“A lot of heart and emotion in here; honest and raw.” – Charles Yu
I did everything I could during childhood to keep my apologetic Asian hidden within me. I tried being boisterous, loud, and even mean to minimize the amount of times I apologized in school. I tried every persona that made it easy to talk your way out of having to apologize to your peers. No, my apologetic Asian only came out for my father.
The last day I had with him in Wanhua District began just like the previous four: youtiao and doujiang. We went to the local store for the classic duo and sat silently across from each other, eating so quickly I swear he was racing me to finish. I started off with the careful ritual I’d used since I was a kid:
and crunch –
before dunking the breadstick into the doujiang’s creamy, sweetness to balance the flavor. He finished his oil stick in three decisive bites, polishing off the soy milk in as many gulps. I expected him to head to the register and pay the auntie, but he sat and stared at me as I now tried to imitate his expedience.
“You’re thin. I am ordering more portion.”
I nodded fervently in response, even though I was full. I tried to think of what my friends were doing back home as I stuffed myself through the second round. I found myself sheepishly looking down at the mosaic of egg-dough combinations in front of me, and I issued my first apology of the day.
“My bad, ba, help me out?” He obliged with a grumble, but declared, “Listen, you’ll be regretting it later. We walk here, unlike in Carr – li fornia ahah.” He breaks into a half-cough, half-laugh before finishing the bad pun, and all thoughts of my friends back home fade away. We meandered around town, with him pointing out landmarks where he had gone on first dates and avenues where he had first fights. Meandering turned into a silently meditative and rigorous exploration of the city, me trailing as his shadow. I let the conversations of passersby populate my mind, creating a million different scenarios from the tidbits of conversation I had.
“Yes … ,“ he announces it with confidence at first, but his extended stare at the office building’s faded logo convinces me otherwise. “I think it’s here.” We enter through the front of the brutalist titan of a building, climbing the stairs of its spine until we came upon his old news station. A glowing red neon sign read, China Times. We entered the studded, mahogany doors to a flood of conversation that mixed with hot wind to whoosh past my face.
We were quickly surrounded by his old coworkers, some of which used to be big in town and had that newsperson kind of radiant, polished smile. Upon seeing my father, an especially elated Uncle Tse beamed, creasing his crow’s feet ever deeper into sun-kissed skin. He demanded we have lunch and whisked us away with a small entourage of senior reporters in tow, their loquacity buzzing around us all the way to the restaurant. Auntie Wu cracked a joke, eliciting some cackles, and she elbowed me suggestively for a reply. I found myself constantly tongue-tied, stupefied by their vocabulary. “Wu Auntie, I’m not sure if I can follow,” I exclaimed, much to her visible disappointment. I save the situation with, “because your wit is just too quick for me!”
Auntie Wu lit up. My failsafe of complimenting aunties on youthfulness and energy saved me from explaining just how much Mandarin I know, once again. We all took our seats ceremoniously around a white tablecloth, crowned by a lazy susan.
As they pulled up pictures of old scrapbooks on LINE and WeChat, the occasional battered polaroid, rescued from its
wallet prison for just a short while, made its way around the table. I gazed upon one that was particularly tattered, and Uncle Tse leaned over and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Wah – ah. That one, Jun, must be some 30 years old, twice your age even!” He stretched his hand out and I passed it to him; he cradled it with both of his palms, as if he was holding an injured baby bird.
In the stained, blurry picture, dad looked infinitely younger. He grew hair, long locks that went down past his shoulders, and his collection of forehead wrinkles disappeared, melting into tanned skin that looked energetic, laminated with honey.
Long days shooting film, photographing athletes for the “Sports” section, writing down quotes on his interview pad, this is what a hard-working journalist of 24 years with dreams looks like, with honey skin and energy and a Versace jacket to wear to the club after a hard day’s work. I blink and he goes away, as if he never existed. My dad’s name is a moon being illuminated less and less until it is lost in the sky — Wane. The wilting of a flower, a burning desire fading away. Empires wane. All lights eventually wane. As fathers grow older, their bodies and dreams begin to wane. My hands are automatic, snatching the recently-refreshed pot of jasmine tea from the lazy susan to refill his small and empty cup.
Two fingers extended from his weathered hand, tapping the table once with thanks, but he curled them back into a fist before rapping the table a second time in his usual fashion. The interruption draws my eyes onto the tablecloth which is now drenched in chrysanthemum tea by my hasty pour. He grabbed his napkin to dab at the stains I made.
