Today is Angela’s (redacted) birthday. In honor of today, I want to make a top five list of my favorite things about her, as a mother. These are the things that only I (and I alone) can claim as her co-habitational and sometimes-functioning parent.
She is the calm one. Everything is bizarro world with a child. When we got married, Angela said I was the “calm to her storm.” That was true until about two years ago when we had Zelda. Now I am the one that panics over everything. I am the one who overthinks everything, unwilling to see the forest for the trees. Whenever Zelda is sick, or we have conflicts with work, I stumble into a crescendo of worries, problems, and miscalculations. Angela keeps her cool. When the stress begins to spike in these sitautions, I feel that Angela can sense it, reacting ahead of time. She is a wizard. Angela, YOU are the calm before/during/after the storm.
She is the good parent. I am terrible at discipline. Most of the time, whenever Zelda does something wrong, or acts out, I struggle to move beyond the “awwww” and “she is so sweet” phase of Zelda’s life and into the “don’t do that” and “no” phase we will discover more and more as she hits her second birthday. I barely get anything out before smiling or blowing it off and moving on. That’s bad parenting. Angela refuses to do that. Although I strive to become a disciplinarian, I have a long ways to go. Angela’s already there.
She is the grand communicator. As previously stated, I am struggling with moving beyond “fun dad” and simply becoming “dad.” Angela is so good at communicating with Zelda and teaching her about everything. Sometimes, I just stare in awe as she helps her go through a list of words in a book or on her favorite television progrma. It’s incredible. I take every day as a learning experience with Angela, and I’ve learned quite a bit in the last few years.
She has better diplomatic skills than Trump’s entire cabinet. Look, there are things that I like to do and things that I honestly avoid like the plague. I am TERRIBLE at communicating this to anyone, so either I go along with it (and hate it), or give off passive aggressive bursts of “meh.” Angela, amazing parent that she is, always thinks of our family unit as a whole and reasons with me about our activities and social calendar, weighing the pros and cons of each prospective event. This has led to several fun experiences with our daughter that we would have otherwise spent sleeping and farting on the couch with the dog in my sweatpants (which I still want to do, 99% of the time). Take that, Nikki Haley.
She is the REAL task master. I am a Type A personality when convenient. Angela is Type B, but (thankfully) Type A WHEN IT MATTERS. That involves weekly reminders that I forget about like Zelda’s appointments, etc. I like to label myself as a “task master,” but in reality I play second fiddle to Angela. She is the true core and rock of our family. All I can do is sit back and marvel at the amazing woman she is.From the moment I first met her, I knew she was different. Not in a bad way, mind you, but she had a special quality I wanted to know more about. Over time, I had the opportunity to explore that. After a little while, I knew I couldn’t live without her. I still can’t, and now we have a very special little thing that makes our bond stronger than ever. She is a better person than me in every single way. These five things are just the tip of the iceberg. Happy birthday, MILF. I’ll follow you anywhere.
In the mid-1990s, my uncle and his family moved to their current house in Silver Spring, Maryland. My grandmother and great-grandmother, both alive back then, also lived with them in their sprawling tri-level house in Montgomery County. As a result, my father would often load my mom, sister, and I on a Friday after school and drive up to the D.C. area to spend the weekend. We would inevitably spend most of our time in the house, running around and exploring the basement with my cousins and sister. My dad spent his time with his mother, chatting with her in Cantonese in the kitchen as she worked diligently and methodically on our dinner all day. In truth, every trip to see my grandmother was a gift, one I took for granted too late in life. I often find myself lamenting about those days. Even if I was an awkward kid with few friends, the feeling of family always made me feel safe and secure, whether I realized it or not. These feelings make the pill harder to swallow because Zelda never got to meet any of my grandparents, including those on my father and mother’s side.
Zelda got her first chance to see the house I spent so much of my youth in this past weekend. My uncle Sam and aunt Anna invited our family out to Maryland for a BBQ with some other family members and friends. I was admittedly nervous to go back. The last time I came to the house was over a decade ago when I drove up and stayed there overnight to pick up my then-girlfriend from BWI Marshall Airport. I’ll never forget their hospitality, even if the relationship I had back then was a bit forgetful—we were together in Baltimore and broken up by the time we got back to Virginia Beach.
We got to the house around 12:30 pm. My sister and her family arrived shortly before us. Walking behind the back of the house where the grill was set up, I immediately smelled delicious grilled BBQ chicken and spare ribs. After some brief hugs and messages of greeting from my grillmaster uncle, we stepped inside the house, which might as well have been a time machine.
I was transported to my childhood as I stepped into the living room. I was a 13-year old with a growing forest of acne across my forehead, brace-faced and full of energy, running around the living room. I was no longer a 33-year old out of shape father of one. I was young, decisively idealistic, and pitifully naïve. I caught myself from falling too far into the nostalgia trip when I realized that Zelda had been tugging on me to let her down to run around.
