Posts Tagged ‘parents’

At Four You’re Right

6 December 2011

Dear J-

There are some days you just don’t want to listen to your parents and you’re pretty well convinced that you know everything there is. For me, documenting what happened twenty years ago has been humbling: I see the nascent beginnings of who I am today wrapped up in pride and uncertainty in what I’ve done and accomplished, and what I have projected before me. Were you to tell me then that I’d be making those thoughts freely available without a book deal or even some hint of fame I’d have laughed and told you that future-me wasn’t ambitious enough: fame was fate for being that guy — to crack the riddle of fusion, the professor that everyone liked.

At the time I still had my parents driving me on to be the very best I could be, or at least getting the most out of the opportunities that came my way. And I hated it. So much control they had over everything: where to go, what to do, reminders and discipline. When I’m on my own, I vowed twenty years ago, when I’m on my own I’ll make sure things are different. Indeed. Doritos for dinner? Why not? The only thing keeping me sane some of those late school nights after high school was pride: class standings and reputation: still more external measures of how I’m doing (are you proud enough now huh?).

I’m amused (bemused) when I look at figgy and think about what she has to look forward to and how much she’s dealing with now; she is possibly the bossiest creature I’ve ever met and convinced, stubbornly, that she’s right as rain, directing us in complex play schemes barely limited by imagination and imitation (“OK now you be Santa and put presents in the stockings. PUT THEM IN.”) These are things you lear on your own: crushing your dreams into something small to put in your pocket for later, swallowing ambition for stability, admitting you’re wrong once in a while. If life is a movie filmed inside our eyes (at twenty-four frames per second, in vivid surround sound) then we cast ourselves as star: it’s up to us to remember the plot right, or at least ad-lib our way through the intro. She’s doing fine and we laugh a lot which at four I think is completely right.



Home Alone

25 April 2011


Dear J-

I probably talked about it the last time we were up here but there’s definitely something strange about seeing your childhood stuff in a new house where you don’t expect it to be. The books I was reading to figgy, for instance, have my childish scrawls inside declaring they belong to me. Earlier theVet asked me which of the rooms belonged to me before catching and correcting herself — being in San Jose means things are familiar and strange all at once. This is the new neighborhood and a house with two stories again, only with an upstairs instead of a basement and the old grandfather clock my dad assembled takes its focus from the big flatscreen instead of a moderate Trinitron.

We walked over to RAMAC Park earlier today, named after an early IBM effort at a hard drive and on the campus of their old storage division (which was sold to Hitachi a few years back before Western Digital bought out everyone). The land was donated back to San Jose after remediation from years of industrial neglect and it could now be a scene from any suburban California park: grass, playground, athletic field. No mention of the memories or commemoration of the technologies of fifty years back that brought the center of the technological world to a field in San Jose or the market forces that drove them away just as quickly. I know why my parents left, weary of the yearly battles with snow and without the jobs they could walk to (their commute was an easy four blocks) after retirement.

The house has changed but none of the old memories or habits have. The soup still tastes like overboiled bones, the towels slightly musty, the price tags still prominent just in case those items need to be returned to stores long closed. And they’re still just as proud of us, just as willing to sacrifice for us as ever. You take the long road of growing up and sometimes you suspect your parents still think of you as essentially helpless but the truth is that you can’t quite let go of this thought: let me do it, it won’t take long and I might as well, don’t trouble yourself. And maybe that’s why it feels like it never quite was home again, even after long stretches away at school. You make your home and take your comfort from where you are, not the memories of what you were.


Great Exhortation

20 April 2011


Dear J-

When I was eight and soon after they’d bought the store, my parents showed up at home one day with a brand-new Chevy Van (20, the 3/4-ton model with long wheelbase but not the “maxi” van rear overhang extension). According to my dad the prinary purpose (besides having a second vehicle to tote us kids around) was to support the store with deliveries of groceries from Seattle — gas was cheap enough that it was cheaper to take the ten-hour roundtrip than get a small truck of groceries over the mountains. The secondary purpose reveals just how we were: roughly lagging the times by ten years, wanting to get in on the van customization craze of the 70s, although not with the airbrushed fantasy (van-tasy?) art on the side.

