Today I got a call from my mother informing me that my Uncle Steve, husband of my mother’s sister Aunt Soo-kin, died yesterday. He had been sick for quite some time, and last year, in the hospital for something else, they found cancer in addition, so it was a very tough battle for him, and he was always a fighter.
I was very grateful for the opportunity in July 2010 to visit Aunt and Uncle in East Lansing when he was still very much active. I had not seen either of them in possibly twenty years; my parents and Abby and I went up to their home, and they got to meet Abby for the very first time (he was not well when we married in 2009).
Below is the only photo I currently have of him (my parents have the family photo album that must have a lot more photos from the past forty years since we’ve all been in the United States). (From left to right: Abby, my mother, Aunt Soo-kin, my father, and Uncle Steve.)
(Update: my brother-in-law André just sent me some more photos, from the wedding of my sister Linda and him in 2010 that he did manage to attend.)
What do I remember most about Uncle Steve, and how did he impact my life?
The visit in July 2010
Uncle Steve was full of energy and insisted on taking us around Lansing, giving all of us a tour of the Michigan State Capitol as well as the Michigan State University campus, especially the botanical garden. He also took us to his favorite Chinese buffet.
Actually, typical of him, he had originally planned to get us on a cruise on the river. We had gone down to the Lansing City Market, where he bought tickets, but then it turned out that the timing was bad and nothing was available that day, so we had to cancel on the plan.
Uncle Steve’s traits
The main thing I will always remember about Uncle Steve is how different he was from other relatives. He was very energetic and aggressive, outspoken, adventurous compared to the rest of us. The way he talked, drove, and ate was quite different from how my father behaved, so in my childhood, the contrast between my two main adult male role models was striking.
I saw him (and aunt and their two children, my cousins) more often when I was in elementary school, middle school, high school in Michigan. Then when I went off to college, I saw them much less often.
My number one memory: how to take risks and win
As a child, sometimes I had the opportunity to play ping pong. I didn’t do it often, because we didn’t have the space, but every time we went up to East Lansing to visit Uncle and Aunt and my cousins, I looked forward to using their ping pong table. I got to play with my father, and then Uncle would step in and totally destroy both of us with his ultra-aggressive style. He was pretty serious about anything competitive (he played tennis also), and he had high-quality ping pong bats such that he could create a lot of spin, for example.
The main thing is that Uncle Steve moved fast and went for hard, fast killer shots whenever possible (while using the backhand spin defensively as appropriate). He didn’t always make it, but he went for it. I really admired his style of play. He used a Japanese-style penhold grip to maximize his forehand attacking style.
I used the Chinese-style penhold grip (learned from my father) for a long time whenever I played ping pong. The Japanese-style grip seemed too extreme for me. In any case, from Uncle Steve I learned to stay on the attack in ping pong. Even though for much of my life I used to be shy and anxious, there were a couple of areas in my life in which I adopted a relentlessly aggressive persona. I have Uncle Steve to thank for showing me how it’s done. To this day, if I play ping pong, I will play in an attacking style, not a defensive style. I will err on the side of hitting the ball out of control and out of play losing points rather than playing “safe” and missing an opportunity to hit a winner. I don’t really know why, but I somehow absorbed this huge life lesson from Uncle Steve.
At some point, I did start switching around between the penhold grip and the shake-hand grip, because of comfort. I don’t play ping pong much these days; I think the last time was a year ago when I was back at my parents' home, where they have had a ping pong table for twenty years.
Here’s a photo of my father and me playing ping pong twenty years ago:
Uncle Steve leaves behind his wife, two children, and their children.
Unfortunately, Uncle Steve never got to see my new nephew Jack, born last month. But the cycle of life continues.
I will miss Uncle Steve’s energy and fighting spirit.
(Photo: brother-in-law André, sister Linda, nephew Jack, mother, father.)