A Photo of My Father
By Anna Qu
I arrive short of breath and 15 minutes late. It’s Sunday dim sum, and I can easily decipher at least three dialects at Good Fortune Restaurant in Flushing, NY. The banquet-sized space is strategically large enough to fit 200-300 guests for mid-sized Chinese weddings. The tables are round with white tablecloth and matching chairs covered in overly decadent white linen covers that are showing slight wear. Cart vendors in uniform are pushing various sized carts and shouting dim sum offerings. Hands wave at almost every table for the attention of waiters or cart vendors passing by.
Peering into the crowd of Chinese people, I feel unsure and nervous about meeting my father’s family. I wonder if I’ll recognize any of my relative’s features, expressions or gestures. My dad’s premature death left both my mother and I unmoored in more ways than we understood at the time.
I knew next to nothing about my father or his family from Wenzhou; my parents had an arranged marriage—one that benefited both equally— until my father passed away just two years in. He was thirty-four, my mother was nineteen, and I was one.
My mother hates talking about the hardships she faced; getting my father’s sister to sponsor her green card, leaving me and everything she knew in China, her first winter alone in New York, working the sewing machine in the garment factory. It wasn’t the life my father had promised her, and she harbored bitterness toward his family for not taking us in after his death. She remarried and brought me to the United States, and cut all ties with his family.
Three months ago, I paid for a DNA test through 23AndMe, a service that uses saliva to determine ancestry, genetic make-up and potential health risks. With a database of over three million samples, they also connect you with relatives who used their service and existed in their system.
There were a couple of reasons why finding my family through 23andme was far-fetched. First, it required my extended family to know about a relatively new and trendy genealogy resource and for them to willingly spend $200 on the service. Second, services like 23andme and Ancestry.com mostly targeted European descents and descendants of mix genealogy interested in finding their origins splattered across many countries, Finally, it seemed that only second or third generation Americans would be drawn to the service, not immigrants still closely tied to the Chinese-American community, which I suspected would be the case for my father’s family. Chinese culture values looking forward, away from hardship and toward assimilation and brighter days in America.
My results say I am 95.8% Chinese, 3.6% Korean and 0.6% Broadly East Asian. Somehow that strikes me as disappointing and uninteresting. I thought I’d be a few percent European, Neanderthal or African, like so many of the stories 23andme had marketed.
23andme reports that I have over 250 relations, all distant except one—a second cousin named Peggy. In a long, if not overly emotional paragraph, I write to Peggy about my search for my father’s family. Her response takes weeks, but I come to learn she’s been speaking with her parents and trying to get to the bottom of where I fit in. She wants to arrange a meeting between my newfound family and me.
At the nearest table there’s a family with two kids kicking their legs underneath the tablecloth—they are too young to be my family. I looked down at Peggy’s text again; she’s late and asking me to call my cousin, Agnes, who is already seated with the rest of the family.
“Wai? Qu Na?” Agnes says in Mandarin. “We’re here. Where are you?” Her voice is husky over the phone, and her Cantonese accent catches me off guard.
“Wuo zai men ko,” I respond, suddenly self-conscious of the slow turn and slap of my tongue over each syllable.
“I’ll come and get you,” she says. I can hear her standing up and out of the corner of my eye, the movement of a chair being pushed back ten feet away makes me turn. A short Chinese woman with a bob waves her left hand, my new cousin Agnes, cheeks flushed and eyes twinkling.
Calling strangers family names feel like being too familiar. During the round of introductions I am suddenly a child again, repeating and learning new words: Baba for older brother of my father, Bama for older sister-in-law of my father. Soon I forget all the titles and try instead to remember faces and relations.
The background noise and distractions come from all directions, and on top of the inherent language barrier on my part, the seamless shifts between Mandarin, Cantonese, and Wenzhouse, the size of the round table makes us raise our voices, repeat questions and gesture with our hands. One of my aunt-in-laws draws a family tree for me on a square napkin, and I write the translation of relations in English next to her neat calligraphy. It is astonishing that the four generations charted on this lightly stained napkin have been gathered around the same table on an ordinary October Sunday because of 23andme. I tuck my newly inked family tree carefully in the back of my journal, worried about the fraying piece of this priceless material.
