"Where did your dad go?" Asked the neighbor, a red-faced, middle-aged woman who sold fish in our local market. She was not trying to be mean. She simply did not have the eloquence to disguise her curiosity for gossip materials.
"He's on a business trip," I recited, as I had many times before, "he'll be back soon."
This was China, in mid 90s. Divorces were very uncommon and neighborhoods were much more close-knit, an otherwise great combination that unfortunately invited attention to the regular absence of my father.
Admitting the truth was out of the question. There was a girl in my 5th grade class who had very few friends other than me and my little group. I'd heard whispers behind her backs from other classmates. Having divorced parents was a disease, something to be ashamed of. She avoided social activities and the popular kids, but she was neither blind nor stupid.
"Truth now, are your parents divorced?" She asked me once.
In panic, I laughed and replied, "Of course not! Don't jinx me!"
I did not understand why mom asked me to not hate my father, not at first. Then I began to feel the anger - as a daughter, and as a woman. It was not his fault that the society I lived in discriminated against divorced women and their children. However, I could not dismiss the notion, no matter how hard I tried, that he abandoned us to the wolves knowing the kind of culture we lived in, running away from all responsibilities in his pursuit of personal freedom.
Maybe, on a simpler level, I just could not get over how great of a dad he could have been if he was just around. It's perhaps the little girl in me that looked on with envy whenever I saw a dad having a good time with their daughter, all so casually.
Growing up, my father was hands-down my favorite parent. I have seen pictures of crayon doodles I made on the white plaster wall of the humble, empty office we called home for a couple of years. Being an interior design student, my dad filled in some of the shapes I created with black ink, creating a weird abstract pattern that did not look all too bad. He called it "modern-themed".
We were very poor. Mom worked as an art teacher for a high-school level trade school, and earned very little. Dad was going to graduate school in Beijing, a city that took more than a day to get to by train, and had virtually no income. Dad never failed to bring home new and flashy toys from the capitol city for me when he came back for vacation, however. As a young child, I did not understand the pains my mom went through to try to make ends meet - toys were that much cooler than my daily milk.
I still remember the toys. A gun that shot rubber darts with sucker plates on the end, and if you wet the ends of the darts they'll stick right to the window glass when you shot them. A card box house that contained delicious jello. A set of paper-dolls with interchangeable paper socks, shirts, dresses, and watches. There were always the novel birthday cards, too. Some played music when you opened them, others became a 3d-sculpture of sort.
After graduation, dad found a job in Beijing. He would not come back often, but each visit was accompanied with toys, books, and laughter. He was never stern on me, and encouraged me to draw. He put together a large book made of nice, hard paper stock, with my drawings pasted onto each page. He even wrote titles to each drawing on the pages in his very handsome brush calligraphy. It looked almost like a real art book, and I swelled with pride.
One day, during my 2nd grade, mom showed up unexpectedly to pick me up for lunch at school. Even more unexpectedly, she told me dad had come home and wanted to have lunch together. I was elated by this happy surprise, and did not think too much about the strange look on mom's face.
Dad was waiting for us at a small restaurant. He smiled when he saw me, and asked me what I wanted to eat. We barely ever ate out, and I was not going to let the opportunity pass lightly. Having recently read about some Chinese delicacies, I bellowed out: "soft-shell turtle soup!"
Dad laughed. The restaurant did not have the dish, but my spirit remained high. I looked over to mom, and was shocked to see that she was in tears.
A year or two later, I found out that dad came home that day to sign the divorce papers.
Mom did not talk about it for a long time, fearing that I was too young to understand. I noticed that something was different even before that day, however. I just did not think too much about it.
A few months ago, on dad's visit home, he seemed cross and short-tempered. He complained that I made a big mess with my little toys, and proceeded to throw away my favorite play-set of tiny plastic animals and their furniture. It was a rainy day. I ran out of the door and stood in the apartment hallway, staring out of the dusty window to the gray sky, crying. With no other outlet, I wrote "I hate dad because he makes mom unhappy" on a toy box. Mom later told me that dad saw it as he was cleaning the apartment. I could almost picture his face when he murmured "she hates me?"
Dad got the divorce done hastily, without informing his parents or giving mom the time to inform hers. When my grandparents on both sides found out, they were completely shocked. His parents, who liked my mom very much as a daughter-in-law, were angry. My mom said her parents looked as if they aged instantly upon receiving the news.
My grandma on my mom's side pulled me over, whispered to me, asked me to try and get them back together. I shook my head. I knew it was impossible - by then, the divorce was old news in truth, and there were plenty of other signs that re-marrying was out of the picture.
Grandma probably felt hurt that I would not even try. The next couple of times I saw her, she asked me a few more times before she finally accepted the finality of what had happened.
Dad continued to visit home for a while, and we went to visit him in Beijing sometimes too. The train ride was long. We had to buy tickets that included a bunk bed. I could never fall asleep on the train, but the train rides were nice. Mom and I drew, played poker, and chatted with fellow passengers.
One year, dad visited home without calling first, and found a locked door he no longer had the keys to. Mom and I were out of town visiting my grandparents. He left the toys he brought with our next-door neighbor.
Dad always brought nice toys, especially after he started his own interior design business and ascended to the new Chinese middle-class. Among the toys there was a beautiful, shiny, red accordion. Instead of a cheap plastic toy, it was a real instrument made for a child. Only problem is, it was much too small for me.
He had no idea how much I had grown.
