One should not forget one’s roots.
My father, Bàba 爸爸, is an electrical engineer by training, a precise man who wore neatly pressed suits and silk ties to work for thirty years at a phone company. He taught me, an only child, to be careful and methodical. Read manuals first and always, always follow rules. An immigrant who came to America from Taiwan in 1956, he took classes to reduce his accent. Like clockwork every few weeks, he tightened my glasses with a tiny screwdriver and polished my white Capezio shoes, a pungent scent, like gasoline tinged with chewing gum, filling our kitchen.
My memory flickers between two stations. There’s the father I want to remember. My dad taught me to ride a pink Strawberry Shortcake bike. On weekends, we would bike together through the neighborhood. To get up steep hills, he used to tow me with a rope tied between our bikes. He liked to take me to fly kites at the park and every Friday we would slurp down milkshakes after gymnastics. He heated up TV dinners and we ate off tray tables watching Jeopardy! while my mother worked late hours as a computer programmer. Even though he didn’t say “I love you” often, I knew it through his actions.
And then there’s the father I don’t want to remember. He rebuked waitstaff for not cooking his steak to the right temperature. He displayed my broken Strawberry Shortcake clock on the mantel for years to teach me a lesson about not taking care of my things. He spanked my younger cousin, who was maybe two at the time, for rudeness. He yelled constantly at my mother for not listening, for moving his belongings, for not closing cabinet doors, for gossiping on the phone. Fā pí qì 发脾气, my mother would whisper to me by way of explanation. To lose one’s temper. It was more like a volcanic eruption; in my twin bed, headboard dotted with glow-in-the-dark stars, I folded my pillow around my ears and squeezed my eyes shut.
How do I reconcile the memories of this volatile man with the father who loved me so tenderly? All of my life I’ve been terrified of losing my dad. During my stormy clashes with a controlling, manipulative mother, he was a beacon of unconditional love. So how do I write about our relationship when every word feels like a betrayal — and learn to loosen guilt’s scarf?
One summer day at a family barbecue at my house, a group of us cousins played together outside. While an older boy rode my pink bicycle down the hill, I gripped the back of the bike on roller skates. Halfway down the hill, I fell and was dragged the rest of the way. Tears streamed, my legs streaked red. “Stupid. How could you do that?” my dad blew up, screaming at the boy in front of all the guests. His yelling frightened me more than my bloody knees.
When two tigers fight, one is sure to be wounded.
When I was a child, sometimes my father wore a gold wedding band on his left hand. Sometimes he didn’t.
After years of fighting with my mom and disappearing on weeklong trips, my dad moved out of our too-big, two-story yellow Colonial house in suburban New Jersey when I was a freshman in high school. I spent my sophomore year at boarding school, where I felt adrift in a sea of mostly privileged students.
“I hate it here,” I told my mom over the phone, anger and tears lodged in my throat. “My roommate is crazy. She moved all my stuff. I want to come home and go back to my old school where I have friends.”
“If you ask your dad to move back too, he’ll agree,” she said.
My mom wanted to use my own misgivings about leaving home to negotiate my dad’s simultaneous return. To her, divorce was a dirty word, “a sin.” Appearances were paramount. I was a pawn in a game I didn’t understand. Reluctantly, I agreed to her terms.
The arrangement was hardly harmonious, but my dad put his ring on and didn’t take it off anymore. I knew I would be leaving for college soon and counted down the days in my diary. Even when I moved to a dorm, I still couldn’t escape their drama. My mom had become obsessed with feng shui. She would consult with a guru in Taiwan to get instructions by fax on everything from what color car she should drive to what color clothing she should wear, where she had to place crystals around the house to when she could get her haircut.
Over the phone, my dad would complain about how my mother was driving him crazy, not listening to him, gossiping behind his back and constantly moving his stuff. In agreement, I complained back about how she was sending me long lists with demands from how to arrange my furniture “for my own good” to what digits I could use for a phone number.
“You don’t have to live with her,” he said.
To my great surprise, they stayed together for the next twenty-five years. But some things didn’t change. For his 80th birthday, I helped plan a ten-course Chinese banquet for close family and friends, some of whom traveled from the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. I designed an invitation with red and gold swirling chrysanthemums. My dad grew irritated when my mom kept adding people to the guest list.
