By Luke Cai
I couldn’t figure out what do with my father, so I stopped and talked to mama.
He’d probably find some way to bring up college again.
“Ta shi ni de fuqin,” my mother said. He is your father.“ In this world, we can choose many people in our lives, but we can’t choose our family.”
I sighed, not only because I was desperate but also because she was right. Bond of parent and child signed me into this cultural contract. When my father invited me to dinner at a local steakhouse one week ago, I found myself bound to accept his offer out of pious respect.
I brought it up during dinner with roommate Richard “Dick” Stickel and his boyfriend Wesley Fink.
“I think it’s better if you don’t talk to him. I had the same thing with my dad,” Wesley said. He whistled and motioned with his thumb. “The day I moved out of that asshole’s house, I felt like my depression was cured.”
“Well he keeps pushing me around,” I said. “I feel like I have to respect him.”
“But he doesn’t respect you,” Dick interrupted. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-six,” I replied.
“Exactly,” Dick said. “Why does a twenty-six-year-old need to listen to his father? You’re an adult with a job and your own house. Stop making him push you around.”
I laughed. “I tried blocking him before. He still found a way to text me.”
“Then be an adult and tell him to stop,” Dick continued. “You’re not like a puppy dog who thinks he needs to listen to his master. You’re a wolf who’s left the pack and has friends behind his back.”
“Maybe you should let me talk to him.”
Wesley and I laughed.
“I appreciate your enthusiasm, but my father isn’t the type to listen.”
“He doesn’t even listen, he doesn’t have logic,” Wesley continued. “He’d never listen to you anyways. He hates gay people.”
“Or as he calls them, the gayed,” I said. We laughed. “Honestly, he thinks gay people come out to get a tax break.”
Dick’s face turned red. “Then why do you even bother with him?” he snapped. “Just get away from him, like I did with mine.”
I looked uneasily at Dick, as did Wesley. We looked at one another, then Wesley spoke for me.
“I don’t wanna say it cause I’m white, but isn’t family big in Asian culture?”
Of course it was. I never said that I liked it, but I didn’t deny that it was what made me who I was today.
And it was because of family that six days later, on the day I would meet my father, I came to my mother’s house when she wanted me to help do some yardwork. I felt obliged, no questions asked. A black frost had killed a few of plants in the yard, including a beloved peach tree.
I talked to Dick beforehand and tried to convince Dick to come along. He nudged me away.
“You know I’m busy on Thursday nights.” Dick would go to gallery exhibitions and gay bars that day of the week. He gave me a gentle hug.
“But if anything happens, just give me a call. I won’t ask any questions.”
I felt something warm towards my friend as I thanked him. For a long time, I felt some queer feeling towards Richard. In some ways he was loving like a father, but in many ways, he was caring like a wife. I just liked to be with him.
My father, on the other hand, was a lonely narcissist. The day before, he tried to guilt me into accompanying him, stating that he had no other friends in America. It was a shame, because he had lived in America for over 20 years.
In my mother’s yard, mama shouted, “Shioa Ran! Bie gan tai lei!”
“Bu hui mama!” I said back. A drought and a cold flash had turned the front yard into a mess. My mother wanted me to reseed the yard and trim the greenery. It was easily a one-person job, but I wanted Dick to come to help me chop down a 25-foot-tall old peach tree that was now a withering mass of dead wood. My father planted that tree when I was eight, and although it grew taller than me, the failure to nourish it over the years killed it at its roots.
“Mom,” I said, “I don’t want to meet with dad.”
“I know son,” my mother said. “Just bear with him. I know how he makes you feel.”
“I kind of wish you two got divorced sooner.”
“I wish I did too,” Mama nodded. “And I wish he could understand how you felt.” Sometimes, I knew my mother cried to think of the man who raised me.
I cleared the front yard quickly and proceeded to mark the peach tree with chalk. After I gave five strong chops, the tree fell onto the street, its twenty-one-year life now terminated. I chopped the tree into logs, cleared the yard, hugged my mother, and stared at the tree, the yardwork now complete. I looked at my car after that, about to depart to meet my father.
We agreed to meet at a local steakhouse. I changed into a polo before I went in.
