I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.
– Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
Yesterday was my father’s birthday. Given that he was 55 when I was born, he would have been 106 years old today. He came to the United States in the mid-1920s, following his older cousins when he was a teenager. His relatives laughed at him because he didn’t know how to speak English, and his defiant response was, “I know ‘yes’ and ‘no.'” This should have told me a lot about my father. But I didn’t appreciate his courage and resiliency because first I had to overcome the generational and cultural gaps between us, which didn’t happen until I went away to college.
When I went to UC Davis and wrote stories in my fiction workshops, in a nod to youthful naiveté and indulgence, I modeled my writing after great writers such as Hemingway and Joyce. Not surprisingly, my stories were artificial and awkward. Prompted by an unknown reason, I wrote a short story about a father and daughter. In one scene, Emily, the protagonist, is embarrassed when her elementary school teacher mistakes her father for her grandfather and tries to hush him when he speaks in broken English and proclaims that he is so proud of his daughter – who helps him with his spelling when writing letters to his relatives – because he never made it past second grade in his home country. My classmates, and my professor, really liked the story. The father, they enthused, was endearing and human; they wanted to know more about him. They wanted more of his story. On the other hand, they disliked the girl, who was cruel and disrespectful to her father. In writing that first story, which I still have, I, too, wanted to know more about him. And I, too, disliked the girl, and I wanted her to change.
Confronting the past
Growing up, he was already an old man to me, retired by the time I was 10. As a child, I couldn’t appreciate his idiosyncrasies. He thought the new microwave we bought would blow up the house. I can still see him scurrying in his house slippers after the delivery men – from the truck, through the garage, and into the family room – telling them that the new color television console they were carrying would make us go blind. Sleeping with socks on would make our feet grow big (my sisters and I have big feet, so perhaps he was right). Sweeping the kitchen floor at night would disturb the fairies that ventured out at night. When I would come home from high school with severe menstrual cramps, he would follow me all the way to my bedroom, insisting I got sick because I went to bed with wet hair the night before. And yet, as soon as I crawled into bed, he would rush to the kitchen to boil water for my hot water bottle.
Instead of admiring the fact that he actually watched Babe Ruth play in Yankee Stadium, my sisters and I focused on how old that made him out to be! He loved major league baseball, loved the San Francisco Giants, though we grew up in Los Angeles Dodger territory. His favorite player was Willie McCovey. Once when McCovey hit a home run during a televised game, he stood up from his recliner – his version of the Wave long before the Wave became popular – and threw up his arms, yelling, “Home run!” When the network replayed the swing of McCovey’s bat and the ball sailing over the fence, he stood up again, waving his arms, and yelling, “Another home run!” This happened on more than one occasion with different players and teams. My sisters and I would laugh in a painful kind of way, and scold him, “Dad! That was a replay, not another home run!” He would look at us, confused, his eyes foggy through his forever-smudged reading glasses. We just rolled our eyes at him.
Life before fatherhood
I never learned about his life before he became a father until I took a number of Asian American Studies classes at Davis. That’s when I saw some parallels of his life to Carlos Bulosan’s America Is In the Heart. When I was home from college, I would ask him about his life. He didn’t like talking about the bad things – just as many of my relatives didn’t like to do – though when I pressed him, he admitted that he had experienced bigotry in America. “They called us monkeys,” he said, his lower jaw jutting out. While you could hear his wounded voice, he was an apologist, adding that there were some bad-seed Filipinos who ruined it for the rest of them who were no trouble at all to the whites.
It wasn’t until after his funeral, after his passing on Christmas Day 1995 that my sister Heidi and I learned why he was so eccentric. (Another example: When I was in college, coming home from spring break, I came home to find out that he had imagined the bus driver who was taking him and his relatives to Las Vegas to gamble was instead going to take them to the desert and kill them. So he hopped into a cab once they got to Las Vegas and the car drove off; he was found three days later, wandering the oilfields outside of Bakersfield, 280 miles away, without his trousers and wallet.) Whenever his imagination ran wild, such as the time he insisted that fish were swimming in his bed, even as he threw back the covers and shined his flashlight on his empty wrinkled sheets, my relatives would click their tongue against the roof of their mouth and say, “That’s your dad!” I had this secret fear that his zany behavior was hereditary, and that at a certain point I, too, would be saying and doing loony things. Our uncle, his cousin, in fact told us that he was perfectly normal before the war, but that he had fought in the Battle of Leyte, which was one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He was never the same.
Upon hearing this revelation, I was relieved and then profoundly moved and saddened. What was he like before the WWII? How much of my father’s life would I have to piece together from relatives whose ability to recall was faltering, recognizing that he himself was an unreliable narrator when he was alive and I prodded him for stories? How much had I missed for good?
One of my greatest regrets is not having published a book and delivered it into his open hands. While my mother wanted me to go into nursing or business school in college, my father appreciated my writing. He proudly wrote letters to his relatives about my modest accomplishments. After his funeral, when we were cleaning out his possessions from my parents’ bedroom, we pulled out an old green Samsonite luggage from beneath his bed. Among the papers inside was a yellowed clipping – dated 10 years earlier – of a UC Davis Aggie newspaper article and picture of the chair of the undergraduate English department standing beside me after having given me an award for one of my short stories. It was a painful reminder that I didn’t give him the gift of a published book after all. But more importantly, it affirmed his belief in me.
And in celebrating his birthday yesterday, I keep the faith alive in my borrowed mantra: Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. And my echo: Yes, yes, yes.