My dad installed wood paneling and floors, cut a small piece of carpet to fit, and built a little bed over the wheel wells in the back — my mom sewed a cover for a piece of foam and eventually we got a permanent sofa installed in lieu of the lawn chairs we had been using, so that we had someplace to sit when in motion and another couple of places to sleep when not. And me? I was there every step of the way — holding lights where needed (all this work was done at night in the driveway) or spotting drill holes (no, a bit more to the right), cutting, prodding, and trying to stay out of the way instead of jumping on everything. There is a small window of opportunity where everything you do is endlessly fascinating to your kids and instead of shrugging them off — which would be easy — to have included their enthusiasm in your activities and I give endless credit to my parents for doing that.

Knowing this, knowing that it’s too easy to absorb yourself in your own activities and try to lock out others thinking that you’d just get it done faster on your own, you have to keep playing the long game instead. What memories do you have of working with your parents? It always made me feel like I was incredibly important, part of a larger whole unit working towards something bigger than what we could accomplish individually. As long as you remember things warmly thirty years on I’m pretty sure you did the right things along the way.


Silent Service

28 November 2010

Dear J-

My parents are gone and leave in their wake a bewildering array of leftover foods in the fridge. Sure, there’s the American Thanksgiving holiday to blame for some of that (along with the truly heroic twenty-three pound bird my sister-in-law made up) but a lot of it has to do with the way I remember us all eating as a family. If it wasn’t two starving teenage boys at the table, it was starving college students, on and off, for years and years: I remember they used to host all of the Chinese-speaking students at the college my dad taught for Thanksgiving dinners; the spread would be so immense and the preparations so exacting that we’d be ushered out of the kitchen for the day and given a free pass at TV while my mom labored to fill the ping-pong table downstairs with all kinds of food, from the traditional stuffing and turkey to various fishes and noodle dishes.

They’ve taken a break from that but even now one of their favorite greetings and questions is whether we’ve had enough to eat or not. My other sister-in-law was taken under their wing while she was studying in Cheney and my folks proceeded to stuff her with food every chance they got. Over the years I’ve learned to accept the edible offerings with glee; there is a certain art to ordering off a Chinese restaurant’s menu, and if you don’t balance your starches and your meats they’ll look at you askance and suggest something else (I suppose part of the reason that all these restaurants get bad marks for service is because the servers know more about the food than the patrons, but in most places they’ve subscribed to customer-as-king and don’t bother to question the selections to your face). It’s now hardwired to expect that we’ll get something completely extravagant and unprecedented to eat that we wouldn’t buy for ourselves — I remember the winter my mom pressed a Costco-sized tin (which could have served as a fortress in the backyard, by the way) of shortbread on us; when pressed, she said that they weren’t cookies, they’re bread.

I’m reminded of that tonight in the epic struggle between mom and daughter over the marble. We give figgy a few trinkets now and then and one of the latest came from the storage room, as we ran across an old marble hiding out from years ago (pretty nondescript — glass with a little red swirl of paint inside) so we gave it to her and every night since she’s stuck it in her mouth at least once which leads to no end of cajoling and trying to get it back out before she swallows it and/or chokes. Finally theVet gave up and just took it away, flat-out stuck it on a high shelf of no return saying all the while that she’d had chances, she was told not to put it in her mouth and in the guileful charm of a three-year-old, she kept re-producing it at the tip of her tongue with a secret smile: see, here it is, what can you do about it? Mom knows best, even if it’s impossible to reason with figgy at this point, she does understand the punishment and deprivation and let us know — loudly — all she wanted tonight. So yes, as you suspected growing up, sometimes part of parenting is growing deaf.


Sam I Was

25 July 2010

Dear J-

I feel a little like the unnamed participant with Sam-I-am:  I do like hanging out with kids, I do like birthday parties.  I do so like them.  All those years of trauma over missing out on the rabbits and balloons at other kids parties growing up?  The unnamed dread of hanging out with strangers?  You do as much as you care to, and show off a little of yourself in the process.

It helps, of course, that three-year-olds are the least self-conscious people on the planet.  They connect straight from thought to action without filtering (this is what parents are for, after all:  pulling aside and admonishing with shocked whispers when all you hear is the echo of your words, sadly).  The small tragedies of growing up include donning that final mask that lets your lips lie to your heart.

We’ll have opportunities to host our own and mix family with friends and peers; we’ll probably throw awkward moments in too, but I really enjoyed watching the social structure of kids united.  The baby stuff is fun, and we’ll have our chance to wallow in that later this year, but for now it’s still fascinating (educating!) to watch that process of growing up again.


Rule Based

13 December 2009

Dear J-

The next time you think that you haven’t turned into your parents, take a look in the mirror: the people who were your most familiar faces during your formative years shape us in unconscious ways without cease, like sand, wind, and rain carving mountains into boulders and pebbles. I find myself losing control, losing touch at a moment’s notice, and it’s too easy to blame that on someone else’s actions.

When you start to deal in platitudes, when you begin to dredge up the past to win arguments — just to win, why do we need to declare victory over people we love? The anger springs from deep inside; bubbling over in riotous excessive darkness, infecting everything it touches. Dream a little on this: you make your way through the world on the actions you take, and faking your way past the guards by saying you couldn’t help them is a cop-out.

At times it feels like we play at being adult; we strip away to deep frustration, wanting our teachers, our parents, our children to referee the matches and declare victories and penalties alike. I remember knowing that there was always a higher authority to appeal to: one of the things I was very good at as a kid was figuring out the proper hierarchy of things. And now that we’re the ultimate authorities in this particular madhouse, we’re responsible for the rules: there are no rules, we have all the rules.


Phone Rings

9 December 2009

Dear J-

The amount of time we spend on each other isn’t supposed to be an afterthought; at the moment we’re pretty content, but how would our time needs increase with multiple kids?  Eventually we’ll be back to two again, theVet and me, unbelievable as it seems, and knowing who we were before, will that be enough to build a life after?  Me, for instance, I seem to have inherited the worst parts of my parents’ temper, being alternately passive and aggressive, prone to screaming fits and icy bouts of silence; how far do I go past those realizations to conquer them?

If there is a hierarchy of communication, the top layer is filled  with personal interaction:  in the same room, it’s hard to hide your eyes and body language, gestures are easily read.  Lose those and you’re in the telephone-zone, compensated by near-instantaneous contact and enough voice versimilitude that you can play them as movies in your head.  Bringing up the rear are your written communcations, whose speed may be aided by technology or not; the longer it takes, generally, the more deliberate the words.  You and I, J-, for instance, all these unsent letters and incomplete thoughts led astray by simple wind at times.

I am an incredibly poor communicator when I don’t have the luxury of nonverbal cues to inform me of attitude and nuance; every last moment without figgy tells me how much I miss her — one of theVet and my favorite pastimes is repeating   particularly turned phrases coming out of her two-point-five-year-old mind, and that alone should tell me how often our parents miss us:  not once a week when we call, not once every holday when we visit.  In other words, all the time, every day.  And regardless of how humble the communication, it’s better than maddening silence echoing hollow in your head.


Lucky Stars

12 September 2009

Dear J-

Before figgy we used to have plans, but they were pretty flexible; we’d generally end up coming to some kind of reasonable compromise that left us both happy. We’d go, for instance, to the Zoo and see the raptors as well as the big cats. With figgy in the mix, though, our lives have lately been dictated to us; though we ultimately choose the destination, the routes we take within are usually not up to us. Your life takes this funny arc of ever-increasing independence until children bring you back to being on someone else’s schedule.

Fortunately, you return to your footloose ways later in life; my parents are in town for a wedding tomorrow and they wanted to visit my in-laws today, so we went up to Orange County. Between breakfast (my dad, sneaking in an order of french toast and bacon while my mom was occupied with menu choice) and, later, Laguna Beach (if I’d had my way we’d have spent an hour or more wading in the surf; as it was we never touched the sand) I felt like we were the only adults at times. This, of course, was illusory; just before turning back to the cars, the grandparents suggested ice cream which immediately took figgy’s attention off the loss of sand, castles, and surf and hastened her steps towards the frozen confections.

Brunch Time 0748 -sm

We had enough of a taste of freedom to know that we’re not going to go crazy with an empty nest, but it’s important to be reminded of our place in the world at times. We may think that we’re each numero uno to ourselves, but the truth is that we are only as significant as our relationships make us. As we grow up, do we change from being the center of the universe to someone else’s sun, moon, and stars, or something more complex than that? How lucky have we been, being able to relate to our parents as adults, now friends and even peers? Now when I dream of the future it’s just as this: the wheel turning over again and figgy showing me that lives revolve in cycles, me pleased at spending time without judgment, without reservation. We. Us. Forever.


Gift Time

22 November 2008

Dear J-

Back when figgy was new and the world still unready for her, my mother-in-law came to stay with us for a few weeks. The initial plan was to have her help out around the house as we got used to life with figgy, the often unconscious, wrapped-like-a-mummy figgy when time since birth was measured in days, not months. Well, that was the plan, at least; the way our pre-natal classes taught it, there might be some good-natured grumbling about not being able to hold the baby much, but that would just be something that we’d work through and chuckle about later.


Obviously, my mother in law didn’t go to the same lessons as us, but it’s not her fault; we did treat her poorly enough that she left much earlier than expected. There are few decisions I regret more than, say, sitting down to play video games instead of lifting a finger to help in the kitchen. We’ve made our peace, though, and things are back to normal, right?

theVet worked on our parents’ Christmas present this year — last year she put together a scrapbook, this year, with figgy demanding more attention and supervision, she put together a photobook online instead. Orders were placed, books were shipped, and we got ours on Thursday; it’s not that we expect an obligatory thank-you call, but I would have expected that the call from my mother-in-law would be conducted between, say, the daughter and the mother. Instead I just hovered nervously as I expected the inevitable turning-over-of-the-phone that never happened. theVet keeps telling me that she didn’t initially want kids because she was afraid that the same old grudges and themes would play out in a new generation. We’ll get by together.


Donald Duk (II)

13 February 2008

Dear J-

More than just a diatribe, though, Donald Duk succeeds in telling a story not unlike those of many kids I grew to know: growing up and feeling out of place with those people who’d raised you, and wanting to fit in seamlessly with a more popular (stylish, wealthy, athletic — you takes your pick) crowd.

It’s not just an Asian-American theme to believe that anyone older than your generation is impossibly old-fashioned; I see parent-kid relationships breaking down in one of three categories:

  1. Man, what a generational gap!
  2. Now you’re adding language?
  3. Who’s taking care of who?

To be honest, I’ve been relatively lucky, as my dad speaks virtually perfect Mandarin and English, so we’ve always been somewhere between category one and two. Unique to the children of immigrant experience, though, is the possible added barrier of language and even more distancing, the possibility that the kids end up serving as translators. See, you naturally grow up thinking that your parents know nothing, and any life discoveries (driving! sex!) you’re the first in history to ever experience, and will brook no advice regarding them.

When you grow up not always knowing the nuances of what your parents are saying — and you could understand 90% of what’s being said in Mandarin, like me and still miss the point, because that shared cultural background of lore and holidays and traditions just isn’t there — then that’s another factor keeping you from understanding your folks. And when maybe they’re not as educated as you, maybe their English isn’t perfect, well, you end up not just being a family spokesperson, but, after awhile, you end up helping to run the household (how many kids out there are filling out the taxes?). Those are unique experiences to immigrant children, I think.

Donald, I believe, like me falls somewhere between one and two, maybe a little closer to two It’s incredibly hard to balance two faces — the you at school and your peers wth the you at home; eventually, it gets to be easier to let one dominate; you write off the place that didn’t win (and I’m willing to bet that for most of us, it’s not home that wins) as wasted time. So he continues to believe his life, his time revolves around getting out of Chinatown and making a name for himself that doesn’t involve Chinese as an adjective. The Chinese Fred Astaire. The Chinese Frank Sinatra.

It works in a colorblind society, one where you don’t show up at vacation rentals to strange looks and muttered (“You sounded like you weren’t foreign”) remarks; one where you aren’t stopped every so often to be complimented on how well you speak English. It’s not necessarily a matter of defying stereotypes in the end, it’s a question of what to expect from people. You learn that there’s a million roles for you to fulfill based on all the exposure that Hollywood expects of you: kung-fu master, sacrificial lamb, but never anything more complex than your face dictates you can. Donald Duk reminds me that it’s always better to define yourself rather than merely fitting in where you’re placed.

The novel has a gentle mocking humor in it; Chin never hits you over the head with the important themes — he challenges you to figure it out on your own. We should all remember that even though we hold a shared culture, the origins and history that makes us different are equally worthy of accurate examination, and may serve to further our understanding of each other. (i.e. don’t ask “Why don’t you fit in ?” unless you really want to know).

Lunch Hour at the Raphael Weill (flickr scaled)

At the same time I truly believe that our differences aren’t so vast that we can’t bridge the gaps; the Dorothea Lange (she of “Migrant Mother” fame) photo above amply illustrates that we have no inherent biases and hates that aren’t capably bred in by society.

“If I get mad at Arnold Azalea because of books he didn’t write, no good.” Donald Duk lowers his head. “He is your friend,” Dad continues. “All he knows about Chinese, as far as you know, is you. You say, he wants to know the truth. You say, you and Arnold dream the same dreams about trains at night. You should have the brains to reckon it out: in this war he is your ally. Do you think people are going to like him more for backing you up in class today? If you want to be stupid and call him a white racist and that kind of stuff, that’s your business.”