A Mistake
By Emma Kate Tsai

I’m an eight year old and a member of the third grade and two things exist in my life, my father and school. But, I’m not your average eight year old. My mother isn’t in the PTA and she doesn’t bake cookies. As a matter of fact, she isn’t even here. I read, I study, I eat, and I do what my dad tells me to do. I don’t play a sport or a game, I don’t run around outside, and my only friends are my teachers, who I chat with at recess rather than participate in whatever childish game is on for that day. My father’s Chinese and my mother isn’t. My father speaks Chinese but my mother doesn’t. And I don’t, nor does my brother or my sister. My weekends aren’t filled with days at the zoo or visits to the children’s museum, but hours and hours spent with my dad’s real family, his Chinese friends.

Baba, the English bastardization for father in Chinese, is what I call my dad, and what he calls himself. He speaks in few words, almost no adjectives, and discusses himself in the third person.

“Baba go to meeting.”

“Baba go to store.”

“Baba need rest. Taking nap.”

When he isn’t informing us of his next move, he directs us like we’re cadets in some army he’s the captain of.

“Go study.”

“Come eat.”

“Go sleep.”

His vocabulary is so sparse, I find myself wondering if he even knows any other words. Ours isn’t an animated, conversational home. It’s more a Wild Kingdom, eat or be eaten, kind of place.

 

Today is a school day. It’s about six in the morning and I’m up early, like I am every day. My body is too afraid to let too deep a sleep overtake me. It knows, even more than I do, something bad might happen. It tells me, by jostling me awake hours before dawn every day, you must stay alert. That, and my father is too cheap to run the A/C, even though Houston, where we live, is one of the hottest cities on Earth. Fear and sweat are my first wake-up calls. A close third is Baba.

I reach my hand up from my bed without lifting my head to feel the window, grasping for a sense of the outside, a sense of the freedom I don’t experience. I can feel the temperature through my fingertips; it’s cold today. My heart does a little dance. I love cold weather.

I roll over and look at my twin sister, Addie, sleeping in a twin bed a few feet away. I remember just a few months ago the nights of sleeping on the floor between her and my dad and how I dreaded the day when he would make us sleep in our beds. My fear that I would wake up in an empty house with no way to take care of myself never leaves me, so I breathe an inner sigh of relief as I look at my sister and see she’s still there. Of course, I’ll wonder why I would ever take comfort in my sister’s presence the moment she wakes up, attacking me with her incessant babble centering on one main theme, herself.

I roll back over onto my back and study the craters in the ceiling, lying in anticipation of Baba’s grand entrance. I am a death row prisoner awaiting my call to die; at least, my level of anxiety is the same, I’m sure of it.

He’s already preparing himself for work – shaving, washing his face, shutting his briefcase. Baba walks heel first, and the entire house shakes every time he takes a step. The house belongs to him and he is entitled to any noise he wants to make. I am a guest in this house and I should be thankful for his allowing me to stay here. I do not feel entitled, not to anything. Except my fear, which one day will turn into anger, which one day will turn into resolve. Little does he know he’s just creating an Emma that will eventually talk back to him and be, in his words, a “big pain in the ass”.

A blinding light pulls me out of myself and my few short-lived morsels of peace. It’s my father. “Girls. Time to get up now.”

I get out of bed, methodically, and sit on the edge of my bed and wait, falling into step of what I know is expected of me every morning at the Tsai residence. Addie doesn’t seem to notice the aura of criticism my father exhibits as much as I do. It hasn’t been spoken aloud, not yet, so she chooses the tactic of breaking it with giggles and hugs and affection. She runs to her place, to gather her prize of “first one to get dressed,” trying to demonstrate to my father that she’s the best one, she loves him the most. Her running isn’t necessary; I’ve never taken one step to win that race.

Baba pulls out a chair. He would ask for a volunteer, but Addie’s already standing there, ready to be worked on. She stands obediently before Baba, as he holds out her clothes for her and she steps into them, one piece at a time. I watch from my corner of the bed as he dresses her, analyzing his gestures for love and affection that he doesn’t give me. It isn’t there.

My father has chosen an outfit for us, identical, of course, but for once, something that looks made for a girl. Today I can walk into school without the particular embarrassment of wearing my brother’s old clothes or some t-shirt from Taiwan that clashes with the American culture. The shirt my grandmother sent with the word “PECKER” across the front wouldn’t be too kosher at Whitcomb Elementary.

