March 7, 2011

in through the looking glass

Whenever I think of my trips home, I think of the last moment as my parents watched me walking away



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.


Justine March 9, 2011 at 11:09 am

You have no idea how much I’m crying now. I don’t think it’s the hormones. I’m quite sure it’s the subject of this post. And the quote. And this beautiful piece of writing.

You know I share your pang. But that doesn’t make it any easier for either of us. And especially for our parents who’ve watched us walk away too many times to count. The fact that it will be my turn someday tears me apart.
Justine´s last blog post…Top 10 reasons why being pregnant is…

writerwoman61 March 8, 2011 at 7:11 pm

I’m with you on this one, Lin…I’ve always lived hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from “home.” I cried every time I left…I think the airport guys are used to it!

writerwoman61´s last blog post…The Love Link…Happy 100th- Grandma T!

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 9:46 pm

You are right. They must have witnessed a full range of emotions at the airport every single day.

linlah March 8, 2011 at 2:02 pm

That is kind of full circle with your 12 year old patting you and inquiring as to your well being, in not too long he will begin watching you walk away.
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Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Yes indeed. I am getting my reckoning because he turns 13 tomorrow…

The Sweetest March 8, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I can feel the lump in my throat, as if I am the one walking through that gate. When I was a child, my grandmother used to drive four hours, alone, to visit us. Every time she left, she and my mother both cried. And, like your son, I never understood it. Until my grandmother was gone. And now that I am a mother, with a mother who is a grandmother, we cry the same tears before one of us flies back home.
The Sweetest´s last blog post…Because One Trip Wasn’t Enough

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm

A lot of things we won’t understand until we become parents ourselves…

Lies March 8, 2011 at 11:40 am

This is the reason why I didn’t want to leave Europe when looking for my current position – and why I feel uncomfortable applying for 2-years+ scholarships: leaving is hard enough when you know you’ll be back next month and you can call anytime. When you know months will go by before you see each other again, and you have to count the hours to make sure they’re not sleeping when you call … that’s when things get too big to be kept inside. I hope you had a great time with your family, and when you think back, you not only think back of walking away on the last day, but also of walking to each other on the first. {Hugs}
Lies´s last blog post…… and I’m not the only one- apparently

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Thanks. I do remember the moments when I saw them at the airport. My father had been at the airport these past few years despite the trouble he’s been having with his legs. My first reaction has been Oh man, he aged even more this time…

chickens consigliere March 8, 2011 at 11:30 am

I mean cemetery, dammit. I can’t stand that I never remember how to spell that word. Who needs it.
chickens consigliere´s last blog post…In which Chicken reveals what Oprah and Dr Oz have never explained about the process of growing old

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 9:42 pm

If it were not for spellcheck, I would have spelled Dictionary wrong every single time. It’s like there is an ironic mental block in my head.

chickens consigliere March 8, 2011 at 11:29 am

I’m crying, too. Sigh. That was beautiful writing. The last time I saw my father, before he died, was at my mother’s funeral. We were standing in the cemetary after the burial and I hugged him good-bye as he stood next to his truck. Then I walked away with my husband and boys, but I stopped to look back and wave. And, this was unusual for him, he had tears rolling down his cheeks. (Not for my mom, so much, I don’t think-they had been divorced for many years by then-I think maybe he knew somehow). I can’t believe that that is the last time I had with him. So now that you have us all sniffling, what are we gonna do? Group hug?
chickens consigliere´s last blog post…In which Chicken reveals what Oprah and Dr Oz have never explained about the process of growing old

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Dear Chicken, I am very sorry for your loss. Yes a group hug is sorely needed….

lifeintheboomerlane March 8, 2011 at 5:59 am

“perhaps not quite understanding the possibility of such heartache.” Ah, so moving. A beautiful post.
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Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 7:45 am

Thanks. 🙂

Kathryn McCullough March 8, 2011 at 4:22 am

What a beautiful post! So powerfully moving–thank you!

Hugs from Haiti,
Kathryn McCullough´s last blog post…Haiti- The Art of Recovery

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 7:44 am

Thank YOU.

secret agent woman March 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Oh, how sad. This one brought tears to my eyes.
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Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:12 am

I should have given some warning “Tissue needed”… sorry…

Tiffany March 7, 2011 at 5:26 pm

i cry every time i leave my parents home and they only live 6 hours away. i’m 31 but i still need them and miss them being around.

