My mom and I waited with my uncle, aunt, and their children for a bus to take us to the Eastern District of Wan Chai. I felt nervous about meeting my father. I appreciated Uncle Chun-Kwok’s hospitality but felt strange about the prospect of my father treating us to dinner. One question consumed my thoughts: why didn’t he contact me?
My uncle, an off-duty bus driver, showed his company badge when the transport arrived, and we all rode for free. The moment the last person loaded on, the packed vehicle lurched forward, and I grabbed a handrail to keep from tumbling. We climbed the narrow steps to the upper level among passengers so squished together it reminded me of the contests to see how many bodies could be jammed into a VW. Did people ever get hurt? The mind-set must’ve been different from the US, where a woman could spill coffee in her own lap and win a lawsuit against McDonald’s because no label warned of a hot beverage.
I sat by a window next to my mother and observed the activity in the streets below. Vendors in threadbare jeans hawked newspapers and magazines on street corners, and merchants set out produce and dried meats on makeshift tables at tiny stalls piled with empty wicker baskets and cardboard boxes. These crude stands competed close to modern multistoried department stores which would’ve looked right at home in La Jolla. Older folks in simple, dark-toned peasant clothing walked alongside men in executive suits. A constant rush of people crammed the sidewalks, their voices lost in the trumpet of blasting car horns on the congested roads.
I asked my mom, “How long have you known Uncle Chun-Kwok and Aunt Poi Yee?”
“Many years. I know him first. He very nice, always treat me good,” she said.
“You met him through my father?”
She paused. “Your uncle run away from China, stay at my house in Hong Kong.”
“He lived with you and my father?”
“He write from China, say he want to come to Hong Kong. After I take you to America, he keeping in touch with me. When he run to Hong Kong, I let him stay my house.”
“I work hard, you know that. Your father not work a lot, so I not know if we can ever buy house. House good, should have for family, so I borrow money from my sister to buy.”
“How did my father feel about that?”
“He not say, but house good, I tell you that,” she said. “I living with your father in the house little bit. Your father move out the house after we go, so when his brother come to Hong Kong, I let him stay my house.”
The bus pulled to a screeching stop, and our group exited to a crush of pedestrians. I was usually protective about my personal space. Here, with four individuals to every square foot of land, breathing room was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
Uncle Chun-Kwok spoke, and Mom translated, “We have to be very careful. He say many people steal in Hong Kong.”
“Why is that?”
“Many people run away from Canton, but no can find job. No choice, have to eat.”
My mother said it as if she understood all too well. I knew little of her past before we came to the US. She was born in China and met my father there. When the Communists came to power, the two fled separately to Hong Kong. They married, but she never said why they divorced.
“How was it for you here?” I asked.
“Life always hard in Hong Kong.”
“Is that why you left?”
She hesitated, then spoke with a harsh edge in her voice. “We do good business, have house. Michael go to school. Renee go to school. You have good education, job. What you think?”
We waded through the crowd to a men’s clothing store, and my uncle took us in. Looking fashionable in a sea-green polo, dark blue slacks, and seal-brown oxfords, he inspected some shirts, then went to a rack of warm-up suits. He fingered a gray fleece set with pants and hooded top and spoke to my mom.
“He want to buy for you,” my mother said. “He say good quality, so you try on.”
“Tell him he doesn’t have to do that.”
“I think he want to.”
“Just tell him.”
She paused before relaying it.
He took another suit from the rack.
“He want to buy for you.”
Receiving gifts always made me uncomfortable. When I was a child, my stepfather asked what I wanted for Christmas. I couldn’t answer, so he turned to my mother and said, “Fine. He’s your son. You get him something.” Other kids hosted birthday parties and invited friends, but I never wanted a celebration and even asked my teacher not to have one for me at school. On my birthday, I often skipped class altogether.
Giving was different; it meant more. In the fifth grade I saved my lunch money to buy my mom a present for her birthday. I remember going to the K-Mart jewelry counter with my $8.50 in quarters to ask the sales lady for help. I probably spent an hour looking at the various bracelets, necklaces, and earrings before choosing a pirate’s treasure chest jewelry box because I liked the feel of the royal, red-felt interior.
I watched Uncle Chun-Kwok run his hand along the inner lining of a crimson, nylon warm-up jacket. I said to my mom, “Tell him he’s really kind, but I have lots of clothes.”
My uncle persisted. Despite my protests, he went to a display of designer leather belts inside a glass counter and spoke.
She said, “Wow! Very expensive. He want to buy.”
I walked up to him, put my hands on his shoulders, and peered through his glasses into his eyes. “Please, I really don’t need anything. If you want to buy something, get it for your family.” I motioned at Jing-Wei and Ming, both watching with rapt attention.
Uncle Chun-Kwok looked at me; the disappointment on his face sent a wave of guilt through me. He nodded once, turned, and headed toward the exit. As we followed him, a part of me wanted to express my regret, but I didn’t.
