Culprits

Part of 7 of in
By Kevin Hu
Illustrations by John “Enger” Cheng
Mar 25, 2020 | 8 min read
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I grew up searching for family. When I found it in the corners that I did, they were like filters in a kaleidoscope phasing in and out of this endless placeholder.

Early middle school was when I found some semblance of intimacy with a braggadocious biker crew that covered up insecurity with profanity and a contrived belligerence. In the most innocent form of mob identity, I felt protection there. Enough fraternity to find a sense of belonging but not so much that it was too dangerous to leave. I might even have felt love. It eventually proved to be unsustainable, maybe because I wasn’t looking for a way to fight against the world but to navigate it in my own skin. As I approached high school, I found it in a chamber of blossoming body odors swept around by puberty-laden teens partaking in icebreakers that paved the way for altar calls. I found it in the Chinatown church youth group. Most interactions consisted of flat small talk, excessive niceties, and silences filled by the desire to speak without the knowledge of what to say. This was true at least for shy kids like me. Others more verbose committed to histrionics. Greater volume, but same effect. Despite this fusion of awkward energies, most did not shame others for the part they played as contributors. Instead, these kids embraced each other. Even more fascinating, the adult supervisors and glorified teen-sitters — who we referred to as “counselors” — volunteered their time freely to nurture this culture of embrace and to love this flock of strange kids, myself included. I began to make a home here.

When my parents made their trek from San Francisco to the Chicagoland area, they could not take my brother and I with them. We were separated from them, moving to Guangzhou to be raised by our paternal relatives. This was the beginning of the fissures. Three years later, I moved to Chicago with my brother. I was 4. We dropped the bags at the doorstep of this grand piece of property my parents owned. We pedaled up the stairs and were astounded that we had our own room with a beautifully stacked ebony bunk bed, each assembled with colorful quilted sheets that complemented the rays of the sun that shot directly from our south-facing window. The sun bathed us in a glow that we could only have experienced in that moment. We paused, relishing in the warm flood that seemed to baptize us into a new life. But in like a split second, our parents were back to work. They jumped from job to job to gain more of a financial foothold in this American economy. A dollar raise here, more hours there. That was social mobility for the migrant. Twelve-hour days could shift to 14-hour days. Five-day weeks to seven-day weeks. We were finally reunited with our parents — sharing the same city but rarely sharing the same spaces.

In the wake of the 21st century, my parents took the bold step that to this day seems to define the Chinese American Dream. They started a restaurant. This meant General Tso’s chicken and beef chow mein any night we so well pleased, but it also meant that they would go five straight years of seven-day work weeks of 14-hour days to guarantee that this enterprise could stay afloat. It was bittersweet. While they worked to buy us lives in the future, we were wondering whether or not our parents loved us.

No part of the Chinese American Dream includes a 9-to-5 job with benefits and a stable income. America for the Chinese migrant means being embedded into the Chinese microeconomy. It is being indebted to those who came before you whether or not it was your choice. It is finding a 12-hour job while being paid less than minimum under the table if you are fortunate. It is doing spendthrift gymnastics with your money so that what would normally be paycheck-to-paycheck for the average American would magically include marginal savings. It is taking risks to enterprise if you dreamt of both buying a cheap piece of property and paying for some of your children’s college tuition. It does not mean leisure. It rarely means vacation. And it definitely does not mean quality time with your children, unless they decided to precociously answer phones at the family business, pretending that it did not look like child labor to the rest of America. It means that every other nonessential aspect of life is not an option. It means family, and family means work. Your fate is written out for you.

There were rare moments though, when my parents and I did speak. We didn’t exactly speak to each other. We didn’t even speak at each other. We spoke past each other. My parents raised me with their native tongue, enculturated with the crass, aggressive tones laced with mellifluous Maoist metaphors of the world. Our first language was the same. Our native language was not. At times, when our native languages collided, it felt less like we chose separate paths at the fork in the road and more like we chose opposite directions at an intersection. Chinese and English. East and West.

Before I had a choice, I began losing my Chinese. Before I knew I had the power to choose, I was dizzied and disoriented by what I needed to be and what I needed to lose to be accepted. Like I was blindfolded, spun like a whirligig, and told to sprint. Every time I was sneered at for being enrolled in bilingual classrooms, the forces of the American institution were prying me from my mother tongue, suffocating the bi- and elevating the mono-. The ching chongs and the uncreative riffs of chink were jabs at my lungs that demanded I spit out my language. And because my mother and father loved me so much to assimilate into the American system of work, no one was present to bandage my wounds. No one was home to tell me that moving from bi- to mono- would require me to forfeit much more than language. Because my mother and father loved me, being chink and Chinese were one and the same. And since I did not want to be chink, I also divested from being Chinese. Each time our native tongues met, we were pulled further and further apart. Accusations of “You should learn English!” were met with “Why don’t you know more Chinese?!” Because my parents loved me.

