“The emigrants confused the gods by diverting their curses, misleading them with crooked streets and false names. They must try to confuse their offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways—always trying to get things straight, always trying to name the unspeakable. The Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence.”
Maxine Hong Kingston
In my father’s absence, I can tell any story about him that I wish. He can hardly argue with any assessment when I have cut him out of my name and my life; I can tell you that he’s an ugly man—an emotional abuser on his worst days and a grinning lump of clay on his best—though it feels like a dirty game to do so. He’s not a monster, at least not on a regular basis, just not someone you want to give any respect.
“Dear Antonia,” his last email to me read, “It saddens me deeply that [our] level of communication amounts to nothing more than bare cordiality. What can I do to improve that?”
He signed it Love, Dad.
If I say I am still waiting for an apology and some respect, I look as petulant as I felt years ago, when we first became estranged. If I say I am still waiting for him to be able to express love, I know that I am being ungrateful.
We exchange emails. He is unwilling to change his position or his mind. In the last I write the angriest, nastiest email that I can manage.
A better response would have been no response. Having the last word just means that you couldn’t hold your tongue, couldn’t leave a thing in silence.
This is not really an essay about Ed, my father, but about Tini, my mother. She is still in my life and will argue with any picture of her I put down on paper.
My mother is afraid that I will leave her behind like I did to her husband. She still loves him, for all that I will occasionally respond to texts from her by telling her to divorce Ed.
About two years after I stopped speaking to Ed, I dropped his name legally. I was ready to be rid of it. I promoted my middle name—a Chinese first name—to the position of family name, making me an especially American egotist: all individual, no family line.
“Wei Ling” is a much better fit for me than Ed’s family name, but that's as difficult to explain to my mother as my gender. (Non-binary.) My mother does not accept the concept of something feeling right. It’s terrifying to my mother that I could so easily I give up her husband, and all that comes wrapped up in him. He has given me the gifts of whiteness, American citizenship, and (in whatever form) his love.
I can admit that plenty of people—my mother included—have had much more reason to hate their fathers, and have extended to them more courtesy to than I have extended mine. I can't tell which change felt final to my mother: when I stopped speaking to Ed, or when I got the court order for the name change? When I updated my driver’s license, or when I stopped calling him my father? I can’t tell, either, when she stopped waiting on my forgiveness. No explanation is sufficient, since it is the fact of disengagement that matters: my relationship with my father ended mid-argument, mid-email exchange, and resolved nothing.
“Who disowns their dad?” my mother asks.
Plenty of people, but none of them (according to my mother) are Chinese. When I argue her now, or when I continue to throw her past mistakes in her face, she thinks it’s only a matter of time. I will leave, I will stop speaking to her: the fate of the American child. She is afraid of making a further misstep, but she is equally angry at having to step carefully in the first place.
“What will I say that will make you hate me?”
I still wonder at my mother’s impression that it was quick, what happened, that it was just one comment, one threat, and I was out. But my timeline regarding our estrangement is slow: it took me months and dozens of email exchanges and interventions to stop talking to him, long after he first tried to kick me out of his house. It took years for me to get around to the name—and also to save up money for it—and I didn't tell her until after, over the phone.
Like most sons, I learned how to be warm and tender, and also how to be cold and mean, from my mother.
Queer Asian America (if there is such a thing, two nonexistent categories) is always in a strained relationship with the family. The family is a trajectory backward across an ocean, along an uneasy route, and to immigrate is to have to find something else to be.
The immigrant’s job is to take root in a new place. Unwelcome, paid nothing, whatever: they eat the bitter things (吃苦). They stay. They stay, and because the family line is a cross-continental trajectory, if someone leaves the family, it means breaking off a long line of effort.
The immigrant family can be tender, but it is always violently longing, expectant, and obstinate.
The immigrant family overreaches across the gap between parent and child, one person and another, sacrificing everything, demanding or wishing everything.
My mother makes much of the lessons she has not taught me. She wanted not to be a martyr like her own mother, or a quiet tyrant like her own father, but now regrets the values she failed to impress on her children.
“I wish I had been better,” she says. “You don’t respect family. You don’t respect me. There’s nothing really Chinese about you, except for the food you cook and the name you bear.”
If I were really Chinese, I would respect my white father. I would not make my personal name into a family name. If I were Chinese, I would see that as a usurpation.
For my mother, to be Chinese is a stable set of personality traits and personal values: filial piety, self-discipline, blunt honesty, unselfconscious racism.
It’s not tradition, strictly speaking, but family. But I am becoming suspicious of letting her draw the lines of what is Chinese.
My mother's father is an ancient patriarch, lonely and ill, respected and minimally cared for by his many surviving children. He plays golf and drinks tea from those tiny tea-connoisseur teacups one size up from a thimble. He lives in a middle class Chinese neighborhood in Jakarta, where all the chrome gates have chicken wire criss-crossed up top, to keep out pribumi.
He and my mother FaceTime every Monday evening. She uses his potential responses as a weapon: "What will I tell my father about your name? He'll be so upset." Or worse: "He'll be angry."
I bear the name he honored me with when I was born: my Chinese name, Wei Ling. But that’s not a mitigation of the insult of promoting it; rejecting the father, even the white father, is about the furthest you can get from being Chinese.
I would like to (and have tried to) convince my mother of the following:
That I have learned good skills, if not good values from her—how to comfort a loved one, and how to stare down an asshole.
That I love her and will fight nearly every fight with her, and will not leave her. (Not American enough.)
That it would be more difficult to cut her off for the very reason that no name is shared between us. And that my name will always hold her spirit in it, like all names hold the unnamed thing, ghostly, cherished.
In social studies textbooks, authors make distinctions between “collective” and “individualistic” societies. Which do you think is better, the text asks you, placing a photo of unhappy Japanese schoolgirls in uniform beside a photo of a white goth kid, deep in thought.
It’s a pretty shallow binary, although like all binaries you could find some weak justifications for its existence. In the US, people brand and rebrand themselves according to the host of choices culturally and commercially available for their individual expression; immigrants rename themselves or are renamed on entry, or in the bitter time following their arrival.
I don’t know what kind of giving it is to give a name to myself, the child of an immigrant but not myself someone who knows migration—born an American citizen thanks to a father I have since abandoned. And I equally don’t know what kind of striking it is, to strike out the old name from the end of my driver’s license. In Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, a woman strikes out one part of her name and then another, leaving as her final, proper, branded name, Bride.
“The Chinese I know hide their names,” Maxine Hong Kingston writes in “No Name Woman.” “Sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence.” She wonders how Chinese Americans know how to sort out what is Chinese in them.
I identify myself and I name myself, but it’s absurd, spoiled, bratty, to do so. Identity is an old game, and people are tired of it all over, most of all the ones whose work is always talked about as such.
And of course identity is not a free choice one decides for oneself, not fully. There is no clean break from a dead name.
But it is at least a process of feeling out what is more right. A binder constricting my breath but hiding my breasts; a name given by my grandfather instead of my father. On Facebook, and in the mirror, the identity I project feels suitable. Not something I need immediately to throw off. Good enough.
Tony Wei Ling is a Berkeley-based artist, writer, and horror fan.