A few years ago, my dad came to visit me while I was living in France. On a night out, we went to the arthouse theater in Montpellier to watch a Chinese movie that had just come out. The movie takes place in Shanxi province, a few hundred kilometers west of Beijing, and when it started, I found I couldn’t understand any of the dialogue. All the words were spoken in the wrong tone, with the wrong stress, and yet they had a maddening similarity to Mandarin that made comprehensibility seem just out of reach. It was as though I’d had a stroke, and a portion of my mind’s speech center had been injured.
In the darkness of the theater, I turned to my dad and whispered: “Why are they talking so weird?”
“It’s dialect,” he told me. “I can’t understand it myself.”
The movie was not otherwise notable but walking through the Place de la Comédie back to my apartment, my dad mentioned that his father, my grandfather, was also from Shanxi.
A beat passed before I could think to ask the question: “Then why don’t you understand the dialect?”
“I only got to meet my father once,” he declared. “And I didn’t even get to talk to him.”
Separated from them for my entire life, I’ve always been aware that there are lacunae in my understanding of my extended family. I knew that both my grandmothers were married at least twice, but I’ve never been able to broach the question of how the branches of my family tree were shaped. Every time I go back to China, I’m presented with another half-uncle or aunt whose existence I’d not been aware of. I was surprised to realize that the man whom I’ve always known as my paternal grandfather, a kindly old man of whom I have only one memory — smiling with grandpaternal glee as he handed me and my brother popsicles when we returned from sleepaway prekindergarten on the weekends — was my dad’s stepfather.
My dad was the youngest of four children. He was four when my grandmother and biological grandfather divorced. In a move that strikes me as utterly Chinese, the family was split with a Solomonic equitableness that was like a mockery of common sense: My grandfather got custody of the two oldest children, my grandmother the two youngest.
Split thus, the family wouldn’t be reunited until fifteen years later, by the time my dad was already in college. But by then, too much time had passed. He couldn’t, in comparison to his older sister, who still shared some memories with her older siblings, enter the conversation with his other siblings when the meeting finally arrived. As for his father, the old man had suffered a stroke and lost the capacity to speak, and my father didn’t know if he could even understood the words he spoke to him.
My dad is an inveterate autodidact. He took up piano at thirty-five, painting at forty-five. In his forties and fifties, his love for impressionism had taken on the cast of obsession. On my mom’s suggestion, I’d invited him to come to France to see the pictures and places in person. The day after he’d landed in Paris, we went to visit the Musée D’Orsay, where he moved with the confidence of an art critic, able to distinguish at a glance, say, a Sisley from a Pissarro. (“Just look at the trees!”) At one of the Monets, he pulled out his iPad up to show me a photo of his own attempt to copy it, holding it up with the unself-conscious uncoolness of an old person taking an iPad photo, next to the original. To really copy a painting, you have to see it in person, he explained to me. You can’t tell how the strokes are made unless you see the texture of the oils up close. For me his expertise, was as impressive as a magic trick. He alerted me to the confident downward strokes of Degas’ pastels, and this fascinated me so much that I was hissed at by one of the museum security guards for coming too close to the painting: a pale dancer on an empty stage, arms drooping, her body tensed in preparation for a spin.
My dad works as an interpreter these days, and I know that he feels it’s a step down from his career before, but it’s what he could find after the foundering of my parent’s financial advising business in the late 2000’s. He speaks, at times, with the air of defeatism of a man who has missed out on his chances to become rich. Back at the apartment, as we’re making dinner, he tells me how, at twenty-nine, he gave up his job teaching English at Peking University to join my mother in the U.S. He’d handed his textbooks to his roommate, along with a recommendation letter for his position. Twenty-five years later, he would return to discover that his friend had built a veritable business empire from those books: the largest chain of English language schools in China. The man owned a skyscraper in Beijing. When my dad tried to visit him, he’d ignored his phone calls.
Understanding his envy, I try to cheer him up by reminding him that having come to the U.S., he gave his children a far better chance in the world. That he was able to have, in addition to his twin sons, a daughter. Perhaps he would have hoped that his sons would fulfill his dreams of being rich, but, hateful irony! my father, from whom I inherited my great thirst for travel, would also bequeath to me his tendency to indolence, his indifference to luxury; I don’t think he would have predicted that I would have used the money I made to simply run off and travel. Or maybe he would have hoped that I would have been more like my mother, that in me, his impracticality would have been diluted by her prodigious capacity for hard-work, or that his own lack of material ambition would have been corrected by her love of status.