One day at a time, for tomorrow has every reason to be completely different. Or, exactly the same.

It’s my turn. Addie runs downstairs to eat breakfast, oatmeal my father made last night that we’re expected to eat cold. We have a microwave, but he sees it as a waste of time to heat up anything for us, for we are to eat what he puts in front of us, and complaints are not an option. But, he can’t stop me from gagging. It’s my secret weapon.

I stand before my dad, looking down, trying to stop my body from shaking in fear of this too powerful being in such close vicinity. Baba dresses me with keen attention yet a harsh lack of sensitivity, pulls my hair into pigtails with so much force my skin looks like it’s being yanked off my face, and holds my jacket for me to slip my arms into. The man is domineering, controlling, and full of rage, but I don’t understand this yet because I adore him. With Mom gone, he’s all I have. Other than a few phone calls to say she loves us when it’s too late and we’re already asleep and a few rushed through postcards, I haven’t heard from my mom in a year. I’m starting to forget what she looks like and what she smells like and now, all I know is my father, but it’s the one constant in my life. He hasn’t hit me yet and he hasn’t raised his voice yet, but I can smell it in him. Everything about him, his unwavering eye contact, his directives, his purposeful steps, his rules, all suggest an unyielding temper. I know he loves me and my brother and my sister but I don’t think he likes us very much. We don’t make him smile or laugh, and he never asks about our day. Running home with a 100 on a homework assignment is a waste of energy, because he’ll barely look up from making dinner to see what I’m babbling about. I haven’t met the man that will soon become the one I fear the most, not yet, so I don’t know enough not to make my first mistake. My first noticeable mistake.

He walks us to school, which is a short block from our house, old and blue with its broken dishwasher and two rooms for three people. My brother, Elliott, runs into school, not wanting to be associated with his two little sisters. Addie goes off to her class, but she’s never really gone. She feels like a physical part of my body sometimes, as much as I want to escape her and her need to be just like me. I long for more solitude and some space to myself, some space to deal with the torment that fills my head when I’m doing anything except reading or sitting in class.

I walk into class and already feel liberated from the intense halo that being with my father chokes me with. I check into homeroom and hang up my sweater in the closet, get my class work, and listen for instructions. I love school. It is at school that I become Emma, a person, a part of the environment, a living, breathing thing that excels at something. My obedience and respect at home make me a star in class. I follow directions to the letter and always do more than is expected of me, but only here is it appreciated. Only at school do I get affirmation as an individual, a likeable, smart, conscientious one at that.

I go from class to class, happily eat my plate lunch, bond with my teachers, and try to avoid being called on (though every answer to every question sits in my stomach, dying to be heard).

The next day and the next month and years later, I’m still not sure how I forgot. But I did.

 

My father picks the three of us up from school and we want to fight over who gets to sit in the front. But, we don’t deserve even that small luxury, for, like everything with Ted Tsai, he has a system, a “who sits in the front” formula made of index cards held together with a rubber band. In big block letters, each card is printed with each one of our names. Whose ever card is at the top of the stack gets to sit in the front, and after that ride, their card goes to the back of the pile, along with the child, who goes to the back of the car. Soon we’ll be fighting over who gets to sit in the back, away from my father and his piercing closeness.

The drive home takes about three minutes and my heart is racing as we pull into the driveway. I panic any time our car creeps up beside my house. I never know when to get out of the car. Should I get out when he puts it into park, after everyone else has, after he has, after he’s entered the house? What is respectful? Every day, I choose a different tactic, and none have failed me so far. This doesn’t stop me from torturing myself every day.

I shuffle behind Elliott, behind Addie, behind my dad. I slide my books onto the dining room table, waiting for the “Go study” command, when the sound of my own name makes me want to run away.

My father screams, “EMMMMMA!” My feet are glued to the floor and all the blood in my body is rushing to my head and my face. I feel hot and I can’t breathe. My heart is racing. I want the ground to open up and swallow me, anything not to confront him. But I know I don’t have a choice. I must answer him and I must go to him. Still, I’m too afraid. I wait for him to scream my name a second time before I shout back, “Coming!”, and trudge to the sound of his bellow.

“Where is your jacket?” he asks, so loudly I find myself taking a step back. But it isn’t a question. Before I can even defend myself, the scolding has already begun.