She wanted him to clean up before guests arrived. A dozen cardboard moving boxes, full of his books and mementos, had been sitting in his bedroom for close to ten years. His procrastination had reached new heights. A few days before the party, he called, fuming. My mom had taken his boxes — including textbooks he had been collecting to donate to a Chinese orphanage — to the dumpster.
“Cancel the party,” he said, his voice dripping venom. “I don’t want to celebrate. I’m going to move out.”
Once again, I was stuck in the middle, trying to negotiate a truce. My mom eventually retrieved his boxes, convinced him to stay and the party went on. Amidst chatter and laughter at the dinner banquet, I gave a toast where I reminisced about fond memories of flying kites with my dad. None of the guests suspected anything was awry.
Just as a country has its laws so a family has its rules.
Four years ago, right before Christmas, my dad was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery scheduled to remove a mandarin-size tumor from his liver. I hopped on a flight to New York City, where twinkling lights and holiday decorations were scattered throughout the city. A block away from the hospital, I trudged past a sagging Charlie Brown Christmas display, a few feet away from curbside trash, mirroring my own lack of holiday cheer.
“You came,” he said, gratitude brightening his eyes. He looked remarkably healthy, but worry deepened the lines in his face. This was a man who had never seen a dentist until he was 26 when he came to America. Now he has to take valium to get through a cavity filling.
The waiting room anxiety was sky-high with fears swirling. I sat between my parents, a spot I occupied for many years trapped between two poles. I also acted as the translator, giving out my dad’s information as he acted as if he didn’t speak English. When my dad’s name was called, we were instructed to go through the double doors and down the hallway. I took the lead in front. When we reached the doors, my parents stopped abruptly. I continued walking.
“Jennifer,” my dad scolded, grabbing my arm and pointing to the sign. It read: “Patients only.”
My parents are champion rule followers. They don’t jaywalk. They wait for the white pedestrian to appear before crossing. They buckle their seat belts and lock their doors before driving. They wait their turn in line. They pay their bills on time. They are model citizens. They would never write about their parents in a negative light.
We hugged goodbye awkwardly in the hallway and as I left, I deliberately walked away from my mother to wait in a different seating area.
The human heart is hard to fathom.
Thankfully, my father’s doctor declared him cancer-free after surgery. The first time I saw him after his recovery was at my cousin’s wedding in Texas. The hotel lobby was buzzing with guests at a faux-swanky lounge and bar where chandeliers dangled above, casting an amber glow on the crowd. Nearby, a pair of glass elevators yo-yoed up and down.
My dad, wearing a fleece vest and windbreaker, greeted me with a hug. My mother, holding her phone up to take pictures, stood by his side.
“You look good, Dad,” I said, studying his face. More wrinkles had formed around his mouth like parentheses. A few stubborn white hairs poked out behind his ears.
“Look!” he said excitedly and smiled.
Then he thrust his right hand in front of my face, proudly waving a second gold band on his ring finger, mirroring the one he wore on his left.
“My second chance,” he said. “I wear it to remind me.”
My mother’s lips tipped upward, triumphantly. Nodding slowly, I looked back and forth between my parents, confused by his choice of words. A second chance at marriage? Had he forgotten about all the years of fighting?
Fear is the heart of love.
After we weathered his health crisis, I scheduled a solo trip to visit him. When I was growing up, my dad was tightlipped about his past and I tiptoed around questions about his parents and how they got from mainland China to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. Since I had kids, I had less time to call and visit, and I knew the time to ask my questions was running out.
In his living room, I set up a tripod and arranged a backdrop with a green, leafy plant and shoji screen. Off-camera, I set up a chair to face him.
I asked him what he remembered about his father. His dad, he told me worked for the government and would go on long trips for work. The first thing he would do when he returned was hit him with a belt as a punishment.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t recall. Probably misbehaving or not listening to my mother while he was away.”
“Were you scared of him?”
“Did you wish he didn’t come home?”
“No, he was my dad. I loved him.”
I nodded, surprised he had used the word “love.”
“What about your mother? What was she like?”
“She was the oldest of four children,” he said.
