This one’s old — you can tell from the first line. But with it being Father’s Day and all, it was a good time to repost.
I’m 20 now.
20 is a strange age. For a guy, 20 is somewhere between being an adult and being ready to carry the burden that a real father does. And right now, I feel like I’m neither.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I’m writing to you now. I don’t know how much of this you’ll understand, and I don’t know why I’m doing this now when I could have at any point of my life growing up. But as you know, I never wrote then.
Now that I’m going to graduate from Berkeley soon and finally have to take on the world by myself, I find myself wondering a lot how I got to this point in my life. How growing up with you as my dad has affected me. Or if it has at all.
Like I said, 20 is a strange age.
When I was younger, the first thing adults always asked me – even before they knew my name – was if I was going to be an architect.
I bristled at that. Hated it.
Any kid would.
I was never “Nam” to them; only “Nghi’s son”. Your son, with the same wavy haircut, the same glasses, the same dark tan. Nobody could ever see me as anything else. I’m not sure I did either. Somewhere during that time, I think I lost sight of myself, and who I was.
Even back then, in elementary school, in middle school, in high school, I felt this pressure, this expectation to be like you, Ba. “Your father” this, Ma said. “Your father” that. She reminded me constantly.Maybe I brought some of that on myself, but everything I did was compared to you, the father who accomplished the American dream. The father who went from working in noodle shops to getting his architecture degree from one of the best universities in the world. The father who could fix everything and fail at nothing.
And even though no one in the family ever mentioned it out loud, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that everyone expected me to be at Berkeley, too.
That is an impossible weight to put on a child, to expect him to grow up to not be himself. Still, chasing after you, following your footsteps…that was all I knew. So for a long time, I tried to be just like you, the way everyone else wanted, putting in long hours studying and stuffing my schedule full of AP classes so that I might one day make it to where you crossed the stage. But no matter what grades I brought home, or whatever I accomplished socially, nothing would get me your approval.
There was only the silence that I now know so well.
Do you remember the day I got into UCLA? Do you ever think about what you said to me then?
I walked into the kitchen that night, so happy to get my first acceptance letter from a college, excited to tell you that I got into a top university…
I thought that would be something you would be proud of.
You were cutting up a mango when I came in.
“Ba, I got into UCLA.” I said quietly.
You looked at me for the briefest of seconds, an eye peeking out at me from under that mess of black hair. And then you looked back down at your hands, continuing to cut your mango.
“Aren’t you gonna say anything?”
You didn’t. You chose to put the fruit knife gently back on the table and walk back to your room. I can still hear that sound ringing in our hallway.
I don’t cry often. But I did then.
It’s been almost four years since that moment, but every time I think about it, it reminds me of how desperately I fought to get some acknowledgement, some acceptance from you. I still haven’t gotten it. I don’t even think you smiled when you heard I got into Cal. Ma at least looked happy. All you said was, “I knew you would.”
But that’s okay.
I stopped worrying about that stuff when I took some classes this last year – first in Vietnamese history, then in “Tiger” parenting, then about Asian American dads – out of personal interest. Even though you and Ma forced me to go to Vietnamese school growing up, I’ve never felt like my heritage was a big part of who I am, and I was lucky enough to have a chance to spend some time really exploring that part of myself. I figured that at worst, it’d be a cakewalk and a nice A to keep up my average.
I got a lot more than I bargained for.
Those classes, those books I read…they always left me in deep thought. Thought about my identity and my childhood, the same way that Lac Su and Shawn Wong did in their books I read. Thought about your silent parenting, and how little I know about you, just like Sigrid Nunez. Thought about the War, and how things must’ve been like for you, living in constant fear of Communist machine guns and American bombs.
Thought about why you raised me the way you did, why you approach life the way you do, why you choose to never praise me or say anything.
And then one day, I woke up. And I understood.
You chose to leave your life and your family in Vietnam for the same reason most parents do – to give your kid a chance at a better life and all the promises of American freedom. But I don’t think you knew how to tell me that when I was younger, or how to say it out loud. Vietnamese men are like that. I’m sure your father was the same to you.
