I marched down London Drugs with treasure on my mind.
We only visited Vancouver once a year. Each flight from Beijing was a 12-hour journey. This was my chance to get those magical ultra-rare cards. I would swagger into the new year with the best cards at school.
“Can I buy some Yu-Gi-Oh! cards?” I asked dad.
“No. It’s $3 — it costs too much.”
“But your skis cost hundreds of dollars!” I pleaded. Dad barely went skiing. The new equipment collected dust in our cramped garage.
He ended the conversation.
“I make the money. I make the rules.”
Religion and Hypocrisy
Writing about dad isn’t easy.
When I was young, I didn’t understand life. Actually. I don’t know if I understand anything now.
I remember that some of the happiest memories of my childhood involved him. I remember that he always carried a VHS-Camcorder and a fanny pack. I remember that he would make hilarious jokes. I remember that he had one hell of a temper.
He was a man of rules. If we wanted to spend time with him, we would have to tell him how much time we’d take. His time was very important.
I thought he was a hypocrite.
He would preach the benefits of exercise, waking up on time, not procrastinating… And I’d see him on the couch, sleeping late, and delaying activities for later.
I remember all his suits and how cool they were. I’d touch the suits, wondering what kind of important stuff he did at work. He worked for Nokia, travelled a lot, wore suits every day and did business stuff. That’s all I knew.
The sunlight always shone brightly in these memories.
The Bible was everywhere in my childhood. My parents were religious. Protestant, born-again Christians. Maybe it was the only community that made sense as Hong Kong-born Canadian expatriates in China. You had to have a foreign (non-Chinese) passport to enter our church. Government’s rules.
I grew up at Sunday school, answering Bible questions for cookies and candy — Running around with my friends, jumping in the elevator, trying to catch big-air. Wondering whether the church served grape juice or wine. Wondering what the communion wafers tasted like. Reading books during sermons, daydreaming about girls and falling asleep a lot.
Sunday was nice because we’d always eat something new and different after church. I loved eating with my family.
My parents always fought extra hard on Sundays. They’d scream at each other in our decades-old car. That’s all I remember. Screaming, and then long periods of cold silence.
I’d lay against the window. The left side was my favourite. I’d lay there, tuck myself into my seatbelt and will myself to sleep.
In the Bible it says that the Lord is your Heavenly Father.
“As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
— Psalms 103:13 (NIV)
That scared the shit out of me. I feared God alright.
I imagined God as another version of my dad. All this talk of unconditional love and forgiveness sounded like clever marketing.
Salt pillars, fireballs, endless floods, and storms? Now that was more like it.
Angry God was my dad alright. I could relate with the Old Testament God. Give him perfect obedience, or you were going straight to the fiery BBQ.
The Bible was pretty funny. One moment I’ve got love:
“Do everything in love.”
— 1 Corinthians 16:14 (NIV)
Flip a few pages and then it’s wipe out an entire city because that would be delightful and holy:
“They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”
— Joshua 6:21 (NIV)
For my adolescent mind, the Bible was consistently inconsistent.
All this talk of forgiveness was a way to lower my guard. It was like when my parents said “if you tell me the truth, I won’t get angry.” — And then I got beaten anyway.
If I ran away, I’d just get punished harder when I was caught.
I could pray to God all I want, but nothing and nobody could save me but myself.
The divorce was sudden, and not soon enough.
I always wondered if mom and dad really loved each other. I’d never seen them kiss. On reflection, I’d never even see them hug or hold each other. They lived together, but I wouldn’t call it love.
My parents always screamed and argued. That’s what I remember the clearest.
When they decided to get a divorce, I was more confused than angry.
Weren’t these the same people preaching unconditional love? That God would heal everything? That in God, all was possible?
Weren’t these the same people who talked about the importance of family? Of eating together? Of being present?
I didn’t understand. I felt that I’d done something wrong.
Was it because I wasn’t good enough? Was I not a good enough son? Maybe I wasn’t a good enough student? Or a good enough brother?
What was I missing?
I felt like I’d failed. I had this family that was perfect on paper. We didn’t have major money problems. No drugs, no smoking, no addictions. Just a “normal” family, or as normal as I could remember, anyway.
So why were my parents breaking up? Was our family not worth it?
I didn’t understand. Sometimes I still don’t.
My parents held me and my sister with kid-gloves. I was 13 at the time. I was young, but not dumb. I knew what was going on. I knew there was more to the story than they’d let on. All their assurances sounded fake and ridiculous.
“We’ll tell you when you’re older. When you’re 21, we’ll tell you everything.” They said.
“Why can’t you just tell me now? So that I can understand?” I asked.
“You’re too young.” They repeated.
Now I’m 25. I’ve grown so much over the years, yet I know that at 13, I would have been able to handle the truth. I needed the truth. I needed to understand why things were happening because my brain was coming up with all sorts of crazy reasons:
Maybe they hated me and my sister.
Maybe they thought I was a failed project.
Maybe I wasn’t worth the trouble.
Looking back, it probably had nothing to do with me at all. That was my ego talking. I thought that everything in the world revolved around me.
