I started getting it, bit by bit, that the thing between parents and children, the thing that ties you together is that all your life, you are forever watching them walking away.
[The inadequate, rough translation mine]
I read this in a book by Lung Ying-tai, a renowned cultural critic in Taiwan, on my plane ride back to Chicago in December 2009, and I have not completely stopped crying ever since…
It has proven difficult for me to write about my trips home because whenever I think of them, I think of the last moment as my parents watched me walking away.
The last moment, at the airport, right before I turned around and headed towards the exit, ironically named “the entrance of emigration” in Chinese on the airport sign.
The border always carries something more than simply arbitrary and abstract. The pang was so visceral that I found it hard to breathe right before I steeled myself and determined that this hug was going to be the last hug. I turned. I walked towards the police officer, handed him the passports and boarding passes. I told myself every time, “Don’t cry this time,” before turning back with a raised hand towards my parents merely a dozen steps away, my mother waving with a smile on her face saying goodbye to the kids, my father teetering on his cane, his figure stooped, his expression stoic. He looked so small even though you could still see traces of his healthier self when we made fun of him by comparing him to the Happy Buddha. I squeezed my heart into a smile on my face. I waved one last time and quickly stepped into the customs area. And then, they lost sight of me.
This is always the moment when my tears start beading along the edges of my eyes until they get so heavy that they roll down my cheeks. I cry because I know my father is crying at this moment as soon as we are out of sight.
My family has learned to have the tissue at ready because, like me, my father is especially susceptible to crying. I didn’t become privy to this family fact till when in college, we watched Graves of the Fireflies together, I turned around at one point and saw my father’s face wet with tears. I moved the box of Kleenex that I was holding in front of him. He acknowledged it by pulling a handful of tissues from the box and blowing his nose throughout the movie.
I tried to wipe the tears away so I was not embarrassing myself in front of the airport security. Perhaps they have gotten used to seeing people in tears as they pretended not to notice the fact that I was heaving and hicupping from trying to act normal. My 12-year-old patted me on my back, “Mom, are you ok?”
I nodded and gave him an embarrassed smile.
“You cry every time we leave.” He said, perhaps not quite understanding the possibility of such heartache.
I am always grateful that the act of leaving lasts only until the x-ray machine. I will soon be sufficiently distracted by the procedures, the logistics, and the anticipation for the dreadful 20-hour trip back to Chicago.
CODA: If I were writing in Chinese for a Chinese readership, I would have mentioned this prose essay, “Retreating Figure” (Bei Ying, 背影) by the famed Chinese poet/essayist in the early 20th century, Zhu Ziqing, which has become part of the collective cultural memory. The title is literally “Rear View”: you can understand why it is not really the best choice in this case. You could defuse the unintentional comedy by calling Zhu’s moving essay about his father “Seeing Father from the Back” but it detracts from the one-two punch the short Chinese title delivers. Sometimes there is simply no easy translation. In “Retreating Figure”, Zhu described his leave-taking with his father as the older Zhu saw his son off at a train station. The father crossed several train tracks to purchase some tangerines for his son for the train ride. The writer vividly described his father’s endeavor as he climbed down and then up the platforms, crossed the train tracks, and then back, stopping in between his arduous journey to wipe the sweat off of his brows. No emotions were transcribed into words between father and son, or on paper, and yet this is one of the most moving pieces of literature I have read. I close my eyes and I can see the back of the older Mr. Zhu walking away as this image is overlaid with the image of my father, standing there watching me as I walk away.