Outside on the crowded street, I watched my uncle and Ming. They walked together, my cousin’s small hand wrapped in his father’s. Earlier, we had taken a ferry to dine at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, an imperial seafood palace that seemed to literally float on the water. Uncle Chun-Kwok kept putting more food in his son’s bowl, and Ming kept eating. I tapped my mother’s shoulder and asked her to tell my uncle it was amazing that Ming possessed such a healthy appetite.
Uncle Chun-Kwok smiled and talked in a manner that conveyed a profound regard for his children.
“He say Ming eat good, will grow big and strong. Jing-Wei more picky, but she going to be very smart. He say lucky for them to have boy and girl, good balance.” She paused and added, “I remember they marry and want to have kids, but no have luck first few years. They so happy when they have Jing-Wei.”
Aunt Poi Yee, who had gone ahead with her daughter, called to us, and my uncle strode faster to catch up.
My mom said, “If Uncle Chun-Kwok stay in China, can only have one kid, so good for him come here.”
“I can’t imagine China being more crowded than this.”
“But here nobody tell you how many kids can have.”
After a silence, I said, “Is that why a lot of Chinese people escape into Hong Kong?”
“How are they able to do that?”
“Sometimes, they come visit, not go back.”
“They don’t check documents here?”
“’Course. Police ask for I.D. card. You not have, they take you back.”
“So what did my uncle do?” I asked, knowing the answer would divulge much about how she fled China.
“He hide. Need place to live, so good he know me.”
I glanced ahead to keep track of our group. “So Uncle Chun-Kwok used your house.”
“Yes. He find work and get Hong Kong I.D.”
“People will hire you?”
“You work hard, they give job.”
Not so different from San Diego, where a major political issue involved undocumented Mexicans crossing the border. The bigwigs poured funds into beefing up the Border Patrol and building fences, but as long as employers were willing to hire, there would be no shortage of undocumented labor. The issue proved delicate, however, when it came to light that some of the most vocal proponents of anti-immigration legislation had employed cheap, undocumented workers themselves.
Both my parents and my uncle had escaped from China. It made me want to see what they were running from.
“We’re going to China, right?” I asked.
“If enough money, we go. See how much we spend here first.”
“We’re so close. We should—”
At the entrance of a restaurant, Uncle Chun-Kwok gestured toward the double glass doors. He pushed through to hold one side open for us. My aunt and her children waited in the lobby.
I stepped in and felt my heart hammering at the thought of my father being there. I drew a deep breath, saw Ming, and felt a sudden urge to rub my hand against his stubby hair.
I did so, and he spun and stared at me as if I had just snatched the chocolate lava cake from his dessert bowl.
His short hair showed his widely protruding ears and the bulb shape of his head. He didn’t look too different from pictures of me at his age, although the neon strobes flashing in the clear, cushiony heels of his tennis shoes weren’t around then.
I mussed his hair again, and this time, he poked me in the stomach.
I turned to Aunt Poi Yee, who smiled. I watched my uncle, walking with his hand on Jing-Wei’s shoulder. Ming kept craning his head back to keep his eye on me as we climbed the stairs to the restaurant above.
At the top of the stairs, the maitre d’ led us through a spacious and formal dining area. Long, vertical plate-glass windows looked out on the bustle of pedestrians and vehicles in the streets below. Groups of patrons engaged in loud, animated discussions at round tables draped in white linen, and no empty stations could be seen.
We passed two huge water tanks, one with an array of live fish, the other crawling in shellfish. Ming stopped to gawk at the underwater creatures, and my uncle nudged him to keep going.
I became conscious of the other diners—men with silk ties and designer wool suits and women in sequin-beaded dresses and flashy high heels—while I wore a T-shirt and jeans. Why, after all these years, did my father bring me to such a fancy restaurant? Had he been in touch with my mom? Did he even know anything about me?
My father was a forbidden subject, like adultery or alcoholism. My mother never mentioned him, as if he didn’t exist, and I never asked.
I fixed on the flashing red lights in the heels of Ming’s shoes and followed them. The host directed us to the middle of the restaurant where a gathering awaited us at a gigantic table. I saw my father, his wispy, thinning black hair, the restaurant’s fluorescent light casting a glow off his forehead’s dove-white skin, his dark eyes half-hidden, almost shuttered by the narrow slats of his eyelids. He wore a pale, oversized button-down print shirt that hung loose on his hunched, spiny shoulders. He got up to greet us, and at full height, he stood a shade over five feet. Still, he was taller than my mom. He pulled out the chair next to him, and the host guided me there.
My mother sat on my right. To my father’s left, a woman with short, straight hair bounced a baby in a fuzzy yellow sleeper on her lap. A toddler occupied a booster seat alongside her. I recognized my cousin Hoy, sporting a white muscle T-shirt and a carefree grin. The man adjacent to Hoy resembled my uncle, but was thinner, with a narrow, jutting jaw and a chipmunk-shaped mouth. Sunken pockets under his eyes made him look tired. Next came a chubby teenage boy with wide bulging eyes, magnified by thick glasses, giving his face the impression of shock or dismay. He sat with another boy, a little younger and thinner. A girl with straight hair parted off center, about the same age as Jing-Wei, remained expressionless by the two boys. And finally, a woman, with flabby cheeks and a mole on her chin, smiled at us. Uncle Chun-Kwok and his family settled into the empty seats near this woman.
