Recently, I took a storytelling workshop at the Podcast Garage. We analyzed stories from Moth StorySLAMs, which are open-mic events where people get to present five-minute-long, true, personal stories. In the workshop, we also worked with one another to develop our own Moth-style stories. The workshop culminated with a storytelling showcase for family and friends that took place two Sundays ago. In crafting and telling this story, I got a chance to reflect on my relationship with my father, learn a bit about myself, and throw myself out of my comfort zone and onto the stage. For me, the performance was a good wrap to my foray into storytelling in 2017.
As we move into 2018, I hope to continue telling stories and getting in front of a mic. The following is a revised version of the story I told, adapted for text.
One of my dad’s favorite catch phrases is: “Stand by!”
When I was a kid, he said that a lot to me and my brother, especially when we were working in the salon.
A typical scene might go like this: it’s lunchtime, there’s only one customer, and my mom is cutting hair, so I go to the kitchen to eat. A few bites into my McChicken and I hear the doorbell ring, followed by the sound of footsteps and chattering by a bunch of walk-in customers. Like a military general preparing to go to DEFCON 1, my dad rushes past the kitchen and says to me: “It’ll get busy soon. Stand by!”
Or: It’s a nice day out, and my dad gives me and my brother permission to go play basketball later in the afternoon. Then, the telephone rings, and my dad takes the call. Soon after, he hangs up and says to me: “a family of four is coming in 30 minutes. Your mom might need help. Stand by!”
If my dad had orders for us, we were always ready to execute them.
My brother and I had a reputation for being extremely good, obedient kids. We did everything we were told, we were polite, and we never talked back to our parents. I listened to my father, even when his ideas were questionable.
Once, my dad was driving me to the DMV for my written test. I felt unprepared because I only started studying two days prior. My dad told me not to worry: “This is what you do: Stand in front of the entrance to the DMV, wait for a pretty, young lady who just took the test to come out. You flirt with her and charm her into giving you her test results.” Now, you might say that I could’ve just refused to carry out his plan. But I was conditioned to dutifully follow his orders. My obedient instincts were shaped by memories of getting sob-inducing whippings for eating candy when he told me not to (even when they were offered by nice aunties who insisted that I try some) or of being berated for being as stupid as a pig whenever I fail to accomplish tasks like buying the Chalupa Supreme from Taco Bell with chicken instead of steak. So, I got out of the car, walked to the entrance of the DMV, and waited.
After a few minutes, I saw a female test-taker walking out of the DMV, so I said hello to her. She was very friendly and pleasant to talk to, but I didn’t lose sight of my objective. I casually asked her whether the test was hard and told her how nervous I was about taking the test. To my surprise, she said: “Would you like to take a look at my test?” So I did. Then, we said our goodbyes, and I went in. Apparently, her test was only one of four versions that they gave out. I scanned over my test, and as luck would have it, I got the version she had. So I took the test and missed only one question so as not to push my luck. I passed the test, but I failed to challenge the unethical nature of the plan and its sexist undertones.
As I grew older, I found myself disagreeing and arguing with my father more frequently.
One winter, I was back home after months of being away in college, and I got into a heated argument with my father. Like most of our arguments, it started out as a debate about politics. The disagreements always boiled down to the question: Do the ends justify the means? My father believes so. He might argue: Would China have become such a prosperous country if its leaders had not censored journalists or punished dissidents? The conversation would gradually shift towards family matters, but the disagreement remained the same. Would the salon be doing so well if my father hadn’t been such a demanding and harsh boss? Would our family be safe on the road, if my father had allowed my mother to drive the car? Would my brother and I have become such good students and fine young men if my father hadn’t driven my mom up a mountain, beaten her, and prevented her from getting a divorce?
It was not the first time I had heard this, but this time, the pride with which my dad talked about hitting my mom and his unwillingness to acknowledge any wrongdoing tipped me over the edge. I jumped up, seized my chair, and heaved it over my head. I wanted to throw it at him. When I motioned to throw it, I saw my father flinch. Seeing his fear, I felt a sense of vindictive triumph and glee. I taunted him: “You flinched, didn’t you?” I faked another throw, and he flinched again. “That’s how it feels when someone holds this kind of power over you.” And with that, I threw down the chair, we yelled at each other some more, and then I left.
That was not the last time that we fought, but it was definitely the most intense. For a while, I couldn’t keep myself from getting into arguments with him because, deep down, I held on to the idea that I can make him understand.
Two months ago, I got a text from him. He had been fined by the IRS for not filing his tax return. He wanted me to call the IRS to try to waive or delay the penalty. My immediate impulse was to do as he asked. But then I paused. After a few moments, I texted him back: “It’s better if you call yourself.” His texts became angry, and he tried to call me multiple times. Then more texts:
“Why are you afraid to pick up my calls?!”
“Wait and see how I deal with you!!”
“I raised you for nothing.”
I never did return his calls or respond to his texts.
I am no longer standing by.