Without ROTC, I plugged away at other things. In high school, my confidence grew with extra-curricular activities. I credit that to a safe environment, quality teachers and friends. My straight As shifted into A minuses and B pluses. My mom shuddered, but I explained it away as a means to boost my college resume. I tried to pitch how colleges didn’t want just good grades; they wanted people with real experiences and insights. She begrudgingly swallowed that jagged pill.
Truly, I picked up every activity I could from a mixture of wanting to socialize, be a part of something and avoiding home. I liked having commitments before and after school. By the time I graduated, I had become the best version of a Renaissance Man I could be. I was an idealist, and yes, I wanted to do it all.
(I was basically a mix of all of them, minus the jock)
I was about the most “popular” nice kid/nerd/non-athlete you could be. I had been in advanced classes, held positions in student government and ran track and cross country (no I wasn’t any good at those… I did them to get out of P.E.). I sang in various choir groups, often snagging the solos. I was in school drama, and landed the lead in the musical my senior year. Yes, the rumors are true, I was Danny Zuko. I revived a school spirit program of dudes who were basically court jesters. I sang with a rock band in school assemblies. I had come into my own a bit. But I was still scared.
I was so unsure of myself. I had made a lot of progress, but I always questioned whether I could be “a man.” I often thought about what that even meant. I had a terrible relationship with my dad. Growing up, my parents were constantly bickering, and got into screaming matches regularly. Going upstairs and cranking the volume on the TV was a routine. In my adolescence, we essentially lived separate lives from my dad in the same house.
My mom, sister and I would trade off the first floor when he was awake until he left for work on night shift. Then we would all walk back downstairs like nothing happened. For holidays, we would make a day of it out and about: go shopping, eat out and see a couple movies. It was “fun” we made trying to avoid my dad entirely. Our home- an unsafe space in a safe neighborhood.
My dad wasn’t physically abusive. He drank but wasn’t “a drunk.” Through most of my life truly HATING him, I still didn’t feel like I had much to complain about. But he made me angry. I resented him. He disrespected my mom, who was my rock. And as a young man inching toward manhood, if someone disrespects your mom, you have no time, no patience, and no regard for them. And that person is your dad, you have nothing but contempt for him.
I wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted to be nothing like him. In Chinese culture, it’s oddly common to tell people if your kid looks like you or not. When visiting family in Taiwan, distant relatives and strangers alike would tell my mom, “He doesn’t look like you.” That was like nails on a chalkboard, because I knew the follow up was that I must look like my dad. In these years, if I messed up or had a crap attitude, my mom didn’t have to get too creative with who to compare me to in order to get my ass in gear.
In high school, I was so successful in distancing my dad that many of my best friends and their families never even met him. He was always at work or away on business. They would ask about him a lot. Most seemed pretty savvy that “something was up.” I could see it in their eyes- that look of extra pause and empathy.
I am grateful I had a lot of great friends with a lot of great parents. What I wasn’t grateful for was the lies. I hated lying. I felt like I had something to hide- something to be ashamed of. Even if I wasn’t to blame for my dad, I was to blame for carrying the burden of lies. Each one I told sat in the bottom of my gut where it collected and festered.
When you’re embarrassed of your father, that chips away at you. When your mom teaches you how to shave, that chips away at you. Tie a tie. Chips. How to drive (insert stereotypical driving joke here). More chips. These chips would remain imbedded in my shoulders for most of my life, as I would question if I was good enough. If I could be a real man. My dad certainly made it clear to me what he thought about that.
I was a sissy. A weak choir boy. Why didn’t he show me, I would wonder. I realized years later the answer was simple. He didn’t know. He was never shown, either. That’s why he was never a real man in the sense of the word. Nurturing, protective, supportive. Courageous. He was none of those things. His life was one forged in fear, self-preservation, and creating facades as armor.
I have an iconic memory that became the boiling point with my dad. I was running my mouth, teeing off on him in a way that would have made any sailor impressed. He was disrespecting my mom and I wasn’t having it. Teenage boyhood was in full effect. My dad was shaking in anger, telling me to stop and back off. I got in his face; I kept going. I was challenging him. I was asking for it.
