THE AMERICAN DAD / noun, positive connotation
1. A male, typically white, who has a child or children. Is tall, has a white smile, and produces a hearty laugh. A hard-working man who puts food on the table. Swings his little kids in the air, tells cheesy jokes, and often sits in the front row to clap and cheer at a football game, band concert, spelling bee. Helps his children decorate for Halloween and Christmas. Kind but firm temper. Chastises with stern words, explanation, an occasional spanking that he hates to do. Hugs you afterward because he knows you’ve learned your lesson.
synonyms: listener, cheerleader, protector
THE CHINESE BABA / noun
1. A Chinese male who has a child, usually one but sometimes two. Prefers sons. Is usually short with balding and/or graying hair. A hard-working man who puts all of his money into family, though not much else. Drops off kids at concerts or competitions and says, “Call me when it’s over.” Thinks holidays are silly American traditions. Spends much of his time working alone or on business trips. Wild, unpredictable temper. Often results in screaming, thrown shoes, broken arms, snowy nights spent locked out of the house. Be wary.
synonyms: provider, professional wrestler, stranger
In childhood, she loved the father more than anyone else in the world, never for a second questioning his actions. When he spanked her with his hands or waved his leather belt at her, she didn’t think it was wrong or bad. When he shoved her into the bathroom and slammed the door behind him, shouting that she dare not come out, she didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. When he flew into a rage and drove away with the car, not returning for several hours, she believed her mother’s words: “He’s just going to get gas. He’ll be back soon.” There was only a small stirring of disquiet in her heart as she watched him pull out of the driveway into the darkness. The father was a good man, her Daddy, therefore his actions were good.
During her elementary years, she pushed her friend into a bookcase, smacked another friend in the head until he cried, and called many others all sorts of insults she didn’t really mean. She once invented a disease out of a developmentally delayed girl’s name, so that all the other children would flee when she came near, yelling “Mary has Marionitis! Run, run!” She was seven years old and thought she was so clever, just like her Daddy.
There were many good moments with the father in her childhood that she came to remember as last moments. The last time her parents ever kissed, for example. They were just about to leave for a trip, putting on jackets and gathering their belongings near the front door. She stood up from tying her shoes and turned to see the father pecking her mother’s lips in an innocent, almost embarrassed way. That was eight years ago, maybe more. Kisses have now been replaced by sarcastic comments, shouting matches, and the threat of divorce.
There was also the last time she used the father’s laptop. While he was taking a nap, she opened a new tab on his computer and began to search for something, probably the name of a book or video game. The first suggestion in history after typing in the letter "a" was the Ashley Madison site. The website said, “Life is short. Have an affair.” She closed the tab immediately and never told anyone.
When she was a child, things were simple; the father was always right, so she always loved him. But as a teenager she had trouble thinking about love and the father as two things that belonged together. She began to form opinions that were the polar opposite of the father’s. Adhering to traditional Chinese customs, the father believed that gays were disgusting and once told her, quite emotionlessly, that if she were transgender he would kick her out of the house. But it was the smaller arguments that were really about nothing that bothered her.
For instance, when she and the father were arguing about whether or not to order pizza. She was against it because he had high blood pressure, and he had been ordering junk food too much lately for it to have been healthy. She was leaning her arm on the kitchen counter, her elbow touching the edge of the sink. He had just poured a glass of water, but he didn’t drink a sip of it. Abruptly he threw everything in his glass into the sink, only he missed it completely and covered half her shirt with ice cold water. As she looked up at his face, confused, she saw his lips were parted slightly, and he was breathing heavily.
His parted lips, an almost animalistic snarl, came to disgust her in the most primal sense. She had been conditioned by necessity to understand that it was a sign of danger. She immediately noticed it one night at dinner when she was fifteen. She brought her laptop with her to the table, a habit that occurred several times a week. Out of nowhere, as the father often did, he told her to put it away.
“It’s distracting, and you need to concentrate on eating,” the father said icily. Already something was wrong. She knew by instinct that she couldn’t simply argue this away, but she couldn’t stop herself. She had had a stressful day at school and was tired, ill-prepared for a fight.
“Then why are you allowed to watch TV during dinner?” she asked, annoyed. “Shouldn’t you be concentrating on eating, too?”
Her mother thought that was a fair point. She reached for the remote and turned off her father’s program, closing her laptop at the same time. His eyes had gotten pointed, beady; his lips were parted again and quivering. The room was silent as she began to eat. She avoided his gaze and felt her shoulder blades tighten painfully.
“Turn on the TV,” he said.
“Why?” she said.
“I am your father, and you are the child. You don’t tell me what to do.” Every word was enunciated harshly.
He stood quickly, his chair legs grinding and squealing against the floor in protest. She was on the other side of the table, but he somehow got to her in no time at all. He was blocking the way out of the kitchen. She had no choice but to try to get past him. He lunged at her and grabbed a hold of her arm, his grip hard, almost unbreakable. She didn’t know what the father would do. She struggled, finally free, then ran upstairs to her bedroom.
