My Father’s Stories

Somewhere in between high school and my second year at college, I stopped reading fiction. Not altogether – a small number of brilliant novels made its way into my hands via persistent recommendations from friends and family – but very, very rarely now, compared to my youth when fiction was all I would read. As a young girl visiting the library, I would make a beeline for the new fiction section. If it seemed I’d already gone through the choicest ones, I’d make my way to the back shelves. But I never wandered beyond the shelves marked “Fiction and Literature.” My memory is poor, but perhaps I have done that walk so many times this impression could not help but be ingrained: I remember one evening, hurrying past the biographies and wrinkling my nose in distaste at the thick tomes about real people. “Why would anyone want to read about real people when there is so much great fiction?”

My father was a hypocritical detractor of this mindset. He would shake his head whenever I walked in with a bag full of novels and say, “That stuff doesn’t grow your brain. It makes you dream,” and I’d roll my eyes and say that he had no heart. Fiction builds character, I said. Why do you think I’m so amazing?
I say hypocritical because my father grew up on a steady diet of classical Chinese literature – all of it fiction. You may know the most famous: The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Romance ofthe Three Kingdoms, and Journey tothe West – impossibly long and complicated stories written back then by people with plenty of time and imagination, for people with plenty of time and growing imaginations.

My favorite scene from “The Polar Express.” 

As a grown man with thoughts of career and family, he stopped reading fiction, but he never stopped thinking about it. I have often said that I remember little of my father from my childhood, though if I were to excavate the loose grey matter I hardly use, I would find him exactly where I needed him most.

He often picked me up from daycare and, if he came home later (though always in time for dinner), he would come bearing a large stack of children’s books from the palatial Cerritos Library. When we lived in the city, he took me there on weeknights or Sunday afternoons so that I could make my own choices and I will never forget that magical wing, designed to mimic a medieval castle with turrets filled with thin, colorful spines, each bearing a tale, not necessarily a lesson. But after we moved to a city some thirty minutes away, he often stopped by on his way home from work and picked out books with what he hoped was a discerning eye. To be honest, I don’t remember many of the books – The Polar Express, The Velveteen Rabbit and The Vanishing Pumpkin stand out (going online to see the covers of these books now, for some reason makes me cry) – but collectively, they comprised a lovely childhood.

What’s more, my father told us stories – at least, he tried to. It is a running joke in our family that my brother and I ought to know those stories by heart, at least the Journey to the West, because my father boasts of having played raconteur to us each night around bedtime. And he did, we do, but only parts. He always fell asleep after three or four lines so we never heard the ending. How did the sly monkey and pious monk get to the West? More than anything my brother and I know the sound of his snores, which now blend seamlessly with our perception of that tale. I know now, from Chinese school and later studies that the monk, the pig and the monkey eventually reached their destination, but it is vague to me, unlike my father’s introduction to the story, which still rings loud and clear. Indeed, you must be able to recall the fables and other bedtime stories your parents told you as a child – perhaps you never even set eyes on the words but you remember them and the images they evoke. It becomes innate – the stories as much a part of your genetic makeup as your hair and bones, your heart.

For years I rolled my eyes at my father, thinking he would never understand me because I loved novels and he seemed only to ever read business books and magazines, but looking back, I realize I had forgotten the source of this love. 

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