My Father, The Oppressor, The Immigrant, The Patriarch, My Hero

It seems the world at large conspires to tell your father that he is right to be in charge of his family, to demand that seat at the head of the table.

I am notorious for having a spotty memory, so forgive the lack of detail in this story.

My family — me, my younger sister, my mother, and father — were on vacation; we were traveling through a small-ish town, and would be stopping for the night before heading to our final destination. We were hungry, and though we drove past roadside restaurant after restaurant, my dad wouldn’t stop at any of them, despite my mom’s urging. Instead he quickly sped past each one, eventually making a loop around the town. We finally drove to our motel, and after a screaming row between my parents, “we” settled on the hotel lobby restaurant for dinner.

We ate, silently; my dad ripped through his steak and then left the table while my sister, mother, and I remained. That night, I called my then-boyfriend from the hotel stairwell, crying and whispering, “Why does he do this? Why do they do this?” into the phone, the door propped open with my shoe. Swap out incidentals — how old I was, the type of phone I was using, where we were — because the same scene repeats ad nauseum throughout my childhood. My sister and I spent years following where our dad led us, turning our heads when he instigated quarrels with my mom, watching him slowly unfurl tenderness upon her as he apologized. But we knew his anger was always there; it was coiled beneath his sweet smile and bad dad jokes.

My sister and I spent years following where our dad led us.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve spent longer and longer amounts of time away from my parents. I love them, dearly; they raised me in a strict middle-class household within an East Asian diaspora bubble in central New Jersey, and I recognize that without their guidance, support, and perhaps their strictness, I wouldn’t be the scrappy, savvy person I am now. (Though they still wish I would go to grad school.)

But every time I go back home, I’m surprised by how easily we slip into familiar, but increasingly frustrating patterns — especially how my dad treats my mom. The overtones of his aggression aren’t overtly toxic — there is no physical violence, no broken dishes — no overwhelming dread accompanies my father’s presence.

But there are moments when I’m scared for her. When my dad is driving and, in his fit of anger, misses or ignores a sign; when their arguments escalate and he punctuates his points with wild physical motions — him screaming, her silent except for a few barbed retorts. The one time I tried to come between them, my mother was the one who turned to me and said, “You don’t understand.” It’s not the kind of answer I would accept from or for a friend, yet because they’re my parents, I feel I have no choice but to sit back.

I think that for many progressive-minded folks, the gender dynamics and politics of their heterosexual parents uncomfortably mirror the cultural imperatives we’re actively striving to challenge and change. It is always difficult to condemn family, even loathed family, but to tell someone you love that they’re actively doing harm — the the way they seek control is problematic — is a very difficult thing to do.

Especially when, you tell yourself, it’s not really anything at all; other people — particularly cis straight men — are capable of infinitely worse things. Especially when, it seems that the world at large conspires to tell people, parents, your father, that he is right to be in charge of his family, to demand that seat at the head of the table, to expect and exact respect for existing on the cruel earth we, incidentally, all share.

My parents both immigrated from China in their twenties, but my father, being seven years older, has arguably had the rougher life. His childhood coincided with China’s Cultural Revolution — set into motion by China’s Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1966 — and so for years, instead of attending school, he and his neighborhood friends would throw rocks at dilapidated school buildings.

His parents raised him and his older sister in Beijing, and he’d seek joy in swimming for hours or biking around the sprawling city. Some of the only photos I’ve seen from him as a teenager are of him playing the trombone, which he picked up along with the trumpet, tuba, French horn, piano, and supposedly, violin and flute; upon graduating college, he contemplated joining a local orchestra, but instead went across the Pacific to get his PhD in chemistry in Bozeman, Montana, where he shared a room with at least five other immigrant men.

My mother’s life trajectory was a little bit simpler; her parents were both professors at Beijing’s Peking University, and while she too suffered under communism’s tight grip, by the time she was old enough to attend, school was in session. She graduated high school with top honors not just in her school, but all of Beijing, and after college, went to St. Louis to get her own PhD. While there, she joined a choir and met a fellow immigrant from Beijing, who’d recently moved from Montana to St. Louis for work.

When I asked my parents once about how they met, they both dodged the question in jest; he claimed to be the great romantic; she claimed to have not noticed him the first time they met. Whatever the case, there is a lot of love there between them, which makes the clashes between them, when they happen, all more jarring.

They both fought to give me and my sister the kind of childhood neither of them had. One day, I brought up the idea of raising chickens for eggs; almost as an aside, my mom reminisced about how she and her parents used to be given a one egg ration each week. Once while researching for a school assignment, I asked my dad about one of the Chinese chants he sang, and still sometimes sings, to me and my sister. The lyrics are, for the most part, a long list of ordinary foods: canned pineapples, lima beans, sunflower seeds, Shandong “haw” flakes, bread. It’s a silly song, except as my father explains it, it was a song of wanting, a way for his neighborhood of street-roaming children to dream about a better life, one that included sweets and fruit and bread.

