Westen Gray was just eight years old when his Caucasian mother died and his Chinese father, Xin, sent him away to be raised by her relatives. More than twenty years later, after a lifetime of estrangement, Westen receives an invitation from his father to travel with him to China. So it is that two strangers—a father and a son—travel halfway around the world to a land that one of them knows intimately and the other has never seen. The future of their relationship hinges on the trip and on the contents of a sealed letter written by Westen’s mother before her death—a letter that threatens to answer the lifelong question neither of them has dared to ask.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
BRIAN LEUNG is the author of World Famous Love Acts, winner of the Asian American Literary Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. He was born and raised in San Diego County, and currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville.
From the Hardcover edition.
The son receives a letter from his father;
he considers his home and how to respond.
A letter from my father has arrived, and I don't want to open it. I found it with the other mail as I walked up my gravel drive looking through furniture ads, bills, and inquiries about my pigeons. Among these was an envelope in my father's handwriting, posted from Los Angeles. Part of me wants to put the letter back in the mailbox. He has written Westen Chan on the outside, a last name I haven't used since I was eight, when they changed it to Gray. The morning mist rolls past me, reaching around my body like a slow hand as I open the envelope. There is not much to read, a few lines. The second-to-last one says, "I want to take you to China."
I sit on the stump of an old pine I cut down last year, and reread the letter.
Yes, it has been too long. And yes, I have paid a big price for leaving you. I am sure it has cost you as well. I have been in contact with your aunt and she tells me, among many things, you have chosen to remain alone. If I have caused this, I'm sorry. There are some important things about your mother you should know. I have a debt to you I have not paid and I want to take you to China. Please, I would like to explain myself and I hope you can forgive me.
How can I forgive a man I have not seen in decades? And he says I have chosen to be alone. Aunt Catherine has kept my confidence, then, because it is only true that I'm alone now. I was in love for a long time, but I learned I am not meant for relationships. Being left is a pattern in my life that began with my father and I choose not to invite the opportunity again. Now he returns with an offer of a trip to China, which sounds like a word I shouldn't know, something without meaning. But it comes to my voice and I whisper it into the Northwest air, where I imagine it hanging for a moment, white and fragile and foreign.
I think of a woman from years ago who lived on an egg ranch, Mrs. Cheung, who drove me home when my uncle was getting drunk with her husband. She left me with a gift, and before letting me out of the car reminded me that the blue box she'd given me was between the two of us. Even now I know where it is hidden and I think I should leave it there.
I look up from the letter and standing in front of me is the neighbor boy, Marky, and his friend Claire. They are both nine years old and round as balloons. Sometimes I let them tag along when I go fishing. Claire reminds me of a very old woman in very young skin. She wears her hair in a tight crown of braids. Her family is Methodist. Whenever she gets a chance, she chastises me for not being married. "Don't you want children and someone to love?" she likes to ask.
"Yes," I always respond, even though, for me, I don't think either is possible.
"Oscar's dying," Marky says now. He sounds resigned and sad. Oscar is his yappy, swaybacked dachshund that likes the cheese crackers I slip him when I walk by Marky's house. In fact, I've known Oscar longer than I've known Marky. The dog is old, so I'm not surprised, though I act otherwise.
"That's awful," I say. "What's wrong with him?"
Slightly agitated, Marky scratches his bristly head. "He's got tumors. And my dad says we can't bury him in the yard when he dies."
"Because," Claire chimes in, rolling her eyes, "his dad's cuckoo in the noggin."
I stifle a response. I've met Marky's father, and Claire's diagnosis isn't far off. Once he made the entire family sleep outside because he had a dream their house was going to burn down. He's not a bad man, but I understand a father's power to disappoint, which is probably why Marky and I get along so well.
"Dad says he don't want diseases in his yard. We even have to keep Oscar in the garage till he dies."
I look at the farthest part of my property and then back at Marky and Claire's plump faces. "I'm sorry about Oscar," I say. "But when he dies, you can bury him here."
"Really?" Marky reveals his gapped front teeth. "You don't care about tumors?"
"As long as they don't grow into tumor bushes, of course not."
Claire pats me on the hand in her overly mature manner. "You're a dear," she says, looking at my father's letter, which is still in my hand. She grabs Marky's elbow to pull him away, as if she knows that this piece of paper contains something weighty. On some unspoken cue they both run up the street, though they start walking after fifty yards or so.
So I'm thinking about getting a piece of oak for a headstone and somewhere I still have the wood-burning kit Uncle Cane gave me when I was a child. If I think about these things, maybe I won't have to think about my father and the intrusion of his letter into my life. The Columbia River is where I've carved out a place for myself: the dark blush of heather at the edge of the lawn, wild lupine I brought down from the mountains. I coax each plant from hard seed soaked in warm water. This is how I discovered patience. I have always been calmed by the pine tree at the edge of the property, the last of the old trees in Blue Falls. I have stood beneath it in the rain-the needles capturing the drops, altering their speed and course. Sometimes in a downpour, the base of the tree, with its broad branches above, feels like an open shower.
My father has never been here, never seen my home. Locals call it the Lighthouse because the second floor has a ruby-colored oval pane of glass. Flecks of gold mixed into the glass help to create its color. Early travelers on the river used the red glow of the window in the evening hours as a landmark. I have always wondered at this touch of extravagance in such a basic wooden house. The roof leaks in a new place every few years, and some of the pine siding has split. Still, not bad really for having gone through nearly a century of snow and warm, humid summers.
This used to be my great-aunt Catherine's home. When my father gave me up as a child, it became my home too. Now my aunt has moved permanently to San Diego, and I have stayed. After I was done repainting the white siding and green trim, I bought it from her. I pick up odd jobs in town, and in good weather I get yard work. Between that and selling my racing and show pigeons, it's enough.
