first person

When I Feared My Father

He made my childhood chaos. Now I can see the wounds we both share.

The author at home with her father in Shijiazhuang, China, circa 1990. Photo: Qian Julie Wang
The author at home with her father in Shijiazhuang, China, circa 1990. Photo: Qian Julie Wang

I have my father’s wide button nose, his trip-wire temper, and his talent for wielding words as weapons. For most of my life, these were things I despised about myself.

My formative years began in 1994, when my mother and I followed my father from China to New York City. We quickly overstayed our visas and, at age 7, I went from being surrounded by family to keeping company with just my parents, hunger, and the constant fear of deportation. Our circumstances meant that Ma Ma and I were particularly dependent on Ba Ba. He had been an English-literature professor in China and arrived two years prior to get another degree, so he was fluent in the language we were just starting to learn. But his fearful pronouncements about life in America — trust no one, speak to no one, catch no one’s attention — kept us all the more tethered to the vicissitudes of his rage.

On the shadowy island of undocumented life, my mother was the soil that kept me grounded. My father, meanwhile, was the volcano, shielding us from the wind when dormant, scalding us with the hot lava of his tongue when active. For so much of my life, my father was the source of unpredictability. His childhood had been chaotic, and he replicated that dynamic for mine. Inexplicably and without notice, he could go from stroking a beloved pet to chasing after it with a stick.

During those years, Ma Ma opened her entire inner world to me: her fears of being stuck in a country that seemed to despise us, her heartache that my father might be cheating on her, her anger that she had gone overnight from being a published professor to a sweatshop laborer. Ba Ba remained an impasse. Our interactions were limited to his bouts of rage and his admonitions about staying under the government’s radar. But at other times, better times, rarer times, he became unburdened of everything life had strapped on to him. And in those moments, my feet found the top of his as we swayed to the song he had written just for me in my infancy. But even during those dances, I could not unsee the dark clouds overhead. “Savor it now, Qian Qian,” I’d remind myself, “because soon the scary Ba Ba will return.”

Over time, I came to see my father as the cause of my life’s misery. After all, it was in pursuit of him that my mother and I had left China at all. And it was because of his past, of a childhood of persecution during the Cultural Revolution — of being targeted as a dissident so early in life only to find his way to teaching in classrooms where censorship still reigned — that we could not return to the homeland where I had known only warmth and love. I figured my father simply had bad judgment. But I was certain that if he would just talk to me, I might be able to help. I had long become my mother’s “little doctor,” her on-call therapist, and, if nothing else, the act of sharing with me seemed to help her.

But how could I help my father if he wouldn’t let me in? As the years passed, I began to pray that my parents would get divorced and even that my father would die. I’ve never admitted this, and I’m not proud to do so now. I sent these prayers out through tears, guilt, and grief, but I made them nevertheless. Back then, I saw no other way out — we would remain chained to the existence he carved for us as long as he continued to live.

My shameful prayers unanswered, I later decided to chisel my own way to our salvation. When I was in junior high, I took it upon myself to save my father from himself. He had smoked since his teens despite repeated admonitions from doctors about the contraindications with his genetic hypertension and childhood tuberculosis. So I started hiding and throwing out his cigarettes pack by pack. One evening, at the height of tobacco withdrawal, Ba Ba ripped through our kitchen slamming countertop objects askew. “Where did you hide it?!” he demanded, a monster in my face. “Give it back now.” As he knelt to tear through the bottom shelf of our pantry, I snatched the rare chance to tower over him. I waited until he turned his head up to look at me. Then I spat straight into his scowl while staring him in the eyes. In the seconds before his anger exploded, Ba Ba took the form of a wounded child, not unlike the one I saw in myself.

When I finally went away to college and law school, I savored the moments I was alone, enjoying the utter control I had over my environment, my life, my decisions. How very peaceful and empowering it was to have agency. From there, I mapped my life out with deliberate precision and strategy. My father no longer sat at the steering wheel of my life, and I installed padlocks to ensure that he would never again be able to climb back in.

My relationship with my father did not begin to shift, to transform, until I was 29 and standing at the cliff of the divorce of my first marriage. It was a union built on shared childhood trauma, and that foundation began to crumble when I took an about-face to confront my past, while my ex-husband continued running from his. Nothing survived the collapse except platonic love. I found peace with the decision to part from the best friend with whom I had built my life for all of my 20s. I didn’t know whether I would be able to get out of bed without him, only that I needed to find out.

Ba Ba could not find such peace. It was as if the volcano had crumbled with my first marriage. The eve of my ex-husband’s departure marked the first time I ever saw my father cry. “It’s my fault,” he said in a whisper as soft as the summer breeze. “I set a bad model for you.” After that, he threw himself into self-examination that included reading stacks of parenting books. He was the emotionally repressed, middle-aged man openly reading Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life on his subway commute. He also started sharing more with me. One day, he shared that for years after he left China, all he could see when he closed his eyes at night was my 5-year-old hand, outstretched toward him at the Beijing airport as I cried out, “Ba Ba!”

For the first time I saw — for the first time, he allowed me to see — that he hurt when I hurt. For so long, he had shielded me from that fact. For so long, I had misunderstood him.

By the time of my second wedding, in 2019, my father shocked me and our guests by standing in front of the entire reception and baring his shame: “Her childhood — it was so difficult. If we could do it all over again, I would do everything differently.” In that moment, I felt the weight of the guilt he still carried. I saw the emasculation he endured for years, confronted with everything he could not provide for the two women he loved most.

In the years since, and in the process of writing my memoir and sifting through the rubble, I’ve gained further insight into my father. Under that new light, I see now that we share so much more than our nose and our temper. He gave me my love of books, my refuge in storytelling. We share a large, pulsing kind of heart that feels almost dangerous to lug around as we navigate the cruelties of the world. Somehow, after all these years, we have both found our way to working in the realm of immigration law — that fount of so much pain for us both, that intractable barrier that we cannot keep from hurling ourselves against in hopes of leaving a crack for the immigrants to come. But most of all, we share the child who still dwells within, the one who did not get enough to eat, the one who had to take on adulthood much too early.

My father did not quit smoking until many decades after my ham-fisted intervention. He has since developed COPD and chronic bronchitis, two conditions that stand to be aggravated by the coronavirus, which has also subjected him to daily street harassment. He now lives in fear that his adult self, like his childhood self, will die far too early. But whereas before he lived in the future and in the dreams of everything he was impatient to accomplish — as I still do — that mortal fear has awakened in him a new appetite to savor each second life bestows.

More and more now, there are times when he allows his childhood self to climb out. And in this safety, mine does as well. It always happens spontaneously — on the sidewalk as we share a laugh while walking our dogs, the steadfast companions we had each longed for as children; on the park lawn where we fly a new kite, the one he and I so rarely got to play with; in the look in our eyes when we talk about our favorite books, the homes to characters who kept us faithful company through some dark, trying years. In these moments, my heart is both broken anew and whole again. I rue the time we have lost in misunderstanding and anger. But I also discover that there no longer exists anything I reject in myself because there is nothing I do not embrace in my father. And even though it may be a little late, I marvel that we have at long last found in each other’s company the childhood we both wished for so very long ago.

Qian Julie Wang is the author of Beautiful Country: A Memoir.

When I Feared My Father