I didn’t feel I have a Dad although he exists and he is my father. At least, that’s the very thought in my mind for nearly 30 years of my life. Every time I thought of this one important relationship, it was like a thousand pieces of broken glass piercing through my little bare hands. Throughout my childhood and even when I have my own family, tears welled up my eyes every time there was something evoking in me related thoughts.
“When you grow up, if there’s any boy teasing you, I will protect you.”
It was 1987. Vietnam had just been opened up. I was four years old and my younger sister was just one. It was also the time when my father, following a group of exported laborers, went to Germany with the intention of providing our family with more economic security. Two years later, he was back on a family visit trip. And that was the very last time I saw the man whom I called Dad. I remember the very few days he brought me to my primary school on a bike under summer sunlight and shades. I treasure his cuddles and whisper into my ears, “When you grow up, if there’s any boy teasing you, I will protect you.” That day however never came.
In another corner of my memory storage, however, is the replay of my dad trying to get rid of my hands clutching on the back of his bike. I was insisting on going with him to his friend’s place to only see him let a cousin of mine sit on and rode out of my sight in seconds. Yet, on the day we saw him off at the airport, I was crying loudly. A six-year-old me stood there, waving at the flying airplane, as if my dad could see me from the window. Longing for the day he would be back, I went home, found his plastic sandals, washed them well with my tiny hands, wrapped them in a bag carefully, and put them on the top of our tall cabinet so nobody could take them away from us. One day, when dad is back, he can have clean sandals to wear right away, I thought. They were never in use again.
Not long after, my mom received a letter from my dad saying that he had just got married to another woman in Germany and demanded my mom to sign the divorce paper. My mom didn’t. My paternal grandpa and his five children together with their spouses forced my mom at the court but they failed. My mom was so determined to maintain a family for us that no one could bring her down.
And from these moments onward, this became how I framed the world around me.
The days after that were dark. I can never forget the day when my grandpa tore off my mom’s sleeve and my father’s brother curse the three of us to seek for shelter at the train station. I can also never forget the time when I sent a letter to my dad through my grandpa, as we weren’t allowed to have the address, just to later know that the many lines of love and longing were burnt into ash. And from these moments onward, this became how I framed the world around me.
Each time a kid at school or in the neighbourhood teased me, I thought they looked down on me, thought that I was worthless, and wanted to hurt me and get rid of me. There was a time during secondary school, a girl behind me pushed my back with her paper fan and a sneer. I immediately turned back, seized the fan and threw it onto the floor of the classroom with all my might, in front of dozens of eyes looking at the fierce me. Seeing a letter sent by a parent to my math teacher who was single the other day, I even came up with a story in my mind that he sent her a love letter. It came to my teacher’s ears and I was reprimanded. Worst, I was labelled as a “bad” student. When I didn’t fight, I weeped in sorrow near the window in my little room back home.
“I have to prove my dad and those people that I am good enough and even better than all of them.”
A few years ago, when I was back to Vietnam for a visit, my mom gave me my diary which I used during high school. She kept all of our childhood drawings and notebooks intact as if they were gold. It was full of notes and heavy with pain, grief, self blaming and tears. “Why was I born on this earth?”, opened an entry. I scanned through the letters till I reached the end, “I have to prove my dad and those people that I am good enough and even better than all of them.”
Till now when I am a coach and do a lot of research about how the brain works, it dawned on me that I had likely experienced depression at that young age. However, the journal and the endless love of my grandma and mom saved me. “Losing our dad, I am like a bird with only one wing left, but mom has made for me another artificial wing,” my sister wrote in one of her essays. My mom indeed attended night classes and had two jobs in a day to make ends meet, while still spending time for me and my sister with our study.
From another angle, while the painful relationship with my dad made a big scar in my heart, it was the single biggest force that propelled me to excel at schools. I was always the top student and even brought back to my high school a literature prize. My resilience muscles were stronger and stronger. Giving a speech during my last year at university, I entitled it, “Every challenge is an opportunity.”
“Anyway, look at things from the lens of humanity as well, daughter.”
As I became a woman and got married, my dad came back to my wedding at the request of my mom. After so many years, I met him again. I felt strange. Enunciating the word “Dad” was hard. I felt like the muscles in my mouth were numb. Since then, I met him another time in France where I participated in a conference and when he took the train to see me. My emotion ran dry. And it didn’t get any better when he was back to Vietnam for my sister’s wedding a few years later.
