homegoing/T-minus 10 (2021)
In the past two years, the pandemic has indubitably taken a toll on everyone. For me, it was the sacrifice of a few relationships, especially those with my close friends and some family. In this piece, I write about going 'home' to Hong Kong in the summer of 2021, and finally seeing my father for the first time in a year. Among other feelings, I distinctly remember how odd returning home felt, with a tension between what was familiar and foreign to me. Yet, especially with friends and family, there's always a feeling that nothing will ever change, despite whatever has happened, and that is therefore what I try to capture in this piece.
It is barely noon on a Saturday and already the streets of Hong Kong are abuzz. After a year apart, my family and I have plans to meet for lunch today. I am meeting my dad first, in 10 minutes. A steady stream of cars pass by on the street. A honk sounds, then a shout, then the metronome of the crosswalk signs rings out: “tick, tick, tick”. Here we go again. I break into a jog, eager to return to the city of my childhood, and to see my dad once more.
My dad lurks in the background of my memories like a shadow. Throughout elementary school, he would always be gone by the time I woke up, with coffee stained mugs and open newspapers the only indication he was ever there. I imagine he spends the whole day working in his office downtown, managing the company’s funds and conducting meetings. I imagine he eats his daily eel bento box at his desk, too focused on his work to take time off of it. He would only return in the late of the night, shuffling out of his loafers and flicking on the light switch. He would always leave a chaste kiss on my forehead, every night before bed.
I am now six, with a closet full of princess dresses and a great love for Barbie and Disney movies that I have yet to outgrow. Every Sunday, I drag my dad to my little plastic craft table, set up with rainbow crayons and my picture book for Sleeping Beauty. Every Sunday, I ask him to copy– by hand– the photos for me to put on my wall. Six year old me had no idea photocopiers existed, and when he was with me, he pretended he didn’t, too. He would oblige every time, knowing fully well that within a week I would be asking for more.
For my thirteenth birthday, my mom takes me to get my ears pierced. At this point, my Disney phase is over, my walls free from princess posters and my dress-up box hidden away in storage. My dad is away on a business trip, but I arrive home to find sparkly faux diamond and emerald dangly earrings on my desk. Ones that I could imagine Ariel from the Little Mermaid wearing. For my little princess. You can be anything you want to be, 小不點 , the note says.
It is the summer before 10th grade, and my anxiety has been keeping me up. I lie in bed, under the stars, drowning in the weight of the world. Climate change. Poverty. Social injustice. I try to anchor myself in the clouds, but they drift away, floating westward like a paper boat does downstream. The clicking of a keyboard is what leads me into the living room, laptop in hand. In the square of light the monitor emits onto my dad, his wrinkles look deeper, his hair flatter. The burden of being the breadwinner of the family. He looks up as I approach.
“Hey, it’s late.” his eyes look tired as he searches mine. I know he wants to give me a lecture on going to bed earlier, but he notices the near-imperceptible shake of my head and realizes I can’t sleep. It’s a feeling he knows all too well. “Can’t sleep?”
“Yeah.” A beat passes. His watchful gaze follows me as I sink into the sofa, tilt open my computer screen, and begin typing on my own keyboard. For a brief moment, I wonder if he can read my computer screen from across the room. “The Truth about Being Young”, the near-blank document states; the piece I am working on is an ode to my teenage angst and anxiety. But soon enough, he looks away, and we sit there in the quiet space, the taps on our keyboards enshrouding the room with unspoken words. A silent agreement of no questions asked hangs in the air. We head to bed at 3:00am.
The 10 minutes are up by the time I arrive at the restaurant, a small sushi place that my family loves, located in the basement of Times Square. The shop is small, filled with an odd assortment of low tables and worn-in chairs and warm incandescent lighting. An empty conveyor belt winds through laughing crowds. There, past the people waiting at the entrance, sits my dad, hair slicked back and dress shirt rolled up past the forearms to cool down. He looks the same, but who knows if he’ll act the same? He is wiping his forehead as I approach, and glances up as I slide into the booth, arm still hovering in mid air, handkerchief in hand.
“Hi,” he smiles. He pours out my tea for me.
“Hi. Thank you.”
“So, uh… how was your day? How was your first day back?” he mumbles, eyes drifting down to his menu.
“Good. It’s nice to be back.”
“That– That’s good.” he clears his throat. I want to ask about his work, about whether he’s been able to sleep lately, about how his health has been recently. But then my brother and mom arrive, taking the outer seats and forcing my dad and I deeper into the stall.
“Pick whatever you guys want. It’s on me.” my brother says haughtily, taking a sip of his tea. He had just gotten his paycheck that morning. My dad chuckles under his breath, and for the first time today, I make eye contact with him as I hide my own smile. My brother glares at us over the rim of his cup. My order has long since been decided on– soft shelled crabs and California rolls– and now that I think of it, my dad too. You would think that eating the same food every day would be too much, but he craves order.
“Eel lunch set?” I ask, grinning at my dad. My mom, beside me, snorts into her cup. We may only see my dad a couple times out of a year, but if there’s one thing we know about him, it’s that the eel lunch set will be his order until the end of time.
“Eel lunch set.” He replies, beaming.
: An endearment in Mandarin that my dad calls me; it translates very roughly to little girl