Astronaut Family

By Robert L. Fisher

Mom says I must never forget I’m Chinese, but what she means is that I must never forget the stories that show you how to think like a Chinese. That’s why I’m here today, on a Saturday morning, in a classroom, while my friends, the ones who aren’t Chinese, are watching cartoons or ice-skating or sleeping in. It’s also why I’m crying and trying to hide my tears by pretending to blow my nose.

The teacher’s just given us a Chinese poem, a neat square of black characters painted with a brush, a neat square of squiggles telling me about a boy and girl who fell in love. The boy and girl lived among the stars and served the gods. The boy’s job was to take care of the gods’ cattle, and the girl’s job was to weave cloth and make clothes for the gods. The Ox-boy and the Weaver-girl spent their days staring into each other’s eyes and taking long walks hand in hand. Meanwhile, the cattle wandered off and got lost, and the girl’s loom, silent and unused, collected dust in her hut.

Finally, word of this got to the Queen of Heaven.

“Your Highness, I am forced to eat plain rice like a common peasant. Dishes without meat are hardly fit for a god!” complained one high official of Heaven. “That Ox-boy has been neglecting his cattle and they are scattered all over the countryside.”

“And look at these robes, Your Highness!” exclaimed another god, jumping up. “Worn out everywhere! Even the patches have patches!”

The Queen of Heaven had heard enough. In a rage she swept her long hairpin across the sky, creating a deep valley that filled with a flood of stars. The Chinese call that the Han River, but here it’s called the Milky Way. Now the Ox-boy and the Weaver-girl found themselves separated by a giant river of stars and clouds and no way to get across. For a while the two tiny figures waved to each other and shouted messages that never even made it halfway across the slow-moving stars. In time they left the banks of the Han River and returned with sad hearts to herding cattle and weaving cloth.

Once the gods again had their delicious dishes of beef and their beautiful robes of silk, the Queen of Heaven calmed down and began to take pity on the two lovers, so once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month she gathered thousands of magpies, who formed a bridge across the river of stars, wing-tip to wing-tip. The Ox-boy and Weaver-girl would then run over the Magpie Bridge into each other’s arms. But only for one day.

What makes me cry is that the story reminds me of Mom and Dad — Mom here and Dad back in Hong Kong, so far away that when it’s day here it’s night there. Instead of coming on a bridge of magpies, Dad comes on a 747, only a few times a year, a little better than the Ox-boy’s once a year. And he gets to stay more than one day, usually seven days at a time. For the other 344 days of the year he is a voice on the phone or squiggles on a letter.

Five years ago we said goodbye to Hong Kong. Dad said, “I want all three of you children to have the best education, but in Hong Kong there just aren’t enough schools for all the smart students to go to. And you need a good education to have a good life when you grow up.”

Everyday relatives and friends came to say goodbye. Sometimes we all just sat in the living room and no one said a word, except now and then a sigh. We gave Aunt Mei our dining room table and Uncle Lee took the TV and stereo. The neighbors next door said they would take good care of our plants. The house was empty and when you spoke there was a little echo. To the last minute I waited before giving my dog away to my best friend.

“Remember he likes the dog food in the red can the best. And sometimes he can’t sleep at night, so put a clock in his basket with him. He thinks the ticking is a heartbeat and then he feels secure.”

I shook my dog’s paw for the last time and watched my best friend carry him out to the car. He looked at me over her shoulder.

When we got to our new home, life was very busy for everyone. School was nice, actually pretty easy compared to Hong Kong — less homework, and I made lots of new friends. They didn’t care that my English sounded funny and they only teased me a little bit when I didn’t understand what was going on. But it wasn’t so easy for Dad. He’s an engineer that builds airplanes, but everywhere he went they told him he had to go back to school or that he had no Canadian experience. As the months went by, Dad watched Mom save money by making very simple meals and never buying anything for herself. She even got a part-time job in a factory, putting computers in boxes. This was the only job she could get because she couldn’t speak English. Dad felt very bad to see her work so hard while he stayed at home and looked in the newspaper for jobs.

One day he felt so bad he told the family he had no choice: “I have to go back to Hong Kong, where I can find a good job easily. That way I can make money and send it to you so you can have a comfortable life in our new country.”

“Are you coming back as soon as you make some money?” all three of us children asked at once.

“As soon as I can. And cheer up, I’ll be back before you know it! I’ll phone every week and whenever I can get away I’ll be on the next plane.”

“What about Christmas? Are you coming for Christmas?” we asked.

“I’ll be back with presents for each and every one of you!” Dad smiled but it didn’t look like a happy smile.

