I often explain to people that Karaoke to the Chinese is like drinking to the British. We don’t pour pints at our parties, we sing. It’s part of the culture. The Chinese-Canadian dream is a Toyota in every driveway and a Karaoke machine in every house.
My dad was no exception. Like all his hobbies, he took Karaoke seriously. He had singing lessons from a famous teacher. Sometimes, he would record himself and listen to the tapes to analyze his singing when driving me to school. We would never talk on those hour-long rides, I would only hear him singing, sometimes along with his recorded voice, sometimes practicing the parts that he didn’t have quite right.
When I was young, about seven, I would sing one of the English songs from his collection. I couldn’t tell you why. Karaoke didn’t particularly interest me. Maybe it was a way for me to be a part of his life. He had nothing to do with me otherwise.
My parents must have believed I was good. At a Christmas party they hosted soon after, they pressed me to sing that song, the only one I knew, for the guests. It was The Greatest Love of All, made famous by Whitney Houston. You know, the one that goes:
I believe that children are the future
Teach them well, and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride
The irony didn’t hit me until I was old enough to know what irony meant.
At seven, I was paralytically shy and inhibited. I didn’t want to sing in this room filled with tall, strange people.
It upset them, so they threatened to throw out my sticker collection.
Collecting stickers was the big thing at my elementary school. Adolescent favour wasn’t determined by something is trivial as who could run the fastest, but by whether or not you had the oh-so-rare Root Beer scratch-n-sniff, cleverly shaped like a frosty mug, or the fuzzy lion that felt like you were petting the king of the jungle when you ran your fingers over him. I kept my stickers in a big yellow-beige book with rainbow stripes, and it was my pride on the playground.
So I called their bluff. As young as I was, I understood that the money spent on those stickers was theirs. They wouldn’t just throw it all away.
Then I watched as they tossed my yellow-beige sticker book in the black garbage bag where everyone emptied their plates. It was in front of all the guests, but no one said a thing.
We never spoke about it again.
Years later, I remember my dad opening the trunk of the Honda, and underneath the carpeting was my book of stickers. That heavy, yellow-beige book, with rainbow stripes. They were too cheap to actually throw it out, but too stubborn to go back on their threat.
I wish I could say that it was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t.
Pat once told me that he didn’t understand just how overbearing she was until he met her at my graduation, my university graduation, when she harassed me about wearing my new glasses, my blue hooded jacket, trying to dress me like a doll. I was never important or necessary to them. I was the family pet, the accessory dog.
Nowadays, when I meet someone new, the conversation invariably drifts to the subject of where I was born (believing it to be some Asiatic country) and where my parents are. My answers are always the same: Toronto, and I don’t know. I stopped talking to my mom, and my dad doesn’t care enough to call.
Most people have a knee-jerk reaction. They tell me that my mom is still my mom, believing that all parents innocently do the wrong things every now and then.
Then I tell them this story or any of the other million like it (if it’s an emotional day or week or month, I swallow the lump in my throat), and they immediately understand why I cut her out of my life like a cancerous lump. They become defenders of my decision when we meet someone else and the two inevitable questions are asked again.
I still have self-esteem issues with my diminutive size because they would always tell me, “Eat more. No one’s going to date you if you’re so skinny. Girls don’t like guys who are small. Girls like guys who are big.” Even though it’s been years since I’ve heard them, their words still ring in my ears.
I’ve tried to forget it all, but a bitter hatred still lies in my heart like a stone. I don’t cry at tragic romantic movies, I cry at the scene when a father tells his son that he loves him. I could go on and on about what they’ve done. I’m still carrying around this emotional baggage, doing things like the Gerry Project to fix the damage they’ve done to my self-confidence. The truth is that I wish none of this affected me the way it does.
My mom is an empty shell of a woman now. A divorcée in her fifties without husband or kin, and nothing to live for but her television and her tabloids. I can’t help but think that she got what she deserved. Every day I expect a call, telling me that she’s killed herself by overdosing on sleeping pills and red wine. As for my dad, who knows what or how he’s doing.
Memories of my abusive parents and childhood drive me to be a better person. Now I know what exactly not to do with my kids. My parents never encouraged me or took an interest in my life. They’ve done nothing to make me who I am.
I owe them nothing, but the knowledge of what never to be or become.