My life is vastly different from what it would have been if my father lived, it was impossible to go back and map out the projected paths like I did when I was a kid. Back then, I imagined a heroic rescue; my father would come knocking on our door in Whitestone, Queens, and tell my mom off. She should be taking better care of his only daughter, he’d say before telling me we’re leaving. Then we’d drive off into our new life together.
My mother never wanted to indulge in my fantasies. What was the point of asking so many questions, she’d ask. It wasn’t going to change my situation. Seeing my half siblings with their stepfather, I was unable to help myself from wanting a connection with my own father. I used to pester her about my father when she was in a good mood. Once in middle school, my mother and I went to the Auburndale library, my favorite place. It was rare for my half-siblings to be out of the house with their father, and for my mother and I to have time together.
I grab books from the teen’s section and my mother meets me at a table with a couple of Chinese magazine.
"Here's what he looks like," my mother said, ripping a photo out of a Chinese magazine. The sound tore through the quiet library and I looked around, afraid we'd be kicked out and my library card privileges revoked for the foreseeable future.
"You can't do that," I whispered to her. "This is a library!"
"Don't ask me again," she said, ignoring my protests. She flipped the page and continued to look through the rest of the magazine.
On the thin piece of glossy torn paper was a photo of a Chinese man in a pale blazer and dark pants, and a button-down shirt with the top three buttons undone. He smiled invitingly. I wondered if there was any real resemblance to my father and if my mother was serious. She was like that, a strike of lightning whenever she wanted to be, illuminating all that she could destroy.
I walked behind her on the way home, not wanting anything to do with her. She walked faster, knowing I was angry and wanting me to know she didn’t care. By the time we reached our block, I was so far behind her it was like we were not related at all.
The table is covered with small steamers of fried radish, shrimp rice noodles, pork spare ribs, bean curd rolls, chicken feet, shrimp dumplings, and sesame balls. We pass around food, encouraging each other to eat more. There are questions about my mother and I: if my stepfather treated me well, what I was doing with my life, if I am married. How quickly my life reduces to a few facts and statements about myself. And then the questions stop and I am the one asking, “How did my father die?”
“He was very sick. Brain cancer,” my uncle nods, “He went to see the doctor because of his headaches and then it was over in just a few months.”
His explanation is the same one my mother gave me my entire life. I bite the impulse to ask if he’s sure, thinking of the copy of my father’s death certificate, the typed lines explaining cause of death as a car accident. When I had confronted my mother about his death certificate discrepancy, she had been agitated. Who do you believe? The piece of paper or me? The whole country is corrupt! I had not known who to believe, an official notarized document from the People’s Republic of China or my mother, who often lied when it was convenient for her. With my uncle confirming, perhaps I could believe her.
My mother had also said my father’s family should have taken us in after my father passed away, but they didn’t. I peered at my uncle now, were he and my aunt-in-law the kind of people who would abandon a young woman and her baby? I didn’t know if I could recognize people that ruthless; I didn’t live in a time where people are forced to make desperate decisions like they did in communist China in the early 80s. And if they did abandon us, was I betraying my mother by being here? Contacting the family that she’d so intentionally cut out of our lives?
She had made the choice for me and now I was making a different decision. She would see this meeting as a betrayal. I bought the chopsticks to my lips and could taste the grease from the pork ribs. As a child if I didn’t eat all the rice in my bowl, do my chores, or refused to give her a backrub, she’d lay on the guilt. I was an ingrate and didn’t understand how she had suffered. It ate at me now.
After dim sum, my uncle invites us to his house in Fresh Meadows. It’s only a couple of miles from where I grew up in Whitestone, Queens, and I try not to think about the missed opportunities as I step out of the car and face their ocher yellow brick house.
My uncle’s granddaughter calls me Aunty Anna. She does gymnastics while giving me a tour of the photos in the living room. There’s a splatter of cute kids photos on the wall, some with the obligatory elementary school frosted background that hadn’t changed since I was in grade school. Amanda bends into a backbend while reciting her cousins’ names, the shape of her malleable spine folding into a small tabletop, and her voice tight and strained against her throat. “Aunty Anna, look at me, look at me! Can you do this?”
