“When you die, you die.”
My dad used to say that to me constantly when I was a kid. He was never depressed — at least not that I ever noticed. He was intentionally asocial, yet extremely sociable. He’d rather not tag along to the frequent get togethers, but when he did, he would hold court. The entire night would be him telling the other men what was wrong with them, to their own great amusement, and tease the women for their poor taste as they laughed at his absolute refusal to be polite. It gave them permission to hit back, with no repercussion but wild laughter.
We lived in an upscale neighborhood, a brick colonial house in an HOA. He hired 4 burly white guys to move us into the new house. This was back in 1987. They spent all day moving our furniture out the back of a giant green and yellow Mayflower truck. He tipped them big and gave them beers, and they sat around and told him what a beautiful house he had. He still lives in that house with my mom, more or less same as it always was. I used to get into a lot of fights and the school would call him at work, to which he asked me, at age 10, if his boss ever called me at school to tell me my father fucked up. Then I’d get hit, which I assume most boys of that era did as well. Of course, when my best friend got handed a one-week suspension for punching some fat white kid right in the face because he talked shit to his brother, he made it a point for us to drive over to his house, shake his hand, and tell him he had his vote.
“When you die, you die” is something he’d mutter under his breath while he sawed off tree limbs or moved bricks or replaced his radiator. It was almost like a catchy song he could never get over. When he finished and got the car running again, or the brick pathway was finally laid, he’d sip a coke and sing the coda: “But the Chinese never die.”
He’d keep me up on school nights telling me stories about military service, about how white American colonels never knew that the young Taiwanese soldiers would call their Chinese comrades well ahead of the artillery review, during which the crew cut teenagers would eagerly shell the shit out of a piece of rock jutting out of the Taiwan Strait, dotted with Communist teenagers like puffins. By the time those shells landed, the Mainlanders were already safely in their underground bunker smoking cigarettes. Why would we want to kill Chinese guys because a white asshole told us to? I had no idea what he was talking about, or whether he was even talking to me.
He told me about imperialism, about dollar hegemony, and about there being no afterlife. This didn’t feel strange, I figured all fathers had some lingering atheist Communist sympathies and told their sons in private about them. It never really registered that this doesn’t typically happen in America. He once picked me up from summer camp with my pretty friend that he was going to take home. She was really pretty, I remember. He told us Polish jokes, to which she said “I’m Polish.” He stopped the car, bought her a coke, and called it even.
He’s pretty much the same, though he’s a bit more susceptible to belief in the supernatural. Last time I saw him, he was watching a Taiwanese news show where a traffic camera seems to show a woman appear in the middle of the street out of nowhere, dressed in strange clothes. You see, he said to my mom, there are other parallel universes, and it’s quite possible that they intersect at unpredictable times. I saw him cry only once in my life — back when I was in college, and he told us he had cancer. He survived. He stopped saying “when you die, you die” at around that time. He seems to have traded that for a belief in the infinite worlds theory.
He lived his productive life outside the severe constraints of American capitalism, protected as it were as a worker within the giant intelligence complex called the CIA, for which budgets never shrank. He wasn’t compatible with American mainstream life, which demands an upbeat and eager demeanor, and for which nihilism, ethno-nationalist pride, and a budding belief in the occult counted as severe mental deviance requiring repression and perhaps alcohol. Instead, he had a government job and a young son who liked bizarre stories.
He used to tell me that America is a jungle. I ended up deciding to go to college — this was a decision in my family, not an absolute requirement, but there was only one available choice. I had stellar grades and stellar scores but I only ended up getting two admission offers: one to a lesser Ivy League, and another to the middling state school. The Ivy League gave me no money, while the state school offered me a full scholarship with a living stipend. My father said the choice was mine, and since my best friend was staying in state, I decided to stay as well. He said good, this is the first time you ever really made me happy. That was nice to hear, because I honestly hated that other school. He said either way, just remember college in America is a zoo, a jungle, there is no civilization here. You live in the wild.
It always seemed like funny dad talk, a disapproving Chinese man who held onto his disdain for the West as a way to preserve a personal identity I’d never understand myself. But he’s right, in a profound way, something I’ve learned over the decades. It’s something I’ve not seen in a book, but which I hope to find one day. Back in the day, the wilderness was the wilderness, and civilization was the village. Among people, you were safe, you were near home. Out in the wild, you were back under the law of nature. Modern America is itself the law of nature, the 4 lane highways and the overpasses and the malls and even the pre-planned condo communities, it’s the new natural environment, for which you are responsible for your own survival. There is no tribal bond that binds us to the other people we pass everyday. We’re infinitely more like schooling fish than a gorilla troop. If you trip up, if you fall behind, if you lose your wallet or your keys or your mind or your heartbeat, this becomes instantly apparent.
When you die, you die. Protect ya neck. Go through life long enough, and you’ll live through enough moments to experience what all this stuff around us is really made of. We know we can only project our sense of civility to a spot on Earth of a size statistically equal to zero. People come, people go, and in between we try to feel and behave like men felt and behaved when the wilderness they knew was not one that looked exactly like themselves. I see this budding nihilism in my friends, now raising kids and servicing mortgages, slogging through workdays and coffee and saved only by either an inability or unwillingness to make real sense out of any of it. They’re normal within an absurd system, and the only way to keep oriented is to mystify, to fail to understand, to use over-complication to hide plainly bare truths. Like how their job has no meaning. Or how their spouse is unpleasant. How their children’s futures are as as big a mystery as their own. Or how they’re not happy.
His first memory was abandoning everything at the dock, their family car still idling with the driver unsure of what to do, packing aboard an evacuation ship for Taiwan. I tell him now his generation is the luckiest there has ever been, to have enjoyed the greatest improvement in living standards any generation has ever seen, and will ever see. I say I’m okay, I saw improvements in my time as well. They were born hard, and grew soft. I was grown soft in their eyes, but as the second generation of immigrants, things were much more challenging than he could really understand. The struggle of the immigrant is well understood. The struggle of the immigrant’s son is not, not even by the son himself.
I think I’m Hindu. Everyone is one of the great religions without knowing it. I knew I was Hindu when I read about the Yugas on Wikipedia. The timeline of the Yugas is ridiculous, but I figure it’s just a problem of units conversion. I think we switched over to the Kali Yuga sometime in the 1990s. That’s when Harvey Weinstein began his raping career, you could tell a bad moon had risen looking back. It’s legitimately scary out there, it’s not just the news anymore, it’s the people. Thank God for NYC. NYC had the lowest number of murders this year since forever, and although our subways are falling apart, I love New Yorkers, especially the subway ones. We don’t murder each other, and a couple months back on the 5 train a lady fell out her seat and had a massive seizure right on top of my feet. Someone said to not touch her, and I went over and phoned the conductor. He was nice, he said okay, I know what car you’re in, we’ll have someone there when we reach Grand Central, thank you sir. And he did, there was paramedic team waiting for us at the exact door, and they came on immediately and got this poor lady to a hospital. I’m sure she was fine. Nobody panicked, we took care of her. I felt so good about that. They say this city is a jungle but it’s not, the jungle is West L.A., it’s The Vegas Strip, it’s anywhere in Florida. Leave NYC out of it.
When you die, you die, live among civilized people in between. Read up on the Yugas, there’s no denying Kali has come. Just plug away, and remember the Chinese never die.