‘Memory believes before knowing remembers.’
William Faulkner, Light in August
When I was growing up, my father often told me to find a man who would love me more. Find a man who will love you more than you could ever love him. As though it were a competition, as though you could measure love, put it on a scale, graph it, draw charts and predict growth or recession. Calculable. Everything was measurable. He felt the need to quantify things. Everything had currency, as long as you knew where to look, how to decipher it in numerical components. That was how he saw the world and the world saw it fit to bend to his will. After experiencing the grief of losing a relationship with a man I loved, I came to understand, albeit over several years, what my father meant by this. I understood that he wanted to save me from the hurt of loving, of being the doer, not the receiver. The operator, the labourer. The less worthy. The love-er. My mother, being the more beautiful of them, possessed more power. Beauty had the highest currency. For men like my father, marriage and love was a sport of acquiring the highest beauty and he was prepared to pull the highest strings of heaven and hell to obtain her, to garner her approval, to profess a conquering. His value came from the ability to make the right choice in marriage. But later in life, I saw how he became tired, exhausted, could no longer put her needs first and I saw how she’d scowl him for it. Infatuation turned into love, into need, and finally into some dark, unspoken defeat. In the end, their history was not enough to disregard the resentment they developed for each other. “Once you spoil a child, there is no turning back time,” my father once lamented. “I did too much for her.” In the pursuit of his duty to fulfil the life-narrative he was given, he lost himself. He turned into a man mourning for a boyhood that never existed, and my mother realised she could do nothing to absolve his trembling grief. Her beautiful face – that exquisite bone structure, perfect lips, soft eyes, careful expression and tender neck, could not save him. My father became cruel and quick to judge, spiteful when my mother was not in the room, complaining about what she lacked and all that she had not become. “She’s sixty-one-years old and still cannot read a map!” On one of our frequent weekend road-trips outside the city, my father would use the bent street directories, crinkled at the edges, folded and refolded to the common pages of the city, and our tiny corner of western Sydney. When we got lost, my father would stop by the side of the road and bark at us. We were inadequate. We understood this at a very young age. My mother knew this too. She had never learnt English. She did not know how to recognise the letters, the names. Each time he stopped, he’d pound the limp directory onto the steering wheel, strip his glasses off, his shoulders a dark shadow, and curse with force from his lungs. In the backseat of our eight-seater Toyota Tarago, we learned to stay silent and still. My sister would take my hand and squeeze it, as though to say, “It will pass. Hold on.”
When I was younger, his periods of silence buried the house in some invisible smoke, heavy, something I could not name. There is no name for the thing we care about the most. He’d go outside and stand in the middle of the backyard and I would forget he had a face. From behind, he looked like the arch of a tunnel leading into a black mountain. He would stand for hours at a time, and all around him the world would wane. I wondered what he was thinking. I sensed in the state of his silence that he was far away, that we could not reach him, that we did not have the strength to will him back to us. He knew the pain of not being enough. I realise now, as I approach my thirtieth birthday, that my father had struggled with inadequacy too. I sensed too within him, valley deep variegations of an internal life I had no access to.
“Epigenetics,” my diary told me. “Perhaps it was the grief of all that insubstantiality he felt that was passed on to his children.” I was back for the third time in under two years, back at my parent’s home, clearing and re-clearing space for the things I did not need but could not bring myself to throw away. The plastic box of diaries – from when I was twelve. I took them out, one by one, and dated them. – Book 1. Book 2. Book 3 and so on, until I reached Book 32. 1999, it began. Then, 2016. I read them and believed I was discovering someone else’s life. The person in the pages was talking to me, and it felt right to listen to what she had to say. “Maybe all the anger, all the grief of my father is pouring through the cells in my body. Invariably, there is no use trying to fight it. I am always sad. And I am always sad because of him.”
On the final page of a long and over-sentimental recount of a failed romantic encounter, I copied an extract from Melina Marchetta’s book ‘Saving Francesca’ – “Boys don’t like sad girls. So stop being so sad.”