My father, as he appeared online and on WeChat, had a wawa lian, a baby face, despite being close to 60 years old. I was in my mid-late 20s, and it was already too hard not to look old. His barber had done a good job of cutting his hair and his stylist had taken good care of his skin. An afternoon naps and a small investment in supplements just do the trick, I imagined my father would joke. Better than keeping time in a bottle. I shook my head. No, bu keneng, father was not one to joke and hardly a man who spoke in metaphors.
I parked my car three blocks away from the steakhouse, afraid to let my father see that I drove a dented sedan. I thought what I was doing wastiang xia wugong, like something from the heavens. Only a god could have pushed to do this sort of thing.
I stepped into the steakhouse and saw my father in the waiting area with a tear in his eyes, but on closer inspection, the glean in his cornea was merely to be refracted from the neon lights overhead. He invited me to take off my coat, and I hung my coat onto the racks nearby.
“How are you?”
“I am fine,” I replied. My father handed me a tin of tea leaves and a lucky red envelope. I tucked them into my pocket. We waited for our seat but were informed that there would be a five-minute wait.
“That’s fine,” I said. My father nodded, and we took a seat in the vestibule. He didn’t look as though he were crying. On closer inspection, my father’s eyes were dry. I shouldn’t have assumed too much, my father rarely cried. In the twenty-six years he was my father, I saw him cry only twice.
The first he cried, he saw that I had a mental breakdown in high school. For over ten years my father had pressured me to be the best and know math more advanced than that taught in class. Then in tenth grade, I tossed a desk in math class out of desk out of frustration when I got a B and was sent to the school’s psychiatrist. She agreed that it would be best for me to seek psychiatric treatment. The fog of memory hazes that exact time in which he started crying, whether it was in the emergency room or in the waiting room or in the school, but something felt too burdensome to baba. Mental illness, in my father’s conservative bubble, was always a sign of weakness. I couldn’t be certain if my father was crying because his son was weak or because I was doomed for failure, I can only be certain that he never imagined that this sort of thing would happen to his son.
The second time he cried, I was in Kingston, Rhode Island. It would be my first year in college, enrolling in the University of Rhode Island, and the first time I would be living alone. It was tiān dà, taller than the heavens, because I had crossed into adulthood and stepped onto an unstable fissured road. My path would crack open wider and wider, but my father forced me down a narrow path, pressuring me to take courses in Chinese and to become an engineer. I didn’t like it.
As a college student, I was already eager to leave for home after my family and my hometown began to seem unreal to me. I was as nervous as I was uncertain. I was taking my first steps into life by becoming independent, but as my parents valued obedience and the prospect of finding a real job, I had already acculturated my beliefs after high school. I wanted to become a programmer. I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to follow my dreams like an American, not like my parents wanted, even if that meant living paycheck to paycheck without any savings. They were Chinese, and I don’t think they could understand.
After we loaded everything into my dorm, I hugged my mother, who saw in me her hopes and dreams to have a Chinese son in America. Besides being college educated, I’m not sure what my father wanted. But as he departed from the tall musty dorm with its chipping bricks and side construction, I knew he was crying. He was not one to be overwhelmed with emotion. Perhaps like being diagnosed with mental illness, my father knew I was doomed for failure. It might have been prophetic because within a year, I began to flunk my classes and eventually dropped out of college.
I always thought about trying to go back.
“How’s your job going?” he asked, interrupting my train of thought. He was smiling and barely making eye contact. Most of the people in the restaurant were laughing, some were cheering, and a few were silent. But they were all smiling. I was bored and browsing Instagram. He had cleared his throat several times.
“It’s fine. I’m still under contract for the next eight months.”
“Okay.” He cleared his throat again. He was deep in thought, barely stirring. He reminded me of myself in college, made to feel smart. He asked me if I had invested in a 401K, but I had to explain to him that as a freelance developer, my contractors rarely gave me the opportunity to invest into the company. Nonetheless, my father provided me with all the benefits of a 401K. He told me he was smart, and a son should listen to his father. I just nodded and let my mind drift.
I conceived the mental image of a hamster running through a spinner.
After around ten minutes, we were called to our table. A waitress led us away from the sports bar to a cozy dimly lit window booth. My father demanded a seat next to the TV. Neither I nor the waitress posed any objection, and we took a seat. I thought back to the cul-de-sac where I lived, always spinning in full circle to the whims of my father. He, of course, was the first to be asked what he drink after the waitress and introduced herself. My father was peering at the menu. He was lost in the graphic design.
