The following is an excerpt from Julie Wu’s debut novel The Third Son published by Algonquin Books.
In the last days before my father’s arrival, I could not sleep and instead sat in the black vinyl armchair in the dark, running my fingers along the slices Kai-ming had made in the armrest. This seemed to me the reward for all my trials: that I should have Yoshiko and Kai-ming in America with me, that we should welcome another child into our new home, and that my father would come to recognize, in however small and reserved a way, the worth of my life.
I wasn’t completely naive. I didn’t expect him to smile and say, “I love you,” as Americans did. I had never seen him smile and I would never expect him to embrace me; he never had. But perhaps there was some way—some subtle, casual way—that he could acknowledge my worth. That I was Kazuo’s equal—even his own. I wanted to talk to him as father and son, yes, but also as a grown father to a respected son, man to man. I had not taken the path he wanted, but how much more glory I was bringing to the family by pursuing my own path! If I did everything right—passed my qualifying exam, wrote my thesis in a year—I would be the first person from Taoyuan with an American doctorate.
Yoshiko made sure his room was spotless. I moved his bed this way and that, back aching, to find the best placement in the room. When the day arrived, I awoke so early with anticipation that I watched the sun rise over the valley of neat little Rapid City homes.
It was a brilliant day, and I went by myself to pick him up from the airport, anticipating that moment when we would be alone together, the two of us. We had never been alone for all my childhood except when I faced him in his armchair. Someone else had always been in the way—my siblings, my cousins, his colleagues, Nationalist agents, soldiers.
I waited on the tarmac for his plane, and finally it came, touching its delicate, spinning toes to the Rapid City runway. All the passengers spilled out the plane’s doors, and then he emerged, dwarfed by all the tall white people around him, his face as grim and self-important as an army general heading into battle. He strode toward me on the tarmac, his pear-shaped body clad in a gray three-piece suit. He was perfectly erect, his eyes, in this strange, new land, directed straight ahead. At his approach I felt a coldness in my belly. I tried to shake the feeling off, because I knew things would be different now.
He drew near and held out his leather satchel. “Put this in the bank for me,” he said. “I need it in Japan.”
“What is it?”
“It’s cash, stupid.”
I took him to meet Beck. Mrs. Larsson smiled brightly on introduction but then, receiving my father’s mirthless nod, glanced at me and went back to filing papers into her desk drawer.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Tong,” Beck said. “Please come in.” The three of us stood awkwardly in Beck’s office. It was late Friday afternoon. Beck wore his fishing hat and I saw his reel leaning against the wall behind his desk.
“We’re lucky to have your son with us,” Beck said. He spoke slowly, clearly. I had told him my father’s English was limited, and I was grateful that he remembered.
“Hm,” my father grunted. His face was smooth and inscrutably somber as a temple statue’s, his ever-present bow tie perfectly symmetrical.
“He’s not afraid to take risks. Been teaching a different course every semester to prepare for his PhD qualifier. Most people just want to stick to the same course. Laziness, I guess.” Beck tilted his head slightly, watching my father. He started speaking less deliberately. “He’s doing cuttingedge work at Michigan, too, on the upper atmosphere. Exciting stuff.”
“Hm,” my father said again. Beck looked at me uncertainly.
I took my father out into the hall and waited for him while he lit his cigarette.
He let out a puff of smoke. “Why was he wearing such a stupid hat?” he said. “I expected someone important, not a small-town hick.”
“He didn’t even go to college,” Yoshiko whispered to me at night. “He has to cut you down to size.”
Even in my own home, bought with my own money, my father was king. He sat in my black vinyl chair, turned the TV to shows he liked, and ordered food from my wife. At times I couldn’t bear to see it, and I took him out. This seemed to be what he wanted as well. I thought he would be impressed by the beautiful countryside of South Dakota, so we took him for long drives. He was especially fascinated by American cows; in Taiwan, the cows were black from head to toe.
“Wait, wait!” he exclaimed as we drove by a farm, and I had to stop the car so he could take a picture of a Guernsey calf staring back at us through a segment of wire fence.
Kai-ming stifled a giggle, and Yoshiko shushed him harshly. “You must not laugh at your akong,” she said.
My father was equally impressed by the mountain goats chewing grass by the side of the road at Custer State Park. At the Badlands, he noted the similarity to the undulating rock formations at Yehliu, on the northern coast of Taiwan.
He took pictures of Mount Rushmore and peered at dripping stalactites in the dark coolness of Jewel Cave National Monument. “There is a lot to see in this country,” he said. “I want to see more.” But Yoshiko could not drive, so during the week, while I taught, my father stayed at the little house in Rapid City with Yoshiko and Kai-ming.
