By Julie Wu
I was thirty-five and pregnant with my first child by the time I figured out that I needed to listen—truly listen—to what my father had to say. For years I had been trying to write a Taiwan-based novel and I could not, despite my best efforts, make it work without my parents. The fragments of stories of their childhoods in Taiwan had inspired my writing in the first place. Now I needed the whole story.
My first interviewing session started with the same mundane gestures that all my visits to my parents did. We kissed each other’s cheeks at the door, which my father had painted shiny red for good luck. My mother offered me tasty treats from Kotobukiya and Trader Joe’s. We chatted about my plans for the baby. And then, when I brought out the tape recorder, my father went right down to the family room and settled back into the brown striped recliner where he watched Dan Rather and Washington Week. He sat there so much that my mother was convinced the shape of his spine had molded to fit the chair. Yet he still managed to look easily twenty years younger than he was—tall, athletic, his hair at sixty-six freer of gray hairs than mine.
“So, where do you want me to start?” My father joked as I set up the recorder. “When I was a baby?”
I laughed with him, almost convinced to dismiss his childhood entirely. Then I said, “Yes.”
He leaned his head back in the recliner and the smile dropped from his lips. His jaw, square and handsome as any Hong Kong movie star’s, set so a muscle bulged in front of his ear. Behind him on one side were shelves filled to the ceiling with our old books, board games, and marble collections, and on the other side large picture windows showcasing the lush New England landscape surrounding us, the maple leaves tipped with orange, the pine trees tiered in shades of darker green.
My father spoke, staring straight ahead, his voice gravelly. “My memories of my childhood,” he said, “are not exactly happy.”
And then he told me about the beatings.
I should not have been surprised. My parents, especially my mother, had always intimated that my father had not been in favor with his parents, had not been adequately loved. But before now he had never given me the details, and I had never asked.
At least, I had never asked the right questions. I had, in fact, interviewed my father before. For a sixth grade biography assignment, at my mother’s insistence (“Why don’t you write about your daddy? He had a very interesting life!”) I had dutifully inscribed his date of birth in my black-and-white composition book, followed by the name of his schools in Taiwan, his immigration to America, his job working for the Department of Defense. “Junior college in Taiwan,” he pointed out. “And then PhD in America. Not so easy, you know.” I spelled out the university names in cursive on the light blue lines of my book, thinking that I might have written about Itzhak Perlman or Pinchas Zuckerman, Beethoven or Mozart.
“Your father sounds like a remarkable man,” my sixth grade teacher said as she handed back my composition book, and I looked up at her in wonder. My father was an electrical engineer who never discussed work. He was home every day at 5:16. He dozed respectfully through all my chorus and orchestra performances, told terrible puns, and was a regular American Dad. The one way he might have differed from my friends’ dads was his knowledge of, seemingly, everything. One summer he single-handedly poured the concrete foundation for a storage room attached to our house, then topped the room with a mahogany-stained deck, complete with built-in benches and room for a picnic table, grill, and bug-zapper. When he gardened, he built a cold frame, made compost, and harvested so many vegetables that we had to buy a full-sized freezer for our storage room. And his English was always so excellent I failed, at one point in my life, to recognize that he had an accent.
I interviewed him again, during the time I was dashing his hopes for my future as a physician by attending graduate school in opera. Before I left his house, my father, a wonderful amateur singer himself, declared that artists were parasites of society.
All Chinese parents just want their children to be doctors, I said derisively.
That’s not true! He said. I didn’t want it for your sister and brother. Only you.
And yet it was during that nadir in our relationship—as I sat at the worn green formica counter in my parents’ kitchen, getting ready to throw my Harvard education in the Bloomington, Indiana trash, that an image came to my mind. It was the image of a lonely, unhappy little boy on the musty floor of his parents’ house in Taiwan, an image so vivid that I rushed to write it down, to capture the feel of the dark floorboards, smooth and worn under his fingers, and the smell of sandalwood-scented dust. At the time, it didn’t matter to me where the image came from or why. The only thing that mattered to me was that, at last, I knew what it was to write.