One year, he brought home a microwave, the new modern technology that magically heated water and cooked eggs from inside out. I was fascinated. We cooked things in it all evening, and suddenly all power went out - we blew the fuse. The old apartment's electric system was not built for such new, power-hungry inventions.
In my sixth grade, he tried to rush home to celebrate my birthday. For the first time, I decided to invite some friends home to share the cake - it was not customary in China to throw birthday parties back then, at least not where I lived. Dad's plane got delayed, and the day grew late. We had to cut the cake without him. He said it was all right after he got home, but I could tell he was disappointed.
I remember visiting him during the winter vacation of my 7th grade. He showed me his $20,000 camera set, we had fun playing with a polaroid camera, and I watched the Lion King on the largest TV I had seen back then in one of his friends' apartment. He took me shopping and bought me a Disney sweater, a thick black feather jacket, and a pair of Nike shoes. He opted to walk everywhere instead of taking a bus. Wanting to gain his approval, I followed his very wide stride through many city blocks without a complaint.
The moment that stood out the most from that trip, however, was when we went to a KFC's. Unlike the U.S. cheap fast restaurants, KFC's in China were seen as nice, hip western restaurants, and they served a modified menu. I loved their ice High-C, so did dad. We sat across from each other at a small table, both sipping High-C and chewing ice. We both smiled, but had nothing to say to each other. Dad began laughing dryly, and nodding. Realizing how awkward the situation really was, I did the same thing.
Our relationship had become just as awkward. I no longer liked the letters he wrote me, always teaching me some sort of life's lessons. I was having a tough time adapting to my middle school life, having felt like an outsider partially due to my unusual family situation. I was beginning to grasp the unfair discrimination Chinese society placed on divorced women, and with my growing understanding of relationship and love between men and women I could not justify what dad did to my mother.
I began to notice other things too - how I instinctively looked away when I saw fathers and daughters laughing together during my daily bus-rides; how I looked with envy at children walking between two parents, each holding one of the child's hand; how much old photos of the three of us together smiling happily filled my heart with longing. The worst was probably how my dad's voice grew thin and shallow when he talked to me, as if he was running out of air. His dry, unnatural chuckles and rapid nodding made me pity him, but did not make me less angry at him.
It bothered me to feel angry at him. I prized my own ability to be objective and logical. Logically speaking, I knew dad was trying to keep up with my life. There was just so much emotions and baggage attached that I no longer knew what to think. At one point, I decided that I could let it all go and forgive him. Over-confident in my own wisdom and positivity, I cheerfully accepted his invitation to spend 3 weeks with him and his new family in China, visiting some of the fascinating historical cities in the Southwest.
I like my half brother very much, and like his mom well-enough - in fact, she makes me think of a younger version of my mom, only with more business flair than philosophical scholarship. The trip should have been great, and in may ways it was - painting watercolors of ancient buildings in the backstreets was a lot of fun. We ended up spending two weeks in the city of Dali, which remained a remarkably authentic city considering its touristic nature. There was one thing I did not count on, however.
By the second week, I began feeling depressed. As I walked behind my dad's new family of three, the reminder of what I did not have became too strong to dismiss. I tried to hide my emotions, and enjoyed the other aspects of the trip as much as I could. I remember deeply exhaling a sigh of relief when the time came to go home, though, and never again entertained the illusion that I was wise enough to let bygones be bygones.
A year or so later, when I called dad on Chinese New Year, the conversation somehow drifted to responsibilities in life. He told me I was taking things way too seriously, and him telling me to not sacrifice my personal future due to being bogged down by perceived responsibility was salt to my injury. The discussion became heated. After a few moments of shouting at each other, I suddenly realized that I did not know this man in truth. Not at all.
On the other side of the phone, still in the heat of the moment, he was saying maybe we should cut our ties as father and daughter before we could both calm down. I laughed and told him there was no point, and that life was not a soap opera. I found a strange sense of peace after the conversation, as if everything suddenly made sense at last.
For the past twenty years of my life, I had assumed that I knew my father. I was brought up by mom, and I assumed that every one of my traits that are unlike my mom must be dad's. I was proud of being more capable socially, a bit more opportunistic, and having more of a business sense than mom. I feared that I might have commitment issues like my father, and scolded myself any time I felt like I was shrinking from responsibility. In my imagination, I had constructed a person that was my father. In reality, I saw this man once or twice a year for the majority of my life, and any expectations on him or myself about him would be completely silly and unfair.
I once fantasized that, if I had the power of time travel, I'd go back to that rainy day where my father was throwing out my toys and change everything. Instead of worrying about meaningless plastic trinkets, I would grab dad on the arm, look at him in the eye, and ask him to talk to me. I'd warn him of a choice that he sometimes admits may not be the best one he's made. I'd tell him no marriages are smooth-sailing all the time, and nobody was truly free. I'd tell him how much I would love to have a family that was not in pieces, and how much I wonder what it was like to come home to both parents.
I do not remember when that fantasy faded out. To this day, a woman of almost 30, my emotions towards my father is still too complicated for me to sort through. I am, finally. able to smile at fathers and their little girls with sincerity rather than envy. I have learned, and am still learning, a lot about myself both from my father and my journey of understanding how both of us got to where we are now.
Mom said dad hurt her deeply, but she'd always been grateful to him for giving me to her. I suppose she's the wiser one all along. There are plenty of things I should thank my father for, including making me who I am today. He was not in my life as much as we probably both would have liked, but he did try and still is trying.