“All he does is watch TV,” Yoshiko whispered to me at night. “He can’t even understand what they’re saying. Doesn’t he have anything better to do? I’m working like a dog to take care of him and he just sits there like a king. I can’t stand on my feet all day when I’m pregnant.”
“We’ll go out to dinner. We owe him,” I said. “He helped both of us get over here.”
When summer came, we rented out our house in Rapid City and moved to a Northwood duplex on the University of Michigan campus. It was time to take the gamble of my life, to give up my professorship for a year in the hopes that at the end of the summer I might pass Michigan’s fabled qualifying exam and then use the year to write my thesis.
I needed to study even more. Hunching over my books in the library with the other Taiwanese was, however, out of the question. Since my little dinner with Wei-ta, they had stopped being friendly to me, and it seemed unlikely that studying the way they did would be effective in any case. Beck’s method of questioning had been the key to my quick mastery of the material in South Dakota. To replace him, I joined a study group of American students who took turns fielding questions. I still needed to work in Gleason’s lab, and I often returned home very late.
We invited Wenchong over for dinner to meet my father. “Professor Hong is safe!” he said excitedly as I welcomed him into the house. “And his wife has been cleared to come to the US! I am so grateful to your father!”
Wen-chong was in a good mood, and he conversed easily with my father, who was clearly impressed with Wen-chong’s tidy appearance and sophisticated Chinese.
Wen-chong sucked delicately on spare ribs in black bean sauce, wiped his mouth elegantly with his paper napkin, and told my father about our first trip to Fort Churchill. “Your son is a bold young man and quite an excellent engineer. It is so wonderful that you could help with his family’s immigration, and of course I so much appreciate your part in clearing Professor Hong’s name in San Francisco—”
“Who? What? Professor who?” My father chewed and waved his hand, wrinkling his forehead in annoyance. He swallowed a mouthful of lotus blossom tea. “I didn’t do anything. No one listens to me anymore. It was that American senator who called the Taiwanese embassy. Scared the daylights out of the Nationalists. That pig-faced friend of Kazuo’s got into big trouble with the party. Making up accusations, wasting people’s time and resources. Because of Kazuo! Kazuo should have been the one in trouble, but he’s so sly he managed to get himself out of it.
“As for Saburo,” he added irritably, “I don’t know why he has to take this PhD thing so seriously.”
That night in our bedroom, Yoshiko sat fuming as my father’s footsteps lumbered overhead on the second floor of our duplex. She panted a little; her belly protruded so much now that it brushed against the bureau as she leaned toward her mirror. She untied her scarf and threw it down on the bureau. “He takes every opportunity to shoot you down! And see, he didn’t help you or me or Professor Hong, after all! Senator Dickey did everything.”
I folded my tie and tucked it into a drawer. “He’s frustrated,” I said. “I’m too busy to take him around. It’s a long time to wait until after summer session.”
“Then he should hire a tour guide. You can’t just drop everything because he’s here!”
But sometimes I would stop studying early and go sit with my father in our little living room to keep him company. Time was passing, passing. Our study group’s meetings had accelerated in frequency from once a week to twice a week to daily. The qualifying exam was fast approaching. And then, come what may, there would be one month, and my father would be gone. The time to forge our connection was now. Perhaps that was why he was upset. He wanted to talk.
“Look at this!” He struck his brother’s airmail letter with the back of his hand. “What a democracy! They simply take the opposition leader and blackmail him. Thomas Liao’s sister-inlaw is in prison and they’ve sentenced his nephew to death. It’s all because of the elections. They’re afraid Chiang’s son will look bad. What does it matter, when all the elections are fixed, anyway? It’s simply needless brutality.”
Was it still that way? “We don’t hear of those things here,” I said.
“Don’t be stupid. Chiang knows how to pander to the Americans and squeeze the Taiwanese at the same time. The Americans are so terrified of Communism they’ll see what they want to see and send Chiang all the money and guns he wants. For all they care, the Taiwanese people can go to hell.” He looked to the side, puffing his lips indignantly.
I changed the subject. “And how is Taikong?”
“Taikong!” He waved his hand dismissively. “Going to hell. Everything going to hell. Some kind of fishy business. What business is it of yours, anyway?”
Shocked and stung, I fell silent.
He drank his tea, the once-feared hands curled softly around the melamine cup. “Ah, Li-hsiang,” he called to the kitchen, “is this that oolong tea from Chicago?”
“Yes,” she answered. “It’s almost gone. We’ll need to buy more when we go this time.” She paused, then added pointedly: “If we can.”
