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Why Baba Hates Chicken MAG
We had been driving for hours, and the yellow dust was starting to coat the car windows. We were far into the Chengdu countryside of southern China, and the car shook as we rumbled down the dirt pathways through the span of green, yellow, and sky. It was all beginning to look the same. I listened to my grandmother, my waipo, chatting with my uncle as he smiled behind the wheel. It was just the three of us; the rest of the family followed in another vehicle.
Some time later, we passed a rooster. As I wondered how it got there and who it belonged to, Waipo began talking about what she would make for dinner. “Chao qu gua?” (Sauteed bittermelon?) “Shou si ji?” (Hand-torn chicken?)
“Aye,” she suddenly remembered, “your Baba doesn't eat chicken meat.”
It was true. My dad never ate chicken.
“Poor LiuHong,” Waipo continued, calling Baba by his full name. “All he ate was chicken those first few years. Chicken was cheap. Aye, boiled chicken every night for so long … a little salt, perhaps. How was he supposed to know how to cook chicken? Tai kelian le … too pitiful.” She shook her head and sighed.
It suddenly struck me that I'd never wondered why Baba despised the taste of chicken. Had I been so ignorant to think that it was just personal preference?
My mom had whispered the story of Baba's first years in America, working in a cafeteria at night while studying on full scholarship at the university by day, but I only knew parts. I never asked either. That seemed best; the dust that would rise from digging around could have some unknown, terrible effect.
Boiled chicken? I imagined Baba scanning the prices on packages of chicken at the supermarket, heating water on the stove, sitting alone with the meat before him. He had come to America on borrowed money, Waipo told me. He had borrowed 4000 yuan – just $500 – the majority of which he had spent on the plane ticket over to MeiGuo, the Beautiful Country.
It took him two years to save enough to send for my mom and me. I was two by then and terrified of Baba, a stranger whom I didn't recognize. I ran away when he tried to hug me, my mother said. I cried when he picked me up.
I had heard these stories before, but I had always stood up for myself. It wasn't fair to expect a two-year-old to be accepting of a person she had never met. I hadn't done anything wrong. It was his fault for leaving me in China in the first place, I would retort, but this was the consequence of knowing only a sliver of my father's journey.
It turns out that Baba had written letters asking for pictures of me every month, and sent birthday money from his savings when I turned one. Waipo showed me the album with all the pictures of me that Baba had saved, taping them meticulously into the waterproof 4-by-6 booklet.
I imagined Baba standing by a mailbox with a torn brown envelope in his hand, smiling at the photo of fat little me on my first birthday, wearing the pink dress that my mom had bought with the money he'd sent. “We miss you and love you forever,” the back of the photograph said in Chinese. I imagined him wiping tears from his thick-rimmed glasses. I knew how much he hated being alone. This self-sacrificing man was the stranger I had so ignorantly pushed away.
I must have broken his heart. I hated my two-year-old self for not understanding. I hated my two-minute-ago self for not understanding.
I turned to look out the dusty back window at the black car behind us. Baba smiled from the driver's seat, the corners of his eyes lifting as he waved. I waved back. In the background, I heard Waipo talking about how to prepare frog legs. Frog legs were Baba's favorite. I smiled.