On one of my visits home, I found a dead squirrel on the side of my parents’ house. The ants had made a trail from the garbage can to the rodent. I was startled when I saw it, and my shoulders shook as if a cold breeze had ran down my back. I stormed into the house, not exactly sure what I was looking for but knowing I needed something to help me throw away the beady-eyed lump of matted fur. My dad was in the kitchen, standing over his instant coffee and stuffing pungent tobacco into Zig-Zag cigarette papers.
“Dad, I don’t know how it got there but there is a dead squirrel by the garbage can,” I said in Vietnamese.
“Leave it there,” he said. “It’s mine.”
“What…. What do you mean? What are you going to do with it?” I was afraid he’d give the answer I was dreading to hear.
“I’m going to eat it. What else am I going to do with it?”
“Dad?!?! Those things could have diseases. There are so many other things you could eat. How long has it been out there rotting in the sun?”
My dad’s attention stayed on his cigarette. He twisted the ends and stuck it in between his lips. I went outside and looked at the lifeless carcass again.
“Dad,” I yelled from the front door, “it’s covered in ants!”
I couldn’t decide which argument was the best one. My dad was amused at how worked up I was. He often found amusement in making others squirm. Nobody was safe from his sense of humor. I remember the incident at my fifth birthday party. There were kids of all ages there, including a toddler of one of my dad’s friends. He put an ice cube in the toddler’s diaper. His laugh was loud and piercing as he watched the toddler run in confused circles, frantically waving his little hands around.
“Dad, you don’t live in communist Vietnam anymore. You don’t need to scrounge for meat by eating squirrels,” I said. “Do you want me to buy you some chicken? If you want meat, I’ll go to the store right now and get you some chicken or beef. Please, don’t eat that squirrel.”
He stopped laughing, but he was still smiling. He looked like one of those clowns from the games at the carnival where you throw balls to knock out its teeth. He hadn’t yet inserted his retainer with the one front tooth — it was still soaking in a reused yogurt tub in the bathroom.
“Squirrel meat is delicious, buddy.”
I stomped around the house looking for my mom.
“Mom, how could you let him eat that disgusting squirrel?”
“Don’t ask me. I told him he could go crazy eating that squirrel meat. I don’t want to know anything about it.”
Later that afternoon, I checked to see if the squirrel was still there. I walked around to the side of the house and saw that the squirrel, along with the trail of ants, was gone.
“Can you believe Dad?” I said to my sister, who was also home visiting that weekend. “He was really going to eat that squirrel.”
“He already ate it.”
I could imagine my dad preparing the squirrel. It was still cold out so he would be wearing two pairs of sweats, the old Adidas jacket I got in high school and athletic shoes he got for $4 at the thrift store, the kind with the Velcro. I could see him holding the limp squirrel by its bushy tail, how he would separate the flesh from the hide and make a clean cut down the stomach. But he wouldn’t be so delicate getting to the internal organs. He would break the squirrel’s ribs and get his fingers right in there, making squishy sounds between the intestines, lungs and heart.
Once the flesh had been rinsed off, my dad would halve the carcass and throw the meat into a frying pan flooded with oil. The meat would sizzle and pop once it hit the pan. He would bring out a plate of lettuce, tomatoes and raw onions. There would be a small bowl of soy sauce with three crushed chili peppers to make the meat dance on his taste buds, which had been dulled by many years of smoking.
He would walk across the kitchen and insert one of his Cambodian karaoke DVDs into the DVD player. A rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ would be blaring, only the words would be in Khmer. He would watch pretty girls in colorful and silky traditional dresses sway back and forth as Khmer words at the bottom of the screen switched from white to blue.
My dad would take a sip of brandy. He would shove raw onions into his mouth before swallowing the squirrel meat. This trifecta of music, alcohol and food would make him content for the rest of the afternoon.
I knew so little about my dad that making things up was how I filled in the blanks. I knew he ate squirrels and I knew there was a dead one on the side of the house. My mind came up with ways of how to get from one point to the other. Sometimes, I didn’t know what stories from my dad’s past were real and what stories were ones I just imagined.
I don’t know why I was so bothered by my dad eating that squirrel. Maybe I thought it was because he might get sick from eating a diseased rodent. Maybe, or most likely, it reminds me that I don’t really know my dad and the reasons why he does the things he does. My dad has always been a part of my life. It’s not like we were estranged for a long time and are just now getting reacquainted. When I was a kid, he drove me to school. He rode his bike with my siblings and me. He helped me move into my dorm room when I went away to college. He’s done most everything a father should do and yet, when I am in my parents’ house, he feels like a stranger to me.
Recently, I spent 15 months teaching English in South Korea. It seemed living half a world away from my dad improved our relationship. We had regular conversations — I called my parents every Sunday — and our interactions were always pleasant, albeit superficial.
“You got any good news for me today, buddy?” he would usually ask me.
“Well, at school this week, my class had our assessment tests and my students did pretty well.”
It got quiet and I would think I lost the connection.
“Have you seen Kim Jong-un? Tell him I say ‘hi,’ buddy.”
“OK, Dad,” I would reply, wondering if he even heard what I said. “I’ll tell Kim Jong-un you said ‘hi.’”