My father ate a lot and contributed nothing. Yoshiko kept a weekly account of all our expenses, budgeting down to the nickel.
But this was my father. I couldn’t ask my own father to pay for his living expenses.
He took his tea to the couch and sat with a vinyl squeak, unfolding the San Min Chen Bao. I felt invisible in my own house, ever the errant child with my silly projects—the noisy toys, the radios, the PhD. When would I ever stop?
* * *
Tom Reynolds burst out of the Horace Rackham Amphitheatre, his face and neck flushed deep red.
I sprung up from my chair as the double doors closed behind him. I hadn’t seen him for weeks; he’d holed up in the library by himself, rereading one textbook after another.
“What happened?” I said. My voice caught. I had thought I was feeling calm.
He put his hand out vaguely, then rubbed his forehead. “Goddamn! I didn’t even know what they were asking me! Goddamn! I needed this degree. How am I going to repay all those loans?”
I watched him, horrified, speechless, my pulse quickening. The doors opened again. “Chialin.”
Tom looked down, still rubbing his forehead, and shook his head. “Good luck.”
I stepped through the door. My heart was pounding, and as I turned down the aisle to the stage, I stumbled. It took me a moment to recover my gait.
I stepped up onto the stage. In the bright lights I floated, blind. My recent study sessions came together in a jumble of frantic thoughts, and the only thing that rose up clearly was that I could never face Yoshiko or my father if I failed. It was not only that we had already signed a year’s lease on the apartment and that the School of Mines had already hired someone to replace me for the year. Yoshiko would finally realize that she had misplaced her faith in me, and my father would be proved right. That I had wasted my time. That I should not have bothered.
I walked to the chalkboard slowly, as though I were on the deck of a rolling boat. I picked up a piece of chalk, and it slipped in the moistness of my fingertips, like the pencil slipping in my fingers the day of my entrance exam for Chien Kuo. My mother had sewn me my very first new pair of shorts when I passed. What would she do if I passed this?
“Mr. Tong. First question: How does a fuel cell work?”
My heart lurched against the front wall of my chest. In the three years of Beck’s grilling, in all the sessions with my study group explicating the most sophisticated theories in the electrical engineering world, fuel cells had never come up. I hadn’t thought about them since junior college.
I cleared my throat. I looked into the bright lights of the amphitheatre, seeing in the front row the five members of the jury, none of whom I knew. This was intentional, to avoid bias. Gleason’s imposing figure and Ni Wen-chong’s slight one entered through the rear exit and settled quickly into seats near the back, but they were here merely to watch and had no input into the jury’s decision.
“Fuel cell,” I said. And as the words left my tongue, I was twenty again, rattling around in a cattle car with my classmates, following Yi-yang as he walked his motorcycle down the sidewalk on Chungcheng Road, catching glimpses through a window of a girl I had met in an air raid.
“Fuel cell.” My voice quavered. All had been lost. I would be an electrician for my family’s company. I was a failure, rooted to the ground, to the practical world, my ear burning against the cool floorboards of my parents’ house.
Gleason shifted silently in his chair.
“Mr. Tong? Shall we proceed to the next question?”
“No.” I shook my head and turned to the chalkboard. “In a fuel cell, you have hydrogen, and you have oxygen, in separate compartments.” I drew an actuator. I was a child, drawing my fingertip through the wet concrete on February 28. I would be expelled.
But as I continued my diagram, my memories shrank back like shadows at dawn, leaving only the clear lines of white chalk against black as my hand moved across the board. The floor solidified under my feet, and my breathing loosened.
“Why so complicated? Could you put them in the same compartment?”
“No.” I paused. My confidence suddenly welled up into an impishness I had suppressed since middle school. “Well, you could,” I said, “but then something may happen.” I indicated an explosion with my arms.
The little audience laughed and I saw Gleason and Wen-chong whisper to each other. Gleason nodded.
I smiled. This was America.
We celebrated at the Candlelight Restaurant on Route 14. Yoshiko and I had mountain trout, while my father ordered the most expensive item on the menu—New York steak, at $3.25.
“Hm.” He popped a piece of meat into his mouth. “We’ll see if it is the same in New York.”
Yoshiko glanced at me.
Kai-ming looked up from his malted milk. “When are we going?” “Tomorrow,” I said. “In the afternoon.”
“Why in the afternoon?” my father said through his steak. “You should always start a trip in the early morning. We should leave as soon as possible.”
“I have some things to take care of,” I said.
My father stopped chewing and looked up at me.
