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9:13

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.


Many people grow up thinking their fathers are heroes, but that was not how I thought I saw mine. I knew he had traversed seemingly insurmountable obstacles to make a comfortable life in the United States, but I also knew he had flaws and regrets, a list of ways that he had failed to capitalize on his God-given gifts. He often used himself as a model of what not to do, making a parable out of his mistakes. “Don’t antagonize your dissertation adviser.” “Don’t pick a field that can’t support your family.” “Don’t switch jobs just because you’re bored.” “Don’t antagonize your manager.”

I mythologized my father, yes, but as a trickster. Built into his mythology was an imperfect nature, one that would always lead him to make the same mistakes. His cleverness never failed to turn, eventually, to foolishness.

Even his diagnosis added to the narrative. Before he became diabetic, he had not been overweight. He had exercised regularly. He might have eaten too much, but what he ate was mostly healthy — rice, vegetables, tofu, and little red meat. His diabetes was a shock to everyone, especially to himself. He did not believe he should have been singled out by this sickness, and so he treated his diabetes more like a pesky but simpleminded boss, one who was easy to dodge.

So when my father would eat a carton of ice cream in one sitting, our family only scolded him good-naturedly. “You can’t eat that, Daddy,” we’d say, and then look the other way. We let him steal the discarded skin off our fried chicken and bites of our fried rice. We stayed in our rooms while he rustled through the kitchen at night, and the next morning, we would throw away the empty cookie containers with a roll of our eyes. For more than a decade, my father changed little about how he ate. He took pills and saw a doctor more regularly, but there were times when I forgot he was even sick.


A few years after college, I come home to find something new on the dining room table: a quart-sized Tupperware stuffed with cotton balls, rubbing alcohol, and a box of needles. My father’s medication is no longer working. He can no longer control his blood sugar without injecting insulin into his thigh.

For a while, I try to laugh. He takes his pants off right in the kitchen! He sits around in his underwear! But each time I see him swabbing his leg, readying the needle over the injection site, I look away. I leave the room.


Here is the thing about trickster figures: They fall down, but they always get back up again. I did not think my father was perfect, but hidden under the cloak of his mythology was my belief that he was more powerful than normal people. He was no hero, but he was not quite human either.

Br’er Rabbit is no normal rabbit; Anansi no ordinary spider. And Sun Wukong, the trickster I grew up with, is no common monkey. He is born from a magic stone, gains supernatural powers from a Taoist priest, erases his name from the Book of Life and Death, and eats the Queen Mother’s Peaches of Immortality. All this before his story really even gets started.

I grew up watching Sun Wukong dig his holes and fight his way out on the TV in my grandmother’s apartment during the summers I spent in Beijing. I laughed every time hubris brought him to his knees, but I was rarely nervous on his behalf. No matter how close he teetered toward death, I fully expected him to teeter back again.

A few months after my father starts injecting insulin, my mother calls to say they’ve gone to see a specialist at Johns Hopkins. It turns out my father’s primary doctor has been overprescribing his medication from the beginning. For more than a decade, my father’s doctor gave him free rein to eat whatever he wanted, dosing him with stronger pills when his health wavered. Why had my father listened to his doctor over his own body? Had he chosen this path because it let him believe he was still untouchable?

I knew I should’ve been relieved that my father was finally going to treat his illness seriously, but all I felt was anger and disbelief. He’d had 10 years. Ten years to see someone who knew what he was talking about. Ten years to change his diet, to change the course of his life. The specialist told my parents that if they’d come earlier, he might have been able to reverse the diabetes.

Weeks later, in a moment of stress, my mother says what I’ve already been thinking: that every day, she worries that Daddy will die. When we hang up, I call my dad at his office. He answers, surprised and wary — I always call him at home. He asks if something has happened.

All of a sudden, I am sobbing. “Will you please take care of yourself,” I beg, crying so hard that I sink into a crouch. It is something I have always wanted to ask but have never dared. I had not wanted to upset his — and my — belief that he is more powerful than anyone else. I have always preferred to wait for him to rescue himself.

“Your mom exaggerates,” he says. “I’m fine. Don’t cry. I have a new doctor.”

And then, when I will not stop crying, he sighs. “I will try harder,” he says over my hiccups. “I forget how sensitive you are.”


Now my father makes mantou using gluten-free flour and oats, turning what should be white, airy puffs of dough into brick-like hotcakes. He cracks so many watermelon seeds at night that a space is forming between his front teeth. When he eats out at Chinese restaurants, he complains about the saltiness of the meals because he no longer eats them with rice.

He also no longer injects insulin. He no longer even needs to take his pills. People say he looks 10 years younger. They ask him what his secret is. Each time, he tells them something different.

When I come home to visit, my father makes all my favorite meals, including the ones he is forbidden to eat. But every once in a while, I can’t help it. I let him take a bite.

“Just a small one,” he always promises, and then he opens his mouth wide.