The house is relative to the size of the house I grew up in. It has the same open floor plan, style of leather couches against wood and glass furniture, and bamboo and jade plants along the stairwell with red ribbons tied to the vase for good luck. We gather at the kitchen table, pick at cherries and fresh cut cantaloupe, and pass around small rectangular photo books. I don’t recognize any of the people and the sound of their Chinese names go in one ear and out the other without relations. I sit through dozens of black and white photos for a glimpse of my father.
“Cai cai,” Bomu, my aunt-in-law, encourages as she sets down a bowl of pistachios. Eat, eat. Food has always been a way to show affection and generosity. The second piece of cantaloupe tastes sweeter than the first.
During the summers of my childhood, my mother called her children into the house from the kitchen window with promises of something sweet. One of her favorite fruits was giant Asian pears with thick coarse skin with texture like that of a brown paper bag. In a hushed voice, she’d tell us to feel the how juicy and heavy the fruit was; they were two for $5 at the market in Flushing. She had a habit of telling us the cost of food, even though we had no context for whether the price was reasonable or not. She had grown up in the aftermath of the Great Famine and spent most of her childhood hungry and malnourished. Fruit and meat was a rarity when she was our age, she often told us. We passed the fruit around, lifted it up dramatically. My brother used the pear as a dumbbell and pretended to lift weight with it. I rubbed it as if it was the bald head of the laughing Buddha. My sister held it with both hands, an offering back to our mother sitting at the head of the table.
With a small knife, she peeled the rough mustardy skin. We watched wide-eyed, as the coarse skin came off in a long spiral strip. It curled and sat like a phantom pear; a shell without a body, so use to being the shape it had always been that it continued to be what it had always been.
The moist white flesh glistened as she cut it into eighths. Distribution wasn’t by age, but by hierarchy and importance. The first piece went to my stepfather, followed by my half-brother, my half-sister, and then, me. I knew not to ask for seconds and instead, chose to put my hands between the seat and my butt.
Growing up, being good didn’t consist of eating my vegetables, making my bed or doing well in school, it was accepting a new reality; knowing when to be helpful, when to stay out of my mother’s way, and putting my half-siblings first. My mother expected me to understand the delicate dynamic of our situation: I was the child of her last marriage and I should tread lightly as not to offend my new benefactors. It meant I should be ashamed to ask for a second piece of fruit.
“Lin, another piece?” my mother asked my stepfather.
He shakes his head, and she eyed me for a long second before finally sticking the knife in the last piece and pointing it in my direction.
The fall sun sets early and only a burnt hue is left in the sky when I come out of the train station in Brooklyn. It’s a cold, but refreshing walk home. I had long accepted the photo my mother handed over that day in the library, believing that a photo ripped out of a magazine was as close to getting answers as I would get. That was no longer true and I was only beginning to see all the questions I wanted to ask. Here was a type of freedom I had never expected; an opportunity so grand I had no idea what I was going to do with it.
In my apartment, my phone rings and it’s my uncle calling to see if I got home all right. I’ve never had a male relative call to check up on me and I stare until the wood floorboards of my room blur and grow wet.
A week after the family dinner, Peggy texts me. One of my aunt-in-laws I met at dim sum found a photo after all. And just like that, I have a real photo of my father. In it, my young mother is smiling and holding on to me with patience she rarely exhibited in my memory. I am slightly out of focus, a blur of movement and toddler joy. My father’s body is tilted slightly toward us protectively, but his eyes are staring straight at the camera. He is the age I am now—thirty-four. I study his face for what feels like hours—the same nose, the same eyebrows, the downward slant of our eyes, the rise in cheekbones, the same everything.
Anna Qu is a Chinese-American writer. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Katika Review, Kweli Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Jezebel.com, and elsewhere. She serves as the Nonfiction Editor at Kweli and is currently working on a memoir.
Born in Venezuela and later moving to the states Andrea Mora developed a passion to uncover the truth within different cultures and communities. As a creative writer and an award-winning photographer she has the ability to fuse both mediums allowing the viewer to interpret her work more profoundly. Mora is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design.