“We have a special today on Thursdays on our fresh pulped mango juice-”
My father interjected, “Free refill?” I winced. Ma ya!
“No,” our waitress replied. “You just get one glass.” Baba looked dumbfounded as if he had deserved this special drink.
“No refill? One sip?”
“Yes,” the waitress said. “I can show you our fountain drinks if you’d like-”
Again, my father spoke out. “-And those get free refills?”
I felt my father stab into the waitress as she bit her lip. “Yes.” The waitress pointed to the menu and guided my father to the two-dollar fifty cent sodas.
“Then I’ll have a sprite.” She scribbled down our order and turned to me.
“I’ll have some water.” I smiled at the waitress. She smiled back, took our orders, and left.
“She clearly doesn’t know what she’s doing,” my father spoke to me in Chinese, sipping the glass of ice water on the table. Even your mother was a better waitress.”
“Why would you buy a sprite?”
“I wanted something cool.”
“You could have gotten a lemonade.”
“Too sweet! You think I can eat something so sweet? I just had a cavity four months ago.”
I sighed. I looked around the restaurant. I wondered if other fathers and sons met at restaurants to bicker, but I couldn’t seem to find one nearby.
When I turned to look back at my father, he had that same vacuous stare and smile from before. I asked, “why would you ask if a mango juice has free refills?”
“It’s a perfectly reasonable question. After all, McDonald’s gives free refills.”
“But this isn’t a fast food restaurant. Look at the price here.” I pointed to a $15 burger. “You couldn’t afford half the food here with McDonald’s prices. And besides, it’s mango juice. From a juicer. Do you know how long it takes to get the fresh pulp dad?”
“Rip-off,” my father said. “Restaurants like this should cater to all customers. They lose too many customers.” There was a grain of truth in his statement, and I wondered how many people the waitress met week to week who acted as rude as my father.
I stared around the restaurant. There were teenagers having dinner, laughing at how much they saved with their choices. In the booth next to me, a white family was talking about the Patriots game. The children were playing a mobile game with each other. They were happy. I looked over at the servers, laughing among themselves about themselves about their families.
Then I looked over at my father. He was happy. I wasn’t.
“How is your girlfriend?” baba asked.
“She’s fine. We’re going steady”
“Has she graduated yet?”
“No. She’s in her last semester before her MBA.”
My father nodded. “Very good. You see, she is so smart. She does an MBA only five years.”
I frowned. “But she’s not in the MBA program yet. She’s still an undergraduate.”
“So smart,” my father said.
I tried to steer the conversation away from school.
“We’re thinking about going to Cape Cod next month. Maybe even P-town.”
“That is good. I am sure you will have fun.”
“I’m sure we will,” I smirked. “They have a small gay pride parade going on. I’m looking forwards to it.”
Mm. My father nodded, and we were silent again. I should have known not to slip up about anything LGBTQ+ related, so I stared around. There was a lesbian couple two booths over having dinner.
“Now I know you do work for the gay and see the gay,” my father began. “And that is fine. But you cannot be the gay. It is not to be to the gay. Is that to be understood?”
I sighed. “Of course.”
It was never worth discussing LGBTQ+ topics with him, even with a gay roommate.
“My coworker says they do things in the bedroom. Even with bananas. Do you think this is true?”
I was speaking through my teeth. “No, and I don’t think it’s worth considering.”
I browsed through my phone again while my father asked me questions about my job again. I volleyed answers back and forth before our waitress came back with our drinks.
“Here’s your sprite,” she said. “And here’s your water. Now do you still need a few minutes before order?”
“I think we are ready,” my father said.
Our waitress smiled. “That’s great. So, what’ll we have?”
“I’ll have the 9oz steak.”
“And how would you like that prepared?”
“Medium well.” I could see the waitress bite her check.
“All right,” the waitress said. “And you?”
“The black bean burger please,” I replied. “With avocado on the side.” Our waitress smiled, reassured us of our orders, and left. I was left alone with my father again. I spread my arms across the table. My father kept smiling, but he was upset.
“It seems to me that you do not like talking to your father.”
“What makes you say that?”
“The way you act, it is always like you are angry. You are upset. You are not upset. You should not be upset.”
“I’m not.” My eyes were staring into the distance. “I just had a bad day at work.”
