My father often brought home strange odors from work. There was the smell of iron from the metallic dust that covered his clothes when he worked as a welder for a factory that made gas heaters. When the factory closed down, he traded in his blowtorch for a wok at a Chinese fast-food restaurant and came home reeking of cooking oil. He was often in a foul mood, mumbling to himself as he stripped off his uniform—stained apron, greasy pants and t-shirt—just inside the front door. In the shower, the acoustics were good enough to hear him mumbling about how life dealt him a bad hand, how his colleagues were out to get him, and how his boss was cheating him of the hours he worked. Later, eating at the kitchen table by himself, he would smack his lips loud enough to make us all aware of his self-imposed isolation. Unlike the fathers of my friends, the teachers, the bankers, the businessmen—who all smelled of Polo cologne or Old Spice—father never aspired to become anything better than minimum wage.
Although I know nothing of Vietnam from where my father hailed, father himself, one native from that country, was enough to stir in me images of an uneducated population, living a hand-to-mouth existence, prone to violence and war, and speaking in a guttural language that sounded harsh and prehistoric to my ear.
We lived in a neighborhood of rental townhouses and rundown apartment buildings, where families moved in, and just as soon moved out once they found better jobs, better prospects that allowed them to purchase their own homes in tree-lined neighborhoods. But father was content where he was, wallowing in self-pity and wishing there hadn’t been a war in his country so that he could have finished his schooling and gotten a better job. He came to the conclusion that playing the Lotto 6-49 every week, and one day hitting the jackpot, would more than make up for those lost years.
By the time I was in high school, I did not think of that man as father and treaded lightly. Whenever I was home, fearful of stirring up the anger he stored up from all the wretched people he came across throughout the day: his boss who treated him unfairly, the neighbor who called him “Charlie” to his face, or to the driver who parked in his allotted space. The world was a dark place full of people who lived in shadows. No wonder I stayed away from him as much as I could, spending whole evenings reading alone in bed with a flashlight.
In the world of Dickens, the men were more stoic, more dignified, and more gentlemanly. Why couldn’t my father, for instance, be more like kind, gentle Joe of Great Expectations, who also hailed from humble origins but did not have my father’s crudeness? Or perhaps, Dostoyevsky in far-off Russia envisioned my father as he created the mean and crusty, Fyodor Karamazov. In my darkest moments, I saw the same fate for my father, lying in a pool of his own blood.
On the cover of one book, a tattered Penguin classic with frayed edges and spider cracks running across the bottom, there is a man walking on a beach. Behind him, a blue ocean and a dense jungle with palm trees. Animal fur is wrapped around his head and feet. In the first chapter of this book, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe himself does not heed his own father’s advice and runs off for adventure. I knew then that there was a lot I could learn from this man. Although he was on foreign shores on a deserted island facing countless challenges, he had the courage to overcome his environment and even reshape it. Indeed, by the novel’s end, Crusoe had built his own fortress, cultivated his own food, and domesticated the wildlife. When his ship sank into the ocean, he did not sit on the shore contemplating how miserable his life was, nor did he wait for salvation from an outside force. No, he was the master of his destiny, and for me, the father of all fathers.
When Man Friday made his footprint on the beach and later befriended Crusoe, a sense of sibling rivalry emerged. Send him away, I thought. Nothing good will come of him. And then there came the feelings of resentment and anger: How dare this stranger, this cannibal no less, take the attention away from my beloved Crusoe, my father dearest. I too wanted to be taught the ways of a society that did not eat its own kind.
It was literature then that was my escape. I realized that I could be reborn to become a man I wanted to be without the burden of family to get in the way, especially my father who wanted me to learn that the world was bleak, with a future and past that no one had control of. Life for him was a roller truck that crushed you underneath.
After I graduated from Queen’s University, I was offered a job in Japan, half a world away. When I told my father the news, he gave me a puzzled look, as if he were thinking of the right words to say. If there was anything I learned from the novels I read, it was that people change and evolve. They suffer through conflict, yet grow stronger for it at the end. So, perhaps at this moment my father, now older and grayer, realizing I was about to leave home, would understand what it meant to be a father.
Real life, I learned, is not a novel. After some time, he told me how surprised he was that I had actually graduated from university. He had thought that I had failed.
The next day, I went to Berry & Peterson Booksellers, bought a handful of second-hand Penguin Classics and began packing.
David Chau completed his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of King’s College. He is working on a true historical narrative entitled OUT TO SEA: HOW A JAPANESE PEASANT BOY BECAME AN ENGLISH GENTELMAN. He can be found on Twitter @ChauDavidH.