Still, I wish he’d made it easier. I can understand why he made it hard, though; why, he never told me his stories instead of trying to impart hyper-condensed words of wisdom into my brain. Why he’d left China, for instance. I knew the whole part about being wrapped up in Tiananmen was mostly fiction, an attempt to give a noble gloss to something far more mundane, far more petty. I should have known he'd knocked up a girl and been divorced before I was born, but that didn't bother me that much.
After all, avoiding a romantic failure was as simple as a $7.99 pack of ultra-thins from the local Walgreen’s. It might bother a woman, but it wouldn’t eat at a man. I wanted to know about his professional failure. How a young, respected graduate from one of Beijing's top art schools, whose own father was one of the big shots in China's culture-media-propaganda apparatus, power originating from Mr. Hu Yaobang himself, could find himself shunted from hotshot into administrative sideshow in the short span of six years.
In short, I wanted to know the story of his professional failure. I would say that, though I didn’t grasp it at the time, deep down inside, that lack, that missing link, was at the root cause of all my lack of respect for him growing up. I always felt he was holding something back—as if he was afraid of something, afraid of me, afraid I would respect him less—and while I couldn’t quite pin down why he was scared, I didn’t like the subconscious awareness that he was.
He came to visit me that weekend. My mom and him had fought again, and he flew up for "to check on me", although I knew that it was bullshit. I was pretty busy but I didn't want to be unfilial, 不孝, that cardinal sin amongst Chinese sons, as my parents constantly reminded me when they weren't lecturing each other.
So that weekend I decided to plan on something quick. It ended up taking us six hours.
We started off having a dinner. We hadn't spoken in months; I hadn't seen him since I left for college, and he'd gotten older, thinner. When I was still a little kid, my mom used to say that his face was "dark, mysterious and handsome". Now it looked haunted, chased by a five o'clock shadow, hunted all the way to some cheap Thai restaurant in Chicago.
He asked me how my grades were. Good, I said. I had no reason to lie, I was doing pretty well, just not in the hard sciences he wanted me to study, since I wasn't taking those classes. He didn't ask about my intended major, skipped straight to asking about how I found "finding friends", my parents' code phrase for settling down with a nice Chinese girl in a good school district. I took this as a sign he didn't want to argue, and told him that I'd met a nice Chinese girl, but we weren't thinking about anything beyond
The rest of the dinner was slow, but ended quickly. I tried to pay, but my dad, sly as always, had already slipped the waitress thirty bucks while I washed my hands before eating. She brought out the change, minus the tip. We walked out into a cool May night. The corner store was close by; so far, so good for my plan. I walked in and bought a pack of Pall Malls.
He asked me when I'd picked up smoking. I hadn't, but it would have been awkward for me to say that my plan for spending time with my dad involved smoking cigarettes by the lake, so I told him the semester before. He nodded, drew one out of the pack, looked at it for a second, and said something which my mom had proudly told me when I was ten:
"Haven't smoked one of these since you were born."
I nodded. Then I began walking to the lake. Once we got there, I still don't know how we got to talking about it, but he came clean. He began telling me how his classmates had made it, and how he hadn't.
We sat there for six hours talking. He told me everything. How he'd started off with promise, and how he'd thrown it away pissing off his boss, his co-workers, his students, and even his own erstwhile friends. How at one point he'd climbed up to the roof of the Beijing Hotel, high above Chang'an Avenue and thought about killing himself. He climbed down, he said, because he was wearing his only good suit at the time, and he didn't want his parents, my grandparents, to have to buy another suit for the funeral.
I asked him how he met my mom. He smiled and said that she found him, that she always liked him from when they'd met in middle school, and that she took him in when he had nothing, so he knew he could trust her when he had everything. And even though the life they ended up finding in America was nothing close to the gold-paved American dream they'd heard about, it still made both of them happy.
I told him that I was sorry for being such a brat growing up, and that I was sorry, but I wouldn't major in the hard sciences. (He always said that I was suited to lab work, like my mom was. Go figure.)
He put out the cigarette, and asked if he could have the pack. Why, I asked. Wasn't he done smoking?
He said that he only gave up smoking because he felt like it was the right thing to do to take care of me. Then he smiled and said, "But your mom probably already told you that." He said he could start lighting up again, since I obviously could take care of myself now.
I looked over. He was grinning. It was the first time I'd seen him smile like that. I grinned back. The same was probably true for him.