The story begins in Taiwan, sometime in the 1950s, under martial law. A young boy watches his father, dragged away by the Republic of China, during the White Terror. The father is probably calm and stoic, but the mother is probably distraught, terrified. She’s a cheerful, extroverted teacher, a lover of parties and revelry, with immaculately curled black hair. The White Terror, enacted by the KMT, those chased out of China by the violence of the civil war, imprisons 14,000 people in the KMT’s new island home: people who they believe might be sympathetic to Communism.
Or perhaps it begins when the young boy is actually now a grown man, who has a nine-year old daughter. It is 1999, and he is holding a pair of tan cargo pants, the kind with seven useful and deep pockets all over, from the boy’s section at Ross: Dress for Less. “You are not a lesbian,” he says, in clipped and accented English. His daughter is acutely regretting her choice twenty minutes ago to disgustedly push away her sister’s frilly pink and purple floral shirt and to loudly declare, “I HATE pink, and I HATE flowers.”
She is also wondering here, how he knows the word “lesbian.” Seems like a sort of complex word.
Or maybe it begins circa 2002, when he finds Jesus or God or at least Hillsong Christian music, but for real this time, and starts his own community home church. It sounds like it should really be the end of the story, but finding Jesus-God-Hillsong-whatever doesn’t begin when the hitting ends; the prayers and blows on his daughters, to their dismay, coincide for another decade.
But maybe, maybe the story actually began the moment I was pulled out of my mom’s womb by a gloved physician in Monterey Park, red-faced and crying, fat rolls undulating like the Michelin Man. “She’s perfect!” cried my father (maybe). Even until now, he keeps a photograph of me, curled up and asleep on his chest like a little roly-poly, in his Bible (for sure).
I remember, when my father hit me, I would be curled up tight in a little ball in a corner, my little sister Michelle dramatically throwing her arms out like a mini-Asian Jesus Christ and sobbing her guts out, pleading my case. In most cases, I had merited this punishment with my glib tongue, but other times for my sneaky habit of hiding poor test grades from my parents.
We would do this for each other when we could. When we were little children, we really believed that my father might actually deposit one of us like used soda cups on the side of the road on the way to Las Vegas. Once, when I was stranded on the side of the road, I began to desolately walk, along the sun-bleached road, towards what I thought was maybe my home, feeling pathetically sorry for myself.
In a few minutes, my parents’ gray van pulled up next to me, and I was invited back on. My sister’s face was tear-streaked and red from crying so loudly and so much, and my mother informed me, face completely composed (she knew all along that they’d come back), that I ought to thank Michelle – it was really all due to her convincing that I was allowed back into the car and back on the family vacation.
Michelle remembers all this clearly. When I saw her last, she reminded me of a terrible thing I did that I didn’t even remember. “Once when you were in high school,” she began, “I did something late at night to anger Dad.” It was hard for me to remember which night, because it happened so frequently. She described how he yelled and struck her that night as she knelt on the floor.
“But you didn’t come this one time,” she told me, in a tone that carried no hurt. Or maybe I had just imagined the laughter in her tone. “But I remember hearing your voice, laughing, as you talked to your friends on your computer. And I felt so betrayed at that moment.”
I couldn’t remember that exact incident, but I did remember another betrayal: a time she came home, slightly drunk, from a party. I was lying in bed, blankets pulled all the way up over my awful body, pretending to sleep, trying to muffle the noises - screams and sobs and the sounds of my sister being kicked.
My non-actions, my silence – they led to sickening thuds on the body of my sister.
My sister called me right after winter break of my senior year at Wellesley College, asking me why couldn’t I just, maybe, be single forever, or maybe just never tell Mom and Dad about my girlfriend. “Dad found my birth control,” she said, “and it did not go well.”
Her boyfriend of then-three years had to write my parents an apology letter. He slipped it under the door, and they angrily crumpled it and threw it away. My father still can’t look him in the eye, though he will still pay for half their wedding six years from that conversation.
“Look,” she said on the phone, “it’s just, not a really good time.”
I agreed. I remembered that in high school, when I had cut my hair short, my father had bitterly scoffed, “Looks like a lesbian.” He spat out the last word out of his mouth like hard piece of bone in his food. My mom hushed him, but I had already heard what he said.
Could I have both a girlfriend and the approval of my parents? I wanted to know, so I dipped my toe into the murky and uncertain waters as I prepared to leave for China. “What would you do if one of your daughters had a girlfriend?” I asked my sweet, ditzy mother.