Tse Uncle took a big breath, drawing in enough air such that I could feel a slight draft on my cheek, and began his story:
The night that Wane wore the Versace jacket, he had just started at Liberty Times, and oh, did he have a full head
of hair back then …
Tse Uncle launched into an intense recounting of the time that my dad drove on his motorcycle to the next city over,
chasing a hardheaded dude who had tried to hit on Tse’s future wife. The neon and the mirth of these memories had long passed, replaced by a sticky nostalgia mixed with the humidity to make thick air. As we were joined by ever more new old faces, I struggled to breathe and talk, choking on my dutiful hellos and nice-to-meet-yous, and eventually resorted to sipping tea besides my father, who was cackling and laughing like I had never seen before. The rest of the table was filled with his warmth and I finally saw that those old bonds in the Polaroids and pictures were still there. As we talked, going from how business was going to which college I would be going to and then small talk to silence, I noticed that my father didn’t ask about them much. Many at the table had apparently been upstarts at Taiwan News, gone to Liberty Times, and finally were well-paid at China Times. They carried the scars of the island in their foreheads and in veiled comments about Beijing.
When we said our goodbyes, Uncle Tse’s eyes brimmed with tears, but he still carried that newsworthy smile, cheekbones aflare and positively beaming. The energy that had just filled the restaurant so completely and suffocatingly seemed to be sucked out by the outside heat, and my dad’s old friends started talking about the daily beat again and tasks to get done before the day ended. No one asked my father about the next time he would visit. We parted ways and the now large entourage shuffled back to the office. My father and I looked on, and I was reminded by a warning from my mother that no matter how bright or new, when qipaos are laundered wrong and scrubbed too hard too many times, their colors begin to dull.
Later that night, I finally met Bean, the womanizing motorcycling big strong dude who saved my father in countless fights.
That’s the image I had of him in my head at least, but he was rounder than I expected and we were the same height,
which was disappointing. After saying our hellos and giving my obligatory tell-me-about-yourself to the uncle, my dad sprung a question to Bean.
“How’s that big son of yours? He did wrestling right?” he looked up curiously from the wok-singed, salt-blasted peanuts.
Bean gave a pursed smile, “I think he’s doing alright, yes.” Then, a pause.
“He left awhile back, you know,” he murmured as he clicked his tongue. “Doesn’t really call all too often.” An air of regret blanketed our seafood dinner, and our arrangement around the rectangular table suddenly felt very strange and uncomfortable. Bean sat directly across from my dad, and I sat directly across from a seat that felt like it should have been filled.
“I see, well. Not much you can do about that. Grown man, right?” My father tapped his old friend on the shoulder and quickly hailed three beers. I tried to drink mine as fast as I could.
My father paid the bill, curiously to no protest from Bean, and we walked past a wall of dead-eyed fish and grayed lobsters framed in Christmas lights. In the dark, lamplit heat outside, I was shocked to learn that I would smoke my “first ever” cigarette with the two of them, and I felt as if my immature excitement was cheapening the legendary tradition occurring in front of me. My father passed out the thin white darts and slung his arm around Bean’s shoulders. They looked at home, both leaning against the wide wooden frame of the seafood shop.
I took the lighter from my dad’s outstretched palm and fervently turned the flint wheel, finally eking out enough sparks to set the tip of the cigarette aflame. Bean looked as if he had seen a ghost as my father broke out into a chuckle, swiping the light from my hand and courteously shielding Bean’s mouth before moving to his. He was so quick that they were already taking puffs before my embarrassment set in. I gave a breathless apology, “I cannot face you,” giving a short and awkward bow to Uncle Bean and avoiding eye contact with my father.
The sorry that I used wasn’t just a casual one, but weighted, laden with a heavy shame. My face reddened, and I
suddenly noticed the humid blanket of heat that hadn’t bothered me before. I didn’t apologize often because I seldom needed to – I had made it a goal of my life to not make mistakes in front of him. I remember the last time I used that sorry.
It was when he first learned that he would no longer be a husband.
The fluorescent glow of the LED lights under the kitchen cabinets reflected off of poppy, stucco fruits on the wall. It cast an eerie blue on his face as he sobbed late in the night. I opened the garage door with a stupid boba drink in my hand, and the condensation dripped on our yellowed tile floors.
