The things Dad taught me

by Bernard Yee


My dad taught me how to ride a bike.

It’s Father’s Day and I’m preparing for my dad’s services, delayed so my family and I could travel across the country during this pandemic era.

Memories are weird; we read books and they’re complete narratives. But I don’t think I could tell a coherent story about my dad; all I have are memories of moments and impressions on how he made me feel. That seems inadequate for 50-plus years with a man who raised me, but that’s all I have. And I want to write it down because every father’s day, my son Max (and one day, my nephew) can look back on who their grandfather was to me (and my sister).

Memories are reinforced by photos, and I’m lucky that my mom took a lot of pictures. The family portraits have that stilted ’60s quality that seem bound to the fact the cameras and film were expensive. (My dad felt it important to have a good Canon camera, but not SLR.) So some of these moments were captured on film, and they reinforced my memories as I spent a day every few years leafing through family albums.

I don’t know if these memories represent the truth or facts – they may be misremembered, or even made up.

My dad was my grandmother’s son. And my grandmother raised me while my dad worked and my mom got her degree. So I guess my dad and I are likely to have a little more in common from her influence, though he told me grandma was far easier on me than she was on him. His loss!

She grew up in a time where girls had their feet bound and were illiterate. She dodged both. If she was bitter or angry about the regressive time she grew up in, she never showed it.

One of the two earliest memories I have of my dad has to do with food. He co-owned a restaurant in Danbury, CT, with my uncle, I think. Dragon Inn. He would go away for a weekend to help run things. One night, he came back and I was 5 or 7 – I don’t remember exactly, young enough not to be up that late. But I was up when he came home. We sat on the floor, my back against a bookcase, watching TV, and eating the most delicious spare ribs I may have ever had, greasy fingers pulling them out of a foil-lined red spare-rib bag. Spare ribs past your bedtime with your dad is something I wish on everyone.

The other memory was captured in a photo. It had snowed, a heavy snow, and my dad was shoveling our walkway in the little Queens house we lived in. We lived on the middle floor, and I don’t remember who lived above or below us.

My dad was bent over trying to get some leverage and I picked up a huge chunk of snow to drop it on his head. I started laughing so hard at the idea that the snow-boulder crumbled as I pushed it on to him. I don’t know that he found it as hilarious but he didn’t seem to mind.

My dad used to put his palm on my face and caress my cheek with his thumb, back and forth. That was his thing. I do that to my son.

I have vague memories of watching the Mets win the 1969 World Series with my dad. I became a lifelong Mets fan. Of course, he became a Yankees fan. Maybe it’s an immigrant thing, to ally yourself with the establishment. Maybe it’s a first-gen immigrant thing to identify with the underdog. I definitely remember watching the epic matchups with the Celtics, Lakers and Sixers. I don’t know how my dad liked both the Lakers and Celtics (Magic and Bird). Of course, I rooted for Dr. J, the Sixers and their almost-but-not-quite championship runs.

It wasn’t until I left home for college that Doc and the Sixers took it all.

My dad loved gadgets; he had a credit card sized thin calculator that seemed magical. Not sure why he bought it – he didn’t need it. (Maybe I inherited his weakness for pleasurable novelties of little marginal utility, since I own three sets of cyclocross wheels, a discipline where I’ll never excel.) It disappeared one day, and my dad was convinced my neighborhood friend George stole it. I defended him, and my dad seemed to give in. “Let’s invite him over to look for it,” he suggested. George came over, and my dad saw him try to surreptitiously return the calculator. George and I drifted apart after that. I don’t know if was that my dad knew George, or he just knew I was naive.

I watched him haggle with the Hasidic Jews who owned little electronics stores on the Lower East Side. I loved that. I remember the color TV he got us, an RCA XL100 with a dark glass top. The two-unit VHS Panasonic tape player. He once paid $100 for a bootleg copy of Star Wars for me. It was better than handy-cam, someone must have leaked that from the studio. We were first on the block with a premium cable TV descrambler. It wasn’t hard to talk him into buying a Nakamichi tape deck, the kind that spun the tape around to play the other side. But not the fancy three-headed version; the more budget friendly two-headed version. He liked nice things but not too nice. I inherited that, for sure.

No Chinese person wants to pay full retail.

He loved action movies. We rented a lot of movies. He bought a ton of Chinese movies after we moved out of the house. Whenever there was a scene with a topless woman, he’d put on his glasses and my sister and I would crack up. He kept his focus on the screen.

My dad taught me how to ride on a blue bike with training wheels. The banana seat had silver striped ridges and was made of a blue shiny, sparkly material. I remember the day he ran down the sidewalk with me, letting go and somehow, like a Dr. Manhattan miracle, I did the impossible and balanced on two wheels. I felt free, free until my second bike, a Ross Apollo 5 speed got stolen when I left it in plain view on a dirt road as my friend and I snuck into Fort Totten. I made up an elaborate story (in other words, a lie) about how it got stolen, which did not involve sneaking onto an Army base. My dad didn’t believe me, but I stuck to my story. He replaced that bike with a Schwinn Varsity, but it was a few years later, I think.