“You had bad day? You told me all you do is type.”
“I’m a freelance programmer, dad.” I couldn’t believe how many times I had to say this. “Last week I helped startup a company. It gets tiring and stressful.”
“So what. You go to sleep. Walk two feet to go to work. Eat and sleep?”
“That’s a terrible way to put it, but yes.”
“It is not real job. You do not see real faces. It is not real work.”
“I’ve been doing it for over five years-“
If you went to college like your girlfriend, you could have better life.”
“I understand, dad.” I was only with him for 15 minutes and my head was sinking onto the table.
“Daddy is just trying to be your friend,” he said. “That is basic logic. Daddy is your friend. You work for a press. Why must it be so hard.”
“But Dad, I work as a freelance programmer.”
“Do you work for the press?”
“No, I work for a supervisor.”
“Yes. They publish things, so I call it a press.”
“But they don’t publish things except for the company.”
“So call it a press.”
“But it’s not a press.” I raised my voice. My father could tolerate me.
“There you are getting angry again! You are getting upset! Remember what I told you? It is not good to be angry! Stay cool.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll stay cool.”
“See how better it is? Stay cool. Call it a press. Use common sense,” my father said. “Say things in a way that I can understand.”
I sighed. “All right. I work for a press.”
My father smiled. “See how easy it is to listen to daddy.” I couldn’t believe baba still treated me like a child.
There was a long pause before we kept speaking. I don’t think he could read my expression, filled with irritation, frustration, and ambivalence. A little boy one seat over was staring at us. I didn’t want my father to keep talking unabashedly, so I tried my best to explain myself.
“If you want to know why I’m frustrated, it’s because your English isn’t that good.”
“That is not good. It is not good to be angry.”
“I know, I don’t want to be. But your English leaves much to be desired. Why don’t you speak to me in Chinese?”
“Your anger is the problem. And you do not know how to speak well Chinese.”
“I can,” I said. “Talk to me.”
My father sighed. “Fine, little Randolph.” Little Randolph was my pet name as a son.
As we spoke in Chinese, the little boy kept staring at us curiously. Our speech must have sounded smoother as Chinese was never as coarse as English. I’m certain that he didn’t know any word that we saying, but it was as if he could hear the nuances of our conversations and know that I was still frustrated.
“What were you doing before you came here? You seemed tired.”
“I was helping my mom clean the front yard.”
“You were at your mother’s house.”
“Yes I was. I helped mom clean the yard.”
“Does the yard still look pretty.”
“It’s all right,” I said. Several storms had torn the yard apart, and a windstorm left one of the trees decimated. “I had to chop down one of the old peach trees. It was starting to get too big.”
“The tree was too big?”
“Yes. It could not get enough nutrients into the roots and withered. I chopped that tree down today.”
“I do not care about that tree,” baba said bluntly. “That tree never gave good fruit. I never had any hope for that tree. You should have chopped it down earlier.”
“It was perfectly fine until the recent storm. Mom and I made a cobbler with its fruit one time.” I don’t know how he started this tangent.
“It was bad. It was a mess.”
“Ok dad, Ok.” I could feel my eyes rolling around in its socket and mumbled a Chinese swear. I always claimed that I could swear better in Chinese than in English, despite my limited vocabulary. Although I did not regain the ability to read Chinese, Chinese had become the language of my emotions. In what I had known as a simple picturesque way of speaking, I had learned the language of metaphors and aphorisms but struggled with the dexterity of English. I had made it crude and fitting.
Our server brought us our food momentarily. She was polite in the wake of my father, but I think I seemed more querulous. I had refused to shield my gritting teeth and was clutching my temple with my left hand.
We thanked her before she left. My father was the first to dig in. He had trouble understanding the baked potato and offered it to me.
My burger was the palm of my hand. It came with a large side of kettle cooked chips and two large pickles I thought it was a generous portion, but I was concerned that I couldn’t finish it in time. I wanted to shove the food in and leave right away, but I knew that I had to chew slowly to digest the food properly.
“I get lonely. I appreciate when you have time for me.”
“Ok.” I replied. I was careful to nibble into my meal.
You should also appreciate time with your father.”
“I do.” My father never ended.
“You can appreciate your father in many ways. Not just dinner.”
I didn’t like where this conversation was going.