“I didn’t have a Dad in my childhood. So now as I have grown up, having one doesn’t matter. I don’t need one now indeed. He’s too far away anyway and he has had his own life,” I pleaded to my mom sometimes. Every time I made that effort, I only heard the same answer, “I know you and your sister suffer a lot. However, he’s still your dad, and his three children are still your siblings. You need to think how you should behave as the biggest sister. Anyway, look at things from the lens of humanity as well, daughter.”
She herself still fulfilled all of her responsibilities as a daughter-in-law to my paternal grandpa’s family. It seemed like she tore herself apart. Observing her, our neighbours, my aunts and uncles and cousins thought my mom was crazy. I thought she was crazy too. I was even angry with her. Why do you have to choose to suffer, Mum? I keep asking myself from time to time just to find no clues.
Still, I wanted to make my mom happy. And the only way was to follow her wish that we’re still a family. So I communicated with my half-sister in Germany. It turned out that given we both live abroad in developed countries, as weirdly as it may sound, I felt like chatting with her was more fun than talking to my own sister who still lives in Vietnam. More weirdly, I wish I could have her job as a primary school teacher at one time, which was against the someone I aspired to be when I was small, so I would be much better than those children. My half-sister even visited us twice and stayed with us in Singapore when we still lived there.
Yet, I still hated my father.
The scar in my heart was too big and the pain still visited once in a while till 5 years ago. My dad was back to Vietnam for a visit, so my husband and I invited him to visit us in Singapore as it’s so close. My main hope was for my son to know his maternal grandpa. Somewhere in a very deep layer of my mind, I hoped I could love him.
To our delight, my dad agreed and our little one had a lovely time with his grandpa who taught him a Vietnamese song, bought him a toy from a neighbourhood store and went to places with him.
However, my relationship with my dad didn’t improve. I told myself to forgive him in my mediation each morning. Yet, I still hated my father. I hated that woman who robbed my dad from us. Two years ago, when he had hardly recovered from being diagnosed with 70% of disability and couldn’t walk well yet, did he have to go through an open heart surgery. He sent me photos. I just texted back with a few words. They were not wrapped in empathy, but responsibility, the kind of responsibility that was coated by numbness, instead.
I wanted to take the chance.
However, there had still been a mountain between me and my dad till our recent trip to Europe. My family and I decided to spend our Christmas there as it’d been a while since we last paid a visit to our favorite continent. I thought it’d be so convenient to visit my sister in Switzerland and my dad in Germany, and to see that woman in flesh for the very first time in my life. Hatred aside, I really admired her for running a restaurant, raising three kids, tending to a big garden, and taking care of my dad when he was in bad health. I was curious to talk to her and hear her story. I had no idea how this meeting would be like but I wanted to take the chance. I wanted to see if my dad truly loved me as he said.
So we made it happen. I talked to my dad’s wife, hearing her own struggles. I also had a private time chatting with my dad, hearing his story which I had never heard in my life. He was 24 when he fell for this woman. The future at that time was unpredictable in Germany and he thought he couldn’t even come back. Recently getting to know how a male friend at this age with similar personality was like, the numbness coating my heart started to melt down and my heart shared the same beat with my dad’s. I also accepted his invitation to visit his home in Germany and met with my two brothers also for the first time. I gave them a book I love. We had great chats, played games together, and enjoyed the special connection over a dinner prepared by my dad and me.
Soon we had to say farewell. When we arrived in Vienna two days later, my son was crying and we all felt a deep sense of loneliness. We had no family in this city. The family time was over. We so much missed them, my dad and my siblings.
Although we are an ocean apart still, my Dad has been back.
Now in that corner of my rusty memory storage, there is a new image: the little girl 30 years ago who weeped when seeing her father off at the airport is clutching the hand of her 35-year-old version. The bigger one whispered into her ears, “Dad drove us to the border between Switzerland and Germany so our sister’s boyfriend could drive us back to their home in Switzerland. I saw him off at a gas station near there, and I knew he loved me. He loves you too. He has come back.”
In our beautiful AirBnB apartment in Vienna the night we arrived, when my loving husband and two children were sleeping soundly, I wrote my dad a note to wish him a happy birthday. “Indeed, Mom is right, Dad. Later is still better than never. Having a dad is great, and having more siblings is wonderful.”
“I love you, Dad!” I ended the note, with a heart shape next to it, and went to sleep, with a contended smile. I have a Dad, I told myself. Although we are an ocean apart still, my Dad has been back. He’s truly been back.