He wasn’t going to shake me of my lie, but he wasn’t going to reward it either.

I had this vague idea that I wanted to race bikes but had no real idea what that meant other than it seemed like a natural next step and I’d need a water bottle. But the idea of that sort of sport seemed out of the question. But more genteel sports? Sure. We learned to play tennis as a family. I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable if I hit one by him.

He only came to see one race I was in, the Tour of Oyster Bay. I felt good, was pretty fast, and had marked Charlie Maraia, who had been placing that summer. I was sure I could come around him. Near the front, 2 riders hooked bars (with less than 5 laps to go of course) and took me down. Just the three of us. I rolled back to the start/finish, blood coming down my elbow but otherwise fine. My dad never really talked about my racing after that, only saying to be careful if he knew I was going out for a ride.

I think Charlie podiumed that day.

Dad didn’t talk too much about his childhood, but he had a couple good stories. “We were the richest family in a poor village,” he’d say. His friends ate rat meat – “but only rats from the rice fields, so they ate clean food, not garbage.” Did you eat rat, Dad? “Nooooo. Grandma would never allow that! But I did when I was at my friends’ house.”

He had eaten dog (tastes like chicken) and cat (not good!). He told the story of how he and his friends saw people bury potatoes with coal or embers, letting it bake. One time, he dug up the potatoes, pooped into the makeshift earthen oven, and ran away. I laughed really hard when I heard this story.

My dad told me how he – I assume it was my great grandparents – bought a fake name to escape communist China. He was sponsored by Senator Hubert Humphrey (good press to rescue a family from Commies!) and ended up in Minnesota. He also told me a story of how he dressed up like a communist soldier and scared his (Chinese, not Midwestern) village by marching through town.

He met my mom in NYC. I think they went dancing a lot with friends; I know he loved to ballroom dance with my mom as they got older. We got them dinner at the Rainbow Room a few times, so they could eat and dance. They took that onto cruise ships in their later years, if you believe my dad’s stories, their dancing charmed all the other dinner guests. I believed him.

My grandfather had been here working before my dad came over. So he didn’t really have much of a role model, I guess, for being a dad. And I’m pretty sure I drove him crazy. His yearbook is full of a bunch of blonde tall-looking Minnesotans, and my short, black-haired dad. He said that the girls liked him, but wouldn’t tell me if he had a girlfriend before he met my mom.

I’m not sure what I did to deserve this, but I’m sure I deserved it. He tied me up, just wrapped some rope around me, and left me on a bed. Maybe my grandmother’s bed. I squeezed out, and I remember him laughing, he got new rope and tied me up again.

My grandmother came in, untied me, and tore him a new one.

I don’t think he ever spanked me – certainly not enough to hurt. Pulled my ear, he definitely did that. Mo yung! he’d yell, “useless!” in Cantonese. I always thought I was a difficult kid, and tried to own up to that up years later as an adult.

“Ehh… Not really,” he said. “Not too bad. Probably average.” I learned that even parents gain perspective.

People said he looked like the Chinese Charles Bronson.

I always assumed everyone cooks in families, because my dad and grandma did a lot of cooking.

Like that dad in Eat Drink Man Woman, he expressed his care for us through cooking elaborate dinners. I’m not sure how he made steak and bok choi (with a Chinese sauce infused with A1 Steak Sauce! I still love A1!), spicy and sweet shrimp, cellophane noodles, a few small dishes, with roast pork, maybe some dried fish wok-fried — by himself. He was always interested in seeing our son Max’s eating issues resolve, as if every new thing Max could eat was a new way of my father’s love getting through. The meals were elaborate, and when my family and my sister’s family sat at the table, there were 8 of us. Eight’s a lucky number for Chinese people, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he took note of that, even if he said nothing. Why should he? His luck at that moment was right there.

He always ordered when we yum cha’ed (for all you gwai lo, white barbarians, that’s what Cantonese people call dim sum). Everything I order, I once heard my dad order. I once ordered at a restaurant in Chinatown, and my dad laughed. Why are you laughing I asked?

“Your Chinese — it’s so bad!”

I took him to a fancy dinner once, a French place near my office at 30 Rock, with my then-girlfriend, and mom. It was pricey. I asked him what he thought.

“Pretty good,” he’d say. “Not as good as Chinese.”

He’d often tell me “Chinese food best!” I asked him how he could say that. “Survey says!” What survey, dad? He’d just laugh, knowing he had egged me on.

He’s right, of course. Chinese food is best.

I sent my parents to Paris – business class tickets, on points. Bought them dinner at an Alain Ducasse restaurant. He didn’t know who that was but learned he was a famous chef, and it was expensive. Chinese parents love when you spend money on them.

“How was dinner?”

“Good!” he said, with a little extra enthusiasm I rarely heard for non-Chinese food. He stopped. “A little salty, though. Too salty.” He started laughing. “Hey Ducasse, your food too salty!”

