“Hey Dad, Tiananmen Square was a pretty big deal, wasn’t it,” I said to my dad in the car one day. “Tell me more about it!”
It was summer 2013, so in my pre-college boredom, I’d casually Googled the event on Wikipedia one day. I’d visited the square 10 years ago, and seen the photos appear in history books at school.
This day, I decided to ask about it for once, after faintly registering that my parents were in their early ‘20’s at the time. They’d probably heard about it on the news, so maybe Dad could share some mildly passionate political views with me, as I’d always absentmindedly tuned out over the years.
“Oh yeah,” Dad said. “We were there, actually.”
“Yeah, Tiananmen Square? We were there. Your mom started crying cause she wondered if something was going to happen. I wanted to see the rally,” he said. “But she made us leave. We were in a different part, but not too far where they ended up firing into the crowd.”
“Oh.” I said.
Then I dropped the subject. For the next two years, I was too shocked — at how little I understood about my parents — to ask more.
I think tonight, June 23, 2015, was the first time I ever said the words “I love you,” to my father.
The words in Chinese, wo ai ni, sound more disgusting to me than their English equivalent. In Chinese dramas, the association with saying this phrase is last-resort desperation, cutesy sarcasm, or borderline insincerity.
But when I said it, I did mean it. I did mean the phrase, in all of its cringe-worthy glory — apologizing for the facts that I only remember to call every two and a half to three weeks and almost forgot their birthday last year and neglect to counsel my sister through the teenage problems that they feel helpless with and barely give them a second’s thought when I’m immersed in my independent 20-year-old life.
I also hoped he could see I was apologizing for everything I took for granted — that they’ve never gotten on my back for overspending on all the road trips I try to take to make myself feel significant, that my dad speaks of Googling my name every week to read every inch I’ve written for the Grand Forks Herald this summer and I’ve always rolled my eyes, not registering that that shit takes dedication… and that in general, I’m spending their tuition studying journalism in the Midwest and they’ve never done anything but boast about me to our puzzled Asian-American community,
But as we discussed politics from 1990 on, as he mentioned how forgettable H.W. Bush was, raved about how Clinton had always stood out in personality compared to W. Bush – “I think he beat Al Gore for the better, anyway” – and referred to Obama as ‘mopey’ – “Man, the guy just seems to have aged so much in 8 years” – I realized how I don’t know much about my dad. I don’t know much about my mom.
Here’s what I do know, only none of which or all of which is probably factually accurate: poor boy, oldest of 3, comes out of a farming town in Hunan, China (that is now partially famous for being the CGI inspiration for “Avatar”/thanks James Cameron) where everyone speaks with a dialectic accent (to this day, his daughters can only understand the phrase “15 minutes”). He sucks shit at doing menial farm work like chopping firewood, but he gets along well enough with the other children in the village to convince them to carry said wood down the mountain for him.
His ambition –and optimism — helps him graduate high school at age 16 and make it to Beijing for university. He learns Standard Mandarin, has no girlfriend until my mom dumps her hapless, stern-faced college boyfriend at my grandfather’s mild suggestion, and they get married (for reasons other than having the same birthday…). Yee!
Mom is more “eh” about adventures, but she’s lived an interesting life. She grew up in Tianjing, which takes the cake for “fastest industrialization in seven years that I can comprehend” (between my two visits in ’03 and ’10, it went from all bicycles to sky-rise and only-cars-that-by-the-way-won’t-yield-to-you-in-traffic). My free-spirited grandfather (who rode a bus around the U.S. by himself in 2002, has diabetes, and somehow decided to take an interest in Catholicism after age 50) says some harsh but true things about the government, in the same vein of liberalistic views as my great-grandfather, and this changes her life and perhaps factors into her possibly-learned paranoia about shit-talking.
Mom’s fam has to move stateside by the time Mom’s like 10 so my grandfather doesn’t get jailed. She grows up as a huge tomboy, getting a scar on her face in the process from an unfortunate encounter roughhousing with sticks with my uncle, but settles down enough to use her quick brain and occasional sharp wit to excel in management studies, even if she was originally leaning toward teaching. Then she meets my dad, apparently jokingly (?) thinking “Hah, he’s not bad looking, I guess he’ll do,” (as she’ll tell her daughter for the next few years), and they decide to go to the states.
They live on $50 when they get to Hartford, Connecticut, where they join a fellowship and find that America has a nice enough immigrant community to incentivize them to stay. Once their finances increase enough, they find it in their interest to buy a shitty red (possibly Buick? I can’t remember) car, and produce a daughter who grows up reading more books than they expected and morphs from a salty, mopey introvert to an excessively intuitive/ talkative extrovert as she grows older. Dad names her after the most cliché name he can find that has to do with his master’s area of study, geology. He buys her oversized Husky t-shirts from the University of Connecticut, and Mom gets a master’s in math, the knowledge of which she uses to indirectly awe and frustrate me as I plateau at learning it at about age 12-15.
They move to Oregon, after road tripping cross-country in 3 days, a feat dominated by meals of plain rice and a lot of farm landscape, as far as I can remember.