“When you have one job, you are fine, like you are now. But you will have no job later, and you will not be fine.”
“I have money dad. I already bought a house.”
“And you bought a car with my help. You wouldn’t be able to buy a house without me.” My father was adamantly digging through his steak. He barely looked up at me. The boy in the booth next to us seemed to have lost interest.
“10 years ago, you told me that you would buy me a nurse. You say that you have money. Where is my nurse?”
I didn’t know if he pulled this information out of his ass or out of his memory.
“I was 15-
“I have it recorded.”
“I was 15, dad.”
“Now that you have money, I don’t why you can’t buy me a nurse.”
“I was 15, dad! I didn’t know better.”
“And you still do not know. A son should respect his father’s wishes.”
“Well I’m sorry. I can’t get you a nurse, dad.”
“Such a shame for a son.”
Such was my father. He brought the same thing up when I dropped out of college and when I bought my house. Because I had money, I should have bought my father a nurse out of appreciation like he did for his mother in China. But this was America. There was no abundance of household nurses.
“Dad, you don’t need a nurse.” I switched back to English out of desperation. “You can take care of yourself just as well.”
“You know I don’t cook food. I just… cook.” My father motioned stir fry in a pot. Since I tasted my father’s cooking, I thought my father’s motto was food is fuel. “And I need someone to dust and clean. You know how much I like clean.”
“I understand, dad.” I understand that my father wanted a housewife or a maid. He also wanted to be lazy. Actually, I think that he just didn’t care.
“You should better educated about these things.” I felt like he was going to talk about college again, but instead we paused briefly. I checked my phone. I had two texts and a missed call.
“If you’ll excuse me,” I said. “I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
Dick had called me. Something must have been wrong.
On the way to my restroom, I looked around the room. I saw fathers and sons laughing and hugging. Most of the sons were in college, talking about sports and clubs and stupid things like homework. I just imagined it was a façade. The Japanese would feign smiles at funeral, and I imagined they were doing the same. I didn’t know anything of a good father and son relationship.
I think they were on my mind because my father’s word echoed what I had long desired. He was going to talk about college.
I was alone in the restroom and called Dick back.
“Richard,” I said. “Is anything wrong?”
“No, I just drop called you. I just want to make sure everything’s all right.” Dick was a real weasel. “You doing okay?”
“Could be better. I don’t have a particularly bad migraine.”
“How long’s it been so far?”
I looked at my phone. “Twenty minutes.”
“So you’re in the main course now?”
“That’s a good way to put. Service here couldn’t be any slower.” The line to the server stretched past the entrance. I think it was burger night.
“Anything going on in the gay bar?”
“Not really,” Dick said. “There’s this indie rock band performing, but they’re not really that good.”
“That’s too bad.” I heard someone scream in the background of the cacophony.
I looked in the mirror and noticed that my hair was a mess. I didn’t bother fixing it.
“Hey,” Dick said. “They’re giving out those flavored condoms at the bar today. Weird flavors too, like honey meringue and barbeque sauce. Why don’t I bring you a couple?”
“Sure, give me a surprise.” I laughed. Dick had a taboo sense of humor. “My girlfriend likes them anyways.”
It was the short funny conversation I always wanted with baba. He was not one to have a sense of humor, not in URI nor now. He never knew what could make me laugh or make me happy. When my father went to China last year, I gave him a few Chinese comic titles to buy. Instead, he bought a comic book that had already been translated into English. He told me those books were out of print and claimed it was better than anything I could have ordered.
Dick knew what I wanted. I wanted condoms.
I began to think of Dick and soft hair and strong biceps.
“I miss you,” I blurted out. I swear could hear Richard hold his breath. I didn’t know why that thought went through my head. It wasn’t who I was, and I knew he was dating my best friend Wesley.
“I miss you too, Randolph,” Dick said. I think he paused to think. He lowered his voice. “Are things that bad with your dad?”
“Fraid so. He always thinks he knows more than me. He doesn’t even believe that freelancing at 40 an hour is a real job.”
“Does he think the world goes around him?”
“I think he does,” I replied. “Or at least it should. He thought waiters should give free refills because the customer is always right.”
Dick groaned. “Just hold it in your stomach for a few hours. Whatever happens, I’ll see you tonight.”
“Try not get to too drunk,” I said, washing myself up.
