Thursday, March 2, 2017

When the Story Tree Dies

As a tourist in Beijing, the last thing you want is to have to go to a Chinese emergency room.

But there I was on a Chinese family vacation in Beijing in 2001, having lunch in a standard-issue, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that maintained standard-issue Chinese cleanliness (read: dirty). And I had just gotten a fishbone stuck in my throat. A sharp, thick, horizontal dagger of a cod bone.

Panic ensued. My sister yelled, "Your throat might swell shut and they'll have to cut your windpipe open so you can breathe!"

No! I thought. I'm not going to a Chinese emergency room! Not if it's as grimy as this restaurant!

My kid brother, eleven years old, jumped into action. He instructed me to down a teacup of vinegar, followed by a ball of rice he mashed together, to be swallowed without chewing. It didn't work. We tried again. More vinegar, another ball of rice. More panic.

Meanwhile, Dad was sitting across the round table from me. All calm.

Several minutes passed. Then Dad quietly asked, "Are you done yet?"

My frustrated brother nodded. I gulped, the bone was unmoved.

Dad proceeded to take his teacup and write something on its surface with his fingertip. "Drink this," he said. He placed it on the lazy Susan and spun it to me. I drank it.

"It's not working," I said.

"Wait," Dad said.

Ten long seconds passed. Then, I could feel the fish bone wriggling its way up my throat. It was graphic. I stuck my fingers in my mouth. My sister winced. I pulled out the inch-long cod bone. It looked like an evil little white machete.

"It worked!" kid brother yelled.

"What did you write on the tea?" I asked Dad.

"It's a secret," he answered. "Your grandmother did it for us when we were children, and she taught it to me before she died."

Fantastic! I thought. Family secrets! My family is magic.

Except that now it's 2017. And Dad died two weeks ago, on February 16th. And to my knowledge, he didn't teach me nor either of my siblings what he wrote in the teacup that day.

And with him went hundreds of other stories that he used to tell us, stories that we thought we'd hear over and over again to infinity. Sadly, we were wrong. We would only hear his stories until that Thursday when he died. Dad lived through his stories. He was the sage, the scholar, the storyteller. And even if I could read the same facts about Einstein's relativity or the history of China on my own, they weren't being brought to life by Dad.

Death is the ultimate blank page, open to endless interpretation. Where did Dad go? Does he still live with us now, just invisible? Or is death just a dark, dense black pit of nothingness where all Dad's life memories are wasted, deleted? I can think I know, but I can't be sure. I do know, however, that I'll always feel like I missed a great opportunity in not recording Dad's stories better. Darnit, I should have turned on my voice recorder more often whenever he started talking. In the last half year of Dad's life, he began -- only began -- to write his memoir. I tried to put him on a schedule, twenty more pages by Christmas! But I discovered that the Chinese technique of being a tiger parent doesn't work in the other direction. He was so tired, uncomfortable, in pain. Okay fine, Dad, no typing today.

Dad's heart stopped beating on a Thursday in February. Two days before that, he had sent me the last installment of his memoir which until then only told of the lives of his older deceased relatives. And at the very end of the Pages document, in bold letters, were the words: My Childhood. A new segment, all about Dad. He was going to write about all the wondrous things he had seen. That new chapter, however, only contained one lonely, solitary paragraph about being born in Shanghai.

The rest of his story now remains forever suspended, invisible in the air, in the form of words that he spoke, that we had to commit solely to our memories of him talking.

But then, a strange coincidence happened on that exact Thursday in February. At the beginning of this year, I had set up a giveaway for my novel, Trixi Pudong and the Greater World. And by a bizarre chance, the deadline to enter the giveaway was midnight on the day that Dad died, February 16th. So, that night, minutes after my siblings and I got home from the hospital where Dad had been delivered away, I received a quiet email from Goodreads with a list of the fifty winners who would receive a copy of my book. Over 1600 people had entered, and the list of winners was international: Twenty-seven books would be sent within the US, eight to Canada, seven to India, six to Great Britain, and one each to Australia and Denmark.

I spent five years writing Trixi Pudong; it is my attempt at immortalizing some of Dad's stories into a magical family saga. This way, I would never forget his stories. This way, maybe Dad's stories would shine outside of our family. To write the book, I visited Dad twice in Shanghai, scribbling down notes as he led me around his beloved city. His stories are the reason why the book exists. But they are woven into a novel that I wrote, they are not being told by Dad anymore. I'll never re-tell them like Dad did. What I put together, with his stories in my way, is honestly and truly the best that I could do, but they're not in Dad's words.

Fifty books, signed and ready to be mailed off
on February 17, 2017.

I think everyone in my family feels the same way now, that trying to remember all of Dad's stories was always like trying to catch the falling autumn leaves with our bare arms. And then one day, the story tree died.

No one else in my family writes novels, no one else is that foolish. Nearly 100% percent of my relatives are engineers. Dad was an engineer, not a writer. He was a speaker, a storyteller, but still not a writer. And as I'm putting together his bits of memoir and interviews, I see that something will always get lost through his own meager writings or in transcribing his speaking. I see that, just as some beautiful people are unphotogenic so you'd best see them in person, Dad's stories were meant to be heard live. Their preservation is life-based: Living friends and relatives will have to recount, "Remember when Dad said such-and-such?"

Those voices will be our own. But the faint background noise will be Dad, telling us to keep talking, to keep spending time with each other. Keep making people laugh and stare in awe, because our family is magic.


An abridged version of this essay will be part of Dad's upcoming memoir. Thank you to everyone who entered my giveaway for Trixi Pudong and the Greater World. 

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