He would laugh so hard it sounded as if he just got done running up a flight of stairs. Even through the phone, I knew it was the kind of laughter that made his eyes squint. This was how I preferred my dad. I remembered a time when he used to call and tell me how sad and lonely he was, how he couldn’t believe my sister and I were out of the house since it seemed like just yesterday, we were in grade school. Happy dad, no matter how shallow our conversations were, was much better than depressed dad. I wondered how it was possible that these two dads could exist within one person. With my dad, there has never been a middle ground.
Now that I am living with my parents to help with my sister’s upcoming wedding, our relationship has fallen back into the same irritating cycle: my dad says something nonsensical to my mom, I yell at my dad for being a hypocrite, he yells at me to stay out of it and I try to express the full extent of my frustration with my limited Vietnamese. Then, all three of us yell at each other to shut up and all of us walk away feeling utterly exhausted and hopeless. Anger, frustration and guilt — it seems those are the pillars that hold up the relationship I have with my father.
It’s hard not to get upset when he does the things he does. There was that time in 2004 when my parents downsized to a smaller house after my sister and I left for college. It was a hasty move — my parents and their landlord got in some kind of dispute and in less than a month, they were forced to be out of the house I grew up in. And something happened to my dad. A nervous breakdown? A mid-life crisis? I’m not exactly sure what it was but there was something unsettling in his eyes. They were anxious the same way the eyes of an animal might be when running away from a predator. He would sit in his room, clutter and empty boxes all around him, shaking and whispering something to himself in a hurried speech. He would pace around the house, repeatedly driving the palm of his hand to his forehead.
I couldn’t come home from college so my mom was responsible for clearing out the house and asking friends to help with the move. My dad could barely drive a car in the state he was in. By the time I came home for the summer, my parents were settled in their new home but whatever afflicted my father during the move lingered. On some days, it would be just the two of us in the house. While I watched television, he would wander in and out of the living room, looking at the walls and inspecting the corners as if he had been dropped on another planet.
“This fuckin’ house,” my dad would mutter loud enough for me to hear. “It has no sunshine.”
I rolled my eyes as he moved from room to room. His pacing unnerved me and then he would just stand over me, breathing heavily, watching me watch TV. He started needlessly moving things around. The calendar over here, the house plant over there. Then he went to the garage and got a hammer and nails. When he tried to rearrange the photos on the wall, I lost it.
“Dad, what are you doing?” I yelled. “The picture is fine there. Why are you moving it?”
He looked at me with a sadness that made me pity him. It was the first time in my life I felt sorry for my dad. I could see his eyes were getting shiny behind his bifocal glasses. His thin, graying hair was disheveled. The stubble on his face had been there for days. It was such a contrast from the picture that hung just on the opposite wall of where we were standing, the one of him as a 26-year-old Army ranger. He had thick, black hair and dark eyes with a gaze that made it seem like he was looking straight at you through the picture. There was an unmistakable confidence in his half-smile.
“I want to put the picture of the family here,” he said in a soft tone. “Put it in the front, where I can see it.”
The guilt washed over me. I knew I shouldn’t have been yelling at my dad like that. I had been swallowed up in the cycle without knowing it. And the saddest thing about it was that the power had shifted to me, the child. In this confrontation with my dad, I was the one who spoke with authority. I was surprised by how powerful my voice was when I was mad. I was even more surprised at how easily my dad cowered at the sound of it. It was like the anger and frustration were dormant somewhere forgotten in my body and even I didn’t have the ability to wrangle them into submission.
When I had no filter, when I was alone and let the anger completely take over, I wasn’t afraid to say that my dad was inflexible, impatient, irresponsible, reckless, inconsiderate and selfish. And then the voice turned from anger to dread. This is my father and if this is my father, will this be me someday? I was starting to recognize in myself the things I hated in him.
I wanted him to be the dad who beamed when I gave him a paper wallet I had made for Christmas. I wanted him to come to all of my high school volleyball and basketball games. I wanted him to be happy to drive me to school, instead of complaining that I was too lazy to walk. “It wouldn’t kill you to get a little exercise,” he would say.
I wanted to be his precious daughter. No daughter wants to admit their dad isn’t the best in the world. Yet, those ugly words, that’s the truth. This is what I know.
But I also know this. I know he was a ranger for the 81st Airborne Ranger Group and spent 11 years in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. I know he was sent to a re-education camp in Ben Gia after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He spent five years there, where the Communists tried to indoctrinate him. He planted crops and dug ditches for eight hours a day and his body shriveled to 100 pounds. I know he made his way on foot through Cambodia to reach a refugee camp on the Cambodian-Thailand border. He spent two and a half years in a refugee camp that, at the size of a football field, housed about 2,000 people. I know that the most important thing to him is caring for my 26-year-old brother, who has a form of cerebral palsy that limits him to the cognitive abilities of a nine-month-old baby. I know that his biggest fear is leaving my brother behind with no one to take care of him.
My dad is as complicated and confusing as a Rubik’s Cube. When I’m with him, it feels I’m constantly flipping and twisting, completely stumped with which move to make next. The more flipping and twisting I do, the further I get from actually solving it. Maybe it’s a puzzle I won’t ever figure out. Maybe it’s not that my dad needs solving, but that I need to accept there may never be any straightforward answers when it comes to him, that even if things aren’t perfectly lined-up, they are exactly where they should be.