In hindsight, being together was just a mistake they made. I don’t know if they handled it well, but they tried their best. I think.
I remember feeling disconnected with life. I had to see a psychologist. I remember drawing a lot of things. I drew a lot of pyramids and ancient symbols. All that time playing Yu-Gi-Oh!, Runescape and reading fantasy books gave me an active imagination.
My psychologist told my mom, “JJ’s a bright boy, but I can’t read him. He’s buried his emotions too deep.”
I still don’t know what my psychologist meant. I didn’t feel much of anything after the divorce. I didn’t feel sad, I didn’t feel angry. It was just life. I was numb to most of it.
I remember dad buying my a drum kit as a good-bye gift. I was just happy I didn’t have to play the piano anymore. It was funny because dad was the one who forced me to play the piano. I hated piano with a passion. I wasn’t allowed to leave the piano room… I was a prisoner.
One time, I tried to quit piano. I told dad “I want to quit piano and play another instrument. Maybe drums?”
He was furious. He kicked me down the stairs. I crashed against the wall and he towered over me.
“You ungrateful little… I pay a lot of good money to get you the best piano teachers. And this is how you repay me?!”
I cried. “I just don’t want to play anymore. Please.”
He grabbed me and threw me down another flight of stairs. I was hurt all over, but what hurt most was him yelling at me, telling me I was good for nothing.
I hated my piano teacher too. Maybe he had lots of students who performed well in the piano exams, but I was terrified of him. He was a creepy guy who kept touching me in strange ways. He would stroke my hand and arm if I was playing well, and suddenly hit me if I played the wrong note. Maybe he got off taking his anger out on his students.
I begged and begged my dad not to continue playing piano, but I was forced to. I was told that learning piano was “good for me”. It was a respectable instrument, and that was that.
Good for me?
Or good for my parents’ picture-perfect image they projected to their peers?
Was I a show monkey?
I never thought of dad as gone. To be honest, he was never there much to begin with. Dad always travelled for work, so I’d see him once in a while. He’d always be somewhere else… And whenever he was home, he’d just turn on the TV and pass out.
I wonder when dad really left our family. He was probably gone long before the divorce.
Had I mentally checked out as well? What does it mean to have a normal family, anyway?
I’m not sure anymore. I’m not sure now. I’m not sure then.
I really have no idea.
High school was a blur. A long, drawn-out blur.
I remember my teacher in 8th grade talking to my mom. “He’s a really smart kid, but be careful. He thinks some really dark thoughts. I’d keep an eye on him.”
I remember trying to kill myself. I remember dark days.
And a lot of it was just a fog, really. I wasn’t thinking about much, to be honest. My friends told me I was angry a lot. I wasn’t as bubbly or happy-go-lucky as I used to be.
A New Adventure in Toronto
University was a place to re-invent myself.
I started dancing. I danced quite a bit. I enjoyed partying because I didn’t have to answer to anyone. I didn’t drink and I wasn’t just after women. I wanted to dance and have a good time. Clubbing taught me the importance of body language, being confident, and not caring about what others think. The club was where I learned the psychology of human behaviour.
Dance taught me that life is really about enjoying the moment and sharing positive energy. That’s all there is to it.
I spent money on silly things. Lots of late-night taxi rides. Lots of shawarma, 7-Eleven snacks and coconut water. I’d say I was tired. I’d say I danced a lot and I’d “earned it”. Of course not.
It was a good period of my life, but that time has passed.
What pain was I running from?
Was I trying to be comfortable with women?
To be comfortable being me?
To be someone I was told I couldn’t be?
In the summer after the first year of University, I was kicked out of my dad’s place.
I was actually kicked out before I’d even moved in. I was supposed to move to dad’s house over the summer. But on the last week of school, I was told that I was not welcome there.
I stayed at a mutual friend’s place for a few days. I remember browsing Craigslist and Kijiji, wondering what on earth I was supposed to do. I’d never looked for a place on my own before. I remember watching hockey with the guys there and not paying any attention to the game. I tried to smile and pretend I was fine — My head was full of worry and concern.
In the end, I found a place near Chinatown. There were over 13 people living together in a tiny house. About three or four people sharing a single room next to me. I think I saw over 40 pairs of shoes outside their door. The house was always a mess, the trashcans overfilled and the kitchen smelled rancid.
It was good enough.
I couldn’t even lock my door.
I remember the first night sleeping there, staring up at the ceiling. Maybe I was crying. It was summer and there was no air-conditioning. I felt hot, stupid and I felt like my life was just one mistake after another.
I remember the drunken people outside. I remember the noisy footsteps of my housemates — many of whom I’d never meet. I wondered if someone would break into my room and steal my things. And then I realized, what things did I have that were worth stealing, anyway?
I got my first job that summer.
I walked around with resumes in hand. I was too scared to talk to people and hand out my resume. I was so self-conscious, so afraid of being judged.
“Look at this idiot, walking around with resumes! What year is this? He’s desperate!”
That’s what I was afraid of. I was full of myself.