When he acknowledged my presence after a few moments of standstill, his Mandarin was a sticky ball of tapioca,
something black caught in his throat then spat out onto the table in front of us. “So painful, so painful…” he repeated, as a string of ugly with breaths of chaos caught me up on what had happened. He hiccupped as he caught his breath between the sentences.
I was at a loss, and then I panicked. I tried, “I’m sorry,” in English, loud and impassioned at first then quieter, whispering as I sat down. “Baba, I am so, so sorry…”
A collection of phrases, vestiges of the after-school Chinese Heritage Academy that terrorized my childhood afternoons, burst out of me, broken and half-meaningful. The phrases seemed jumbled, inappropriate as they fell out of my mouth, and after an eternity of sorry’s and I’m-here-for-you’s that I had never heard spoken by my parents, I stopped. His silent acceptance of my attempt to fill the air with something native, comfortable, and appropriate confused me. For once in my life, I wish he’d snap at me to correct me, but when he looked up, the brown moons of sadness in his eyes defeated me, striking me with dull fear.
Finally, I found my Mandarin: “I cannot face you.” This was not the sorry that I would say when I stayed out too late with friends or got less-than-perfect grades – minor errors. This was the sorry that I would say when I didn’t want to
accompany him to Monterey Park just to hold the frail hands of my wilting grandmother. It was shame and guilt, and these afflictions kept my eyes fixated on the ground, away from the destruction.
I reached out my hand, and twenty-five years of being a tough and dedicated example, the sacrificial pilgrim of the Ru family, crumbled at my touch.
It had been a long time since I had last touched him, but I patted my hand on the small of his back and then his neck. I laid my father’s chin against my shoulder, his flat cheeks balancing on my bony shoulder blade. I hoped he would get some sudden injection of resolve, some return to his stoicism. Thorny and crackled, the rough trickle of crying from the back of his throat grew into a torrent as he wrapped his arms around me and emptied his eyes and soul onto the back of my t-shirt. He clasped his hands together behind my back and tightened, as if to squeeze out the tears that had been brimming in my eyes.
With each sob, he laid further into me, burrowing from years of frustration and burden. And with each sob, I felt more and more futile.
I shook the scene out of my head and fixated on my father’s relaxed, toothy smile – it had now gotten much darker and emptier as the shops around us closed for the night. He had a bubbly, or bubbly-inspired, mirth about him, and the beer seemed to settle well in Bean’s stomach too. My dad would crack a sly joke about the newly-elected female president with a vegetable name, and Bean’s booming laughs illuminated the dark alleyway, bouncing off of century-old buildings and up into the sky.
We walked back to the hotel together, bidding Bean goodbye on a dark street corner, and my father didn’t say much to me as we marched through a labyrinth of dim backstreets. He didn’t smile as he pointed out the occasional noodle shop he used to frequent, and I felt as if I had failed a very important test that night. When he learned of Bean’s suicide two years later, it was too much for him to verbalize to me. I was up late one night when a cracked door leaked sound into my room, and I craned my ear to catch whatever phrases I could hear. My parents sounded like they were sharing secrets, and teenage curiosity got the best of me.
My father whispered, but with strong breath and power behind his consonants, “Bean’s son … Shanghai girl … he moved away … there is nobody.”
Mom thought I was asleep, so she responded in a higher pitch and volume, “Bean … himself. No one … Weizhong … you cannot do this now, we don’t have the money,” her sharp whisper turning into an airy shout by the last phrase.
The next day, he told me that he needed to go back to Taiwan for business arrangements; there was an exciting new
vendor who he needed to meet with right away. I didn’t confront him about it, but I felt compelled to call him every day for the two weeks he was there. He would try to keep the phone calls under 30 seconds to avoid international fees, but halfway through his trip, he began saying I love you to end the call. I said it back without much thought the first time he did it, but I know now that it was the first time I had ever heard him verbalize the phrase.
“Did you get enough to eat?” He burps and slides our hotel card into the elevator.
“I think so. I think I have a headache from the cigarette,” to which he rolled his eyes and plops onto the bed.
“I love you. Goodnight.”
That vice-ridden night with Bean was one of the few nights I saw my father. Although I haven’t been able to solidly kick smoking since, I do catch myself before I say sorry to him.
Baba, I can now face you because I love you too. I’m still learning about who you are, but I won’t do that with my back turned.
Alton Ru studied at UC Berkeley. His father is from Taiwan.