An excerpt from the memoir by Lindsay Wong, nominee for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust of Canada Prize for Nonfiction
If you do not make friend at school,” my father said, “you will turn out Woo-Woo like your mommy.” Attempting to be funny, he made a cuckoo sign around his earlobe and a face that was supposed to be a drooling, pop-eyed zombie—he liked to imitate his wife to relieve the tension in our household. “Do you want to wake up and look scary?”
“But you don’t have friend,” I said after the teacher called my parents to tell them that I had difficulty adjusting to middle school.
I had gnashed my half-formed molars, frustrated. For how could I adapt? The formative years of elementary school had been squandered in the food court until my father, fed up, hired a woman from Hong Kong to raise us until my mother’s phobias subsided. It was she who equipped my mother with an arsenal of recipes for Chinese cuisine and taught her how to properly clean.
Middle school was a thrilling possibility for the Wongs to start over, perhaps even a real chance for ostensible middle-class respectability.
“Daddy doesn’t need friend because he is not retarded,” my father continued his humour that edged on spitefulness. He liked to quip that I was mentally disabled since my school had me tested (results: TBD) for everything from Asperger’s to hearing impairment. He went on cheerfully, “Retarded people need friend to help them.”
“How much will you pay me if I make friend?” I asked.
“Five dollar?” my father said.
“Ten dollars,” I said, “and ninety-nine cents.”
Unlike my mother, my father would leave the house for work and somehow, two-faced, was able to form business alliances to function in the professional world in a way I was learning to function in school. In his own sad, peculiar way, I think he worried about his children’s mental and physical well-being, even if he could be like a standoffish circus clown: preaching advice through hurtful humour and shrill, exaggerated pantomime.
My upbringing made me feel alone. I was a bully without realizing that I was a pretty decent one who casually told teachers to “Fuck off!” when I did not want to participate in class, which was often. After all, this was what my parents would do. But I was certainly not charismatic enough to build up a loyal mean-girl following. My sister and brother were cute, popular children, who seemed easy with others on the playground, but as the eldest, my parents’ sour-faced guinea pig in childrearing, I was afflicted with my mother’s neurosis and father’s zealous anti-social tendencies.
Our Chinese names were supposed to be personal blessings, our parents’ magical gifts for showy, boastful success. My sister’s name was Deep Thinker, but rather than becoming an intellectual, she sometimes seemed to me to be cursed to agonize her thoughts aloud with worrying frequency. CBC Radio 1, an auntie once called her. My brother, Make Lots of Money, was supposed to be blessed to attract abundant wealth, yet he has struggled with unemployment. And I had been named Talented One at birth but because of my hissing lisp and other wild behavioural issues was mostly called by my English name—it didn’t seem as if I had been born with that much talent (I had the gross misfortune not to live up to my name during childhood). It made me sad that I was considered less than my siblings, so I was determined to prove that I was better than them in every way, which would cause a deep and despicable rift between us, a gully of vicious contention.
Still, my father insisted that I should have at least two friends, so I could alternate between them, “like shoe,” he said, even though he had no friends himself.
At that time, I thought that this double standard was supremely unfair. “I had whole entire village of friends in Hong Kong when I was your age,” he bragged when I protested. “I’m so nice that when someone nice to me, I’m ten times nicer. But when someone is mean to me, Daddy is ten times meaner.”
“Why?” I said, confused. “I can play by myself.”
“You are too retarded to not have friend,” he said, frustrated, and then went back to his AutoCAD blueprints. They were usually spread on the dining room table when he decided to work from home to keep watch over my mother, who was still scared of the Woo-Woo ghosts and couldn’t be alone. At least she stopped taking us to the mall’s food court after school when we got older, and her moods seemed to slowly improve. She spent her days and nights in the kitchen, compulsively practicing what our former caretaker had taught her: sometimes origami-wrapping more than a thousand cardboard-coloured wontons and filling two giant freezers.
As an adult, I can see the likelihood that my father did not know enough English to explain the subject of friendship properly, and he was genuinely worried about my happiness, which was already spotted and sour, like my gym strip that hadn’t been washed in more than a year. Having friends was something I couldn’t understand. Although my father had professional acquaintances, and my mother had five close sisters and two brothers, neither of my parents had any friends—my father, I later realized, did not want me to become like my mother.
Reprinted from The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and my Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018). Wong is nominated for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust of Canada Prize for Nonfiction.
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