Love is a language, too. It is probably the closest language that could be described as universal. My parents spoke love with absence. It was an absence that traded their bodies and their time for diploma-wrapped futures — portals to an America they were never able to access. They also spoke love in silence. It was a silence that in one sense championed a humility that was free from pompousness, but in another, shielded us from their humble stories of grief and pain. This love palpitated at a different beat and did not resound in me. I needed a love that sat with me and spoke words that mapped me in this alien world. The truth is that my parents worked because it was the language that they knew, but they also did not color my world with words because their own worlds were without color. It was like a bird with broken wings trying to teach a baby bird to fly.

When I trace the fault lines of this filial disconnect, I find myself following not a single discontinuous crack but instead, a web of cracks, of culprits. My parents certainly made choices that would exacerbate our barely existent relationship, but a chorus of forces also dictated the same. They certainly made the conscious choice to usher us into a near three-year separation, but they were also crouched in a crowded basement shack with other family members trying to imagine a future for themselves while lacking access to American wealth. Learning to close these cracks has been a journey in forgiveness, but at times, also a journey in scapegoating. Because how else would forgiveness work if not by conviction?

I used to think about forgiveness for wrongdoings in definitive cause and effect sequences. Black and whites. Binaries. Binding forgiveness and culpability in a straitjacket formula that demanded for someone to be put on trial. I called cheaters “cheaters” because they cheated, called thieves “thieves” because they stole, and called absent parents “absent” because they weren’t around. I discounted the body of ebbs and flows, pushes and pulls, rises and falls that culminate in the singular caustic moments of wrongdoing.

Culprits

Learning how to forgive has not been a matter of learning confession, repentance, and reconciliation. It was not as simple as a two-way handshake that checks a contention off the list. It has been an attempt at untangling a human knot. It has been a practice of interrogating history. It has been learning to be unbound in order to account for the constellation of wrongs that these fault lines trace. A lesson on how forgiveness is collectivized.

Perhaps this is why Jesus heaved such a protective and maternal plea in the dark hours of crucifixion: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps he was not only directing absolution to mockery or scoffing, or to the acquiescence of his murder, but also to the empire that demanded for diasporic people to kowtow as puppets to profit, subjugating their religion to politics, offering on the altar their most vulnerable — widows, orphans, children, the disabled, women — all to be swallowed up by the great Leviathan of Rome. Perhaps in that moment, Jesus was addressing the constellation of systemic and circumstantial forces that led to this final fissure of the crucifixion, rendering the cracks of an expansive glass fracture mended.

Shining light on these fractures brings me face-to-face with our self-portrait. A portrait that does not exclude the blemishes but that rolls with them; it integrates them and repurposes them. The swipe of misplaced color here, the unplanned blotches there. What if the integration of such precarity is exactly what renders our blemishes, unblemished? When I see this self-portrait, what I see are scrapes and scars, bloodied tired faces, but faces that say, nonetheless, we are still here — the forces and fissures, they could not separate us. Our culprits are both the demons that haunt us and the details that give us our definition. They elevate, not suspend us. We are the three-year separation, the shame of language and heritage, the filial neglect, the striving for space in a foreign land, and the displaced. We are all of it. Perfect in our imperfections. Unblemished in our blemishes. Absolutely beautiful. Still here, nonetheless.

Arriving to a place where we have, in a way, achieved the self-portrait of us also confronts us with a grim reality. The fractures continue beyond our portrait. The demons that haunt us stretch to haunt others as well. Collectivizing our forgiveness must also expand our portrait of us. Rather than turning momentary mourning into gladness, it addresses the full body of mourning that has sunk its teeth into us. Forgiveness becomes an encompassing force that is embodied to speak up against acts of cruelty, neglect, and trauma to our children; resist any encroaching movements, laws, or governments that further displace and disenfranchise the poor, migrants, and other marginalized peoples; affirm the beauty in all people, especially those most susceptible to the lie of unworth in a society that centers the white gaze; and support those in our communities on the wrong side of language privilege, or any privilege for that matter. Because in our portraits lie the millions and billions of other portraits of us-ness stretched across the massive heat map of diasporic communities. Forgiveness becomes an intimate and mobilizing force that shares in both tears of grief and the march for freedom. Our still being here compels us to see the world in the portrait of us, to see the demons and culprits, and to rise up.

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Kevin Hu

Kevin Hu is a Chicago native and Brooklyn transplant. He has in the past lived in, been nurtured by, shepherded, and served in immigrant church communities. He is a writer, son of immigrants, fiction-reader, storyteller, and software engineer. You can find him at kevinhu.dev for more information.

John "Enger" Cheng

John "Enger" Cheng serves as creative director of Inheritance. He is a Los Angeles-based artist, designer and illustrator. He graduated from the University of Southern California Roski School of Fine Arts and is co-founder of Winnow+Glean. You can see his illustrative work and store at madebyenger.com.

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