Content warning: This article contains mentions of domestic violence.
The switch flipped on. Warm yellow lights brightened the dining room, and the lowered shutters isolated the familial space from the outside world. Dinner was placed on the table, ready to serve. We settled ourselves properly in our customary seats, and soon the chopsticks began to clatter with the bowls and plates. Baba started to talk:
“Nini, how’s your swimming practice today?”
“Not so good,” Nini replied. “Still the last place. Honestly, it doesn’t even bother me that much right now, at least I improved from last time.” My sister chuckled. “In a way, I’m also becoming stronger.”
“Good, you are being optimistic,” he said. “The reason I sent you to the swimming practices is not for you to beat everyone. It’s for exercise and experience.” Satisfied with her answer, he directed his attention to me, “Have you decided your major, Yaya?”
“Yeah, literature,” I answered softly.
“Still literature? Haven’t changed your mind yet?”
“No. Why should I?”
“Do you think you are going to be a writer? With your second language?”
“Haven’t tried. Who knows?” I started to stuff food in my mouth a little faster. As if that action alone would help end that discussion quicker.
“You know, one thing about being an adult is to know our limits,” he declared casually. “We need to acknowledge our ordinariness, and the useless dreaming belongs to the children. In my opinion, I think you’ll be very fit to be a teacher…”
Something’s about to crack.
“Here you go again! A teacher!” Mama slammed the chopsticks against the wooden tabletop, and the utensils made their first growl of the night – just like many other nights. “Why won’t you ever let her choose for herself? Why are you always choosing for her? You are always like this, scolding her for what she wants to do, destroying her confidence so that she’ll follow the path you planned for her!”
My sister and I continued eating, impassively.
“I’m planning the path for her? Does she even know what she’s talking about? A writer? The amount of time she spends reading every day is not even enough for her to know what just happened to the Japanese president! As far as I can see, she’s just a frog in the well!”
“Are you going to treat your girlfriend like this? Are you going to treat your girlfriend’s children like this?” she yelled. “You are becoming so dreadful right now, I don’t even recognize you from before we married…”
Before I treaded upstairs, the chopsticks shrieked one last time when I hurled them on the table. I didn’t care if I knocked over any of the glass cups. A frog in the well, he called me — a Chinese phrase that describes a person who’s ignorant because she only sits in a well and never looks up. That phrase alone was more provocative to me than the fact that my father had a mistress.
It’s hilarious how this situation has been revealed to me and my sister. The lights are still on, the curtains are still pulled down and even the food is still steaming. But I didn’t want to be in this laughable play anymore.
Why is he acting as if this was not a mistake? As if sleeping with another woman outside of marriage, having two other children, and hiding from my mom the fact that he was spending numerous nights in another woman’s house are all perfectly normal things to do.
It took me years to finally allow myself to believe it. Until my mom showed me screenshots of his ambiguous conversations with that woman; until pictures of him lying on the same bed with that woman were shown to me — thanks, Mama. Now the image of a knowledgeable and considerate dad is completely gone. Now, I know for certain that Baba is a bad person.
Sometimes it amazes me to think about Baba as the overlap of two families. He’s now the father of four daughters? He can just effortlessly transition between this family and that when he travels back and forth between China and the United States? How incredible is that?
I have asked him why, after yet another few years of avoiding the topic in bewildered apprehension.
“Your mom and I have a failed marriage,” he finally answered one night, as he took me on an after-dinner walk. “There are many different challenges out in the world. When two people are unmatched in their educational backgrounds and their experiences, and when time stretches the gap even further, it is almost impossible to sustain a normal marriage bond.
“You’ll understand when you grow up,” he said. I did not respond at the time.
I’ll understand when I grow up?
I have heard Mama weeping in the living room, wiping away those goddamn tears. I have seen bruises and dried blood stains on Mama’s forehead.
And I understand those were because of you, Baba.
There was a time during high school when I was set on going to a music school for college. I started taking lessons — vocal, piano, music theory, and everything that might make me more qualified for an audition. Mama was in wholehearted support, and Baba was in wholehearted disapproval. It was those quarrels about my college decision that would spark those jarring comments about that woman, again and again.
“Huh, you just went outside to talk to her again? How’s she been?” she’d taunt. “Her two children are healthy? They’re cute, aren’t they?”
It seems like Mama became obsessed with revealing the wrongdoings of Baba in front of us, as if the mockery could heal or at least cover up her wounds. But what she probably didn’t know is, my sister and I were already so tired of her antipathy toward that woman.
Baba usually remained silent in response. Over time, my sister and I learned to stay silent as well. Time is such an interesting thing. It minimizes the mistake Baba made yet leaves traces of Mama’s frenzy.
I knew that her heart might have been scarred and shattered a thousand times over. Inside, she might be suffering perpetually between the desire to divorce and pressure from maternal relatives to maintain this exhausting relationship. “Having a complete family is better than anything,” Asian elders would say. Tuan yuan, the Chinese word for family reunion, is indeed so powerful that it pressures us to create the vision of a complete happy family.
“Ah, I’m just going to die in this house alone. Your Baba’s surely going back to China to live with his family there!”
But her childish and unbearable venting always made me forget about her pain. No matter how hard I tried to lead the topic astray, or annoyingly interrupt her with a loud, impatient comment, she would create this imaginary world of two wives and a husband, always wavering between brutally tearing this unethical bond apart or fitting herself ridiculously in it.
My sister bears most of the weight when I’m away in New York. It surprised me how much she was able to adapt when I wasn’t there. “I just ignore them,” she said. “I feel like the image of my parents has collapsed so completely that I don’t need to care too much about their scolding.”
It was as if she had created this safe shelter for herself. In it, there are no familial brawls, no unethical adultery, no communication, no understanding needed. I could do nothing but tell her that she can contact me anytime.
Mama, I know you are tired. We are tired too. Can you please not pick up the knife Baba used to hurt you and pierce our hearts all over again?
Baba just called from China. He said the hotel he stayed in for quarantine was a luxurious one, and he wanted to show me.
I was busy. I had essays and exams and a new college life. I sighed and picked up the phone, and answered his questions with curt and weary sentences. I tried to mask my impatience, but my annoyance when he interrupted my life away from the chaos always leaked out.
He must have noticed it because he told me to sleep early and hung up quickly. When did he become this fragile?
Suddenly, I realized I was wrong. I haven’t escaped from the conflict.
Because I just picked up that same knife and stabbed it into Baba.