Only now does it hit me. I have left my sweater in the closet at school. I don’t have it. It is not in my backpack, on my body, or in my hand. It is not in the car. I know this but I need to buy some time and figure out what to say next. I pretend it might be in my backpack and start rummaging around in it. I cannot hide from this mistake. This mistake is my downfall. I wish someone, something, could magically produce my jacket so I can proudly exclaim, “Here, Baba! Here it is!” My mind runs through possible excuses and explanations and I look to my siblings for support. They offer nothing; I can see equal amounts of fear and relief on their faces. Thank god it isn’t happening to me concurrent with I could be next.

“WHERE. IS. YOUR. JACKET.” His words are daggers and I feel them stab me all over my body. His eyes are huge and staring me down, and I can see his anger growing. I can almost feel the heat of his rage emanating off his body and suffocating me. Each word is its own admonishment, and my father knows I have no answer and can smell my terror. I am like a deer and he sees me staring at his headlights, but instead of swerving, he looks right at me and floors it, driving at me like a bullet. It’s a good thing I’m not a deer because I would be dead.

Somehow, my larynx has not malfunctioned and performs on my behalf with an audible “I left it at school”, disguising the tumult going on inside of me. One thing about my voice; it never wavers, even when it’s belongs to a child, a scared, terrified one at that. This is my first mistake and the uncertainty of my punishment is more frightening than what comes next.

“Put out your hand,” he says, his voice lowering in intensity. He no longer needs to waste energy by screaming at me, not when his hand can take over.

The thought occurs to me to not put out my hand, to not give in, to drop my backpack and run outside. Baba is stronger and faster than me; I know an escape isn’t in my future. The punishment will escalate to the next level if I don’t obey and right now. I put out my hand, timidly, waiting. I can’t look, I try to pick a spot on the wall to blank out on. I feel dizzy.

Down it comes, like an ax chopping wood, it comes from way above his head (which is way, way above mine). I can feel the rush of air as his hand strikes mine, and the pain is so great that it takes at least five slaps before I realize my knees are buckling and I’m sobbing. I wonder what I look like to my dad, a little girl, standing at rapt attention, receiving her first spanking, covered in tears and welts. I try to picture it, my red and swollen face, then remember every night of the last year staring at myself in the bathroom mirror at my tear-stained cheeks, after hours of crying for my mother and begging the world to tell me why she’s gone, and I cry a little harder.

As my father hits me he screams, “Tao yan, tao yan, tao yan!”, again and again. On this day, at age eight, I hear “bad girl”. It isn’t until the tenth grade when I take my first Chinese class that I learn the literal translation of those words: To beg for disgust. And when I do, I don’t feel shame, instead I feel my own disgust at my father. But that comes later.

My lips feel hot from the warmth of my tears running down my face and I’m peripherally conscious to Addie and Elliott watching with morbid curiosity, yet I feel like I have stopped being anything but my hand and the sting that travels up my fingertips, through my palm, and lands at my heart. My hand flops backwards after every slap and with only implied instruction do I put it out again. He hits me over and over again, until my hand is pulsating and throbbing and red and sore. And then, he hits me some more.

And, just like that, he stops.

“This hurts me more than you. Think about it. Go study.”

I lift my head and walk to my study seat at the dining room table and Addie rubs my knee, but I’m too stunned to even register it. I try to take a deep breath, but it comes out ragged and quivering. Teardrops fall on my homework and I can’t keep a pencil still enough to write. So I open a book and read, and only this activity finally quiets me. I feel a sense of justification about how right I was, that I knew that volatile anger was living inside my father, except, I don’t know yet that I didn’t cause it. All I know now is that I never want to see THAT again. So, sitting there, reading my book, calming myself, I pledge to never forget a sweater or anything else anywhere ever again. I pledge to never make another mistake. I pledge to be whatever child I need to be, to never make my father look at me that way again, yell my name that way again, or tell me to hold out my hand again.

Over the next few days, his words run through my head, agonizing in their repetition, like the ticking of a grandfather clock, and I can barely focus at school. “This hurts me more than you.” And I feel sorry for him. I never got angry at him for that, not that moment. I felt responsible. I felt I deserved it. It isn’t until I’m fifteen and scream back at him that I gain my voice, I take the Emma that I am at school and everywhere but at home to my father and throw it back in his face. I am Emma and I deserve better, the new voice says. He doesn’t listen, but I finally do.

 

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