I pressed him for three adjectives to describe his mother. He had trouble responding.
“She was my mother,” he said, stumbling on each word.
How could I tell a story without some key details about her appearance or personality? I couldn’t picture her as more than a caricature. My annoyance flew out of my mouth in a barrage of questions: “What did she look like? What did she wear? What were some things she said?”
My dad shook his head, not meeting my gaze. His face looked weary. Frustrated, I turned off the camera.
With time and patience, a mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.
Three years ago, when my dad and I visited the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City, my dad noticed something awry on our first walk-through of the exhibit so we alerted the front desk.
My name’s Grayson,” said a friendly docent in his thirties, “Can you show me?
Together, we walked to the back of the museum and stepped into a small room and into the past. It looked like an old Chinatown tea shop and apothecary with floor-to-ceiling wood shelves lined with vintage tin jars, porcelain bowls and handwritten letters from the 20s.
“Look, here,” my dad said, pointing to a locked glass case’s top shelf. “The abacus is upside down. It goes the other way.”
Grayson studied the display and nodded agreeably. “I’ll let the curator know.”
We admired the furnishings and relics surrounding us. “Where did these artifacts come from?” I asked.
“Everything came my grandfather’s shop on Mott Street,” said Grayson.
“I remember those shops,” my dad said. “I lived in the Bronx in the 60s.”
“When did you first come to America?” asked the docent.
“1956,” he responded.
“Tell him how you got here, Dad,” I prodded.
“Well, I took a cargo ship from Taiwan,” he said. “It took thirty-one days before we arrived in San Francisco Bay. I still remember. It was nighttime and all of the lights were still on in the buildings. The group I was with, we couldn’t believe it, we said, ‘Ai-ya, what a waste of electricity!’”
Then he laughed, deep from his belly. His eyes lit up at the memory. I cursed myself silently for not bringing my video camera
Just as distance tests a horse’s strength, time can reveal a person’s heart.
A year ago, we returned to same museum in Chinatown, but my father’s pace had slowed considerably. His breathing was heavy after walking through the main exhibit. While I visited another floor, he dozed off on a bench in a room decorated like a karaoke lounge, vinyl covers lining the walls.
When I nudged him awake, he said: “I was resting my eyes.”
The abacus was still upside down. This time my dad didn’t say a word.
On the last day of my visit, my mother had returned from a trip so the three of us went to the bookstore near their house. It was nearly empty, only a few browsers in a book and gift wasteland. Patiently waiting in a single file, we each paid separately for our purchases. I got a New Yorker for the flight back home.
“Look, the receipt has a discount to the cafe,” my mom said. “Want to go there?”
“Uh, okay,” I said and checked the time, eager to leave for the airport and avoid any confrontations.
While my mother was ordering her cappuccino, my dad shot me an excited look and said, “Look what I got from the bargain section, Jen.”
He loved bargain books, usually gravitating toward photography or technology manuals like Nature Photography for Beginners or iPhone for Dummies. His eyes darted to my mother for a second, then back to me. Grinning proudly, he pulled a book out of a bag slowly and turned it toward me: How to Live with Difficult People.
Caught off-guard, I snorted and laughed, then looked over at my mother, who was still at the counter eyeing pastries. “Okay, Dad, good luck with that. Put it away before she comes.” He stuffed it back into his backpack and zipped it up, beaming stupidly like he had won an engorged prize pig.
An oil lamp becomes brighter after rubbing; concepts become clearer after discussion.
In composition notebooks, I made lists of questions to ask my dad and took pages of notes but had trouble locating a common thread, much less common ground between us. These notebooks, jumbles of papers and videotapes sat in my closet for months, which turned into years. They reminded me of my dad’s passion projects, the way paper clutter and boxes piled up ceiling high in his office.
This past December, I picked up a book that helped shed some light on our differences. In Tiger Writing, Gish Jen explains how Asian narrative traditions are vastly different than ours in America: “Instead of describing his grandfather’s appearance or personality or tastes — the sorts of things we in the West might include as a way of conveying both his uniqueness and his importance as a figure in narrative — my father describes, at striking length and in striking detail, his context — namely, the family house.”