There had been an edge to my voice. I knew the main reason he was happy I’d passed the qualifying exam: He was sick of being at home. He wanted to go on tour.
“Four weeks’ vacation?” Gleason sat behind his desk, Wen-chong in the other chair, legs neatly crossed. Between them, on the desk, was a large stack of ionosonde data held together with a rubber band. Gleason frowned, rolling the rubber band off the stack. “It’ll be a stretch if you want your model used on the next launch, Saburo.”
Wen-chong looked sharply at me. “You could have told me earlier.”
“I have promised my father,” I said.
Gleason’s eyebrows wrinkled together. “Didn’t you say you could only afford a year at Michigan? Why would your own father want to jeopardize your PhD?”
I was silent. Wenchong looked at the floor uncomfortably.
I don’t know why he has to take this PhD thing so seriously.
“Anyway,” said Gleason, waving his hand, “it probably won’t make any difference at the end of the year. No one has ever done their thesis here in a year. Even Linus Pauling spent three years on his at Caltech.”
We barreled 450 miles east to Manhattan, where we took a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, shopped at Macy’s, and ate sukiyaki. We drove five hours to Buffalo to float in the mist of Niagara Falls, and then to Chicago to eat Cantonese, Japanese, and Szechuan food. Then, Chevy trunk stuffed with dried mushrooms, pickled cucumber, preserved tofu, two gallons of Kikkoman soy sauce, and fifty pounds of Japanese rice from the Chicago Chinatown, we crossed 750 miles back over the Great Plains, taking in enough dairy cows to satisfy fifty Taiwanese politicians, so that my father could enjoy Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons.
My father stood, gazing anxiously at Old Faithful’s vent, camera poised. I watched him, reminded somehow of how we watched launches at Fort Churchill. I needed to get my new telemetry unit on that rocket in December. I’d been thinking it over while I drove, while I lay in bed at night. I would have to hit the ground at a sprint when we returned.
Yoshiko was sitting on a bench with Kai-ming a few yards behind me, and I went to join her, my back on fire with pain from the many hours sitting in the car.
“My doctor said I should take it easy,” Yoshiko said. Kai-ming lay curled up on the bench with his head on Yoshiko’s knee—the only part of her lap not occupied by her pregnant belly. He wore a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, and she took it off his head to fan him with it. “This is not easy. And the smell…” She shook open a lace-edged handkerchief with one hand and held it over her nose.
“It smells like rotten eggs,” Kai-ming said. “When’s the eruption? I’m tired.”
“All these hotels!” Yoshiko exclaimed, throwing our keys onto the bed that night. “We can’t even afford one room at these places, much less an extra one for your father, too.”
“Don’t worry,” I said.
“Don’t worry, what? We don’t have any more money, and he has a big fat bank account! Why do you think he’s bringing the money to Japan? You think your little brother will be footing the bill like us? Why doesn’t he contribute here, too?”
The same thoughts had occurred to me. But hadn’t my father gotten me the money to come here in the first place? And wasn’t it a sign of my father’s high regard for me that he thought I could afford to board him? Asking for money would be an admission that I was still a child, not my father’s equal at all.
At night, in a motel on the Lincolnway, Yoshiko lay down on the bed and tucked the pillows around her belly. “My back is killing me. Let’s take a rest tomorrow. Kai-ming needs a rest, too. He felt warm to me tonight.”
“Hou,” I said. I sat beside her and lay my hand on the taut side of her belly. “Mama and baby will rest.” The baby kicked under my hand, and even through my fatigue and frustration and in the blandness of our motel bed, I smiled, thinking that this child of mine would grow up speaking English, eating hamburgers, and arguing about what was fair. And I would love this child no less than I loved his number one brother. No matter what.
The rest of the night was long and miserable. Kai-ming’s temperature shot up and he spent much of the night vomiting in the tiny bathroom. Yoshiko and I took turns washing his face and pajamas and giving him sips of water until finally he slept. When the sun peeked through the holes in the curtains, we stayed in our beds.
A knock at the thin plywood door roused me from dreams of an air raid. “Saburo! Saburo!”
Yoshiko opened her eyes. We looked at each other for a moment, listening to my father’s gruff voice.
“Saburo! Get up!”
She glanced at the door, frowning. “He’ll wake Kaiming.” “I’ll take care of it,” I said.
Yoshiko turned her face to me and touched my cheek with the soft tips of her fingers. Her hair was squished flat over her forehead, and she looked as young as a girl, her eyes as radiant, frank, and full of compassion as when I had first told her that no one cared whether I came home. I closed my eyes, breathing in deeply, taking in her flowery warmth. And then she gave me a pat and closed her eyes, turning her swollen belly over onto her other side.