Her large, beautiful eyes welled up with tears. “I would kill myself,” she proclaimed. My mother was the chill parent.
I felt that I should not reveal this information at this time.
“It really hurt my feelings you didn’t come to hear my sermon,” my father says.
He did want me to go; he even gave me a job to photograph him so I wouldn’t be awkwardly hanging around, sulking in a folding chair, embarrassing him in front of his congregation. But the night before, I confessed to both parents that I did not want to go.
I am twenty six, almost twenty seven now; I visit my parents once a year, and I never attend their church when I do. My father has not hit me since I became financially independent at 22. I feel guilt creeping into my body.
But I have never liked church. I have always found it depressing to talk to the other church people and I feel desperately awkward when they’re kind to me.
“Why are you so anti-Christ?” he asks. He doesn’t mean it to sound as terrible as it does; his English is still a work in progress. I fight the urge to roll my eyes like a teenager. It’s time to apologize again and go back to my phone.
Dad casually tries again, Chinese, with which he sounds so much more fluent and intelligent, “I think I embarrassed Michelle,” he begins, “when I apologized during my sermon to her for all the mean things when you two were little.”
He wanted me to be there to hear this.
But I am hardening again, and I don’t want to be guilted for my choices. He can still apologize to me in private; it doesn’t have to be in public. You can’t have an honest conversation when the apology occurs in front of hundreds of Chinese church-goers. Or perhaps I am just a bratty child, and I should say sorry. Jesus would forgive, I think silently in my head; though I don’t even believe in Jesus anyway.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
It doesn’t escape me that I’m apologizing for missing his apology.
I wonder how we can escape the violence that we inherit from our ancestors. We -- the dispossessed, the immigrants, the travelers -- we carry trauma with us as we cross borders, through nations and conventions and cultures, and we unwittingly inflict it on those around us. (What a horrible, racist image I hold of myself, as a carrier of a secret disease.)
Scientists have researched a phenomenon called transgenerational trauma, and some believe that it can be epigenetically transferred from parent to child, through the DNA that we inherit. I find it a bit hokey and unbelievable, but I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps it is in my DNA, and that it is inescapable because violence in coded into my very being. I am not a survivor of war, nor is my father, though he served in the Taiwanese army – it seems melodramatic to compare my daily struggles to such a thing. But I also fear myself: As a teacher, I’ve become angry and let my voice rise in ways I didn’t want. Will I, too, strike my children?
“I don’t want to hit my children,” I tell my then-partner (who is a man, to my parents’ relief).
“I don’t either,” he says. I wonder to him if my upbringing is normal – isn’t it “part of the culture”? Sometimes my sister and I debate whether it is cultural or not, or whose childhood was sadder (she thinks mine, because my tooth was permanently chipped from being flung into a wall, or was it my bed? Who can remember, anyway?).
“Honestly,” she texted me, yesterday, when I asked her opinion again, “I think my child-young adulthood was fine, because I attributed a lot of my conflicts with parents to their cultural upbringing.”
She also believes it’s generational, just a product of the times. My father often told us that Ye-Ye never showed any sort of fatherly affection to him, but just reared him and his other five siblings strictly and stoically, with no feelings but lots of corporal punishment. That’s just Chinese culture, he told us, but he knew that Ye-Ye loved him from how strict he was. He (my father) was doing a lot better as a parent, he explained. He gave us lots of hugs and told us he loved us, frequently.
We are very liberal and American, my parents said, when we complained about the hits.
My then-partner is silent as he ponders my question about culture. He doesn’t agree it’s just cultural – his parents, also immigrants from another country in Asia, Vietnam, did beat him, but not like that. “Your parents were also really young,” my then-partner tells me. It is true. I imagine two young immigrant 20-year olds with two fat, red-faced, screaming babies that grow into loud-mouthed girls who have pre-marital sex and bad math grades and wear boy clothes. It seems hard.
Would I just hit them out of misguided love and frustration?
I wonder if I am old and wise enough to have a child of my own, one that grows up brave and strong and loved, unmarred by beatings, with an unsilenced voice.
But when does this story begin?
Ming-Ying is a human interested in the intersection of art, education, and activism. Her art centers around social justice, the feminine, and all things cute. She is passionate about: Black Lives Matter, Asian Pacific-Islander representation, queer counter-narratives, and educational equity. She also loves cheeseburgers, despite half-hearted aspirations to be vegetarian.