I've been at home with my mom and dad for 6 months. We live in a pink, one-story house tucked into a cul-de-sac in South Carolina. Our neighborhood is quiet, with tall trees and a few unkept lawns. The homes are modest and worn, like they've been around for a while and are settling in comfortably to age. My parents have lived here for 35 years, and up until now, that was all I really knew about them.
I've been scared to ask about their lives before me, before they met one another, for all the reasons it's hard to talk to one's Asian parents. But COVID quarantining has created a strange time space continuum where the future is uncertain, the present somewhat stale and repetitive, and that's made the past feel inviting, even desirable.
Last week, my dad and I sat side by side at the kitchen table, eating a Cantonese style meal of wok-cooked green beans and tofu, with brown rice and steamed salmon. I feel uncertain calling this "Cantonese" cooking; it's just what my parents cook. The kitchen smelled like rice, and the air was hot from the stove and the summer day. The silence wasn't awkward, but it was looming. I put my chopsticks down and turned to my dad. "What was it like when your brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia?"
My dad kept chewing, but after a minute, he too, put down his chopsticks. We'd never talked about this before. "He started hearing voices. And we didn't really believe it or get it at first. I wasn't always there for him. The drugs were really bad at that time."
I learned a lot about my dad that night. There were gaps in the story, details omitted, emotions tucked away. But I learned something new about my dad's stoicism. I used to think it was his immigrant mentality, but I am unlearning the boxes I put people in, especially my mom and dad, and trying to see their humanity.
Yes, my dad is an immigrant. He's quiet. He doesn't always vote. He isn't very emotional. But as he told me about his family, I realized that his quiet way of caring is shaped by what his family needed. Today he cares for his older and younger brother, and his 93-year-old father. He cuts our tall summer grass, loves Marvel shows on Netflix, and makes a damn good egg sandwich. I know that most of the world just sees a quiet, "passive", older Asian man, but I see, finally, my dad as a complex, flawed, human being with stories of his own. And that's a revolution, for me.