“Saburo! Saburo!” The thin door rattled in its frame, the chain swinging in its little arc.
I glanced at Kai-ming. He slept with a child’s abandon, arms flung wide, legs on top of the covers, feet hanging over the side of the bed. He wore a Superman T-shirt and a swimsuit in place of his soiled pajamas, and he looked as though he were doing a swan dive against gravity.
The knocking stopped.
I got up and dressed quickly. My father did not give up that easily. I slid open the chain and stepped out the door. My father sat, fully dressed, on a peeling green bench between his room and ours. In his bow tie and bowler hat he looked incongruously formal against the exterior of the motel, which was painted brick red with white trim to make the rooms look like homey little cottages. He had a dark expression on his face that I knew all too well. I hastily closed the door behind me.
He jumped up, surprisingly nimble for all his corpulence, his bowler hat like an immovable fixture on his head. “Why do you sleep so late!” he said angrily. “I’m hungry, and I can’t go anywhere to eat without you! Are you so lazy that you can’t wake before nine? I want to see places. I don’t want to spend my mornings in lousy motels! Did you forget who made it possible for you to come here?”
A good son should bow in front of his father, should swallow his pride. The trip was almost over; an apology might bring me the approval that I had always craved.
But I was no longer that boy in the rice paddies.
I stepped forward, through the American air that hung, cool and crystalline and smelling of newly cut grass, between us. As I moved, the molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide tumbled over my skin, spinning off and crashing into more molecules that in turn careened into others. The waves of invisible molecules rippled across the parking lot, bouncing off the red cottage facades of the motel rooms and, warmed by the sun, up into the layers of the atmosphere. I stepped toward my father, towering over his ample figure, over the round face that never smiled, over the tongue that never spoke a tender word, over the bow tie that was knotted even now, in Wyoming, around his neck.
“Yoshiko is pregnant,” I said. My tongue stuck to the sides of my mouth and made clicking noises. My whole body shook. The air molecules vibrated around me, cushioning me. “She is tired, and Kai-ming is sick. They needed to rest.”
He waved his hand and turned away. “Don’t give me any excuses.” My ears burned at the memory of the blows that had followed these words. But as the gust of air from his hand reached me, the air molecules parted and tumbled off, tumbled away.
I took another step forward, shifting the air around me, air now mixed with the leftover essence of filial piety and the aftertaste of disappointment. My voice was rough in my throat. “I’m driving five hours a day to entertain you,” I said. “I’ve fed you and hosted you and housed you for four months.”
He barked at me over his shoulder. “Complaining about hosting your father? How many years do you think I—”
“That’s worth at least as much money as you got for me from your brothers,” I continued, “and the least a decent father could do is let us sleep in for one day.”
He whipped back to face me. “Such disrespect! You speak to your father this way?”
“I do,” I said. “I should have a long time ago.”
I met his glare. The eyes were fearsome—black, unwavering. I had never stared back at them before. I had been too afraid. I realized now how completely at his mercy I had felt my whole life. At any time he could have saved me at will or let me die. He had meted out fates to his children as he saw fit. He had played his cards shrewdly, and we had all survived. As far as survival was concerned, he was the undisputed master.
“Personal freedom,” I said.
“What?” His eyebrows scrunched together.
“Personal freedom,” I said again. “In America, it’s valued higher than life.”
“Stupid,” he said. “You’re a fool.”
And then he stormed into his motel room and slammed its plywood door shut. The air molecules burst into the air and bounced off my body, dispersing into the atmosphere.
In the remaining days, he spoke little.
The morning of his departure, I went to withdraw the money he had asked me to put in the bank for him. For his visit to my brother.
When I returned home, he was buckling up his suitcase. I walked up to him with the bundle of cash.
“We ran out of money,” I said. “We had to tap into your account, a couple hundred. This is the rest.”
My father looked up incredulously. “You took my money?”
“Here’s a check for the difference,” I said. “By the time you cash it in Japan, I’ll have gotten my next paycheck.”
He snatched the cash and the check out of my hands. “Unbelievable,” he said.
I did not apologize.
And then my father’s imitation-leather suitcases were stuffed full of presents for my sisters and brothers. And then he was onboard, the jet roaring down the runway and lifting into the air.
The plane’s nose rose into the stratosphere, blasting through my little-boy dreams of parental love. They streamed in shreds over the birdlike body of the plane and swirled in the eddies of its steel wings, which glinted, smaller and smaller, farther and farther away, in the clear South Dakota sky.
From The Third Son by Julie Wu ©2013 by Julie Wu. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.