When I hung up, I walked out to see my father picking his teeth. I thought about talking to Margaret quickly about college, but instead I just wanted to finish having dinner with my father.
“I was talking to our waitress,” my father said. “She says she is in local state school. Isn’t that?”
Our waitress nodded. I’m almost certain she was faking her smile. She was rotating the balls of our feet.
“Yes, I study finance at Attenborough State University.”
“Oh, my girlfriend goes there. Do you know Margaret Parkes? She’s a senior.”
She shrugged. “I’m just a sophomore.”
I was going to ask her about her studies when my father interjected.
“And what do you study? Why did you study there?”
“Well I’m a finance major hoping to become a consultant. I’m at Attenborough because it’s inexpensive,” she lisped. She licked her lips quickly. “But it’s a really good education with the staff I’ve met as a finance major. I’ve even competed with Harvard business school students too.”
“You see,” my father said. “It is not bad to college. Even Attenborough.”
He was smiling. The waitress and I were staring at each other confused.
“Son does not want to college,” he laughed. Then he turned to the waitress. “You may leave.”
I waited for the waitress to leave before continuing my meal. I had a third of the burger left and the baked potato. My father was only 2/3 finished with his steak.
“Dad, what’s wrong with you? Did you stop her just for that?” I hoped that the waitress didn’t know Chinese.
“She was happy to talk.”
“She’s busy. Do you see how crazy it is today?”
“Then she should talk more. She should make sure we’re all taken care of.”
I shook my head. I was beginning to slam my hand on the table. My father seemed to enjoy knowing that he was right.
I considered saving the baked potato for breakfast. I had my house. I could eat how I wanted. Father never let me do this, because we refused to be poor. But when a dishrunner came, I understood that we were rich enough to toss out 2 ounces of steak tips.
“You know there’s this joke I read.”
My father smiled. “There was a twenty-year-old boy who didn’t trust his father,” he cleared his throat. “But then when he became forty, he started to appreciate what his father did.” Baba took in a spoonful of squash and started to chuckle.
“What kind of joke is that?” I burst out, “Where did you read it?
“It is an expression. You’ve been in America. I’d think you’d know what an expression is!” my father tried to admit. He was rocking his head from side to side. “It’s a joke. I read it. It’s funny.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I guess it is pretty funny,” I laughed. The punchline, I finally understood, was that was father was stupid.
He smiled again and nodded. “See, now you understand. You will laugh harder in 10 years, when you are forty.”
“You mean 14.”
“No, 10,” my father said. “You will not be forty? You think you will be young?”
“Dad, I’m twenty-six.”
“Exactly. You will be forty.”
I rolled my eyes. “Right dad, right.”
I was almost done with dinner. We sighed almost simultaneously.
“Randolph, I must talk to you frankly,” my father breathed. “You’ll have kids someday.”
“I’m not planning on it.”
“No, it is recommended. It is happiness. And you need college education to prove it to your kids.”
“What are you talking about, Dad? I don’t need a college education for anything.
“In China, they used to.”
Well this is America,” I replied. “Where they and where you’ve lived for over 30 years.”
“Well I’m old-fashioned.” I rolled my eyes. “Lots of times, the old ways are correct.”
“You’re making me look bad, baba.” I don’t know I was switching back and forth to Chinese. “I think I know when I’m ready to go back to college and when I’m not.”
“But your girlfriend is graduating college. Shameless.” He looked from side to side. “What is a father supposed to say to his friends? My son, a man, is less educated than his wife.”
“Tell them his son has found a woman who he loves. Tell him I work as a computer engineer. Tell him I’m respected in my field, and that I’m paid a handsome sum.”
Father began to raise his voice.
“I want you to back to college.”
“A father who has money and loves his father would buy dad a nurse. It is important for a Chinese son. Who do you have to speak for at all?”
“That’s enough dad.” I don’t know why my dad was holding me up. I never knew how my father could keep bringing college up every time we met, as if it were a lightning rod for conversation. I think we had begun to draw the ire of one of the booths nearby.
“Baba, I’m in America. I was born in America, raised to be American, and taught English. Why can’t I just enjoy life as an American?”
But as I finished, I saw the strange irony in my words with the simple differences in how we ate, how my father and I spat out fish bones and tough meat while the white family to our left had tidily cut up their meat. On occasion, one person spat into a napkin. My father didn’t notice.
