The Greatest Generation  Tribute to Mrs. Jen Shinobu Lai (1919 - 2009)


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Tribute to Mrs. Jen Shinobu Lai (賴陳忍受1919 - 2009) By Wantzu Liu (謝婉芷)

Mrs. Jen Lai was born in Tainan, Taiwan to a devout Christian family as a Japanese subject. She attended the Tainan First Girls School, a prestigious school, exclusively for Japanese expatriates. Later, she was trained as a surgical nurse at Tainan Christian Hospital. This unique skill became very important later on.

Mrs. Lai was a remarkable woman, both professionally and personally. She applied her professional training from the surgical room to attending to pregnant women and subsequently becoming a midwife. She delivered over a thousand babies. She also performed public health official nurse duties by making home visits to tuberculosis patients. To ensure the patients’ compliance with treatment regimens, she collected sputum samples and counseled patients and their families, at the risk of exposing herself and two young children to the potentially lethal disease. Public Health was a top priority of the Japanese government, which adopted and implemented policies regarding water treatment, disease control, public awareness and more. Thanks to these polices, Taiwan public health vastly improved. The policies were carried on even after the Japanese government ceased its power in 1945.  

After a brief illness, Mr. Lai passed away unexpectedly. Mrs. Lai became a widow at the age of 38. Her son and daughter were at high school and primary school respectively. Suddenly, the burden of raising a family fell solely on her. With no time to grieve, she became the breadwinner as well as a pillar for her teenaged children. She never remarried.

During those years, most girls received no education or only primary school education. The society even shunned career women. However, looking back, Mrs. Lai was ahead of her time. Her professional training enabled her to develop a career, which became essential for her to raise her children independently and earn respect from peers and the community.

Her career inadvertently brought connections with strangers and her community, and thus, enlarged her life beyond the boundary of family and relatives.

To pursue a higher education, her now grown-up son and daughter came to the US and had their own family and children. Retired from her career in Taiwan, Mrs. Lai came to the US to assist her son and his young family. Pitching in as a typical American grandmother, Mrs. Lai learned to drive, passed the road test and obtained her first driver’s license. With her son and daughter-in-law developing their career, Mrs. Lai picked up her grandchildren, taking them to piano, swimming and other lessons. Her driver’s license enabled her to have another career later on.

Once her grandchildren moved on, so did Mrs. Lai. She found a job at a local grocery store, where her creativity and prudence immediately gained the boss and patrons’ trust.   Using on-hand ingredients, she introduced spring rolls, fried rice and many Taiwanese and Japanese dishes. Well received by the patrons, they returned for more. It had brought success to the proprietor, who subsequently entrusted the shop key to Mrs. Lai. For ten years, rain or shine, she showed up at the shop at 4 am to start the coffee, muffins and prepare for lunch. A shoulder injury from a car accident forced a reluctant retirement, at the age of 80.

Japanese and Taiwanese were her native tongues. She later learned Mandarin when the Kuomintang fled from China to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War. In addition to her driver’s license, she learned English. Mrs Lai voluntarily became an American citizen in 1976, at the celebration of the US bicentennial. 

Mrs. Lai embodies the women of the greatest generation in Taiwan history. Her sacrifices and the diligence with which she raised her family built her career. Despite the pain she endured from both personal losses and war, she never whimpered nor whined. The courage, integrity, social grace, warmth, dignity and strength she displayed have enriched many who have come in contact with her. It is a privilege that I share with many others who came to know her at various stages of her colorful life, and we shall miss her dearly.


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