When I spoke to him about it, he was reflective, but not sad: “Beijing was a very backward city at the time.” To have come from the background he did and make it in America is no small feat, and it feels wrong in my bones to ask him for more. Or as writer Fariha Róisín puts it in her moving essay for Hazlitt, about her own immigrant parents:

“There’s a photograph that was taken of me when I was six years old. My parents and sister stand by a blackboard, but I refuse to look at them. I am so ashamed that my mother is wearing a saree that I can’t turn to say goodbye. I want nothing of them. They don’t represent me, my tiny body seems to scream…When death will finally come for me, I will play that memory on a loop and pray to God, and my family, for my sins. There are no words to say that I’m sorry. There are no words to describe this faint feeling of my heart being scooped out of me by all my inglorious shittiness. My heart feels empty, itself reduced to a continuous sinking feeling that is tethered to the roots of me.
I owe my parents everything, everything, everything I have absolutely been and become, and there will never be words enough to describe the fullness of my love for them. For everything we have suffered, together but, more so, for their struggles that I have so righteously overlooked. I so easily forget my parents are my heroes.”

My heart beats with conflicted, palpitating love for my dad, whose English I used to mock when I was a child and whose stilted syntax now brings a different kind of tears to my eyes, who sends me Chinese articles about profitable careers (which I studiously read as I refresh my inbox for more writing work) and pictures he’s shot with his camera (lately, they’re all of birds). He is my dad, he is the best dad ever — except when he’s not.

I and many other people joke about toppling the patriarchy all the time, but quite literally, most men in heteronormative parenting relationships with children are patriarchs, if not explicitly, then implicitly. Yet many of these dads, mine included, never think about themselves as the oppressors of their family’s lives, because at face value, as a statement sans the socio-political undercurrent — it sounds pretty ridiculous. Straight fathers view themselves as defenders, providers — the willing subjects of good-natured jokes — but also worthy of deferral. So while it is inconceivable to most fathers that things can happen without their approval and knowledge — even as they pull the archetypal, “ask your mother” move — they still see themselves as benevolent authorities.

Gentle patriarchy is still synonymous with the ideals we proffer of “family.” Single mother households are vilified and pitied; their family systems are deemed — as with the case of 1965’s Moynihan report on black families — pathological. Single dads are perceived much more kindly, practically as heroes — just look up at the micro-industry that’s grown up around dad-daughter interactions; look to recent Super Bowl ads or the fixation on father-daughter purity balls to witness this phenomenon. Not only does our culture hold up men as the superior gender, but because men aren’t supposed to take care of children, it’s some kind of exemplary feat when they do.

Most men in heteronormative parenting relationships with children are patriarchs, if not explicitly, then implicitly.

(Perhaps unrelated, but still worthy to note: the concurrent rise of “daddy” — although it can be traced all the way back to 1681 — seems to have become cultural shorthand for sexual prowess, power, and general, “I have my shit together”-ness that accompanies our perceptions of daddies.)

The seemingly endless permutations of race, religion, and socio-cultural background intricately inform how people view fatherhood and how fathers perform fatherhood; for example, it’d be an act of willful ignorance for me to imagine that my dad (and my mom, for that matter) isn’t aware of China’s history of female infanticide which, coalescing with the only recently-repealed one-child policy, widened the literal gender gap in a country of billions; or, the growing visibility of gay rights in China. For a man with two daughters, who grew up with an older sister, how does this inform his perceptions of self and masculinity?

Does he know how the optics of him yelling at our mom for small mishaps — like accidentally misdirecting him on the road — look and feel to us? (One phrase he uses — 你怎么回事 — particularly stings; colloquially it translates to “What’s wrong with you?”) How our mother talks about our gay friends in normal conversation, but he can only fixate on their sexuality? Combine these questions with the gaping-wide gulfs between immigration generations, how do I, as his daughter, broach movements and messages he’s never heard of? And perhaps doesn’t want to.

Does he know how the optics of him yelling at our mom for small mishaps look and feel to us?

Of course, it’s unhealthy to take your family members’ hypocrisies, frustrations, and guileless ignorance solely on your own shoulders, and sometimes, the time and energy these conversations take just aren’t worth straining your familial ties.

Yet what makes me wonder is that we’ve shared many opinions before: a conversation we had about Peter Liang — the cop who shot and killed Akai Gurley — didn’t devolve into some conservative nightmare; we actually commiserated over the racial disparities between police targeting and tactics. While his dad was a hardcore nationalist, my father’s fascination with World War II (a common older dad trait) is more scholarly than strident, and we talk global politics just fine. But I worry that gender is the last frontier, and will perhaps be the only thing I can’t bear myself to bring up. After all, in my experience, that tends to be the case with most non-queer men: they can ally themselves to any and every cause except for the one that asks them to consider gender-based fears and notions of fluidity.

Part of the problem is that I don’t really try; the stakes of these conversations feel too high, and the phrase, “Why ruin a (generally) good thing?” comes to mind. My mom, for her own part, has shifted the seams of her life to align with my dad’s, which is both the practical and the selfless choice; how do I phrase my inquiry so as not to insult their almost 26-year-long union?

I don’t know. But I do know I’m not the only one who feels this way. And as my generation grows up and forms its own family units, we’ll test and form new kinds of family structures, ones that despite our best efforts, will still be informed by the shadows of Big Monogamy and compulsive heterosexuality. What does that future look like? What will our parents, our dads, think of them? We’ll never know until we ask — but then the question becomes, should we?

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