“You think stupid thoughts. You don’t think rationally.” Oh yes. “You know, when you dropped out the University of Rhode Island, I cried for you.” His face became this serious wrinkly mess.
“I cried for you!” My father yelled. “This could be better if you could have would appreciate me.”
I gave him an apathetic gaze. I didn’t let him get to me.
“Why can’t you let this go, dad? I’m in my mid 20’s. I have a job with pension and buy healthcare. I own a house that’s worth almost half a million dollars. Why can’t you let live my life? I know what’s good for me.”
“It is because of your roommate. He’s a bad influence.
“Dad, he’s not a bad influence. “If anything, I hate his lifestyle.”
“You should let your girlfriend move in,” father said. “You may start a family sooner.”
Actually, we had cohabitated for a while. It didn’t work out.
“You have no shame, Dad.”
“I only say this to you because I know it hurts. But it is correct.” My father began clearing his throat. I was finally losing it.
“You spend a half a year working before you can go to school. It may be best to think of a college because you need experience.” He took a long pause. “So that’s why I want to say do not waste your time. In half a year, you can look for a decent job. Not home job. Not type job. A decent real job. This is basic logic. If you cannot look for a decent job you go to college. That is good. If you find a job you go for a decent job for a year or two then you go to college again. Because right now what you lack is the experience. You don’t have experience to do work in real life. You get experience from job. Once you get experience you find decent job. You must look for yourself.”
I had the feeling that my father spoke in English when he wanted to get a point across. But I had experience. I had a portfolio. I had a job.
“Whatever you think of me, I am your father, and I want to help you pay for the college.”
“Okay.” I didn’t want his money.
“I’m paying for you tuition. You should be saying thank you.”
“Thank you, Dad.” He was already paying for dinner. I don’t know how he wanted to keep paying for more. “What would I go back to college for? I already have a job where I can put half my income into investments.”
“You could study English. I know how you like to write.”
He wasn’t wrong. But I don’t know why I just gave up being angry in that moment. I was 26. I’ve had every type of minimum wage job. I had the money drained from my bank account, and I’ve had two near death experiences. Sometimes I thought I was never going to feel anything new, just similar experience playing out all too long. When I looked closely at my father, who hid his age through wearing tonic and diet supplements, I thought that perhaps the depression was amplified because I experienced those things so many times. We had the same conversations every time we met. He never understood how I ate my frustrations away. My father was still content regardless. When I was in college, he never saw this. I think he saw a college-educated boy.
“This about this, little Randolph. It is good.”
And I really did think about when we picked up the check. Because for a while, I felt like I had become stagnant at my job. I was doing the same sort of thing for years and creating things for other when I had ideas myself. But they were never really trained nor critically considered. I really did want to go back to college, but not for the reasons my father wanted or for the reasons my mother’s friends wanted.
I just wanted to go to college to learn.
We embraced each other once before we left. I was reminded of that embrace we had when I left for college like it was in Rhode Island. But in our twisted narrative, I felt as though I became the one to comfort him.
I checked the lucky red envelope and found a check for $500. I thanked him. Baba said he wanted me to come over for the holidays. I told him I would, and my father drove away in the fog. He didn’t say I love you, although I’m sure he expected me to say those words to him. I drove home in silence, coupled occasionally with a mental outburst of my father’s inflated wisdom.
At home, I went straight for the living room. I sat on the couch without ever taking my coat off. I could feel myself weeping, my throat jumping involuntarily. I had closed the curtains to the room and left my phone charging in another room. I didn’t want to distract myself online, nor did I want to think about Richard, who had left a note saying that he had gone out to a gay club this evening. My mind was trying to comprehend my father and the place I had known as home. Outside, two girls were harvesting fruit from a tree in their front yard. They looked happy.
I couldn’t help but think about that peach tree I chopped down in the afternoon. Every week as a child, baba and I went to pick the peaches, although my father usually had a feast, not me. At the core of every peach grew an opportunity and every peach, as if it had been caricatured, gave me a thumbs up and a wink. All I had to do was reach out and grab it. One peach could give me the strength to a brilliant engineer and another peach the talent to be a famous writer. Another peach could give me the knowledge to become a neuroscientist, and a fourth to become the next Bill Gates. I wanted each and every one of them but they were too ripe when I grabbed them and by the time I was mature enough to know how to pick peaches, they had all rotted as I sat with parched lips and an empty stomach.