With all the enthusiasm of a novice, as soon as I landed in Bloomington, I embarked on a novel about that boy. I moved him to suburban America and gave him a disenchanted artist sister. The main plot was suburban American; there would be a background story in Taiwan. To research this background story, I realized I would have to call my parents.
The last thing I intended to do, however, was to write a book about my bourgeois mom and dad. Sure, they had lived through the Japanese occupation, seen the Chinese Nationalist takeover, and overcome tremendous odds to come to the United States. But had Tolstoy based Anna Karenina on his mom? Had Dickens written A Tale of Two Parents? I did not want to be that idolizing Asian child, blindly demonstrating filial piety. I wanted to write a masterwork of high drama, of romance and pathos and sociological importance, not a mere immigration story about an engineer and an accountant. I wanted a hero slaying a dragon.
On lined notebook paper, I scribbled questions about Taiwanese wedding and funeral rituals. I left a few lines between questions for my parents’ answers. But when I did my interview, their answers did not fit the lines.
“But when my brother died—”
“What brother died?”
“I never told you about that?”
Every answer they gave me was so unexpected—my great grandfather had sold my grandmother for complaining too much, my uncle picked up a bag of family money at the bank and found it transformed into foil-wrapped chocolate—that instead of inspiring me, these conversations stopped me short. How boring and pointless my novel now seemed in comparison. And yet, still, I would not, could not be my parents’ biographer. Instead, I stopped asking them questions, continued to write short stories, and abandoned the book entirely.
I abandoned opera as well. I considered pursuing an MFA in creative writing, but I detested the idea of sheltering myself even further from life. Surely I would do better as an artist to leave the enclave of academia. In the end, I decided to go to medical school—not, I convinced myself, to please my parents, but because I wanted to feel useful and experience the core of life.
So it was that at the time my father spoke to me from his recliner, I was, in fact, both a physician and a writer. Whether or not I had become a physician for my own reasons as I thought or to satisfy some deep, unconscious need to please my parents, I found it to be both tremendously gratifying and a window into worlds I would never have known otherwise. And I had managed to find a half-time job to facilitate both writing and spending time with my family. It was the ideal balance, as life can only be before having children. In that state of perfect equilibrium I threw out the flimsy starts of novels I had written since Indiana and came to terms with the fact that the best story I could write might be the one I had been avoiding all along.
“My mother would hide behind the door,” my father said, continuing in the same, gravelly voice. “Before I got to the door, I already knew what’s coming, what to expect,” he said. “I don’t recall I ever lucked out.”
My own mother was cooking dinner in the kitchen, and as the savory smells of ginger and cloves, of sesame and soy, wafted downstairs, my father continued staring ahead, telling me that he had, in one of the town’s wealthiest households, become malnourished enough to require medical treatment for a year. How standing up to a teacher in school landed him in vocational school in an oppressed country with no room for second chances.
It was my mother, he told me, who had been the first person to believe in him, to get him to believe in himself. If it hadn’t been for her, he might have spent his life in Taipei, sleeping over an electronics storefront, fixing up old radios for resale.
In my own house afterward I rushed to play back the recording of the interview. The microphone, to my horror, had been inadequate and I had to turn the volume all the way up on my stereo to make out the words. I typed it all out—right away, three hours worth of speech, because I wanted to get it down before I forgot it. I never wanted it to be lost. For my own sake and for my child’s.
I never had a role model. What a father was supposed to be like with a child, and so forth . . .
I did have a role model. And now I realized what a miracle that was.
I finally had my book. And eventually, through the years, the book became both my parents’ story and that novel of drama, romance, and pathos that I always wanted to write. I changed many facts—major ones even, something I eventually had to do to increase the unity and drama of the story. But the essential journey, the emotional one, remains my father’s.
I can’t help thinking that the sad little boy on that musty floor in my image was my father. Perhaps, at a time when our relationship was at its most strained, my mind intuited some reason for its strain and at the same time suggested a means—writing—for us to stay close. In my self absorption and worshipping of rebellion I took the image of the boy and tried to wrest it into telling the story of my own suburban American angst. I had to grow up to let the boy tell his own story and to find out that he was, in fact, the hero I was always looking for. Because being home for dinner can be an act of grace, and a kiss at the door can be, for some, a feat braver than fighting any kind of dragon.