We became an astronaut family, with our Dad flying halfway around the world and back whenever he could get time away from his job. When I think of Dad I think of us all excited waiting for him at the airport, watching the groups of passengers come off the plane till we spotted him, or all sad as we waved goodbye and saw him disappear behind the glass doors. The days he was with us at Thanksgiving or Christmas or spring break or sometimes in the summer went by so fast, while the days waiting for his next visit crawled by like time does when you stare at a clock. To this day whenever I hear a plane go roaring overhead or smell jet fuel at the airport I immediately think of Dad.

Mom told us she felt like the Chinese princess who had grown up in a palace, surrounded by loving family and servants. One day her father, the Emperor, told her that his empire was always at war in the far north with a powerful enemy — warriors who rode horses and shot arrows. They lived in the wild in tents and tattooed their skin. They had no wood to make fires, so they ate raw meat. They practically lived on horseback, moving constantly with their sheep from grassland to grassland.

“Beloved daughter, to make peace with these warriors I must marry you to their king, who is an old man. To save the lives of my people I have to send you to the far north, far from family and friends.”

With a heavy heart she obeyed her father and lived in the frozen, treeless world of the north. She saw her husband only twice a year, when they drank wine together, but even then they could not talk since neither one spoke the other’s language.

But at least we had letters and the telephone and plane trips. Then something began to go wrong. Trips home were canceled at the last minute, phone calls were fewer and shorter, and the letters, too. The letters really showed something was wrong. Dad stopped asking about us, about how school was going, about whether I was over with the flu. Mom began to look more and more like the princess in the frozen north.

One day Mom called us into the kitchen. We sat around the table. Mom’s eyes were red from crying. She looked angry, too. We were as quiet as mice and just waited for her to speak. My youngest brother was so little his eyes were just above the table top.

“Your father was very unhappy here. No one showed him any respect, even though he had worked hard for many years and knew as much as anybody else. It was very hard for him to get up every morning and think about how nobody wanted him to work for them. It was hard for him to stay at home all day and watch me go to work in the factory. He felt useless. So Father has decided to stay in Hong Kong, for good. He’s not coming back, he’s going to stay in Hong Kong and work hard and send us money. He promised to phone now and then and write letters when he has time. Father says he’s sorry, he misses you a lot, but he just can’t live here anymore.”

Mom tossed Dad’s letter into the center of the table. We only looked at it, saying nothing.

For a long time we all felt sometimes sad, sometimes very angry, and sometimes afraid. What was to become of us? We cried, we lay awake at night, we tried to cheer each other up. No matter what we did we thought it was a bad dream and Dad would suddenly appear in the doorway, just back from the airport, or the phone would ring and his voice would tell us he was on his way. But the doorway remained empty and the phone did not ring.

My younger sister, Ching-yee, would come home from school and first thing she would ask, “Any mail?” We all knew she meant mail from Dad.

Winter was dark and cold, but slowly the days got longer and warmer. School was out and the summer days were green. We were outside all the time. Then the nights became cooler and the leaves were turning gold and red. No matter what the season was we felt sad and missed our father.

One afternoon I went downtown after school, for no special reason. I just enjoyed the excitement of looking up at the skyscrapers and being carried along by the crowds like a leaf in a stream. I bought a hotdog from a cart with a bright umbrella and sat on a low wall in front of the train station. I happened to glance up and saw, disappearing into the flow of people, my dad! I could just see the back of his head as I ran through the crowd, my hotdog in one hand and my school bag in the other. I wanted to yell, “Dad, wait!”, but my voice was too small amid the honking horns and roaring engines. Out of breath I caught up with him at the light, my heart pounding with surprise and joy, when he looked at me for a moment then moved on, no recognition in his eyes, a total stranger, not my dad.

This happened more than once — thinking I recognized Dad in a supermarket or a passing car — and each time I had to remind myself Dad was far away and not coming back.

On the subway a few days before Christmas I was taking my little brother home. On his knees was balanced a gingerbread house he had made in kindergarten. He smiled and said, “No one’s allowed to eat this till Christmas. I want Dad to see what I made.”

Mom said we must say a final goodbye to Dad, otherwise we could not go on with life. She gathered us one evening and took us to a park where a stream wandered through the trees. She gave each of us a sheet of paper and said, “Write a letter to Father and tell him how you have been feeling without him.”

We wrote and wrote and told him everything that was in our hearts, about the times we were sad or lonely or scared. My youngest brother couldn’t write, so he drew pictures. He was small and alone in the pictures, and if you looked hard you could see a tiny plane in the corner of the sky. Mom then gave each of us a paper boat with a candle in the center.

“Put your letters in the boats.”

We lit the candles and gently launched the boats in the stream. We watched as the little boats spun in the water, straightened their course, and rode the current on their long voyage to the sea. Part of my soul was on board that little boat, the part that was so terribly sad and angry and afraid. It was now a dim light headed out to sea, and the part of my soul that stood on the bank of the stream felt light and strong and peaceful.

© 1997, by Robert L. Fisher.

I guess I’m what you might call a misanthrope, or maybe I’m just disappointed with myself.

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