Flying High

How my father’s love of kites followed him from China to America.

When I was a kid growing up in a small town in New Jersey, my dad, a Chinese immigrant and engineer, used to call me from work and say, “Let’s go fly a kite!”

“O-kayyyy,” I’d say, mostly because he sounded really excited. I was 10 and couldn’t care less about kites. I was happier reading a Nancy Drew book or watching an episode of Inspector Gadget.

He’d say, “I looked outside my window and the flag was really blowing in the wind.”

I’d peek outside but didn’t see any sign of a breeze.

So he’d come home and we’d go to the park together. I had a flimsy plastic kite shaped like a bumblebee with yellow and black stripes. I’d march to the top of a hill and run down at full speed. The kite would go aloft for a minute, then crash down to the ground. After winding it up, my dad would take it to the top of the hill; still the kite would crash down. If he ran fast, he’d pretend like the kite was flying. “Look! Look!” he’d say for a minute before the kite nosedived to the ground again.

We laughed. After awhile, we’d give up and go home. Like a lot of kids, I believed my dad could do anything, but I learned that he couldn’t make a gust of wind, even if he tried his hardest.

I’m not sure when my dad stopped asking me to go fly kites — probably around junior high when I turned my attention to shopping and reading Sweet Valley High. In college, he sent letters and would reminisce, “Remember when we used to fly kites together at the park?”

New Jersey, 1982

Kites have been popular in many different cultures throughout history. Here are some fun facts: The first kite was supposedly invented in China. In Chinese, kite is 风筝 (fēng zhēng), the words for wind and a musical instrument. During the Qing Dynasty, flying a kite and letting it go was a way to ward off bad luck and illness. An Australian holds the Guinness world record for highest altitude for a single kite, 16,000 ft. In 2011, at an event organized by the United Nations, children of the Gaza Strip flew 12,000 kites simultaneously — a glorious sight of freedom, hope and joy in a war-torn seaside territory.

In Khaled Hosseini’s book, The Kite Runner, the main character Amir returns to Kabul, Afghanistan and reflects on his new life: “America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade into this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no sins.”

Growing up my dad didn’t tell me many stories of his childhood in mainland China or fleeing as a teenager during the Communist Revolution to Taiwan. Perhaps once he came to America to attend graduate school in the 50s, he left his past behind him.

It wasn’t until recently I figured out why my dad always wanted to go kite flying with me.

A year and a half ago, my dad, then 85, was diagnosed with liver cancer. Thankfully, he survived surgery and recovered. Plus he came out with a renewed zeal for life. I grabbed an old camcorder and started interviewing him. He was more open than ever before about answering questions. Maybe he realized his time here is finite and his stories could disappear with him.

Cleveland, 1958

My dad was born in Shanghai in 1930 and grew up in a rural village outside Chongqing in Southwest China. As a kid, he didn’t have much — no electricity, no running water, only oil lamps and marked-up textbooks. He says he wasn’t poor, but food and medicine were in short supply during World War II. “Most of my friends and neighbors were in the same boat,” he recalls.

When he was ten, my dad became a good kite maker. Kids would ask him for a kite and he’d hunt for thin bamboo sticks, rice paper, thread and paste. He shaped the bamboo sticks to form the Chinese character 王 (wáng), which means “king.” It would look like three horizontal lines with one vertical line down the middle. “To fly it, I needed to find string — not just any string — strong enough to take to pull by the kite in the sky. The right string is hard to come by,” he remembers.

Later on when he flew his own kite, it attracted unwanted attention. There were two brothers in his village. He had to avoid these bullies or they’d beat him up and steal whatever he saved in his pockets: rocks, rubberbands, slingshots. At lunchtime, he took a sneaky route home to bypass them. So he went to an out-of-the-way spot — a small hill with orange trees — to fly his kite low to escape their eyes.

In Edwidge Danticat’s book, Brother, I’m Dying, her father is dying and she can’t bring herself to talk about it. She is seated around the dining table with her parents and siblings when her brother Bob asks, “Have you enjoyed your life?”

She writes: “The words that both my father and I wanted to exchange we never did… No matter what the reason, we have always been equally paralyzed by the fear of breaking each other’s heart… Even when they mattered less, there were things he and I were too afraid to say.”

I can relate to her dilemma. When I call my dad in NJ these days, we have reliable subjects we cover: the weather, his grandkids, grocery shopping and his latest gadgets like a new wifi router.

Going deeper in casual conversation is harder. “Have you enjoyed your life?” isn’t one that I can easily work into the conversation in between papaya purchases or Costco deals. So instead I chickened out and emailed him three factual questions and then slipped in the real question at the end.

I waited for days for a response and even managed to ask him over the phone if he got my questions. Yes, yes, I’m working on them, he responded. After waiting two-and-a-half weeks, I finally got a message back.

To my big question — “Have you enjoyed your life?” — he wrote in all caps, “YES. IMMENSELY.”

I was so relieved.

Montauk, 1995

The largest kite in the world is a gigantic black mollusk octopus, made by kite makers from Tianjin, central China, covering 1,500 square meters. It takes a team effort to fly with 30 people and is a fantastical sight with its bulging eyes and loose tentacles. I burst into laughter when I saw it. You could tell that a great deal of work went into this creation, but the choice of animal lacks any gravitas. I suppose its reach is impressive — each arm can extend in every direction, even an ocean of sky.

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes: “Unless there is an opposing wind, a kite cannot rise.”

In every life, there will come days, even years, with opposing winds. Learning to navigate the winds is a tricky business. My dad had a lot of opposing winds in his life, and yet still his kite rose.

I was lucky enough to be his American-born daughter and if asked again if I want to go fly a kite, the answer is always yes.

New York City, 2017