“I think I can see 10,000 windows,” my dad said as we looked out of his apartment. On the other side of the glass was a view of downtown Seattle.
“10,000?” I did not mask the incredulity in my voice. “Is that a good thing?”
“Yes, it is,” he replied. “More windows means more people. We all need people in our lives. According to feng shui, the more windows you can see, the more influence, more popularity you will have.”
“But 10,000?” I asked again.
“Yes,” he said. “I can see the Columbia Tower and that alone has several hundred windows. Think about all the other windows of the skyscrapers….”
“Yes,” I said. “10,000 windows.”
We had lunch at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Chinatown. He expressed his pleasure with the food to the waitress. She had immigrated to the US about ten years ago. My father had immigrated to the US nearly 45 years ago. When he spoke to her in Mandarin, he used a phrase to describe his immigrant status that I didn’t understand.
“There’s a special term for us,” he said. “We were born in China, so when we fled to Taiwan [to escape the Communists], we were considered ‘mainlanders’. We were different. Not everyone from Taiwan had the opportunity or means to immigrate to the US. So we were considered different again. When we immigrated to the US, we were considered ‘Chinese’ and still different—”
“—an alien no matter where you went,” I finished.
“Yes!” my father exclaimed with a smile.
My father always insists on picking up the bill when we go out to eat. He and the waitress began talking again:
“Have you lived in Seattle since you immigrated?” the waitress asked.
“No, I moved up here to be with her,” my father said as he pointed to me. “She’s my daughter. My wife passed away last year.”
“Oh. She was born in the US, wasn’t she?”
“Yes, I was born here,” I answered in Mandarin. “That’s why my Chinese isn’t very good.”
“It’s not that your Chinese isn’t very good. You speak with an American accent,” the waitress said to me. Turning to my father she continued, “She’s very well-mannered. I could tell when you both walked in.”
Suddenly, I was eight years old again. I sat still, said nothing, and kept my face neutral. This is what you’re supposed to do when your elders say nice things about you.
My father nodded and smiled. “She is courteous; she has class.” After taking a sip of tea, he continued, “My daughter is also a doctor.”
I winced. They only saw me blink.
Daughters must be humble so their parents can show their pride. I swallowed my embarrassment with my tea.
My mother used to do that all the time, too: Out of nowhere she would tell strangers that I was a physician.
“Why do people need to know?” I used to complain. It never changed their behavior, so I stopped sharing my objections with them.
There are now other things I don’t share with my father.
“How’s work?” he asks.
“Work is fine,” I say. Work is always fine. I don’t tell him the terrible things patients have said to me. I don’t tell him about the injustices of the system: Was it designed this way? Are these perverse outcomes from good intentions? I don’t tell him that I hustled him into a restaurant to avoid an encounter with a patient I worked with in jail.
Every time we see each other I tell him I love him—a brash thing to do in a culture that values stoicism. I don’t tell him how anxious I feel when he doesn’t respond to my text messages within an hour: Did something happen to him? Is he okay? Did he die?
I don’t tell him how I still feel sorrow for the the death of his wife. I simply cannot imagine his loss.
He must know, though, just as I know about the heartache he still feels. It’s in his face, the way he looks into the distance, as if the past was just beyond the horizon.
We instead go out to lunch. I let him buy it for me and listen to him speak of the beauty and power of 10,000 windows.