Silver Crap

Image of Long Story Short Award - 2022
Image of Creative Nonfiction
My dad is as forgetful with English as I am with fish. For me, a carp, one beta fish, five goldfish, and an entire school of tetras – some pets, some not. For him, the alphabet soup of grammar, kneading and pooling English tenses and verbs and pronunciations into the occasional unlucky clause. All exist to spatter his speech disjointedly; his words at ceaseless arrest by listener ear.

Despite the hours devoted to American movies when I was younger, a complete and confident language command was there but somehow just out of reach. On dollar Tuesdays at Hopkins theater with its matching patterned carpets and ratty seats, we watched. I watched and thought of how many other families sat in those seats. I watched and thought of how unlike theirs are from mine.

Annoyingly consistent, I corrected him. All puffed up and peppy in ways know-it-all little girls are, I poked, prodded, and wrinkled my nose at my dad's imperfect English – knowing too well it's my rescue from embarrassment. Stubborn remnants of a mother tongue and I'm disappointed – it's not English.

At parent-teacher conference, sports practice, and recitals, I envisioned these new faces the way the eyes of a crowd peers in; listening, reading, and prying from the other end.

"We live here now, Dad."

"Yes, yes, dear."

"Can you...? We're A-mer-ri-can."

Nothing budges. And the question mark on people's faces, I hated those, too.

Still, he shines. Elsewhere, time washes away, and his childhood is back. On the fishing docks, he reveals mastery over nature, over fish. We share in these moments – mostly in silence and just the two of us.

One fishing trip, within minutes, he pitches forward and lurches back, reeling in carp the shape of a serving plate and as fat as a balloon. The whole scene is electrifying. Like sparklers on the Fourth of July, droplets fly off the carp with each wild thrash in the air. I hear my dad's tongue, whistling a tune, and watch his hands grab hold, fingers tying a cord, weaving in through the fish's mouth and out through the gills. A bizarre sight, this monstrous carp, now leashed.

"Sit by the bank, hold this, and don't it didn't swim away. This one is for dinner." He hands me the cord. Yet, like one too many watch guards, I fall asleep on the job. The fish, smartly, swims away, blue leash and all.

Sometimes I catch myself, still guilty and years later. I imagine the carp, gulping in water, fleshy gills filtering out what oxygen it can find. I wince. Did it survive; is it alive? A flag, I picture. A long blue cord streams behind, helpless like a spaghetti noodle being dragged by a fork. A chain, admittedly. One that turns rocky crevices into anchors, if ever caught. I cross my fingers.

Other times, I imagine the fish is my dad. Breathing in gulps of air for the oxygen to fuel his pithy jokes and a guttural laugh. But, in an instant, these charms I love disappear during conversations with his untidy English with strangers old and new. I wince. A red flag emphasizing a tilting, stubborn Chinese accent. A leash to frame that this-man-is-not-from-here the way having a U.S. passport can't.

Whatever the case, what I do know, is that my dad gives it his all. Like his own patience in lessons, teaching me to fish, so was I to be in mine. Those dollar movie nights over countless Tuesdays have turned into memories that speak of grace, which I have slowly learned to welcome. Surrounded in a culture foreign to his own, he steeped himself in the American antics and English lingo. Vis-a-vis Adam Sandler and Anne Hathaway, he learned what to expect for dinner at the neighbors, high school prom, and what to watch out for when his daughters started dating, "American-style".

Movies become lessons, tutorials on assimilation to take mental notes. Transported from a farming town in rural China to the epitome of the Midwest, my parents graciously adopt Christmas trees and barbecues, while keeping a few selected rules, like shoes in the house and overpriced popcorn, a firm no. For me and my sister, we pick up curse words, love stories, and an obsession for golden retrievers that play sports.

It sounds like haphazard and dirt cheap after school programming, a routine my mother hates. Still, for us three, we happily swallow up the promises of cheesy movie storylines. And in an environment very different from the one of his own childhood, my dad learns to understand his self-proclaimed and American-labeled daughters.

At the Asian mart, I stare at the sea critter candidates up for the chopping block. The eyes of the carp¬ – noticeably mislabeled "Silver Crap, 8.99 per lb" – goggle back at me. Somewhere in the sauce and noodle aisle, a child throws a tantrum. An elderly Asian lady bumps me aside to debate which of the crabs to fry for lunch. I wrinkle my nose at the dead ones in tanks where the alive ones are supposed to be.

The fluorescent lighting catches in the aquarium glass and I see in it myself, staring back. Behind me, my dad is picking over the meats and my mother is reaching for frozen dumplings. I catch glimpse of a young couple, transported back in time, snapshots of two stolen away from the Cheerios and Minute Rice to a food-scape of familiarity, comfort, and home. In fishing lessons with my patient and forgiving dad, a mirror of lessons with his own father, or at the kitchen counter, my mom kneading dough, these moments infuse and soften the foreignness of their heritage into me: sly, but there.

No matter how hard suburban Minnesota tried or how desperately we clung to dollar movie nights, there's a voice of heart. Belonging means pitching a tent in the neighbor's backyard those still summer nights and buzzing on about how super heroic my mom and dad are, even if their English is a little funny and they pack me a lot of steamed fish for lunch.

Like the blue leash that ties the fish back to an afternoon where dinner swam away, in a way, my dad's English is uniquely his own. It tells of a string, an invisible one. It speaks of celebration of memory and resilience in the unfamiliar, bridging the distance to a home country, a life, and generational roots an ocean away.

I don't know if we command who was, is, and becomes family. The choice lies in what to make of it: fish, movie traditions, and funky English grammar and all. These become footnote inserts in life, entries on heritage, belonging, and on loves and those loved. They become our stories that we form with family and share in with others. And for ourselves, in the words of Joan Didion: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live". I'll hold on to mine tight and not let them swim away, I pinky swear.

I remind myself of that when on the phone with my dad. I remind myself, smiling on the other end, but careful to stifle habits of correcting him. He knows.