I am part of life here in the Columbia River Gorge, its constant green slope terminating in a blue artery of water. I live on a steep grade, always on the verge of stumbling. The ponderosa and hemlock and the spring flowers mask volcanic rock. In the fall, the feathery yellow of the aspen will crack across the mountains like hatching chicks. Each season offers a new identity. When you live here long enough, you learn to do the same. It seemed like a way of life until now, as I hold a letter that's calling me by my old name.
The son considers a letter to his father;
he recalls his childhood bond.
I have carried my father's letter for three days. His stationery gets increasingly worn with each reading. He wants to take me to China when I spent so much of my life wanting him to take me home.
I sit in the brightest room on the top floor of my house, preparing to write my father that I will not go to China with him, something I wish I could tell him in Chinese. I have lost nearly all the words I used to know. When I was very young my father mostly spoke to me in Cantonese and Mandarin until he was certain English would not overtake my voice. Even my blond mother, with all her hard Caucasian syllables, got through breakfast and dinner in broken Chinese until I was two or three. Please-m-goy-was the only word she pronounced truly well. Before I fully learned English, she often used this word, followed by a number of hand signals that completed her sentences.
The early language barrier with my mother brought me and my father close. He wanted me to be Chinese. When I was in kindergarten, I came home one day and complained that the other Chinese children were calling me white. He took off his black-framed glasses and pinched the faint bridge of his nose. "No. No. You are Chinese," he said, firmly. Though it is not lost on me now that he chose to convey this in English.
He walked me to the large mirror on my closet door. We stood side by side, holding hands as he spoke. "This is what your classmates see," he said. "You have the same olive skin as they do, the same dark hair. They also see that some things are different." He ran his finger down the line of my nose. "This is your mother's. Yes, and your eyes, too. But someday you will also have a voice just like mine. They don't understand that you're lucky to have some of both of us." We looked at each other in the mirror. He held his black hair in place with oil, and his glasses were tinted, giving his cheeks a faint amber tone.
He must have realized I wasn't satisfied. "What no one can see is that you are Chinese inside," he said. I almost asked what that meant to him.
"Wo xian zai ming bai le," I said instead. I knew that when I spoke Chinese it made him happy. "Now I understand." It is one of the few phrases that has stayed with me, along with his promise that I would someday have a voice just like his, something from the inside. I have always wondered if that came true.
After the talk with my father, I woke every morning to a plate with three large dates on my bedstand, placed there by him to remind me of our heritage and prosperity. It was the one gift he looked forward to as a small boy in China, he explained to me once. Every year on his grandmother's birthday he received a small tin of dates. From his descriptions I can even picture it: the gold metal sealed around the edges with red wax. He counted each date, and calculated how small his bites must be for the gift to last a year.
Along with this daily offering, my father and I had another morning ritual. After I finished the last of the dates, the pits neatly piled on the plate, my father lay facedown on the floor without his shirt. I hopped out of bed and walked the length of his back several times. His vertebrae pressed into the arches of my small feet, sometimes giving with a sharp pop. Above his left shoulder blade were two evenly spaced round scars the size of marbles. He told me very little about these except that they were caused by bullets when he and his family were escaping from the Communists. The man who would have been my uncle did not survive.
Unable to start my letter, I open the window. The morning light comes to the gorge like a vapor, thin and speculative. The trees are warming and the scent of pine is as elemental as oxygen or hydrogen. I spent much of my childhood here at the edge of the Columbia. A hundred years ago this property was the center of a working farm, sheep and chickens for loggers and fishermen. Now it's reduced to a few acres, overtaken at the edges by young trees. This is a land of enclosure. The forest wants to return and I have decided to let it.
The apple tree behind the house has gone wild. Its spray of thin branches hangs over the part of the building where I keep my pigeons. Every winter I think this tree has died and every spring it surprises me, first with white blossoms, then budding out in green. When I was eight, Aunt Catherine lifted me on her shoulders so I could reach past the hornets and bees and bird-pecked fruit and pick the highest apples.
Beneath the tree is Uncle Cane's whetstone, rusted in place. This is where he sharpened our ax blades every few weeks. A tin can hangs at the side by a wire. I kept it full of water while he pedal-pumped the round stone, dribbling water to reduce the white sparks. "Sharpening will be your job when you get older," he told me. I have never used it.
Now I sit at my desk trying to write to this man who brought me dates and whose skin was soft and moist under my feet. The paper in front of me is blank, except for the words "Dear Father." This greeting strikes me as odd now, but there was a time when I would have meant it.
I am skeptical. My father has not written since I asked him to stop his annual correspondence, the dispatches from Hong Kong or Los Angeles every year on my birthday. Always a check and an apology, but never an opportunity to open the blue box that was supposed to give me hope. What could he want now, in my thirty-second year? I am not the Caucasian-looking boy with the bowl-cut hair that he left after my mother died.
I have never understood why my father gave up after she was gone. Before my mother was struck by a car, they playfully argued over names for a daughter when we went out to eat dim sum. They considered Wuhan, or Beatrice for her mother. After my mother died, my father's eyes looked scooped and waxy and he barely spoke to me. I was waist-high to the people at the funeral, all of them in dark suits, as if I stood in a forest of black trees. I remember the green grass beyond my mother's mahogany casket, and, after the service, my father's words. "You're going to stay with your great-aunt Catherine for a while." And then, as if this mattered to me, "They have two nice homes." In a couple of sentences, my life was rerouted. Instead of studying Chinese characters and painting on rice paper on Saturdays, I learned to train racing pigeons and to pull salmon out of the Columbia.
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.
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