The essential mismatch between my parents’ characters, which though it produced competent and perhaps well-rounded children, was also what would doom their marriage. Incapable of communicating with each other without shouting, maladroit at resolving their differences through any means but fighting, their marriage had never stood a chance. Still, though I remain furious at both my parents for the violent arguments that formed the background of my childhood, I can’t, as an adult, put any of the blame on either of them, even my dad. He had married my mother for the same reason I would have chosen to marry: She was the most beautiful woman he knew.
Perhaps the only thing that had saved their marriage was the ten years they spent separated from each other. Living apart, they could no longer impinge on each other’s lives. And in his apartment in D.C., my dad could finally revert to the bachelordom that was his natural state, that was, perhaps, his truest self. Thus, on my visits to his apartment, I would find a scene that was a cross between Hoarders and Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, his bedroom crammed with art books and stacks of canvasses, and, for some reason, not one or two, but three painting easels. The only clear space in his room reserved for an upright piano which he practiced on for hours each day. Summer nights, he pitched a pup tent in the backyard and slept outdoors, surrounded by Appalachian Trail guidebooks, the pages curled by Virginia rains.
He’d talked to me often of his desire to go hiking the trail someday, when he retired, if he ever did retire. In his late teens, my father had wandered all over China. He’d told me once when I was in college, how at my age, he’d spent an entire year wandering from town to town, asking for work where he could get it, on farms and construction sites, and working just enough to earn a meal and a place to sleep the night. He spoke matter of factly about this experience, and mentioned it only once to me. He explained it all without commentary, but I understood the message he was telling me.
In France, my dad tells me that he had gotten the job teaching English at Peking University because he’d been one of the few English majors at the university, one of the best. The pay wasn’t very good, but it was a prestigious position, and it had one major perquisite: His female students would occasionally come to his office to ask for advance copies of the final exams. His young wife abroad, my father was not a man rich in compunction about compromising academic integrity in the service of getting laid. He tells me the story of how one time, he’d been invited over by a young divorcée for tea and an English tutorial. The lesson had run long. Past ten o’clock, the buses no longer running, they were left with no recourse but for him to stay over. “All right, you can stay the night,” she’d told him. “But you can’t sleep with me.” With puckish glee, he explains that the evening reached its inevitable conclusion.
Laughing at this story, slicing radishes in our sleeveless t-shirts in the tiny kitchen of my apartment on the Rue de l’Université, we are momentarily not father and son, but two bachelors reminiscing over missed chances, distant conquests. The restrictions of our relationship finally lifted. Or maybe this is how fathers and sons do talk: Owing to the bizarreness of my own, I feel utterly ignorant about what is and isn’t normal within a family. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a real conversation with my dad, one where it felt like we could say what was really on our minds. Perhaps this isn’t his fault. Fatherless, in a way, he might not have had the practice (“I only met my father once. And I didn’t even get to talk to him.”).
Months later, when I tell him on the phone that I’m planning to go travelling again, he advises me against it. This came as a surprise. I know he’d always dreamed of travelling. Perhaps it was this that he’d sacrificed for our family. Proud of his travels around China, of all the people who have advised me against going travelling again, I would have expected him to be the one to say that I should go. But he was worried, he said, that I’d never find a home if I kept wandering.
I didn’t take his advice. Perhaps I never have. But his approach to fatherhood has been of the kind to refrain from giving advice, and I understand that more than anyone else, he’d never dreamed for me that I should be anyone but myself. And this laissez-faire approach, this essential unjudgmentality stemmed from the eccentricity of his own passions, from the same desire to be free, from the same sentiment that would lead him to finding consolation in copying Monets in a garage in the suburbs of Houston, so very distant from the city he’d grown up in, and from the land of the father he’d failed to know
John Gu grew up in Houston and studied mathematics at the University of Texas. His work has appeared in the Missouri Review, the Southern Review, Hobart, and Eclectica. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.