I whispered to my mom, “Who are all these people?”
“Maybe that his family.” She stared at the woman holding the infant.
“I have a stepmother?”
My father introduced my mom and me to the others at our table. She greeted each one, and I nodded, smiled, and waved.
Then she said, “The woman with the little girl and baby, she Hoy’s wife.”
Relief swept over me. Hard enough to meet a father I didn’t know. Thank God I didn’t have to deal with a stepmother too.
“The one by Hoy, he Huang Fu. He also your uncle, youngest brother to your father. He one of seven sons in family.”
“Yes. Your father have two older brothers, number one, number two in China. Your father number three. Number four in China too. Number five die last year. Chun-Kwok, we stay with him, he number six. Huang Fu number seven.”
It felt like the first day at work, when they introduced you to the one hundred and thirty-six people in your department.
She pointed to Hoy. “He the son to Number One.”
“The girl and two boys belong to Number Seven. The woman with, how you say, spot, moling on face? She the one his wife.”
“Got it.” My circuits had long since overloaded. At least I didn’t have to speak.
My father offered a bottle of Hennessy. I shook my head.
He solicited the others. The takers were Hoy and Number Seven. I sipped my orange juice.
My father poured tea, and my mom tapped three fingers in front of her cup to show thanks, so I followed her lead.
She said, “Your father have two sisters, one in Hong Kong, but she not here.”
I asked her why.
“They not invite. For Chinese people, men more important than women.”
She said it as if stating a well-known fact. Strange that my mother, a woman whose very presence commanded the authority of an army drill sergeant, would come from a culture that viewed her as unimportant. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see my father holding a glossy jewelry store shopping bag. He placed it on my lap and motioned for me to peek inside.
My mom said, “I think he give you, so you say, ‘Dojeh’ when he done.”
Not again. What was it about this city and gifts? I said, “I can’t take his presents.”
“He give you in front of family. Look bad if you not accept.”
I scanned the table, all eyes on me. Amidst the clattering of dishes and the buzz of intermingled background conversations, I felt all alone. With reluctance, I reached into the bag and brought out a black leather billfold with an Italian label stamped in silver. I looked at my father, “Thank you, uh . . . Dojeh.”
He pointed to the bag.
More? What about the others? Don’t they get some? I took out a cloth pouch with the word “madler” on it. The contents smelled of new leather. I untied the pouch to reveal a black handbag with an embedded brass “m.”
I extended it to my mother. “It’s a purse. Maybe this is for you.”
A sad smile. “Not for me. You the son. He buy for you. In Hong Kong, many men carry this.”
My arms felt icy and numb. The air-conditioning, such a relief when we entered, now chilled me to my core. I said, “Dojeh,” to my father in a quiet voice.
He touched the bag, indicating more. All eyes around the table were still riveted on me.
After never sending me so much as a letter, why did this man bother with gifts? The next item was a little white box with “LONGINES” in emerald-green logotype. Inside, propped against a small satin pillow rested a luxurious gold quartz watch with a silver and gold chain-mesh band.
I shook my head. “I can’t accept all this.”
He pointed to the bag again.
I looked at my mom. She didn’t say anything. I turned back to him. “I really can’t—”
He put his hand on mine and said, “Man-Kit” while gesturing to the bag once more. I didn’t move, so he reached in and removed an elegant rectangular box the color of red wine edged in a gold border. “S.J. Dupont, PARIS” shone in glittering letters. My father placed the box in my palm.
As I stared at it, he tapped the flat surface, and I opened the box. A matching case with the same words in gold. I lifted the lid to unveil the most exquisite writing instrument I had ever seen. It sparkled like jewelry—thin, with a smooth, shiny surface black as onyx. The tip, the middle, and the pocket clip gleamed in shimmering gold.
I picked it up and rotated it. It felt perfect in my hand. I read the words engraved in the gold center of the pen: “LAQUE DE CHINE, S.J. Dupont, PARIS.”
I whirled in my seat to my mother. “He knows I write?”
“Maybe Uncle tell him.” Her voice a bare whisper.
I held the gift. In a few moments, I asked her what my father said to me moments ago.
“Man-Kit, that your Chinese name, Wong Man-Kit.”
My Chinese name. So long ago. Man-Kit . . . “Mon-key, mon-key, mon-key . . .” That’s how the kids taunted me the first days of school in America. I didn’t react, didn’t give them the satisfaction. I refused to tell or run crying home. I curled my fingers into fists. They didn’t stop.
Gripping the pen, I peered into my father’s eyes and said, “Dojeh.”
He clasped my hand and gave it a light squeeze.
This man, whom I hadn’t seen for so many years, who I thought didn’t care about me, just presented me the best gift I had ever received.
I studied my father. For the first time, I felt I meant something to him.
Picture of father and baby on the main essay page by Ion Chibzii.