I was enraged. But it felt good. That anger, that rage was a drug (I’ve never done drugs, but you know what I mean). It felt GOOD to run my mouth. I was enjoying it. I felt a high. It felt like that feeling of indulgence; you know it’s bad for you, but you say, “F it, Imma do it anyway.” I asked him what he was going to do about it. Mind you, I was all of about 130 pounds back then, and my dad probably had several inches at least 40 pounds on me. So there I was, being the big man of the house. Until he spat in my face and kicked me back.
If I had been a red hot iron in a fire, this made me turn blinding white. I was coming unhinged and about to take my shot at the title. Something snapped me out of it- it was my mom clinging onto me, pulling me back and begging me to stop. It took everything in my core not to lunge forward. My mom had an iron grip on my arms. I sometimes wonder what she was thinking, or if she was reacting. Did she worry I would get hurt? That I would get in trouble? That I would become a monster? We know that Nietche quote about fighting monsters and making sure not to become one… Had I scared her?
Somehow, my feet moved me away from him. I don’t know how long it took for my fists to unclench. I was fuming. I was mad at him. I was mad at my mom for getting in the way. But that was it for me. I resolved that I was done with him. I would NEVER give him ANYTHING. I would live my life to be opposite of him. But this didn’t create positive energy for me. My focus on my dad was catabolic. The anger sapped me. I went on to ponder going to his grave one day to spit on it. I considered changing my last name to my mom’s maiden name. To spite him. To take away literally everything I could. To remove any accomplishments of mine as his. To erase his lineage from the books. To erase him.
I saw my dad a couple more times when I was in college. It was a business transaction with my sister and me to see him so he would contribute nominally to our textbooks. My mom had grinded so hard to put us both through school, the least he could do was help a little. But I hated it. I felt like such a sellout. I felt like my integrity was compromised, but I tried to play ball a few times for the good of the land. I quickly stopped going and he stopped paying. I didn’t need him. I was truly out.
My mom was a work horse. She was a true example of GRIT and overcoming obstacles. She moved to the States with my dad with no money and a loose grasp of English. She immediately learned my dad had misrepresented his finances and status (as he continued to do literally his whole life). He had business cards that said he was a doctor. He was no doctor. He was catfishing people before catfishing was a thing! He was a con.
My mom’s folks gave their blessing, thinking he was a squared away, older guy who was established. Stable. Responsible and respectable. They wanted the best for their little girl, like any parents do. It isn’t until essentially now, as I write this, that I realize why my grandpa’s eyes were so sad every time they wrapped up a visit with us. Why he would cry. A Chinese man crying, that’s not a thing.
My grandpa, was my hero. He was stoic as stoic could be, unless he was around me, then he was a teddy bear and a clown and a jungle gym wrapped up in one. But each time they packed up their things to head back to Taiwan, he had the saddest eyes I can imagine to this day. I thought it was because he would miss me so much. I would cry and tell him not to cry. But now I know. As a father, I know. He cried because felt he failed. He failed to protect his little girl. I wish he was still around so I could call him now and tell him he tried and it’s not his fault. That I now understand. But it wouldn’t matter, anyway. I know he would never accept it.
My parents started their life of poverty in some Memphis ghetto next to the train tracks. My mom didn’t know they had no money until they basically landed. She didn’t know she’d need to work to make ends meet. She didn’t know she’d have to learn English on the fly. She learned some in school, but kind of like most of us learn Spanish or French (aka not proficient for life). Regardless, she got a job at a pharmacy as a tech and quickly learned English through dealing with contemptuous, demeaning coworkers and impatient, frustrated customers.
She had already been to university in Taiwan, but went to college again in Tennessee. She got a degree and went on to become a computer programmer. In a predominantly-male industry she was became the only females with her title and position in many companies she worked for. She saved enough to put my sister and me through school, get a divorce, and keep our house. Part of this was an agreement that I would live at home and commute to college, to make it worthwhile. I was agreeable to this. But, things changed.
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Next Stop- College...