If you are unfamiliar with The 5 Love Languages, I suggest visiting https://www.5lovelanguages.com before reading this essay. It will give you context, and you can even take a quiz to find out your love language! (Heads up, the quiz has you select a gender, and there are only two options, so maybe don't take it if that's a triggering thing for you. It was developed by a Baptist pastor, so there is some conservative/religious bias.)
I wrote this essay for my English class this spring, and my professor asked if I had ever considered writing a memoir. Maybe one day, I will.
I. Words of Affirmation
When I was eight, I distinctly remember my father dropping me off at my house. We got out of his compact car, and he walked me to the front door. I said, “I love you, daddy,” to which he responded, “See you next week.” Then he was gone. I can’t remember the day he first said he loved me back with much clarity, but when he did tell me, the phrase was accompanied by an awkward side hug and a shrug.
My dad was raised in a strict religious household. His parents are a solemn and sullen Chinese man, my Pop-pop, and a shrill white woman, my Mom-mom. Mom-mom was raised Catholic and rejected the rigidity of that Church. It has always puzzled me that she rejected one church to attend another that is known for hosting an infamous gay conversion conference in 2006.
I thought that he got his lack of affection from them. Neither of them are very encouraging of one another or of their four sons, but I notice a big difference in their roles as grandparents to my half-siblings and my cousins who range from 9-20 years younger than me. They were suddenly the kind of people who would drop whatever they were doing to babysit. They coo in high-pitched voices to the babies telling them how adorable and smart and loved they are. Maybe they just weren’t ready to be grandparents when I was born, given that their eldest son, my father, was only eighteen, and their youngest was still in middle school. Regardless of the reason, they are considerably more involved in their other grandkids’ lives.
I noticed a similar—though less extreme—shift in my father when my brother was born and then with my two sisters after him. By that time, fatherhood was a choice. He was married and he was thirty when my brother Nathanael was born. He was thirty-two for my sister Alana, and by the time Audrey was here, he was thirty-six, and I was eighteen—the same age he had been when I was born.
II. Physical Touch
I don’t believe my dad was hugged much as a child. His parents aren’t warm and fuzzy, but they do value sports and physical fitness. Mom-mom used to be a health and physical education teacher. She and Pop-pop raised their four sons playing softball. In high school, my dad was on the baseball, football, and wrestling teams. He won ‘Most Athletic’ and ‘Best Looking’ in high school, but he couldn’t care less about those superlatives. I only know about them from looking through my mom’s senior yearbook. She won ‘Best Smile.’
Now he puts his athleticism to use by teaching physical education and coaching my half-brother’s wrestling team. I know that I was a disappointment to him, because I’ve never been skilled at sports.
III. Receiving Gifts
When I was little, my parents would coordinate Christmas presents through a list. My mom would write down everything that I needed and wanted, and my dad would pick a few things that his side of the family would buy. When I was about nine, my parents got me the same gift, and it resulted in a screaming match. Since then, I’ve just wanted money.
My mom will occasionally bring up that story as an example of how little my dad pays attention to me. I think her bitterness towards him is really because of how little he paid attention to her at the end of their relationship. He was in college, and she was raising me. She warned him about Andrea*, his classmate who would eventually become my stepmother. “She likes you, Chris,” my mom told him once on a visit to his campus. He assured her they were just friends. My parents broke up when I was 18-months-old, and my dad and Andrea started dating two months later. They’ve been together for twenty-one years and married for nineteen.
IV. Quality Time
My dad has never once invited me to Disney World. That’s where he and my stepmom went on their honeymoon. They’ve also gone every summer for the past eleven years with my brother and my two sisters.
Last summer, my dad posted a video of my two-year-old sister on her first roller coaster. He had a stupidly large smile on his face, and it made me sob. He has never looked at me the way he looks at his other kids, and in watching that video, I realized that he has never been truly proud of me.
V. Acts of Service
My dad used to cook whatever he wanted. It was always elaborate and nutritious. He would spend most of my court-ordered Monday night visits in the kitchen. When I was five-years-old, I cringed at what he put in front of me—salmon and capers. I was used to eating salmon at my house, but the capers were foreign to me. He told me in his deep and rumbling voice that I was not allowed to leave the table until I ate what was on my plate. I didn’t eat it though, because I knew that my visit with him was almost over, and my grandparents probably had something delicious waiting for me when I got home.
After he dropped me off that night, he called my mom and he told her that I was too picky; I didn’t respect the time he put into the meal. He probably doesn’t remember that night, but it is engrained in my memory. He was so frustrated with me, and I very rarely got in trouble.
Now, eighteen years later, with my three half-siblings, my dad has resorted to indifference. If they don’t eat it, he reluctantly gives them something else.
