Advice From Dad

The last time I visited my parents, Dad may have spoken fewer than five complete sentences to me. My brother and I theorized that he was a thoughtful and introspective person who spoke only when he had something to say.

“Nah,” Mom said. “He just doesn’t like people.”

I asked her why, at 23, she agreed to marry him when she had turned down so many suitors before him.

“He was hot,” she said.

I’ve seen photos of Dad when he was young. The images, mostly black and white, somehow survived the Vietnam War when most of my parents’ other possessions hadn’t. In a certain light, he looks South American. He’s gotten more Asian-looking with age. He’s full Chinese.

Both my parents were refugees of the Vietnam War. Sometimes, when I try to understand them better, I think of ways a traumatic experience like the War can shape a person.

When people lose a lot in a short period of time, they seem to go down one of two paths. One: they come to understand that they don’t need things. Anything they buy can be taken away. It’s best to be thrifty, to keep things simple, to have just enough and not any more. Two: they want to treat themselves. Yes they lost everything, and yes it was traumatic — it’s now time to make up for it.

Mom went down the first path. When I was in second grade, my school held Mothers’ Day gift sales where we could buy presents for our parents. When I brought home a gift for her that year, she told me off for being wasteful. She didn’t need knitted clothes hangers or bars of lavender soap. At eight-years old, I asked her what she wanted.

“Just learn to take care of yourself,” she said. “And be rich. Yes, get rich.”

Dad went down the other path. Shortly after my parents paid off their modest brick house in the suburbs of south-west Sydney, he bought a laser disc player. Then he bought a big television (one of those Panasonics). I remember him coming home with the bulky box. I remember Mom yelling at him for being wasteful. We already had a television (it was one of those NECs). We didn’t need another one. Dad grunted. He rarely argued with Mom. Mom mostly argued at him.

Laser discs didn’t take off in Australia, although Dad really tried to make it happen. Every other Sunday he’d take me to the laser disc rental shop in Cabramatta where I was allowed to pick out one disc for myself. I chose Batman and Robin every time. He chose Taiwanese karaoke. We never sang karaoke at home. He’d put in the disc, sit in an armchair and watch it play on the Panasonic. He wouldn’t sing along. He’d watch the highlighted text appear and disappear from the screen while budget B-Roll of Taiwanese couples flirting with each other played in the background. When he was done, I would watch Batman and Robin.

We also had a VCD player  —  another one of Dad’s purchases. We had more VCRs than we had televisions. A few years later, we’d have more televisions than we had VCRs. By the time I turned 20, we had more televisions than we had people living in the house. To solve our storage woes, Dad started using televisions as television stands. Before I moved out, he bought a television that came with 3D goggles.

***

My brother is four years older than me. We don’t talk much. I think it’s because of Dad. Dad’s frequent silence taught us it’s possible to love someone without saying anything to them. One day, when I was 19, Dad gave my brother and I a lift to the train station. He did this every morning (we lived with our parents for a long time). Most mornings were quiet. Our “Bye Dad!” was often met with a “Hm.” This morning, as we pulled out of the driveway, he turned to my brother.

“You know,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road. “You don’t want to be too picky when choosing a girlfriend. You’re not that great yourself.”

My brother was sitting shotgun. I was in the backseat. We turned to each other, eyes wide. Neither of us said a thing.

***

Dad rarely smiles. His resting face spells disappointment. When you ask him to smile for a photo, he’ll frown harder. An art teacher of mine once told me to never marry a person whose lips naturally curl downward.

“You’ll be miserable for the rest of your life,” he said.

I became self-conscious of my own face after that. I would try to catch glimpses of it in its “neutral” position. Sometimes, when I knew my face was in a relaxed state, I’d try to hold it until I could get to a mirror. I look a lot like my Dad. I don’t think I inherited his frown, though.

Dad has a distinctive laugh. It’s what Big Bird would sound like if he was being tortured. He only laughs when he is around old friends (rare) or when he is making fun of children (not rare). No one in my family can get a laugh out of him.

***

When I was studying abroad in France, my parents came to visit me. They booked a bus tour of Europe. We went to five countries in seven days. Each morning, Mom would make sandwiches at the hotel’s breakfast buffet, wrap them in tissue paper and tell me to put them in my backpack “for later.” Dad would roll his eyes and grunt. “You’ll thank me later when you’re hungry!” she’d say.

One morning, in Italy, as Mom stacked her plate at the buffet, Dad put down his fork and pushed his omelette to the side.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” he said.

“No,” I said.

“Be smart.”

“OK.”

“Think of yourself as a pizza,” he said.

“What?”

“Think of yourself as a pizza, or a pie, or any other round food,” he said.

“An apple?”

“No.”

“Right.”

“Now, if you give away all your slices, you’ll have nothing left for yourself,” he said.

“OK.”

“So don’t give away all your slices. Keep some for yourself. You understand?”

“Umm…”

“OK, so think of yourself as a circle. No, think of yourself standing at a point, and you are drawing a circle around yourself,” he said.

“OK.”

“Now, if you complete the circle, you’re trapped! You’re stuck! Never complete the circle. Always give yourself an out. You understand?”

“Maybe…”

“Be smart, OK?”

“OK.”

Mom returned with a plate of ham and bread rolls and started making sandwiches. Dad went back to his omelette.

***

I now live overseas. I Skype Mom every weekend. Sometimes, Dad will wander into the camera’s view.

“Hi Dad!” I’ll say.

He’ll look at me. “Hm.”

***

The last time I was home, Dad’s five sentences to me were: “What are you doing?” “Will you be home for dinner?” “Bring me back more $US2 bills next time,” “Your suitcase looks suspicious,” and something about Arabs.

My brother was home, too. I recounted the pizza-pie-circle conversation to him. He recounted the car conversation to me. We were quiet for a while. Then: “Man,” he said. “Dad is the best.”

First published July 14, 2014