My Father

My father is 58 this year. He was born in Henan, China as 张浩 and moved to America as Hao Zhang in the 1980s to provide his children a chance (and take his own shot) at the American dream.

The above is the typical story of a first generation immigrant from China.

It’s also typical for any human with ambition and dreams, and for any father who wishes his children the best.

But I like to think that my father is a little special. Of course, everyone’s fathers are special in their own way. Everyone has stories—both horrific and fond—of their fathers.

Here is how my father, Hao Zhang, is very special in his own way.

1. My father likes eating noodles and blueberries (sometimes together).

When I am at home and my father offers to cook, I am afraid. I am less afraid than usual lately because he has learned to combine ingredients according to standard recipes.

But by nature, Hao is a very enthusiastic and exploratory person. He does not subscribe to the normal, especially when cooking.

Here are Hao’s specialty dishes:

Banana Black Sesame Cabbage Chicken Noodles

  1. Boil water for noodles.
  2. Chop up cabbage.
  3. Chop up banana (or don’t).
  4. Chop up chicken. Salt and cook in oil. Alternatively, obtain chicken and other associated ingredients from perfectly normal chicken dish that mother cooked an hour ago.
  5. Throw banana, cabbage, and chicken into noodles.
  6. Remember to add black sesame. Black sesame is the secret ingredient.
  7. Maybe put in an egg. Tomatoes, too.
  8. (Technically this recipe doesn’t end until there are no more ingredients near my father.)

Blueberry tea

  1. Pour boiling water into frozen blueberries.
  2. Let steep for 10 minutes.
  3. (Okay, this one isn’t so bad).

Wok Casseroles

  1. Take dish 1, for example, eggplant with garlic.
  2. Take dish 2, for example, salt and pepper shrimp.
  3. (Any dishes will do).
  4. Pour both in wok.
  5. Pour water in wok.
  6. Boil.
  7. (Optional) Go downstairs to basement and fall asleep on couch while watching TV. Forget about Wok. Wake up to smoke alarm. Evacuate house.

I have always avoided these specialties when I go home. Hao will cook, eat, and offer them with joy and hospitality.

But I’d like to think that the food preferences of my father— a scientist who lived through the hardships of the Cultural Revolution and worked at a coal mine at age 16 — are motivated by thriftiness and delight at the unknown rather than an absence of taste buds.

When I first learned to cook and ruined a spinach & garlic dish with too much salt, my father grabbed the dish and dipped it in his tea “so it wouldn’t be as salty”. This was thriftiness.

When our vegetables wilted beyond edibleness, my father managed to salvage a half rotten turnip and a sprig of green onion by placing their roots in a bucket of oil (to “rejuvenate” it, he said) for a month and a half. The turnip turned green.

We did not eat it.

This was not a case of thriftiness, but a case of exploratory delight.

Then there are always edge cases where I cannot assign any rationale to my father’s cooking. Hao has planted potatoes and grapes in our front yard—for science or sustenance, I am not sure. Neighbors have written us anonymous letters of complaint and the Home Owners’ Association has taken offense at the unruly 5 foot vines in front of our windows. My father has since cut down the offending leaves, but continues to dig up tubers in joy. I am not sure if we eat them.

When I am at home, I have also poured cereal for myself only to find strange pieces of smaller cereal in my bowl.

Wait, what is in my cereal? Smaller pieces of cereal?

I learned later that Hao had poured leftover candy into my cereal box. I am not sure if this is thrift, a basic misunderstanding of what foods go together, or the refusal to adhere to gastronomical norms.

2. My father is always solving problems in interesting ways.

Problem: The cement between the bricks in our porch had worn away.

Solution: Instead of buying cement from the local Home Depot, my dad created a flour concoction and shoved it in between.

The flour began to decay.

Then the squirrels came.

After a letter from the HOA and a trip to the Home Depot, our porch was good as new.

3. My father enjoys pharmacology and poetry.

Hao is very passionate about his work as a programs officer at the NIAID. He is really into Clinical Pharmacology Quality Assurance (I have no idea how he does it).

In his spare time, Hao writes poetry. I sometimes help translate his poetry.

In the fluorescence of an iPhone screen, where reflected are the joys of time.
Oh! Wechat! Please allow me to confess this humble thought:
Is the tombstone of time but the image of your conception?

Sometimes I have to double check my work and confirm with him that yes, indeed, he is in fact writing about iPhone screens and WeChat and making an extended metaphor between a smartphone and tombstone.

4. My father is a little like Walter White.

Our family chose Breaking Bad as a winter marathon TV series. (You know, a series about drugs and murders and things, for family bonding).

While my father doesn’t run a meth lab, he used to perform breakthrough research on AIDs before his lab got shut down by budget cuts. Around 1997, instead of pursuing his dreams, my father left research and took a stable job as a programs officer in NIAID so that he could take a more active role as a father.

Some of his compatriots have made it big since then. Some have patented crazy vaccines and medicines and become multimillionaires.

But my father is my father, and has raised my brother and me, and that’s all I could ever ask for.

Oh, and he now looks like this:

My father has a lot of stress in his life and started losing hair as a result. He took the brave step of shearing off all his hair. So now he really looks like Walter White. Except he’s friendlier and wears hats.

5. My father is Chinese and says cute things, like most Chinese parents.

6. My father frightens my boyfriends.

My ex-boyfriend visited my house during Fall Break. This was his first meeting with my dad.

He was wearing that pair of jeans—you know, the one with the busted zipper that doesn’t go all the way up.

We ring the doorbell. My dad opens the door.

My dad looks my ex-boyfriend up and down, smiling widely.

Still smiling widely, he reaches down.

He pulls up my ex-boyfriend’s zipper. Still smiling.

“Welcome!”, he says, still smiling.

7. My father has a very big heart.

We have a large house with five bedrooms: mine, my brother’s, two guest bedrooms, and the master bedroom.

Over the years, we have invited many people to stay in our house.

Relatives, college friends, internet friends, friends of relatives, people my grandmother has babysat—anyone who needs a place to stay near the D.C. Metropolitan area.

My father welcomes everyone.

He’ll give you his bed and sleep on the couch and you’ll hear him snoring from a floor away.

He’ll cook for you, too, but that’s another story.

Happy Birthday, Dad.
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