Perhaps my father and I both knew the power of beauty – that we didn’t possess it, that it would always be beyond our reach, so we spent much of our lives trying to make up for it. If we didn’t possess it naturally, we would acquire it another way. He once told me, “Don’t be the one chasing the boy. You’ll never be enough. You’ll always suffer more.” By then, I’d known already that I would glean the same fate as him, that my disposition – something I knew from a very young age, was to be the greedier one, the one who would fill more barrels of tears. I was always wanting something better. Lover sounded more interesting. Loving seemed to involve more creativity, required more skills, more resourcefulness, asked for something more challenging than being loved. To love was to ask something of myself. To improve myself. To change. To throw myself out of myself. The pursuit seemed more noble. Giving felt bolder than receiving. I fell in love at eighteen, with an Australian boy I had been friends with since the beginning of high school. He was the first boy I brought home. We had dumped our bags in my room and emerged seconds later to take our bikes out for a ride. My father was home early. He did not know about the boy, or that I would be bringing someone home that afternoon. When he saw us, his expression was mauled with a strange sort of disgust. In that moment, I felt his anger sear through me, something my small body was not able to handle. But I received it, and still feel the residue of it simmering underneath my breath today, at times as evident as blood in the mouth. My father was ashamed of me. The boy extended a hand to my father. My father did not look at him, simply stared at me with that unforgiving piercing disgust, and then turned his back to us. I hate the memory of that day. Because that day, I learnt that I needed to live two lives in order to keep the love I’d accrued over seventeen years. I needed to split myself in two. Weeks later, when he’d calmed down, I asked my father why he was so angry at me. He told me that men only wanted one thing from me, and that he didn’t want to see his daughter be stripped of her body. “When you give yourself to a man, you are ruined.” Was this the way he was taught to understand sex and love? That it was the boy who took something away from the girl? My mother remained silent on the subject of love. I once asked her how she knew she loved my father. “I thought about him all the time,” she said. I sat on the couch beside her, transfixed by her beauty at fifty-nine, waiting for something more profound, more insightful. But nothing came out of her mouth and she got up slowly to bend down and wipe the floor. When I was older, she’d tell me that when I was in primary school, after dinner, I would sometimes sit beside her on the TV couchand teach her new words.
“You laughed at me each time I didn’t pronounced a word correctly.”
I don’t remember my own cruelty.
Once, when I was making a car insurance claim after a minor accident, I pretended to be my mother on the phone. The operators demanded oral approval from her because I was under twenty-five. “She doesn’t speak English,” I told the operator.
“I still need to hear her approval, madam.”
“But how? She doesn’t speak a word of English.”
“Can you please translate to her that she approves of you being the benefactor and just have her say, ‘Okay’?”
I was in the car, alone. My mother was overseas and it was the final day I could make the claim. “Fine. Let me get her.” I pushed the phone at arms-reach away from me and mumbled a random string of words in Chinese, then put on a deeper voice and pretended to be my mother. I spoke a line, then answered myself in a deeper voice. I had to cup my left palm firmly over my mouth to suppress my laughter. My mother did not sound like how I was portraying her at all, but the operator did not know this. It did not matter. If only someone had a camera to film it. When I hung up, my heart subsided to its usual pace and I drove home in a state of elation mixed with guilt. I did not like the dishonesty of what I’d done, but it had to be done. I recall all the times I had to translate for my parents when I was a child – the electricity bills and insurance forms and tax returns and school fees. We didn’t know what voluntary contribution meant, so we paid up, always – scared to ask questions. When my father was diagnosed with high blood pressure, the doctor sent a three page print out in the mail on what foods to avoid, what exercises to do, what medications to take and how often and how much travel he was allowed to take per year. I was petrified of making a mistake. At eight years old, I skimmed through the medical terms and nodded as my father looked at me, waiting for me to explain it to him. He was waiting on me, and I was waiting for my intelligence to catch up so that I could be useful. I hopped over words I didn’t recognise. I was good at hiding my incompetency. In the end, the only part I could confidently translate was the section on recommended exercise.
“It says you should walk thirty minutes a day,” I said.
“Every day?” he looked at me with bulged eyes.
“No, of course not.”
“But you just said that’s what they said I must do.”
“It’s saying you should. You don’t have to.”
“And you can swim or run too.”
“No thanks. What else? What about the other two pages?”
“Have you got the medication?”
