Content warning: The following text describes instances of abuse, which can be disturbing or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.  

THE AMERICAN DAD / T͟Hē əˈmerəkən dad / noun

  1. A male, typically white, who has a child or children. Produces a hearty laugh. Swings his little kids in the air, tells cheesy jokes, and often sits in the front row to clap and cheer at a football game, band concert, spelling bee. Kind but firm temper. Chastises with stern words, an explanation, an occasional spanking that he hates to do. Hugs you afterward because he knows you’ve learned your lesson. 

THE CHINESE BABA / T͟Hē CHīˈnēz bàba / noun

  1. A Chinese male who has a child, usually one but sometimes two. Prefers sons. A hard–working man who puts all of his money into family, though not much else. Drops off kids at concerts or competitions and says, “Call me when it’s over.” Spends much of his time working alone or on business trips. Wild, unpredictable temper. Be wary. 

In childhood, she loved her father more than anyone else. When he spanked her or waved his leather belt at her, she didn’t think it was wrong. When he shoved her into the bathroom and slammed the door behind him, shouting that she dare not come out, she didn’t consider it out of the ordinary. When he flew into a rage and drove away with the car, not to return for several hours, she believed her mother’s words: “He’s just going to get gas. He’ll be back soon.” There was only a small stirring of disquiet in her heart as she watched him pull out of the driveway into the darkness. 

During her elementary years, she pushed her friend into a bookcase, smacked another friend in the head until he cried, and called many others all sorts of insults she didn’t really mean. She once invented a disease out of a girl’s name, so that all the other children would flee when she came near, yelling, “Mary has Marionitis! Run, run!” She was seven years old and thought she was so clever, just like her Daddy.

There were many moments with her father in her childhood that she came to remember as last moments. The last time her parents ever kissed, for example. They were just about to leave for a trip, putting on their jackets near the front door. She stood up from tying her shoes and turned to see her father pecking her mother’s lips in an innocent, almost embarrassed way. That was 12 years ago, maybe more. Kisses were replaced by sarcastic comments, shouting matches, and the threat of divorce. 

There was also the last time she used her father’s laptop. While he was taking a nap, she opened a new tab on his computer and began to search for something, probably the name of a book or video game. The first suggestion in history after typing in the letter "a" was The website said, “Life is short. Have an affair.” She closed the tab immediately and never told anyone.

When she was a child, things were simple; her father was always right, so she always loved him. But as she grew older, she had trouble thinking about love and her father as two things that belonged together. They argued about everything and nothing, from how late she stayed out tonight to her tone of voice when she talked back at him. She knew from talking with her friends that these arguments were normal. But there was something in her father that scared her. It wasn’t just that they disagreed; she felt that he wanted to hurt her. 

For instance, when she and her father were arguing about whether or not to order pizza. She was against it because he had high blood pressure, and he had been ordering junk food too much lately for it to have been healthy. She was leaning her arm on a kitchen counter, her elbow touching the edge of the sink. He had just poured a glass of water, but he didn’t drink a sip of it. Abruptly he threw all of the water in his glass into the sink, only he missed it completely and covered half her shirt. As she looked up at his face, confused, she saw his lips were parted slightly, and he was breathing heavily. 

His parted lips, an almost animalistic snarl, came to disgust her. She had been conditioned to understand that it was a sign of danger. She immediately noticed it one night at dinner when she was fifteen. She brought her laptop with her to the table to do work while she ate, a habit that occurred several times a week. Out of nowhere, as her father often did, he told her to put it away. 

“It’s distracting, and you need to concentrate on eating,” her father said. Already something was wrong. She knew by instinct that she couldn’t simply argue this away, but she couldn’t stop herself. 

“Then why are you allowed to watch TV during dinner?” she asked, annoyed. “Shouldn’t you be concentrating on eating, too?” 

She reached for the remote and turned off her father’s program, closing her laptop at the same time. His eyes had gotten pointed, beady; his lips were parted again. The room was silent as she began to eat. She avoided his gaze and felt her shoulder blades tighten painfully.

“Turn on the TV,” he said. 

“Why?” she said. 

“You don’t tell me what to do.” Every word was enunciated harshly. 