For most of my life, I’ve pondered my father’s love language. Can I somehow show him my love in a way that makes sense to him? I have replayed our every encounter in my mind, and I can’t comprehend what he is trying to tell me. Maybe he’s not trying to tell me anything. Perhaps at this point, I should be indifferent to the whole relationship, but part of me wants to tell him that I don’t understand him.
I don’t understand why he won’t call me on my birthday. I don’t understand why he doesn’t invite me to Disney World. I don’t understand why he refuses to ask me about my life. Maybe it’s the same reason why he responded, “See you next week.” Maybe he doesn’t really love me.
I sent my dad this essay to read last week before publishing it, and I think we had one of the most productive conversations (albeit over text message) that we have ever had. I've never known how to address my disappointment or frustration with my him other than writing or singing. I'm glad we were able to talk, and my hope is that opening the channels of communication will strengthen our relationship.
I know none of you asked, but if you're interested, here are my results to the Love Languages Singles Quiz. I've taken both the Couple's and Singles Quizzes over the years, and my top three love languages tend to rotate depending on what I'm going through in life at the time. Right now, I am aching for quality time with my friends.
*I would like to add my mom warning him about Andrea is a misremembered story. I mistakenly combined an incident that happened in high school, when my parents broke up before prom, and my dad took a girl my mom had warned him about. However, this is the version I wrote and turned in for my English class before either of my parents read it.
Born and Raised
I was born in 1997, the year of the ox (this is included for no other reason than my recent interest in zodiac charts), and named Christina Marie Tao. Tao is my dad's last name, and he is half-Chinese. I changed my last name at the age of 6, because I identified as a member of my mom's family (the McCanns) more than I did as a Tao.
I think that hurt my dad and my pop-pop--the whole Tao family, really--in a big way. They sent letters, checks, and messages addressed to "Christina Tao" for years after my name was legally changed. I would frequently get the question, "So do you not like us anymore since you changed your name?" I didn't entirely know how to answer that. I would repeat the reasoning that my mom and I had talked through: "I changed my last name to McCann, because I live with the McCanns. My mom, my grandparents, and my uncle who live in my house are all McCanns. So I am a McCann."
I didn't want to say that a large part of the reason was identity crisis. I didn't understand that at 5-years-old. I would go to kindergarten as Christina Tao. That was the name on the attendance. That was the name on my report cards. That was the name on my name tag at the circle table and then again when I moved to the rectangle table halfway through the school year. I had tried to cross off "Tao" and write "McCann" over it in pencil, but the name tag was laminated, so "Tao" was always more legible.
My classmates were confused by my last name. They knew my mom. They knew that she did not look like a Tao. And to them, neither did I. I was a white girl with dirty blonde hair and a fake last name. "Are you...adopted? What is a 'Tao'?" they would ask me. "No... I don't know. It's just my dad's last name." I never claimed it as my own.
It became a source of contention in Mrs. Friend's kindergarten class. "Where does 'Tao' come from?"
"You're not Chinese! Wait. Squint your eyes.... Oh nooooow I see it!"
My nickname at school became "Christina Towel." I would hear daily remarks about my last name, and how it was incongruous with who I was. I was a towel, and I should "just wait until we wipe the floor with you, Christina Towel." I hated it. I would scream at my peers to stop, but I never went as far as to tell an adult other than my teacher--who was just able to make it stop until recess.
My elementary school art teacher even told me once that I couldn't be Chinese. We were working on dragon masks for Lunar New Year at the time.
I heard so much that I couldn't be a Tao that I eventually had no desire to be one. I was happy being a McCann. It made me feel closer to my mom. It made me feel like I belonged. It told my peers that I belonged. It told everyone that I was white.
noun. 1. Also called white sound. a steady, unvarying, unobtrusive sound, as an electronically produced drone or the sound of rain, used to mask or obliterate unwanted sounds (Dictionary.com).
The unwanted sound, in my case, was my Chinese identity, and my whiteness masked it. I would use McCann as a safety blanket. It was my hat, and I was Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye. I stopped claiming that I was Chinese. I was "just a quarter Chinese" or I was only Chinese when we celebrated birthdays and holidays while eating lo mein and ba bao fan. I was ashamed, because I was told that I wasn’t Asian. I was on the receiving end of teachers’, substitutes', and camp counselors' confused stares after they read my name during roll call. Tao made me an anomaly, and I desperately wanted to fit in.
Any time I mentioned throughout the remainder of my grade school education that I was part Chinese, I was met with disbelief. It was a good response if it was just, "You are? I can't tell." The meaner responses came from my Asian and half-Asian friends who would usually just say, "No you're not," or "That doesn't count." I assumed that they knew best, and in an effort to not make waves, I stopped self-identifying as part Asian... even on forms that instructed the me to "Check all that apply."