So you showed me by example instead – juggling multiple responsibilities to show me that I could do the same someday. Taking on burden of fixing everything, to show me that a real man should be dependable and resourceful. Never praising me to make sure that I would never waste the opportunities I was given.
That’s when I realized that trying to be you, trying to chase after you would be exactly that. A waste. You didn’t come here for me to have a life just like yours – you left everything behind so I wouldn’t have that life.
You will never tell me that you’re proud of me, or that I’m doing a good job, not because you aren’t proud. In fact, you were probably more happy than you let on when I got into college. You just show that pride differently than most parents, with the things you do, not the words you say [or don’t say]. Why else do you continue to drive me back to Berkeley every week or remember that my favorite cereal is Frosted Flakes when you and Ma are grocery shopping?
No, I think you’ll never praise me because you want me to keep making you proud, to keep having high goals for myself, to keep working hard.
But when I understood that, for the first time, I no longer felt like I was under that shadow that loomed over me for so many years. Like there was just me, and not some ideal superhero I had to try to be, because I could stop waiting, and just start being. Nowadays, I work as hard as I do just as much for you as it is for me. That stuff comes second nature to me now, because of how you raised me.
Still, I have so many questions. Were you like me at 20? Struggling to figure out who you were, wondering why your dad was how he was, struggling under expectations, questioning where you were heading with your life? Did you ever think you’d be raising a family here, instead of in Saigon, or Hue? I’ll probably never find out the answer to those things. It’s hard to imagine what you were like when you were younger. So much of who you are has always been a mystery to me – what life was like for you in Vietnam, what you like, what you don’t like…but I don’t write this letter expecting any of that to change. No, I’ve learned that you are an intensely private person. If there was anything important that you wanted me to know, you probably would have told me. No point in prying.
I used to think all that stuff – the silence, the sternness, the distance – that that was because you didn’t love me. Because you didn’t really want to have a kid, or something. But when I read about Sigrid Nunez’s dad, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s dad, and Lac Su’s dad, they all sounded just like you. Silent and private. Hardworking. Stern.
They had mixed up feelings about their fathers – like me – but none of them ever mistook that silence for a lack of love.
Whether those books were real or fake, I don’t know. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is how their words and their narratives sat with me, how they made me feel – and after reading their stories, I realized I never once considered anything else, never thought about my father, never thought about you, the way they did. Maybe I should have. Because I would have realized much earlier that wasn’t that you didn’t love me. You said nothing because you loved me too much to spoil me rotten.
I’m 20 now.
20 is a strange age. But one finally old enough to understand that you cared for me, even when I didn’t – couldn’t – realize it.
I wonder a lot about how I got to this point in my life. How I ended up at my dream school, the place that became my dream that day I saw you get your diploma. But without you, I wouldn’t have. Not without the lessons your hard love taught me, not without the example you set for me.
Thank you. For all that, and for more than I’ll be able to write in this letter, more than my words will be able to ever express to you, in Vietnamese or in English.
At 12, when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t see myself. There was only a kid who was trying so hard to be someone he wasn’t.
At 20, when I look in the mirror, I still see that same dark tan and glasses.
But I don’t have an identity crisis about it anymore. One of the books I read in class, Homebase, by Shawn Wong, reminded me of something I should’ve known all along. My heritage is complicated, but inseparable from who I am. That you – your blood, your lessons, your silent love – are a part of me, Ba. And no matter how much I struggled with that growing up, I wouldn’t be who I am today without you. Without all of that, really.
Right now, when I look in that mirror, I see me – me, with my eyebrow scar and my blue and gold wristbands that I wear everywhere, and my short hair, freshly buzzed, tucked away under one of my many hats that Ma hates so much.
There’s one hat that I like to wear more than any of the others, though, and that’s the Superman one. That one will always have the most meaning to me, because I grew up idolizing him my whole life.
Not Clark Kent.
And when they tell me I look just like you now, I only smile slightly, knowing that they are only comparing me to the best man I know.