As a child, my father chose the peaches for me and I thought they were rotten and made the mistake that every peach on the horizon was rotten as well as well as rotten from the core at which they grew. So I tossed those peaches away and eventually I chopped the whole tree down and tore out the roots that took so many years grow. With that, I withered the second peach tree, which needed the pollination of the first tree to grow. As I saw all my friends graduate from college and enjoy the fruits of their education, I wondered if I had accidentally starved myself to death.
But I didn’t. I made a portfolio of programs and websites and apps I created ever since past high school and became a freelance software engineer. I developed websites for startup companies and software for tech firms. My five-digit salary grew into a six-digits after six years, and that didn’t even include the money I earned from investments and would earn in bonds. I did everything those people on TV did to be successful even without a college degree. So why didn’t I feel successful? Why did my father know I did something wrong.
I thought about that question while I took a piss. After I washed my hands, I looked in the mirror at my slanted eyes and my straight hair and my short sideburns, the same traits that made people believe I was good at math, and I thought that couldn’t be the real reason. Then I recalled an argument I had with mama. We were talking about one of the new Chinese families in town.
“What kind of Chinese person doesn’t graduate college?”
“Chinese Americans.” That shut me up.
I remember how the Chinese boy down the street was shunned. He was in his early 30s and couldn’t even get an associate degree. He ended up working in his mother’s restaurant as a waiter. He made lots of money, but for some reason, we just didn’t accept him because he didn’t graduate from college. Why was that?
It felt wrong to think that everyone needed an education, but I couldn’t deny that being Chinese was a factor in my life. My father couldn’t care less for that tree or for his home or for his ex-wife. He valued subservience. My mother, on the other hand, was just as happy to see that tree gone as she was to see my father leave. She cared about me and my health. But I cared for my father, despite my contempt. I couldn’t figure out why I never wanted to break this cycle and block my father in every line of communication. I just sunk into a couch as I always did after speaking to my father. I mimicked our conversations out loud, trying to comprehend my father’s narcissism and how we managed to make it worse after ten years.
I tossed in the couch, screaming, and saw a pair of headlights coming into the garage. Dick had returned home, and I started to feel tears rolling down my cheek.
Shangdi baoyou wo, I mumbled. Ta zheng de maito lian.
God help me. He really doesn’t have any shame.
“An’ how’s my man doing?” he asked, leaning against the couch. He burped. He didn’t seem drunk, but he smelled of alcohol.
“It was fine,” I replied. “Better than I thought.” I felt comatose, barely speaking and hardly feeling any pain. The tears had stopped falling.
“C’mon,” Dick said, stroking my neck. “You sure you’re telling me you can’t feel that way about me?”
“Richard, I’m not in the mood.”
“Really,” he said. I felt a pinch on my buttocks. “Because you seem a little tense.”
“Get away from me, Richard. I’m not in the mood.” I could smell that he was stoned. “You’re in no shape to talk to me right now.”
“C’mon, I’ve been asking you for a year.” He kept teasing me, as he did every day, stroking me with one arm and groping me with the other. But I lashed out when Richard pried the little bag from my hands.
“Ni fa she me pi, ni go!” I told him. I don’t want to speak, I’m tired!” I got up from the couch and tossed my father’s gift into the closet.
“Randolph-” Dick said, but I didn’t let him finish.
“Quai du shui!” I yelled, already halfway up the stairs. I was about to enter my room when suddenly I felt ashamed at the expletives I yelled in Chinese to tell Richard to shut up. I thought I stuck my shoe in too far but instead Richard seemed to understand. At that moment, I couldn’t control my tears. I had just yelled at my best friend. What really made me cry was that he seemed to understand what had happened.
Dick took a few steps to approach me and looked me in the eyes as I wiped my nose. He put his arms around me and leaned his head into my chest. My breathe began to stifle and I found myself wrapping my arms around Richard as well.
“Take your time,” he said. “It’s okay to cry.” And before I knew it, I was stroking my housemate’s cheeks. I stared dumbfounded into the distance, thinking about how distant I had become with my father. Oh, it was certainly good to cry, but I don’t believe I did. My father had cried for me.
Cai can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and reached out on Twitter and Instagram @lukecwolf