He was a kind person, and loved to laugh. I suppose he had a temper, but he always cared about family getting along. I’d be mad at my mom or sister, but my dad always told me to let it go. “For family,” he’d say. He’d never (well, usually never) speak disrespectfully about any group, and though he was pretty racist, I don’t remember him saying it out loud.

He voted for Trump and all the Bushes; Nixon too. Clinton the first time. After Bill fucked around, that was it for him. Humphrey was a Democrat, but that didn’t seem to stick with him. He would not have tolerated me talking like the grotesque in the Oval Office. In fact, I never even learned a Cantonese profanity until my high school friends taught me a few choice ones. We stopped talking politics long ago. Too unharmonious.

I think he was afraid of people coming to take his hard-won things; he had seen it before and was susceptible to the message. He didn’t really belong here as an immigrant, but he wasn’t really Chinese anymore either.

If my dad suspected things could be taken away, the birth of our son, born prematurely and not likely to survive, must have shaken him more than he let me know. He asked me if I was sure that they hadn’t given me the wrong baby by accident.

“Dad,” I said. “The baby looks like me. I saw him come out.”

My dad saved my life once, and my sister too – we went to Florida and I ran into the ocean, thinking I could swim because I saw people do it on TV. My sister, being a little sister, followed me in. Must have been waist-high water, but we almost drowned anyway, until my dad pulled us both up.

It must have felt awful to a man who valued family above all, not to be able to do anything for his first grandson. Or I suppose, for his son, as Stefanie and I sat in a hospital, waiting to see whether Max would stay with us.

In his last months, I visited him in a hospital, and sat with him for an hour or two. I tried to engage him in conversation. He’d always ask me how Facebook stock was doing. This might have been the first job I had since I was a lawyer that he respected because it was working for the Man. Better to side with the establishment.

My dad left his career as a chemical engineer to become a stock broker; I was amazed at the change he was brave enough to make. I thought of that when I put my law degree behind.

I felt bored in his tidy hospital room, and felt guilty for being bored; I knew his time was coming soon, and that I wouldn’t be able to see him again, even in this diminished state. I wish I could have laid down next to him, the way my taller-than-me son sometimes lays down next to me, but the bed was too small, too many leads and tubes. The hardest part of his death was the COVID isolation he endured (having apparently caught and beat the disease, to our surprise) – if he felt lonely, I hope he knew we couldn’t come. I doubt it was much consolation. So I hoped that he was cognitively gone enough not to realize family hadn’t visited him in weeks. And that’s when I knew I would be OK when he died. I found myself wishing for a greater diminished state for the man who raised me. That was too much.

I didn’t call him as much as I should have. Do we ever call our parents enough? As a parent, I’d be glad to hear from our son every day for the rest of our lives.

I did get the chance to tell him I loved him, and I thanked him for being a great dad, that I appreciated it all. Someone close to me, probably my wife Stefanie, reminded me that I was spending my time taking care of my family and myself. And that was important. That was my responsibility, just like my dad’s responsibility was to us. He’d respect that. And I knew this handoff was true, because I’d want my son to always take care of himself and his family.

People ask me how I’m taking it; losing my dad during COVID feels strangely less lonely. Feeling alone in heartbreak is extra shitty. I got a chance to say goodbye, it was his time, his suffering’s done.

But the real reason I feel OK is that I look on his life – he came here with little, got a degree, and then another. Changed professions. Bought and sold and bought homes. Had a swimming pool, even, in suburbs that probably wouldn’t have sold a house to a Chinaman a few decades ago. Took us on family vacations. Saw his daughter become a doctor, his son a lawyer (double happiness!) and despite leaving law, end up somewhere gainfully employed. He saw his first grandson almost die, and beat the odds. And then, another grandson.

Everyone, everything he cared about was OK. A bike racer might say he’d taken his turn in the run into the finish, and could sit up.

I picked up bike racing again when my dad came to visit Seattle for a family cruise to Alaska. His disease started taking its toll, and he could only take small steps. My mom was frustrated and angry; she thought he should try harder to walk normally. I held his arm as he shuffled around the port stops, the ship. When the rest of my family went ashore, I stayed and had dinner with him onboard.

I knew that what happened to him could happen to me. And I wanted to appreciate what I have, now. So I started riding again, with more seriousness than I ever did when I could win a field sprint against other crazy people who loved to race a bike enough to show up before sunrise in Central Park. Yes, I know, exercise can help stave these things off, but human beings aren’t great at thinking for the long term. I still sit and eat ice cream at night, when I know losing 6 or 8 pounds could make me noticeably more competitive at the velodrome (or Zwift, these days).

I do it for the feeling of pushing against my limits now, having seen his limits so vividly. For the gift of lining up at a bike race, not knowing what’s going to unfold, but knowing that at some point, it’s going to hurt. A lot. And even when I can’t turn the pedals any harder, I’ll know, it’s a gift. It’s still working.

I’m still unwrapping that last lesson my dad taught me.

I think of him often when I’m lucky enough to have those long conversations on the bike with myself about my own doubts and limitations. Maybe that’s worth more than the phone calls I should have made. It’s what I have left, and when I don’t think I have anything more to give, it feels enough.

Happy father’s day, dad.

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