Upstairs, she checked the tops of all of the doors. The father occasionally hid keys there so he could get in during an emergency. She took the keys, ran into her room, and silently closed the door. Grabbing a pair of safety scissors on her desk, she sat on the floor on the left side of her bed, where the father wouldn’t see her if he broke in. He was screaming at her from downstairs, but she couldn’t hear the words. She got up and checked to see if the door was still locked. Then she walked into her bathtub and sat with the curtains closed, scissors clutched against her chest. She was gasping, and her cheeks burned from too much crying. She couldn’t recall what his face looked like when he took hold of her, only seeing fragments of his tank top and pot belly and black sandals as she tried to break his grip. She thought, He was going to kill me.
Later in the night, her stomach was growling. She had only gotten a few bites of dinner. She opened her door ever so slowly so that the hinges wouldn’t creak and snuck downstairs, pausing on every step to make sure the father hadn’t noticed her. He was sitting at the kitchen table on his laptop. She tiptoed to the dining room instead and stole a jar of Hersey’s chocolate bars.
She did not talk to the father for days after. She knew that as a child, she had once wished for him to die from a heart attack, an emotional outburst that she had immediately taken back, both because of her mother’s chastisement and her own guilt. It was wrong to say or even think things like that. But after what happened, she found herself wondering if it would really be so bad. She decided then that she would not cry at his funeral.
Once she asked her sister, ten years older and already moved out of the house, why their father acted this way. Her sister replied that their grandfather’s name was Shan, which in Mandarin means “mountain.” When the father was born, their grandfather named him Feng, which means “peak of a mountain.” He had not named their aunt this, even though she was born first. As the youngest and a male child, the father was spoiled in comparison to their aunt. He was used to having his way. When the two siblings were both in high school, their aunt was caught dating a boy, something forbidden to teenagers in China. Their grandfather wanted to split them apart and moved their aunt to a worse school, sacrificing her education. Their aunt couldn’t test into college, while the father went to one of China’s best universities. Something told her that her sister did not think the same would have happened to the father. Though their aunt was in many ways considered less successful, she had still beaten the father in one way: she had two boys.
The father was ashamed that he had conceived two daughters instead of two sons. There would be no one to carry on the family name, the all-important Chinese identity. She was a disappointment from birth, a less-valued child than the one the father had thought he could have. This newfound information about the father did not make her feel angry or betrayed. She simply exhaled and thought, Oh. That’s why. Maybe it wasn’t just me after all.
At this time in her life, she believed that she hated the father absolutely, with every willful atom in her being. Yet, she got over what happened, like she always did after fights. She told him about her day when he picked her up from school, about how the chemistry test went and when the next pep rally was. He still drove her to friends’ houses and lessons and concerts. They loved to listen to NPR together, especially segments about international politics. Mostly, he was just concerned about Chinese news, but she got him to pay attention to more domestic issues, to elections and gun control and shootings of unarmed black men.
“If I saw a six-foot tall black man running at me, I’d shoot him, too,” the father said matter-of-factly as news about Michael Brown blared through the car’s speakers.
“That’s because you’re a racist, untrained civilian,” she replied, also matter-of-factly. “But police officers are supposed to undergo years of extensive training so they can think clearly in dangerous situations and not shoot at people because of a feeling. Shouldn’t they know how the handle that situation better than you would?”
For once the father conceded his point. “That’s true,” he said. Later, he told my mother about the discussion and the arguments she had raised. She imagined that it was grudging respect that made him do this.
When they were on good terms, she asked the father about immigrating to America. He told her that when he first came, he washed dishes at a diner while earning his master’s at the local university and trying to get his wife and first daughter into the United States. He lived in the living room of an apartment with three other people, paying fifty dollars for rent every month. She thought it was probable that much of the money he earned was going back to his family in China. Then, when his wife and daughter made it over, they opened up a Chinese restaurant, which did well enough for them to move into their own apartment. After her mother and the father brushed up on their English, they found good-paying jobs in their fields. They moved into a small house, then a bigger one. The father extended a branch of the company he worked for into Shanghai and began a local operation there. Before he left on business trips, he would come into her room while she was sleeping to give her a hug and say goodbye. When he came back, he brought candies and pastries and other things he thought she would like.
The father’s goal in life was to secure the American Dream, to cross into the Land of Opportunities and work his way to success. When he had accomplished this, he taught his daughter how to pursue her own dreams, giving her his time and money for tutoring, camps, competition fees. She would not be the same with an American father. So how could she hate him for what he’d done?
She imagined how she would feel if her wishes for the father to die came true. She would walk up to the casket and see him lying there. His face would be smoothed and powdered like a mannequin, and she would hardly be able to recognize him as the father. He would be still, harmless, peaceful. When she looked at the lines of his face, at his bushy eyebrows and relaxed lips and closed eyes, would she remember a smile or a snarl? Would she cry at all, and if she did, would they be the same kind that fell after fights or genuine tears of mourning?
Her greatest fear would be not saying “I love you” to the father before he was buried. Or saying it and knowing it wasn’t true.