Dad gets his Ph.D, well on his way to mastering materials science. But he doesn’t forget about his tendency to name little girls after stones — my sister, Opal, is born in 2000, after I whine about “why can’t we call her Alice” and get back, “cause that’s a terrible name.” They settle for making it her middle name, and I try to not hold a grudge over the fact that I myself have no middle name (people have mildly ostracized me over this, okay).
They make it to the Portland-Beaverton area in 2001, where my dad gets a job hat their daughter doesn’t realize until c. 2012 means he makes relatively hella bank.
But as far as the community we’re immersed in is concerned, upper-middle-class is pretty average. They raise their two daughters in Asian-American suburbia; the culture permeates everything, from school to dinner parties to church to swim/tennis lessons to Model United Nations conferences. There are so many of us in Portland that we occupy between 15-40% of the area high school demographics, you can’t drive through any part of the city without seeing at least 5 different Asian churches in a 10 mile radius, and the Oregonian’s comments section is usually the most you’ll get when it comes to explicitly voiced racism (which more so has to do with complaining about the impossible-to-spell names).
Through it all: Crystal Duan, ENFP social butterfly, writing and emotions extraordinaire, grows up wondering why she sucks shit at all things stereotypically Asian-American, and this is where the punchline comes in: THEY BELIEVE IN HER MORE THAN SHE BELIEVES IN HERSELF.
There’s not much else to say. Except that I got such a f**king lucky hand with these guys.
I didn’t grow up with the proverbial tiger mother and stern patriarch father. My mom is fretty but relatively understanding, and my dad is cheerful to a fault and rather lenient. They’re all brilliant at their science-y field, and honestly even pretty damn good at English. But we don’t communicate in English, ever, which in of itself is the biggest indicator that they didn’t force feed me any culture: I didn’t implicitly “rebel” by refusing to retain Chinese language skills that are all you usually know until around age 4.
I was interested in, and became fluent in, Chinese because I felt comfortable enough to want to care about my parents and their culture and who they were. They never bored me (that much) with stories. They told them for fun, when I asked — not to passive-aggressively teach me a lesson about appreciation or wastfulness or hard work etc.
They didn’t beat my ass when I got rejected from Northwestern, and when my GPA sucked shit, and when I felt legitimately stupid for coming back with C’s in math class (and never made it to calculus).
My friends don’t know much about my life in Portland. They’re always curious, intrigued.
They are mildly aware that I felt like a fish out of water for not attending a state school, a Seattle school, a Californian school, or an East Coast school; that I used to count how many AP classes I would be taking the next year, and despairing if it was anything less than 5; that I would shred my chemistry tests in the garbage before my peers could ask me to see what my scores were.
They’ve heard Asian-American parenting stories from others. Of course, those always include anecdotes about being sent to summer horror SAT institutes, doing piano practice till your fingers bleed, having awkward bilingual encounters with distant relatives, and weathering the openly disdainful comments about marrying someone not of your race.
But the part they don’t know is how much my parents contradicted those stereotypes.
And, to boot, how much my parents counteracted any toxic behaviors I got otherwise.
Mom always scolded me for being the one to compare myself to others, for how I myself was my harshest critic when it came to not having the natural science and math abilities I envied in my peers. Dad always tried to give me soapbox lectures about how I wasn’t “settling” when I thought I was too stupid to do anything but liberal arts, and how he wished he’d been able to make it in **the subject of “Chinese”, haha not the subject of “English”** when he was younger. I always thought it was their duty to bullshit me and that they’d lowered their expectations for me because they just wanted me to not turn into a scene kid, an even bigger shame than not getting into an Ivy League school.
But yeah, no, they’re great.
They’ve also never thrown the phrase “white-eyed wolf” at me in sincerity. It’s an idiom for someone who can’t appreciate the shit that’s been done for them, especially by loved ones. Although I think I’ve always come off as detached and oblivious to them, they’ve never gotten on my case about it. They know I’m intuitive about big-picture things, but not necessarily the small ways to show I care.
I’ve never appreciated them more until now, two years after I “flew the nest” and my mom got a cat to replace me (her words, literally).
I’m here typing this, isolated from most of my community, and they think I’m heroic. They’re proud that I made it out here on my own in North Dakota; when they heard I got this internship at this small newspaper in the middle of nowhere, they just said… “Wait, so we should be in awe of you, right? This is a big deal, right?” and completely gave me the benefit of the doubt when I said it was. Cause it was, to me. But even if they didn’t know how it fit into the concept of ~fame and glory and how this could get an aspiring journalist to the New York Times~ they knew it meant a lot to me as an individual. And they’re proud as shit.
Who the hell am I to be a privileged Asian-American with the nerve to go from the affluent West Coast, to the relatively unexplored Missourian Midwest, to the northernmost, least visited state in the U.S.? I was never insecure about that, for a second, because they’ve always cared about me.
This year, I didn’t even call my dad on Father’s Day because of scheduling, forgot to yesterday, and finally made an effort to dial his number on the way back from Fargo today. I almost cried, because it hit me all at once that these are people my friends barely know exists.
So if you read this far, I hope you know a little bit more about me. And the two people I’m proud to call family. I’ll probably start writing more about them, but for now, here’s what you get.
Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad.