Pater Et Ego (Father and I)
So we’ve come to the chapter on Dad. What can I say here that I haven’t said in the previous chapters? Plenty.
There was a time during my late teenage in which his previous employer offered him his job back. He was thinking of turning it down until I sat him down and explained the facts of life to him. Thinking back on it now I was also pretty angry that he could even THINK of declining when the situation at home was already so bad. Didn’t he want to make money? Support his children? Did he think doing nothing would actually help anyone?
I probably saved his job back then. I still have the email that he sent me in reply. (although it’s buried in some hard drive somewhere and I have had enough of digging through the past for a hundred lifetimes, so I’m not going to find it) It was about being “aloof” at work and not letting anything affect you.
Aloof. That’s my Dad all over. Don’t get involved, stay on the sidelines, see but don’t touch. You don’t want anyone to know you or rely on you. Analyze, introspect, criticize, but don’t do. Don’t do anything.
And then another time when I was agonizing over the JLPT in a café somewhere. The exam registration was tomorrow and I had the worst kind of cold feet ever. Of course now I know it wasn’t cold feet at all but unresolved trauma but back then I was horribly worried.
My Dad listened to some of what I talking about and then asked with the biggest smile on his face how I could blame him for this. If I hadn’t been so scared and worried I think I would have been angry. HOW THE FUCK COULD BLAMING HIM HELP ME TAKE THE JLPT? I have no idea what kind of thoughts were going through his brain at that moment but I imagine it had something to do with – Kain is in pain -> it must be my fault -> yay! Let’s both be miserable together.
His greatest desire was to be the reason why other people suffered, which led him to both of his wives. He was never happier as when he was the architect (real or imagined – usually imagined) of anyone’s problems. Everything was his fault. Why wouldn’t it be?
And he loved it when it was his fault. He gloried it in. Worried in it. Drowned himself in sadness and despair. Masochists have nothing on my father. While he was in China, he sent a recording to my Mum called “I A Man of Constant Sorrow” (by Dick Burnett) which fit him to a T.
Oh yes, and that goddamned sociology degree that always rose to the fore to confront any problem and failed. During my teenage years all I wanted was a hug every now and then and someone to listen but all I got was endless rounds of exposition on the class struggle. Social capital and supply and demand – not exactly healing for the soul.
All I Ever Got from my Father was Karl Marx
he was never one for gestures
not much for hugs or kisses
words were his thing.
when I asked for love
I got polemics
I sought answers
but he told me about the socioindustrial complex instead
Das Kapital was his answer to the injustices of the world
I would be hurting and asked
“why do people do bad things to each other?”
“it’s the class struggle”, he would reply
“each class wants to get to where the other is
and the upper class wants to stay there.”
but cold comfort to a youth
grappling with first loves
and the other less intellectual,
infinitely more real
problems of life.
I have no problems with the old man myself
I imagine he is sleeping somewhere
in the cold frozen earth,
dreaming blood-red Communist dreams
somewhere between teenage and adulthood
when I had done some of my own reading
(not all of it sociological in nature either)
it suddenly came to me in a flash
it wasn’t just a love for the good ole’ hammer and sickle
he wanted Marx to be HIS father.
and why not?
he didn’t have much a father, really
just a voice on the phone, shouting and shouting
a visit every few years or so
perhaps some money now and then
not much to go on.
who was there for him?
to give him the clear answers
show him how things worked
savior of millions!
enemy of capitalism!
with him you knew who the Bad Guys were…
the middle class!
after all, they controlled the means of production
but polemics afford little succor to a child
asking for love and affection
you can’t mend emotional wounds with socialism
no matter how efficient your systems of distribution
I’m sorry for him
sorry for myself
sorry for the Old Man himself
the world has moved on from that icy struggle
Soviet Russia is no more
the country of Mao is now a manufacturing powerhouse
as capitalist (state-based, yes, but capitalist all the same) as they come
and my father?
I’ve moved on too
in my own life I’ve found Freud, Keats, Winnicott, Anno et al
and friends, and dreams
to be far more helpful than just one man
no matter how much a visionary he was in the day.
but for my Dad, I think
old dreams die hard
Marx still sleeps deep within him
it’s hard for him to go into Starbucks
or to buy anything that’s not union-made or sanctioned
he doesn’t like cars
or any kind of transport that is not public
if it’s good enough for the proletariat
it’s good enough for him.
well, to each his own
I wish him well
he is my father, after all,
no matter who was his.
the world continues on and beyond
supply and demand
rich and poor
and the nature of commerce and money itself change.
the lines between real and virtual are blurring
and the theories and models of old dead white men
are burning, turning into ash,
into something that they could never dream of.
In terms of absolute time – hours, minutes, seconds – I did spend a lot of time with my father. But he was never really there. I can remember going out to buy things, take walks, check the prices on items which he would never use or buy (a favorite activity of his) and even play squash. I think the latter was during one of my depressive periods after OCD and Exams, in which I was just hankering for something – anything – to do.
We shared a lot of meals together. At cafes, in fast-food places (I hesitate to use the term “restaurant” on anything remotely related to fast-food) and in food courts. He would try to be attentive, but always his eyes would slide away at some point, to somewhere deep inside and far away. Worrying, always worrying. It was like when I was a kid again and I would try to tell him stories and he would always be distracted by something – work, books, his own family problems. Except this time the stakes were much higher and I desperately needed the love and attention he couldn’t fully provide.
We talked a lot. A LOT. But his rational mind could never reach me. Hundreds of hours and he never gave me a hug until I think I was in my mid-twenties or so. My mother and sister would tell me “why don’t you try talking to Dad” and I would try and after like an hour of conversation I would feel worse than before and have to resort to talking to Meimei instead. Which often helped but always put a lot of strain on her. Which made me feel guilty. Which made HER feel guilty. That same cycle again.
He tried. I’m sure he did. In fact I remember him trying, sometimes very hard. I would be the last person to say that it was no use, but it was not enough back then. And that is the fault of neither of us.
I remember when he dragged out his entire university history – from his first girlfriend to his piano-playing roommate and a strange Korean friend who loved eating pigeon’s heads. (at least that bit was interesting) After years of my listening patiently to this he finally confessed and said “I was trying to give you a handle on your situation.” And my reply, which was along the lines of “but there is nothing in your life that is relevant to mine and would help me with my problems.”
I think the time that I was the most disappointed in him was when he married Aunty Judy. He had an MA and was reasonably smart and capable (or so I thought at that time) Why would he marry this gold-digging hussy from China? And the time I was hurt most was when he threw his children under the bus when he said that he would never do so. It was another betrayal in a life already filled with them.
But he really did want to help, neuroses and psychoses and all. I think it was his earnest desire that led Meimei and I to accept him as our father again, after he had failed once, and then come back and failed AGAIN. He still wanted to help. Though it was years before his efforts, well-intentioned though they were, had any effect at all.
Why was he so useless? So ineffectual? I spent a long time thinking about it, and even discussing it with the man himself. I think it was mainly because deep down he did not believe that he could help. Belief is the cornerstone of any force in the universe, and without it you have nothing. But as the years passed I believed in him (to a degree) and so he began to believe in himself as well.
I cannot discount the abuse that he must have received from his mother either. It must have wrecked his child psyche in ways that I cannot even begin to imagine and it was never ever treated. Not like people in 1940s Singapore even KNEW what psychology was.
The two incidents that really stand out in my mind that he could recall were being abandoned by his mother at a bus station when he was about 2-3 years old. He cried and cried for hours before his mother came back and scolded him, then dragged him back. It explained why he always needed to know the way back home. If he couldn’t see or didn’t know how to get home he would go into a blind panic and not be able to do anything except try to find the way back.
Then there was being dragged around Chinatown at four because his mother was convinced his father was cheating on her and wanted to search every nook and cranny for evidence of his philandering behavior. Guess who had to come along? I know all about being forced to follow your mother everywhere.
Those things (and the other abuse he must have received but couldn’t remember) explained so much – his absent-mindedness and somewhat slow nature, his emotional distance and rationalization. He didn’t really have functioning parents either, and as such he didn’t know how to be one.
And the truth to those words…”take it easy.” You remember them? Once when I was re-reading the Princess Bride for the 10th time or so, I remembered what Wesley said to Buttercup – “as you wish.” Which was the only way he knew how to say “I love you.” What if all these years “take it easy” was exactly that? He didn’t know how to fight, only to rest, and so he gave his best advice he could. Take it easy.
He only turned the corner and began to really be a father when I was around 26-27, by which time he had had plenty of time to observe a good role model of fatherhood – namely, me. He saw how I counseled Meimei, listened to her slowly and carefully, smiled and laughed and really put my back behind what I believed in. He observed what it was to take responsibility for yourself and your emotions – and really DO it, not just fucking TALK about it.
I had a LOT of unlearning to do regarding my father. Thanks to mirror neurons (basically what you observe becomes you, especially at an early age) I had adopted a lot of his bad habits unconsciously that took a lot of pain, hardship and therapy to overcome.
Firstly, the rationalization. The rationalization about EVERYTHING. At a certain part of my life (Empty Motion) it was a necessary defense mechanism, but the damage it caused…I can remember being on the second retreat and in one moment realizing just how much I had suffered from thinking about things instead of doing them. My heart broke. I cried and I cried and I cried. So much wasted time and energy. So much wasted EVERYTHING. Thinking, thinking, always thinking.
Instead of doing something, he would give you a long list of reasons why he couldn’t do it, why it was a bad idea, why you should do something else…rather than just going out and DOING IT. Or not.
All my life I had been taught how great it was to think it through, to figure it out, to intellectualize and rationalize. I never realized what a scourge it could be.
The negativity and pessimism. Like I said way back in the second chapter, for my father there was no silver lining without its accompanying cloud. Nothing was so bad that it couldn’t get worse. We had to shield and defend ourselves from all the bogeyman out there (kind of like my Mum but maybe not as bad) Save, save, save and never spend. A lot of Asians have this mentality – actually scratch that, I think anyone who went through WW2 has this mentality. But it was hell to live with and fight through. The years of financial deprivation didn’t help either. I remember buying a computer (that I could well afford) and my entire upper torso locking up and having to cry for five minutes just to go through with the purchase.
The event that probably shattered him irrevocably was being called back to Singapore when he was twenty and just had been admitted to the Royal Birmingham College of Art. He had been studying in the UK at that time and a scholarship had been offered to him. He had promise, he had talent and the will to use it.
Here was this young man, on the brink of adulthood and dreams, and his domineering father just steps in and smashes all of it. Get your ass back here and join the family business OR ELSE. It’s pretty sad. My mother would always complain about him being a rich man’s son but it’s interesting that both of his wives thought that he was so much richer than he actually was. I think he was a pretty poor guy, all things considered. (and yes I mean that in both ways)
I still remember him telling this story and looking up slowly at the end into my eyes and saying “if it was you, you would have stayed. You would have found some way to make it work.”
Darn right I would! I would have become a mechanic, a baker, a shop assistant or something and gone to the school there. I would have told that Chinese businessman father to fuck himself and his goddamn biscuit business and gone on to Make Art. But then I (as in the writer of the book, Kain) wouldn’t have been born, and you wouldn’t be reading this, and…yeah. To go on any further is to go on into Star Trek territory and alternate realities and multiple universes. This isn’t the Days of Future Past.
When I was staying at his house sometimes he would look at me from out of the corner of his eye and there would be wonder and awe and admiration. Who is this stranger in my house? He seemed to say without speaking. Who is this boy/youth/man who is so strong, so smart and so brave? Can he really be my son? What has he become in all this time I’ve known and not known him?
I can’t know for sure what was going through his mind, of course. And initially I thought I was dreaming, that it was simply a trick of the light. But no, the awe was real. The man who couldn’t believe, looking at his son who could.
I cannot say that I gained nothing from my father. He was always well-spoken and educated and I reaped those benefits as well. As I said in the 2nd chapter he was always gentle, and perhaps some of my own kindness and compassion came from that as well. And part of the tragedy was that he never learned (as I did) to temper that gentleness with steel. There are times when we must fight, when we cannot back down. He once saw a counsellor (amazingly enough) and he said that his son wanted him to be angry, and she replied that I didn’t want him to be angry, I wanted him to be assertive. (especially with regards to his second wife!)
For a while I was more than a little jealous regarding my sister’s relationship with him. It’s like he could actually be her father and that stung when I wanted him to be mine. But once again Meimei told me the truth – that the reason he couldn’t be my father is that I was his! (in much the same way I had to “mother” my mother.)
And once again my dear sister was right. Though I wish she wasn’t.
We did spend good times together, and not just during my childhood either. There was all the cosplay he did with us, and we watched some movies, and we played some games. He really really tried to be interested in what we were doing. He bought some of the best presents ever. He told us stories and we sang together more than a few times.
I thought back to the wooden swords and the cosplaying, and all that was good and cherished and wonderful. But we needed something more. I needed a father and so did my sister. We didn’t need wooden swords (as nice as they were to have) and late night meals and fun and games as much as we needed a father who could stand up and protect us and show us what we needed to do, who would provide discipline and security and love. I would have traded all those costumes and DVDs for that in a heartbeat.
As part of a therapy exercise once I had to write a letter to my Dad as a child and all I could come up with (after going REALLY deep and crying and everything) was “Play with me. Stop Mum.” The letter was supposed to be like a page long but all I got was two lines. Two lines for someone who was with me almost my entire life.
I’ve asked myself many times what is and was the difference between him and I. He had no Evangelion or Super Robot Wars to bolster his spirit and soul and lead him out of the dark places. He lacked friends and never seemed to want to make more, even though many wanted to be a friend of his. He had his art but it did not seem to be enough in many ways. Was it choice? Abuse? Or something else?
At his core lay a lonely, frightened little boy, forced by his mother to be responsible far before he was ready (much like me, come to think of it)
Around when I was twenty-seven or so things had simmered down enough between everyone that we would go out once every week to have dinner or lunch together. These were the Interim Years and I was so, so, happy to spend time with my father which was not spent discussing psychology (unfruitfully, I might add) or talking about my Mum or breaking down in tears.
We were…ok. (after a fashion) We could talk and eat and discuss things like a Normal Family. After a while it grew stale, but I was happy. At least one wish had been fulfilled in a life in which broken dreams were much more common.
My Dad has always been a follower. He has never wanted to lead, never wanted to succeed, never wanted to achieve. He used to always say I had drive and that my drive came from my Mum and I used to believe him – until I realized that that was just another rationalization.
He used to tell me this story about Gunther Grass and how if everyone was moving in the wrong direction and you stood still that you were better off than the rest of the crowd. But after a few years I was forced to wonder – wait, what if everyone was moving in the RIGHT direction? Then what?
All those things I heard during my teenage and young adulthood – ideas and concepts and ways of life. I spent so long trying to fit them into shape and make sense of them. Did sociology mean that people were this way? What was social capital really about? Maybe it explained how my friends were acting. And then realizing after so many years that it was just all smoke and mirrors.
But after all this time and all the reasons and understanding and analysis and what have you…at the end I just have to say goodbye.
It was hard to let go. I write this and I can’t actually believe I have done it. In the last few years I think my younger self has still wanted Dad to come home, to Be Good, to well, be a father! Especially since things were better now, it looked like he could actually help more (not that he didn’t help at ALL, just not enough) And Florence would smile and gently cut through all my rationalizations and arguments and logic and ask “can you accept that your parents were not there for you then and are not there for you now?”
Yes, actually! I already did. It suddenly hit me that I had done so perhaps as early as fifteen. Because if I had lived in that delusion I would never have gotten to where I was now. But letting go is a process. There are parts of us that don’t want to do so and with good reason. Let’s not blame ourselves (another thing I have had multiple lifetimes of) any more than we already do. Shane isn’t coming back any more than my father did.
But unlike that cowboy of legend in a way he’s still here. What I didn’t receive from him doesn’t erase his efforts, and his efforts don’t erase what I didn’t receive. Both truths are congruent. I’ve forgiven but not forgotten – and with good reason. Why should I forget the good? Or the bad? They both happened.
At least for us there is a happy ending. We both tried very hard – incredibly hard! And I think that at the end our hands did touch each other. He fought on in his own way and with his own tools – no giant mecha or shining blades but just trying his best to listen. In the last few years he did come through more than once – listening, talking, connecting on some level that wasn’t intellectual or sociological. I needed more but I didn’t get that but in the end I learned to stand on my own two feet and that is enough.
It was just recently that we had a talk. I told him that he could do better for himself, that his art was good enough to support his wife and him, that he didn’t just owe it to himself to succeed – he owed it to Meimei and me and his wife as well. Did he feel guilty? If he did then this was the time to do something about it. Pay me back now since you couldn’t then.
He went full pessimist. If you wish to indict me, he said, then I stand indicted. Using all the best of British English at his disposal, he told me to blame him in a dozen eloquent ways. It was that thing with the JLPT again, something that had happened more than a hundred times since – it’s all my fault! C’mon, blame me more! MORE! It’ll make you feel better. It’ll make ME feel better. Blame me and then I won’t have to do anything about it.
It was the Dad that I had come to hate (and love) What a guilt addict! Never realizing that guilt is a double-edged sword, and you do yourself and the world a disservice by never using more than one side.
The anger of the past surged back but it was mixed with compassion. I knew that a lot of what he said he couldn’t help – it was unconscious beliefs and abuse and ego defense and goodness knows what else. He was destroying himself and others and he didn’t even know it.
But right at the end he said that he would take what I have to say seriously. (He always has.) So there was a connection there. That’s good enough for me.
Much like with my mother, I have to let him go – and I have. He is happy with his current job (I think) even though (or perhaps because!) it is well below his abilities. He goes out with his wife. He even stands up to his family on occasion. He – wonder of wonders – BUYS THINGS WITHOUT CHECKING TWICE now. Sometimes.
I have to accept that my dreams for him are not his dreams for himself, that he may very well go to his grave unfulfilled and wounded in many, many ways. But that is his destiny, not mine. It is more than past time to move on.
So Dad, if you’re reading this, what I said still stands true. I forgive you completely and absolutely for everything you’ve ever done. You can do better for yourself, should you wish to do so. Take care of Judy. Eat more vegetables. Exercise more. Don’t be such a fucking pussy, seriously.
I love you.