I had heard of Ole Miss student Ben Yeo before, in fact, he had come to the house once or twice. But when he called from Florida, we were both surprised.
“Dr. Grisham,” he said, “I don’t know what to do.” He was in Florida and the place where he was working had not paid him, and would not tell him when he could get some money. We looked at each other and told him to go to the bus station, find out how much a ticket back to Oxford would be. We sent money for the ticket, and he came to live with us.
Ben is from Malaysia. He is of Chinese descent, though both he and his father were born on the Malay Peninsula. The eldest of three, he can thank an uncle for giving him the opportunity of a good American college education by putting $12,000 (1980 dollars) in the bank for him as he had selected and enrolled in the University of Mississippi. In his native country, there were limited opportunities for a good education for the Chinese.
Ben’s story is one of perseverance, the kind of commitment we often see in Asian students. He took no time for the pleasures of studenthood. His grades reflected that, too, as he was a 3.98 graduate of the business school, having received only one B. An extremely respectful young man, Ben was the epitome of what good students could be. His future was bright.
When he arrived from the Sunshine State, we sat down and had a heart to heart talk about his future. He had six months on a student visa to work in his chosen field before he had to go back to his native country. He was able to work part time for the First National Bank in Oxford, but then got a full-time permanent position with the People’s Bank in Tupelo, thanks to Ed Neeley. After that, the INS positively responded to his request for change in his visa from student to work permit.
While in Tupelo, Ben displayed the same single-minded focus that had driven his college career. On one occasion, he didn’t join us for Thanksgiving because he had been given an assignment, and he had to work on it. When Ben turned the finished project in the next Monday, Mr. Neeley was stunned: He had expected it to take until January.
Ben lived like a monk. A sparsely furnished apartment, and a small black and white television were evidence he was saving the money he was earning so his brother, Leong, might be able to come to Ole Miss, too.
He called and asked what we thought of his getting a master’s degree. Of course, we agreed, so he once more enrolled in the programs at the University, completing those requirements in a short time. He had offers coming from all over the place for permanent employment here in the United States. As a native Chinese speaker, with his academic credentials and extraordinary recommendations, he could have had his pick. Their father had written to Vaughn and said, “You are a good American father to my son.” He strongly urged us to convince him not to return to Malaysia, but to remain in the U.S.
But Ben would have none of it. He felt the weight of the eldest son in the Chinese culture: It was his responsibility to care for the parents and to see that his younger brother also got an education. He booked passage to Kuala Lumpur and left.
His brother, Leong, arrived a year later. Within a year and a half, he had completed his bachelor’s degree and returned to his wife and family in Kuala Lumpur as well.
That was all 20 years ago. We have been writing and calling each other ever since, but he has not been able to visit us, and this is the first time we could get to Malaysia.
Today, Ben is married and a father of two children: Jai Wei, a 17-year-old daughter, who is away at school, and KeeYen, his 14-year-old son. He has a position he enjoys in a company that sells telecommunications equipment, and his wife is an investment advisor for OSK, a financial firm. They live in a beautiful new home, with 3,000 square feet of living space and a dozen goldfish in a pool just off the dining room. On a clear day, you can see the skyline of Kuala Lumpur from the kitchen and bedroom windows. The family practices Buddhism devoutly, and drives a Toyota and a Nissan.
He misses the spaciousness of America, his friends there, and because he cares, we had breakfast at McDonald’s one day, and lunch at Subway.
Maybe it was for us, and maybe, just maybe, he had a hankerin’ for some American food, too.
Sandy Grisham and her husband, Vaughn, live in Oxford. She is filing a weekly report from their around-the-world trip. Ben Yeo worked January 1987 to August 1989 at the People’s Bank in Tupelo.