In 2011, I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan in my 9th grade English class. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. It follows four Chinese American families (specifically the women, yay!) and their relationships with one another. When I read the book, it rocked my world. My great mom-mom, Lilyan Tao, née Leung, had passed away that summer at 100-years-old. She was the last member of my family to speak Chinese, and I only have one surviving family member--her daughter Peggy (my great aunt)--who was born in China.
Reading The Joy Luck Club solidified for me that I simply couldn't identify as Asian. Great Mom-mom had died, and with her, so had the recipes, the language, and the culture. I hate to admit that I learned more about her at her celebration of life than I did while she was alive.
Lilyan Tao graduated from nursing school in Canada in 1935. She moved back to China, met Frank, got married, had my aunt Peggy, got pregnant with my Pop-pop (Freeman), and moved with her family to New York City where my Pop-pop was born and raised. She did a lot more with her life that I will never know. She died before I cared enough to ask her.
Her husband, Frank, never knew about me. He was sick when my mom was pregnant, and they decided not to tell him. The Taos are very conservative, and my mom and dad got pregnant at 18-years-old out of wedlock. Frank died when I was a toddler, and he never knew about me.
That never impacted how Great Mom-mom treated me. I got a gift every birthday, Christmas, and Lunar New Year. She made my favorite dessert, ba bao fan, and always let me have seconds. She showed me her winter melon in the garden and told me how she was planning to make soup. Come to think of it, the winter melon conversation is the last clear memory I have of her. My heart aches when I think of my cousins and half-siblings who will never know her at all. I had her for 14 years of my life, and I definitely took that relationship for granted.
Crazy Talented Asians
In the summer of 2018, I embraced my Asian identity more than ever. La-Ti-Do invited me to perform in the first AAPI cabaret in DC called On Our Own, We’re Fierce Too at The Keegan Theatre. I didn’t realize until I was onstage with an immensely talented group of Asians how much it meant to be embraced by that community. I never truly felt embraced by my dad’s family or my Asian friends growing up, and here were my peers in theatre telling me that I was allowed and encouraged to embrace a part of my identity that I had suppressed for so long. This opportunity led to two auditions and a role in a movie-musical called The Girl Who Left Home about a Filipino-American woman who has to save her family's restaurant while balancing role in a Broadway show.
Through these experiences, I gained an extended family of artists and creatives many of whom still encourage me to embrace my Asian awesomeness--shout out to Alex Palting of The Hustling Creative, LLC who encouraged me to publish something about being #unapolageticallyasian.
The thing is, I am not unapologetically Asian. I’m still weary of identifying as a Chinese-American, because I know that I benefit from all sorts of privileges, because I am white. I don’t submit to shows that call for mixed actors, because I don’t feel right applying for roles meant for people who live with all the things that come with looking mixed-race. But the summer of 2018 led me to a self-acceptance that I didn’t know I needed, and for that I am so grateful.
The Tao. The Path.
If you've taken a world history or world religions class, you probably have an idea of what The Tao is. If not, here is a brief overview from the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The Named is the mother of all things.
There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,
Which existed before Heaven and Earth.
Soundless and formless it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere and is free from danger.
It may be considered the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.
All things in the world come from being.
And being comes from non-being. (form comes from formlessness)?
Essentially, the Tao is "the way" or the "the path" and it is not concrete. I think that's what my relationship with being a Tao is--not concrete. It is a journey. I don't yet know where this path is leading, but I am learning so much from it.
Here's where I talk about my Chinese zodiac. I was born in April 1997, during the year of the fire ox. 1997 is associated with yin (as in yin and yang). Yin is the passive, feminine side of things associated with night (it's the dark side of the symbol).
Maybe this is me reading way too much into things, but I think my Chinese zodiac describes my relationship with being Chinese. I'm passive about it, and in other parts of my identity, I am active and progressive. With this, however, I am slow and introspective. I think a lot at night too. It's the reason I don't sleep. This is my own personal dark side. In fact, this blog post was written in the night time (or early morning, depending on how you look at it), and it took me a year and a half to finish. I don't really know where I am going with it now, so I'm going to stop writing here. To be continued...
Note from the author: An earlier version of this blog post stated, "Frank died just before I was born," when in fact he died when I was about 3-years-old. Thank you to my mom for fact-checking.
An earlier version of this blog post stated, "...[Lilyan] moved with her family to Chinatown in New York City where my Pop-pop was born and raised." My Pop-pop's family did live in Manhattan, but it not in the Chinatown neighborhood. Thank you to my mom-mom for fact-checking.