“Yes, here.” He handed me a white palm-sized box and it felt like he was handing over his life. I had no idea what it is and no idea how to pronounce the name printed across the box in large capped blue font, but I nodded and pretended I knew. Despite the pressure of making sure my father did not fuck up his health – I enjoyed the momentary authority he gave me over his place in the family. As I grow older, he relied on me less, perhaps he could tell I’d been a fraud all those years.
One day in May 1987, a few months before I was born, my father received a phone call from his father. He told him to return home immediately.
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Just come back this instant.” My father had been at a conference in Tai-Chung, an hour’s drive from their home in Chung-Hua. It was late in the afternoon. He was stuck in a winding traffic jam. When he finally reached my grandparent’s house, it had been two hours since the phone call. When he opened the front door, my grandfather began shouting at my father. He cursed and spat and pointed his finger at him, yelling repeatedly ‘I hate you! I hate you!’ My father stood at the door, shoe laces still tied, keys still wedged in the sweat of his palms. When he asked, “What did I do?” my grandfather did not explain. He continued. “I just hate you! I hate you for what you’ve done!” My father stood at the door and let the violence of his father’s voice punch him in the chest. He couldn’t understand why his father was so angry. But he would not make it worse by fighting back. My grandmother sat on the kitchen table, silent. She kept her eyes on her hands, did not look up, as though she was ashamed of what her husband was doing. But she too, was angry. She could not look at either man standing beside her. When the screaming escalated, my grandfather said, “I’m so angry, I could to hit you with this cup!” My father, unable to contain the frustration and battering, stepped in front of my grandfather, grabbed the cup off the table and slammed it against his forehead. Blood came streaming down his face. My grandmother scrambled for a towel and started shouting at my grandfather. “Stop! Stop! This is all your fault!” At the hospital, when the doctors asked my father what had happened, he told them he’d run into a wall. My father still bears the scar on his forehead. The six stitches he had that day have disappeared, but the single white line still runs vertically down between his brows, a mark from that day, as clear as a fine paint-stoke. He once joked that he was the ‘older, Asian Harry Potter’.
Later, he found out from my grandmother the reason they were so angry with him that afternoon. My grandfather had ordered my mother to set aside three boxes of walnut biscuits for my uncle. My parents ran a small grocery and dried-goods store near the local train station. My uncle would come by their shop in the afternoon to pick it up. He was on his way to an important business acquisitions meeting; he must have it. In the chaos of the twilight rush hour, when my uncle finally did visit, my mother forgot to give him the biscuits. She’d been busy with running the shop herself and trying to manage three young children upstairs where we’d lived. She was also two months away from giving birth to me. She was tired, large and exhausted. But in Taiwanese culture, when you did not comply with your parents-in-law, you were seen as malicious, selfish. They thought my mother had deliberately chosen not to hand over the biscuits. They became resentful and blamed it on my father. It was, after all, the husband’s responsibility, the wife he took. My grandparents disliked all their daughter-in-laws, except for my mother. But after that day, they put my mother in the same box as my aunts, and they began to despise my father. “Shame on you for marrying such a woman!” they told him later. My father, at thirty-three, could not escape the deluge of conflict. He could not make both his mother and his wife happy.
“Do you know which question I cannot bare?” he asked me once. We were both a little older, and I’d come back to interview him for a book I was writing. “What’s that?”
“If your mother and wife are drowning in a lake, who would you save first?”
My father had lived a life set out for him by his parents, never straying from the expectations placed upon him, never stepping outside the rules constructed by his society, found himself still bound, still not his own man, constrained by a duty to please and serve his parents, to forever perform the roles given to him with whatever dignity he could muster, to guard his integrity by oppressing it, to honour his parents and their struggles by dismissing his own self-hood. Between the world and my father, this was how he found his footing. He fought against himself to please and found love through obedience and submission. He finally understood that day, the cruel punishment for divergence, but it was a divergence he had no control over. My father, who once carried me to bed when I fell asleep on the couch – knew love this way, by the fulfilment of other people’s desires. My father understood too, the loneliness of a yearning to be freed. His hands were bound. The obligations became too much in the end, and he ran away with his wife and children. He ran away to the safety of anonymity and homelessness, to a country that would not punish him for marrying the wrong woman. A country neither he nor my mother had ever heard of. A country called Australia.