I tried to play it cool, “excuse me, can I speak with the manager please?”
I gave out resumes every day.
Soon, I was in Kensington market. I remember walking with a friend of mine. We’d made an adventure out of the day, walking around the city looking for places that were hiring.
I ended up being a grocery stocker at an organic and natural foods store.
I was terrible in the beginning
I could barely lift the boxes. My best friend at work was an awesome Trini guy. Before that job, I’d actually never met anybody from Trinidad & Tobago. He and I became close. We’d make little jokes, and I’d learn a lot about Trini culture and how he grew up on the islands. I never knew there were so many names for mangoes.
I learned how to use a box-cutter. I learned the difference between good packaging and bad packaging. I learned how grocery stores were set up. I learned how to read expiry labels. I learned to always have a sweater ready for the freezer area. I learned that washrooms in Canada are almost always in the basement.
I also met a lot of different people — A rotating cast of aspiring artists, soul-searchers, part-timers, travellers. I met cool people and some strange characters working at that store. Most of them were great.
I learned a lot that summer.
I wasn’t mad at dad. I thought I deserved it. I internalized suffering — It was my fault, so that’s why I’m here now.
There are two types of people in the world: exploders and imploders.
I am the latter. I blamed myself. I’m not proud of it, but that’s how I learned to see the world. When life punched me in the face, I’d just punch myself again.
I never fought back.
I learned to appreciate the small comforts of routine. I woke up at 7 or 8 AM, prayed for a free washroom in my shared-house of too many people. I’d grab my long board and speed toward Kensington Market.
I’d dodge bikes and suits. I was at work at 10 AM. I remember clocking in and trudging up the narrow staircase. It was rickety, cramped and smelled of dust. I’d shimmy past the forest of boxes and plop my bag down on the patchy sofa.
Every day was the same. I worked from 10 AM to 7:30 PM, with about 30 minutes for lunch. The day was grouped by activities. Different days meant different tasks.
I loved long, monotonous tasks that used up most of the day. Dairy-free beverage day? Yes! I’d squat with perfect form, powering through my legs, and carry boxes two at a time. Some of my colleagues could do 3 or 4, but I was a mere mortal.
Up, down, up, down.
I squatted all day, 5 days a week.
I savoured every washroom break. It was how I’d keep track of the day. One washroom break per hour. Four, and then it was lunch. I’d always try to eat lunch as late as possible, even if I was starving. I wanted to feel the exhilaration of returning to find that most of the day had flown by.
Soon it was closing time. I’d stack the boxes of chips, sweep the floors, mop the aisles and dash out.
I’d run home, grab my sports gear and zoom towards U of T’s Front Campus. If it wasn’t raining, I was playing football till nightfall. Those were the days.
At night I’d go clubbing alone. I had no friends nearby so I’d go to the Dance Cave or the Brunny every night. They weren’t classy and I loved it. The grime, the craziness. I don’t drink alcohol, so all I did was drink water and dance till my legs fell off.
I went to the Brunny so often that they asked me promote their parties. I was given a stack of cards as big as two grapefruits. Free entry, free drink tickets. Boom. My partying costs evaporated overnight.
I kept to myself most of that summer. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to tell my friends that I was a grocery stocker. I didn’t want to tell them that I was living in an overcrowded house where I couldn’t even lock my door.
Everyone seemed to be doing prestigious financial or consulting internships. Or at least something important-sounding. I felt like a loser. What was I doing with my life?
Alaska, Grandad’s Last Trip
In August, I was fortunate enough to join my sister and my dad’s family to go on an Alaskan cruise. One week. It would be the last trip I’d spend with my granddad before he lost his ability to walk. It was worth every moment. I joined a horde of Wong family members.
My cousins, my uncles, my aunts. I think we all knew that this would be our last time together.
I was so proud. I’d lost 15 to 20 pounds that summer. For the first time, I actually enjoyed shopping. It was thrilling to try on new clothes. I felt like a hypocrite. All this time, I’d scoffed at people who pranced about like peacocks. Now here I was, fluffing my feathers like the rest of them.
One of my best moments was during a dance competition on board the ship.
It was very “Dancing with the Stars”. Passengers were paired with professional dancers. And Vroom! Off you went, twirling away. The judges and crowd would eliminate us, one-by-one.
I was against a couple on their honeymoon.
I won. (Sorry!)
Winning didn’t matter. What counted was that I’d shown my family who I was.
I was always the cute, chubby kid growing up. The marshmallow who loved books and video games. My family never knew that I loved to dance. They never knew I could. All those nights at the club paid off…
My grandma was there, one of my heroes.
Now she’s over 90 years old, and she is still one of the fiercest and most powerful women I know. She’s not perfect, but she’s one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever met. She can steam a fish like no other. Armed with a laundry hamper, she’s faster than lightning up and down the stairs.
After winning, she took me aside. Just the two of us.
“JJ, I never knew you liked dancing.” She said.
“I love it.”
She kissed me and held me. “Then never stop. Do what you want to do. I will always support you.”
I nodded. It was the first time I felt permission from my father’s side of the family to be me.