrounded by the conversations of her husband and daughter and accompanied in this by her son; but at times eloquent and loquacious in Chinese among close friends,

Admires knowledge, learning, education as the key to the future, success and happiness, supporting her husband’s career, promoting her children’s education, highly educated herself in diverse fields, yet never to achieve her childhood dream of an academic career among the best of Taiwanese intellectuals,

Of complex nature, strong, delicate, smart, stubborn, generous, and dedicated, who stayed true to herself until the end, who will never get to spoil my future children, but forever stays in my heart and will always live on through the legacy she has left for her family.