He stood quickly, his chair legs grinding and squealing against the floor in protest. She was on the other side of the table, but he somehow got to her in no time at all. He was blocking the way out of the kitchen. She had no choice but to try to get past him. He lunged at her and grabbed a hold of her arm, his grip hard, almost unbreakable. She didn’t know what he would do. She struggled, finally free, then ran upstairs to her bedroom. 

Upstairs, she checked the tops of all of the doors. He hid keys there so he could get in during an emergency. She took the keys, ran into her room, and locked the door. She grabbed the pair of safety scissors on her desk. She sat on the floor on the left side of her bed, where her father wouldn’t see her if he broke in. He was screaming at her from downstairs, but she couldn’t hear the words. She got up and checked to see if the door was still locked. Then she walked into her bathtub and sat with the curtains closed, scissors clutched against her chest. She was gasping, and her cheeks burned from crying. She thought, He's going to kill me.

Later in the night, her stomach was growling. She had only gotten a few bites of dinner. She opened her door slowly so that the hinges wouldn’t creak and snuck downstairs, pausing on every step to make sure her father hadn’t noticed her. He was sitting at the kitchen table on his laptop. She tiptoed to the dining room instead and stole a jar of Hersey’s chocolate bars. 

She did not talk to her father for days after. She knew that as a child, she had once wished him dead from a heart attack, an emotional outburst that she had immediately taken back, both because of her mother’s chastisement and her own guilt. It was wrong to say or even think things like that. But she found herself wondering if it would really be so bad. She decided then that she would not cry at his funeral. 

Once she asked her older sister, who had already moved out of the house, why their father acted this way. Her sister replied that their grandfather’s name in Mandarin meant “mountain.” When their father was born, their grandfather named him “peak of a mountain.” He had not named their aunt this, even though she was born first. As the youngest and a male child, their father was spoiled in comparison to their aunt. He was used to having his way. When the two siblings were both in high school, their aunt was caught dating a boy, something forbidden to teenagers in China. Their grandfather wanted to split them apart and moved their aunt to a worse school, sacrificing her education. Their aunt couldn’t test into college, while their father went to one of China’s best universities.  Though their aunt was in many ways considered less successful, she had still beaten her brother in one way: She had two boys. 

He was ashamed that he had conceived daughters instead of sons. There would be no one to carry on his name, the all–important Chinese family identity. She was a disappointment from birth. This newfound information about her father did not make her angry. She simply exhaled and thought, Oh. Maybe it wasn’t just me after all.

At this time in her life, she believed that she hated her father absolutely. Yet, she got over what happened, like she always did after fights. She told him about her day when he picked her up from high school, about how the chemistry test went and when the next pep rally was. 

Going to college far away made it easier to be around him when she was home. When she was at school, she never called him, but she sent him presents for his birthday and Father’s Day. One time it was a gift card for a restaurant he liked. When she came back for break, he took her out to eat with the card. He hugged her when he sent her off to the airport. 

Once, when they were on good terms, she asked him about immigrating to America. He told her that when he first arrived, he washed dishes at a diner while earning his master’s and trying to get his wife and first daughter into the United States. He slept in the living room of an apartment with three other people, paying fifty dollars for rent every month. Then, when his wife and daughter made it over, they opened up a Chinese restaurant, which did well enough for them to move into their own apartment. After her mother and father brushed up on their English, they found good–paying jobs in their fields. Her father extended a branch of the company he worked for into Shanghai and began a local operation there. Before he left on business trips, he would come into her room while she was sleeping to give her a hug and say goodbye. 

His goal in life was to secure the American Dream, to cross into the Land of Opportunities and work his way to success. When he had accomplished this, he taught her how to pursue her own dreams, giving her his time and money for tutoring, camps, textbooks, and tuition. She would not be the same with an American father. So how could she hate him for what he’d done? 

She imagined how she would feel if her wishes for her father to die came true. She would walk up to the casket and see him lying there. His face would be smoothed and powdered like a mannequin, and she would hardly be able to recognize him as her father. He would be still, harmless, peaceful. When she looked at the lines of his face, would she remember a smile or a snarl? Would she cry at all, and if she did, would they be the same kind that fell after fights or genuine tears of mourning?

Her greatest fear would be not saying “I love you” to her father before he was buried. Or saying it and knowing it wasn’t true. 


Campus Resources:

The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.

Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.

Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., texting available 24/7): A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.