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:12 am

I don’t think we ever get too old to needing our parents sometimes.

Ry sal March 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Such a beautiful post… Not really the same, but kind of.. After my grandpa died suddenly in his fifties, my dad used to see him in crowds all the time. This reminds me of that.
Ry sal´s last blog post…5510- 1 less than 11

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:13 am

Wow. That has to be sad and sweet at the same time. Over and over again.

Andrea March 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Sniff, sniff, sob! Awwww, I am sending hugs your way. Beautifully written. Somehow, I always want to hug your parents when you write about them too.
Andrea´s last blog post…Fire Burning

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:14 am

I thought of you as soon as I hit the Publish button. {{{{hugs}}}}}

meleah rebeccah March 7, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Oh, you brought tears to my eyes!

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:15 am


meleah rebeccah March 8, 2011 at 10:07 am

Seriously, you are an incredibly talented writer. And, the comment you left for me on my blog COMPLETELY CRACKED ME UP! 🙂 So thank you, for that!

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 11:27 am

You are welcome. You are a one-woman marketing band for those pajama jeans. 😉

Andrea @ Shameless Agitator March 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm

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Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:16 am


p.s. I am just shamelessly going to hug you guys now.

pattypunker March 7, 2011 at 1:57 pm

so beautiful and sad. i love a man who can cry. i don’t ever like to see it because like now, i’ll cry at the sight of it, but i like a man who is sensitive and loving enough to cry.
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Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:18 am

Me too. My dad looks like a butcher, albeit a short one, (that’s another post some day…) so he is “not” supposed to be such a softie inside…

dufmanno March 7, 2011 at 11:43 am

Glad to see I’m not the only one who heaves and hiccups while trying to fight massive waves of tears.
This was so beautifully written I felt like I was standing just off to the left as it happened. xo
dufmanno´s last blog post…Room With a Theme

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:19 am

Being in this beautiful relationship with you all does make me feel that you are always there. Ok, I do leave you behind when I go into the bedroom… and also the bathroom…

Jack March 7, 2011 at 11:15 am

I think that I might like this better than any other post you have written. Very powerful.
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Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:19 am

Thank you very much my good sir for the very serious compliment. Thank you.

Elly Lou March 7, 2011 at 8:52 am

Lady, you are so beautiful. I swear you’re my secret stash of sunshine.
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Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:20 am

You managed to steal words out of my heart and turned around and sent them back to me.

SisterMerryHellish March 7, 2011 at 8:25 am

Damn it, Lin! Turning into a puddle is no way to start the week!

But it was worth it. Here’s some tissue I had in my purse. It’s clean! It’s clean!
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Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:21 am

Sorry, babe!

SisterMerryHellish March 8, 2011 at 8:45 am

I’m absolutely not. 😉
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TheKitchenWitch March 7, 2011 at 7:47 am

I, the human watering pot, am bawling like a baby at this.

Gorgeously written. A kick to the gut.

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:22 am

Sorry! {{{hugs}}}

Wicked Shawn March 7, 2011 at 6:31 am

This is so poignant. I love the images it creates almost as much as I hate them. The sadness of watching anyone walk away, disappear into the crowd or the vessel wisking them away from me.

This makes me want to call my parents just to remind them how much I love them. I am fairly sure my mom will be freaked out! 😉
Wicked Shawn´s last blog post…Getting Wicked With Me

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:22 am

LOL. Indeed, she’s going to freak out. 🙂


Tom G. March 7, 2011 at 6:30 am

What a moving, heart rending post. It reminds me of the last time I saw my father, as we said good bye at the airport, a few weeks before he died. Thank you for sharing. I am off to find a translation of that essay.
Tom G.´s last blog post…Another late night on the couch

Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:40 am

Oh Tom, I am so so sorry for your loss. {{{{{hugs}}}}}

Here is an English translation done by some anon person on the “Chinese google” Baidu.com


laura March 7, 2011 at 12:37 am

this made me cry, dammit! beautiful post
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Absence Alternatives March 8, 2011 at 12:42 am

Sorry. {{{hugs}}}

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