Friday, January 9, 2009

My father the farmer

I have a certain habit when I read books. For one, I always make a new bookmark by folding a post-it note in half. Next, I always make sure to have a pen around when I'm reading. If I come across a line that resonates with me, I write only the page number on the bookmark. The idea is to later look back at my collection of books, my collection of page numbers, and see if any quotes jump out at me. It's a measuring stick of growth. I want to know what resonated back then and still now. If anything.

Unfortunately, I can't post-it note everything in my life. Which is why I have no idea where this line came from, nor can I quote it accurately. To paraphrase (which is just quoting with less accuracy), there comes a time in every man's life when he must walk away from his father. He has to become his own man.

My father did this in the 1970s, and he did it in a remarkable way. My grandfather was a self-sustaining farmer in rural Taiwan. Which means my father grew up riding cows, tilling the land, and literally living those made-up stories about walking to school with broken shoes. He had a faint idea of something better, so he left for America to pursue his PHD. I joked about it in the last post, but this is the American dream. If he can go from redneck to professor in a foreign country, what mark do I stand to leave?

But it's not about living up to him. It can't be if I ever want to be happy. So when I think about walking away from my father, it's not about escaping responsibility. In fact, there's quite a bit of levity in it. I'll call it nurturing my nature. Now I will stop being alliteration-ist (made that up) and just give you some examples.

A good way to talk about my father is to talk about my mother. My parents' home is littered with trinkets (see: tchotskes, brick-a-brack, tokens). I'm talking about Happy Meal toys from the '80s. Which is even more surprising because my parents never let us buy Happy Meals in the '80s or any other decade. My sister once tried to clean up the mess, and my mother uttered one of my all-time favorite lines: "No! They're for my projects!" My sister and I often quote this line at random. Now before you assume my mother throws cats at strangers, she teaches Pre-K. There's truth to this.

So when my sister became an elementary school teacher, she became equally obsessed with crafts. With projects. She handmade keepsakes for everyone at her wedding. And when my mother gave her and her husband a box of gifts for Xmas, my sister was very interested in the festive box.

As much as you resist, there are things you can't walk away from.

I didn't notice how much I was becoming my father until I was paying my own rent. I'd turn the thermostat way down in the winter and way up in the summer. This, of course, annoyed my roommates, but I couldn't help it. I figured grinning and bearing was worth a few dollars. I hated this as a kid, wearing sweaters inside during the winter, wearing t-shirts and boxers in the summer. It's the only thing that makes sense to me as an adult.

The other day I had a long conversation with a friend I grew up with who now lives in New York. When I say "grew up with," I mean her parents still live in the same neighborhood as my parents, where I currently live. They ask about her when we pass the house.

We talked about living in "the city," about how what you want changes when you actually have it. She was in NYC, in the media, but it wasn't all sweet cakes and puppy breath. It hadn't become that after three years. I think part of her is still incredibly driven to live that New York City lifestyle, but the other part wants simply what her parents have: a house in the suburbs, a two-car garage. I too feel the pull of NYC (though it was much stronger when I was living in Philadelphia), but mainly because living month to month has a certain romantic humanity to it. Who has ever created anything worthwhile without suffering? But I also want to own land.

So are we supposed to surpass our parents? And what defines "surpass"? Is the point of walking away to figure out that we need to return? I don't know. But it's cold outside and inside, and it's January.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes I wonder which is the better classification for those people who are truly able to defy their parents, (not in a malicious way, but in that they can choose a path completely unlike what they are used to) -- are these people actually "rebellious" in the negative sense of the word, or are they making real progress? Falling a little further from the tree maybe?

    Its a funny thing though that I question my desire to own a house with a two car garage in the suburbs. People here in "the city" who have only known city life only want city life. They don't secretly yearn for that house on a plot of land. So they're just as much guilty of perpetuating their parent's life. Its just that living in the city is for whatever reason inherently cooler than desiring strip malls.