Most of what I know about Dad has come to me secondhand. It almost feels like someone is reading me a really good book, the kind where you’re always hungry for more. But for whatever reason, the novel isn’t there for me to read, and so its endless chapters are out of reach. A friend who has recently been spending a few months in China told me about the word ‘Teng’, a special word for love in Chinese. The primary character is the same as hurt, combining ideas of love with ache and pain. It is most often used to describe the relationship between a parent and child. There is no English equivalent. When people ask about me and Dad’s relationship I describe it as gentle and uncomplicated. But the truth is, my Dad and I don’t speak the same language. I speak English, he Chinese. In our linguistic Venn diagram, there’s a small Chinglish overlap where we cobble together our relationship.
Between university and travelling, home visits have been placed on hold. Hometowns hold some sort of unspoken obligation. They are far enough from your current residence that you can’t be expected to visit too frequently, but close enough that you can’t get away with not showing your face at twenty-firsts, weddings, or any insignificant but large family function. My family has been living on the Hibiscus Coast ever since I was born. Mum likes it here because there is water everywhere and I think Dad likes it because Mum does. I’ve always hated it, but when I’m away for long enough I’m able to convince myself I miss it. I still like to imagine myself as someone who would like to settle down there though. To fall deeply in love with the same summers I have always known.
Dad has always worn the same clothes, variations of them anyway. A button-down brown shirt with the sleeves rolled up and some plain washed-out camel shorts. When July comes knocking, he’ll add a tweed jacket. The shorts stay the same year round. In the afternoons you’ll find him sitting on the porch reading the latest issue of The Economist. He’ll be flicking through the pages while tentatively holding a cigarette, smoking it halfway and then stubbing it out. He looks most calm like this, almost readable. I can’t imagine too much more running through his head other than exchange rates and stocks. Every now and then he’ll stop to write something down. A few numbers followed by something I don’t quite understand yet in Chinese. This is the first place I find him after not seeing him in six months. Winter came early this year, so he’s wearing the tweed jacket in April. After hearing the car pull in, he continues reading The Economist, slowly edging it closer to the table in preparation to putting it down. He never diverts his attention from anything until he finishes reading the last line. As I jump out of the car, he walks over to grab my bags swinging his arms in that exaggerated way that he always has. It used to embarrass me being around him when he did this; now I can’t help smiling at how he manages to look like a man and child, but all at once. As he looks up at me he tells me that I’ve just missed the last of the coast summer. We don’t go through the standard “How are you?” or “Missed you” but he does ask, Ni chi fan le ma: have you eaten yet? Dad may not wear his heart on his sleeve but that’s only because his sleeves are always rolled up and his heart is lying at the bottom of a pot of kimchi stew.
I told Dad over the phone months ago about being vegetarian and at the time he didn’t quite understand. He then went on to list all my favourite childhood dishes, pausing for dramatic effect, only to tell they all had meat in them. I can’t remember too much more of this conversation, but I do recall the clear conviction in his voice over chicken not being a meat. After letting him ponder over this idea for a little while I asked him if he thought a chicken was more closely related to broccoli or a cow. A defeated silence took over the phone call for a short few seconds, but he then promptly added that he doesn’t know a single Chinese vegetarian. I remind him that my aunty and his sister was just that. I’m not too sure what the thought process was that followed, but he quickly jumped on the defense of her also living by herself and being Buddhist. We haven’t talked about it since. In the kitchen, I notice he has placed a bowl on the side with sautéed chicken. As he plates everything up, he makes sure to leave the chicken out of mine. He asks how school is and how I’m coping at work. Our conversations are restricted, limited to the formalities of day-to-day life. To stray anywhere further feels like returning to infancy. No matter how much you twirl your words around your mouth, you can’t help tripping over your tongue. We learn the words we need most, but vocabulary limits not just how well you speak but how well you listen. My Chinese is simple and modest at best, so it has taken me a while to see Dad as anything more than simple and modest.
I have always been a salt-water girl, sinking my toes in sand, warm and fine, while watching the shadows of clouds drag themselves along the sea. It’s hard to imagine calling anywhere else home. Our family seems to fit in so well here too. Over the years, our neighbours have slowly fallen for Dad. He’s always the first to hear about all their good news. From engagements, grandkids or new jobs, Dad will always meet them with smiles. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how he came to be like this. He has always seemed so at ease and gentle, that anything else is unimaginable. Dad grew up in rural Guangzhou during the onset of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. After foregoing studies at his dream university so his sister could attend instead, he was offered a fully funded scholarship to study philosophy and music. This decision was frowned upon by his family, who believed Dad was better suited for a career in politics and law. I’ve never asked Dad what growing up there was like, but I can’t imagine it fitting him like how home does now.
Early on, like most other Chinese Kiwis, Dad enrolled me in Mandarin lessons. At the time, I saw no worth to being bilingual. We were living in New Zealand where most people speak English anyway. Growing up, I would regularly see customers and other kids get frustrated at his lack of English. He experienced much difficulty formulating the sentences he needed into English, his knowledge and language only extending to the daily necessities. Every now and then I’ll catch him opening his mouth as if to say something, only to then see it shut and his lips fall back into a tight line. On Sunday he would wake me up early and drive 40 minutes, just so I could listen to some Chinese woman read rhymes for three hours. During these car rides, he would ask about what we had been learning in class and suggest that we go over it together. I always refused the invitation and instead changed the radio station until I found something I liked. He continued doing this every Sunday for seven years. But my interest in reading and writing Chinese quickly waned, and soon, every weekend, I was throwing tantrums because I was hell-bent against going. By the time I was thirteen, Dad had finally given up. The final straw was me slamming the car door shut and telling him I never want to learn this dumb language. He agreed that it was wrong for him to force me to do anything I didn’t want and apologised.
All through high school, I stopped listening to stories about Dad, stopped caring for all the compassionate stories about the kind of man he once was. Only now am I grappling with how little I know about him. Lately, I’ve been told that we’re incredibly similar but it’s hard for me to know or see in exactly what ways. As I talk to him now, I feel as if for the first time I’m learning about patience. Two Christmases ago I bought him a Kindle and downloaded a few of my favourite books in Chinese. He tells me that he has just finished East of Eden and at times, Mum reminds him of Cathy. I can’t help laughing at this.