When I read this part, I gasped aloud. I wanted my dad to use the “right” words, the ones I would recognize as a story. But it was the interviewer, me, who had been unable to find the words to unlock a story, to give wide berth for crystallizing details to emerge. I didn’t have the patience to see we were sailing on the same sea, always noticing different vantages.
Heartsickness is hard to treat.
On Father’s Day last June, I stood in the shower, my legs shaky. Steam rose quickly and fogged the glass doors. This was the only place I could retreat to be myself, to cry freely. Earlier in the day, I had tried to take my husband on a Father’s Day outing, a hike followed by lunch at a winery. Our kids were grumpy and whining the entire time. I had run out of patience.
Salty tears mixed with shower water. Guilt, my faithful companion, rained down on me. My thoughts turned to my father. Would this be his last Father’s Day? A few days earlier, I had sent my dad a beginner’s meditation book. He had sent me a gift too, a tea caddy for one and Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I remembered how in college, he wrote me letters regularly and sent spending money along with sketches of him “watering the tree.” When I began grad school this past fall, I was surprised and tickled when he sent a new drawing with a gift check for “a green tea fund.”
In the shower, my thoughts played in a loop in my head. Who will look after me and love me when you’re gone? Who will I be? I crouched down into a tight ball, hugging my knees. Scalding water left red streaks down my back.
One inch of time is like one inch of gold; however, one inch of gold cannot buy one inch of time.
My dad turned 88 this past May. In Chinese, that number is pronounced bābā, which sounds close to the word for father, Bàba. Because eight bā sounds close to the word for prosperity fá, eight is considered the luckiest number and Chinese supermarkets often use eights in their prices. Eighty-eight is especially charmed — the numbers visually mimic the character 囍 for “double happiness.”
After his surgery four years ago, I pictured us making up for lost time, recording his stories and getting closer at the end of his life. Instead, I moved farther away from him to California and found myself in another time zone, making excuses for not calling. Because I am fearful of messing up our relationship, I have placed our memories in a time capsule, trapped in limbo between past and present. How do I bridge the distance between us and say goodbye to my father while he’s still here?
Tapping away on my laptop in a cafe filled with college students, I keep writing and rewriting this story. My peppermint tea grows cold in the pot. If I can simply find the right words and put the pieces in the correct order, perhaps then everything will click into place. But I know I can’t bubble-wrap my heart anymore. All I can do is share the flawed stories, look for meaning behind the proverbs and hope there is still time to find shared terrain.
What you hear about may be false; what you see is true.
Last summer I visited my parents with my husband and kids at their new home, a retirement community in New Jersey, a sprawling campus with three dining halls and a spider-like maze of apartments. My parents gave us a tour and showed us a phone-book size catalog of activities: lectures, movies, woodworking, tai chi, and on and on. My parents bragged about how they saved money by leaving up temporary paper accordion shades that came with the apartment, clipped in the middle to look like an upside-down Chinese fan. They played Rummi-kub at the kitchen table and pulled out giant snack bags from Costco, where they shopped for just the two of them, their version of the American Dream.
In his slippers, my dad padded down the hall from his closet, carrying a wicker laundry basket of gifts he had purchased at the dollar store for my kids. He set them on the coffee table and then turned to me and my husband.
“I don’t think the surgeon did a very good job,” he said. “Maybe he had an intern do the incision.” He pulled up his shirt to show us his scar. It was a jagged purplish line with puffy blood blisters, approximately eight inches from his sternum to his bellybutton.
I recoiled. It reminded of the pungent antiseptic at the hospital after his surgery.
“Please cover it up, Dad,” I said frowning, frightened to see him so exposed.
My dad pulled his shirt back down, then gingerly picked up a small green fabric box. He opened it to reveal a seal he had commissioned in China. It had four Chinese characters encircled in an oval shape like the outline of an egg.
“It’s a pen name, Huang, my mother’s last name,” he explained. “It’s meant to be used as a book plate.” He had been planning to write his memoir; we shared that desire.
“I’ll get you one,” he said grinning, “for your book.”
I smiled back hesitantly, swallowing tears. I hoped he would have the chance to read my book, and I, his. Then, perhaps at last, we could finally reveal the distances we’ve navigated to reach the very same shore.