The family myth goes like this: 10 years ago, my aunt asks my father for the recipe to his famous red-braised pork. He sends her home with written instructions, but the results are not quite right. A year later, she asks again, and again he gives her instructions, exactly the same as before. With one added ingredient. The next year, one added step. The year after that, one less ingredient. Ten years later, she still does not have the right recipe.
My father is a man who seems to have been made for mythologizing. A man who is too smart for his own good. Too inventive for his own good. Too romantic, too impatient, too driven, too mischievous, too jealous. He is a tangle of superlatives, and none have made his life any easier. The stories I tell of him could easily fit into the canon of trickster tales, my father arm in arm with Br’er Rabbit, Anansi the Spider, and Sun Wukong the Monkey King.
There is “My Father and the Highway Bamboo Heist,” in which after months of commuting along Maryland’s Clara Barton Parkway, with its untouched bamboo forests, my father pulls over one Sunday with an empty tofu bucket and a knife. Surely the forest will not miss a couple tender shoots. For many Sundays, he sits at the bottom of our garage stairs, bucket between his legs, whittling the husk away from the pale yellow meat. Then, as the story always goes, my father gets bolder. He moves beyond the remoter reaches of the forest, edging closer to the interstate until, one Sunday, a police car pulls up next to him. My father wipes the sweat from his eyes and waves. To this day, he maintains that he stopped collecting the bamboo because it didn’t taste “as good as it does in China.” Though the police nearly arresting him “had some impact.”
Another favorite is “My Father and the Sky Chestnuts.” Growing up, we spent weekends hiking Sugarloaf Mountain. One day in early fall, we return to our car to find fat, spiny burrs caught in our ski rack: chestnuts, fallen from nearby trees. We bring them home and my father roasts them in the oven for what feels to us like hours — and apparently to him as well, because as soon as he takes the tray out, he pops a chestnut right into his mouth. He bites down and we hear a loud pop, followed by a muffled yell. The chestnut had exploded on impact. We watch my father spit out chunks of shell into the sink. My brother and I happily eat our chestnuts after they’ve cooled, but my father, his mouth completely scalded, can’t taste a thing.
Most of my family’s stories about my father involve food. He is the chef in our family, as well as the glutton, and his appetite is as legendary as his cooking prowess. Even so, his ability to eat (and eat, and eat) reached new heights during my family’s trip to Italy. I was in seventh grade, my brother in fifth, and it was our first time visiting a country that was not China. We went as part of a tour, with the meals included in the package. To say my father ate his way through Italy would be an understatement. Between meals, he stopped at gelaterias and pizza parlors, grabbing three scoops or a slice the size of his head. Even my mother, who had known him since they were 21, was shocked. The most shocking part, though, was that my father was losing weight. Every day, his pants got looser while ours could barely button. And when we came home, he kept losing weight. He felt strange and tired. He couldn’t stop peeing. Finally, he went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with Type 2 diabetes.