21 years ago, my dad became entitled to a special day each year dedicated to recognizing his new role. Luckily for him, it usually fell 2-3 days before his birthday. Double whammy. He was a star come mid-June, and I would rush to make collages, write sweet little letters, and deliver glitter-glue-and-doodle covered hand-made cards. I was Daddy’s little girl. Until he left.
Last night, I had a late night heart-to-heart with my aunt until the early AMs. About life. How it can kind of suck as you get older. Responsibilities, helplessness, the sometimes brutal truth. About family. How your parents can shape your entire outlook on life, your personality, and that fear that you are inadequate because you are not your mother’s favorite. How as you grow older, you realize how human and flawed your parents are. About love. That despite everything, you have to still love them or at least do your very best to because they are the goddamn closest people you have in this world. And because they love you so, so much. Sometimes in a way you can’t accept or really understand.
I lay awake for most of the night after, petting Happy and reminiscing. My dad has been a wonderful, loving, albeit strict father. He was the one who threw me in the shallow end of swimming pools to help me overcome my fear of water. I flailed and screamed and kicked, until I realized I could stand in the water. Now, I love swimming and the water more than anything. He was the one who forced me to memorize five pages of Webster’s Pocket Thesaurus every day before he’d let me get anywhere close to the television. I breezed through SAT vocab memorization and excelled in English. After I started to learn Chinese in 6th grade and became passionately obsessed with the language and culture, he pushed me to struggle painfully through ‘reading’ the novels and write book reports on them before he’d let me watch the soap operas. If it weren’t for him, I would be nowhere close to native-level fluency.
He was the one who held my hand when a boy broke my heart for the first time. He drove up to Berkeley, took me to Lotus House, and watched me cry into my beef chowfun. Then he gathered me in his arms and gave me a big bear hug. He promised me, I will always be right here for you.
Less than 2 months later, he decided to drop everything and pursue his dreams abroad. There were complications and he ended up telling me three days before leaving. I reserved Valentines Day that year as my last date with Daddy. Over chicken pot pie at Marie Calendars, I wished him luck, unable to contain the bitterness in my voice. I was a selfish brat. Two days later, he left.
Over the years, he gradually faded from my go-to list of close confidantes. I drifted away from the safe family harbor that seemed to cease to exist, and focused on building my own life. Since I was financially independent and lived at school, I didn’t feel much physical change. Life went on, and as time went by my father’s presence was diminished to a few short phone calls and emails.
This trip to China has been so different. I’ve been exposed to a whole new way of seeing things. The other side of the story. How my father is the backbone of this household, taking care of my grandparents, tending to so many different affairs every day. How things are not always how they seem. How grownups take it upon themselves to protect their children in a way that they might not be able to accept. The fact that he was always quietly there for me for all the small and large milestones in my life, with calls and emails that were sometimes not returned. Too quiet that I was always too busy to really notice.
I took my Daddy and grandparents out on a date to my favorite restaurant in Hangzhou today. It was aptly called Grandma’s Kitchen. We set out to devour the most epic feast in recent family history. As I looked at my dad chowing down on some Chinese-style foie gras, I realized that he’s the same wonderful, loving, albeit strict father. He always has been, and always will.