and on the recording, in the space between where he stops reading in Taiwanese and I thank him in English, you may hear a respectful pause. You may be reminded of the way audience members leave a little space between a play, or an orchestra’s, closing phrase and applause; you may think you hear me girding myself to say “Thank you,” without a waver, since my father’s recitation has ended in a high, quivering sob, demonstrating how moved he is by the poem.
But I hear the argument we had just a few days ago, about his annual reminders for Mother’s Day and my mother’s birthday, when I’ve never overlooked a single one. I hear the day I landed my first byline in a national newspaper and he told me I should only write about things people care about. I hear my recollection of his disappointment, the day we went to see a Taiwanese-American writer speak, the day I didn’t have any intelligent questions to ask her.
In that split-second gap, I also hear my deep skepticism at my father’s emotion. Later, in another recording, I will ask him if he really was that moved by the poet’s words, or if he was putting on the waver for artistic purposes. I will, as I ask him, recall that Taiwanese people hire professional wailers for funerals, so a person can be shown to have had a suitable effect on society. I will remember all at once my father’s consistent need for high drama, how he told my husband that men must comport themselves simultaneously like samurai and like John Wayne; the many times he threatened to disown me over small things; the day he drew up papers for my brother to renounce the family name over my brother’s having been tardy too many times in high school, or otherwise having brought shame to the family.
Last week my father told me about the day he made a patient cry by telling her the story of two calves abandoned in a pastoral field, whose parents had been carted off for people to eat. “She promise she never eat meat again,” he said.
I try to explain that what pop psychologists would call emotional blackmail has never been the way to accomplish anything, but there is too much to explain, and I eventually peter out into silence.
I have asked my father to read this poem to me, because I am illiterate in my mother tongue, and so the finer points of this work are lost on me until they fill my head in my father’s voice. A friend sent me the English translation, but I, impatient with my illiteracy and hobbled by my own snobbery for hearing a work in its original form, did not read it. I have asked my father to read it to me, despite our argument of just a few days ago.
I have asked him to read it to me over the objections of my teenage self, who sneers at earnestness. I have asked him to read it to me over the knowledge that a poem called “Dad’s Lunchbox” could only ever be about the sacrifices a father makes for his children, and provide my father with more misguided rationale for whatever thing it is he wants me to be next.
I have asked him to read it despite the fact that one of the things I hate most about my father is his incapability to do anything without needing to turn it into a teachable moment. And so, for the first two recordings of “Dad’s Lunchbox,” the rhythm of the work is mangled by my father’s explanations of the words he is sure I don’t know yet.
My father is not subtle.
For the third recording, I ask my father to read “Dad’s Lunchbox,” all the way through, no explanations, no stopping. Still, his recitation is deliberate, lumbering, saddled with the knowledge that he is interpreting for his less-than-whatever daughter.
In the pause between my father’s choking last line and my “Thank you,” I remember that my father told me that poems are sung in Taiwanese. I remember that he has written a poem for every wedding in our family but mine.
I notice that this is the first time I have asked my father for anything that might acknowledge our shared love of words.
I give myself a little space for grace.
Yi Shun Lai is the features editor for Undomesticated Magazine. Her column “From the Front Lines” runs every month in The Writer. Her micro-memoir, Pin Ups, was published last year by Homebound Publications. Find her on Twitter.