I sat her down into their living room, and she immediately moved toward the fireplace. Atop it, the ornate Chinese decorations are the same. On the wall in the living room, I am nearly overcome with emotion as I see the paintings and pictures of my elders: My great-grandfather and great-grandmother, grandmother, and grandfather.
The couches are the same. Zelda played for a while on the banister that connected the kitchen and living room. I had to stop and think: that was me, twenty years ago.
But this time, the smells were different. There was no oxtail soup simmering on the stove. Instead, a giant platter of hot dogs and hamburgers covered the burner my grandmother used to make her long noodles and Chinese green beans. There was no crispy fried whole fish to feast on—just deviled eggs and potato salad. The BBQ smells, albeit intoxicating on my grumbling stomach, were a sad reminder that time is always cruel and passing. Hell, I think Zelda grew a few inches in the trip from Alexandria to Silver Spring.
We all made a plate and joined my sister and her family in the dining room. It was nice for Zelda to play with her cousins, who immediately abandoned their meals and sought out the smell of sandalwood incense burning in my uncle’s study. My cousin Marie spent much of the afternoon playing with Zelda, which brought warmth to my heart. I can remember when Marie playing in the same house all those years ago. Now, Marie walked Zelda around the house, showing different heirlooms and trinkets from her Chinese heritage.
Before we left, I broke from the action for a second. My official story was that I had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t. I walked upstairs to look at my grandmother’s old room. The old mahogany chest, originally from China, was still in front of her room. She wasn’t there. In fact, her room wasn’t her room anymore. It was something entirely different. But I shed a quiet tear as I closed my eyes and remembered the love she had for me and my sister, her grandchildren. She could give us that transcendental warmth without ever speaking a word of English beyond our names. It’s the full kind of love you can only get from somebody who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of a happy home. It’s the same love my mother and father have for Zelda.
If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times. Family is everything. We want Zelda to experience as much of them as she can. I don’t want her to go somewhere years later and reminisce about a forgotten past. I want there to be smiles. Thankfully, my uncle provided the perfect introduction of Zelda into the Maryland side of our family.
I showed Zelda her elders as we walked out the door. I told Zelda that they loved her very much. She pointed up at my grandmother and spoke some nonsense. In my mind, I’d like to think they were chatting about my awkward years I spent there wearing Jordache jeans and B.U.M. Equipment t-shirts. It must have been because Zelda had a giant smile on her face as we got in our car to leave. I can’t wait to go back again.
I was doing it again. I caught myself at work staring into space. This time, it was in front of my computer at work. By Thursday afternoon, I guessed this had already occurred three or four times already this week.
Was it because I was tired? No, not that. I’m always tired. That comes with the territory of being a parent. It was something else. I sat there staring at a blank page on my computer screen, waiting for it to fill miraculously. A blank Word document is like the Bat Signal for complacency, so I figured something could be going on.
I guess you can say it was a “low point.” I’ve had them before for various reasons. But for what?
I instinctively put on some Morrissey on my drive home that afternoon. I figured I could get through most of “Your Arsenal” because I-295 coming out of DC was backed up. By the time “You’re the One for Me, Fatty” came on, I realized what was bothering me: I wasn’t where I thought I’d be.
Let me explain.
In my mind, I thought my thirties would be about crushing through my career in history. I thought there would be accolades, awards, publications, and lucrative book deals. To a degree, I’ve had a little of that. But since the birth of Zelda, it’s come to a grinding halt. I am now questioning my love for what I do and my place of employment. I often grow jealous of my colleagues who are succeeding when I am coming up with failure after failure. I think it was Jonas Salk who said, “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.” I don’t know. I’m not finding a cure for polio in my research.
Jealousy is an ugly, terrible thing. It’s not my proudest moment, but remember, I said this was a weak point. Without becoming a cliché for my generation, I must implore that the emphasis is on the past tense.
That was the goal. That was the plan. Throughout my twenties, I adhered strictly to the movie quote made famous by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. In the film, Baldwin plays “Mr. Blake,” a shrewd real estate executive sent in to rile up a group of down and out agents. Throughout his speech, Blake has little respect for the lives of these men. He only believes in two things: money and success:
Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here – close!
That’s me. That’s how I wanted to be. For a while, I was. I never had the suit, but the mentality fit me fine.
After a few hours with feelings of failure and inadequacy swirling around my head, I picked up Zelda from her home care. I was admittedly in a terrible mood, but Zelda seemed in high spirits as per usual. Despite that, I still mumbled my way through the next hour at home. I knew I should stop being selfish and subjecting others around me to it. I wore it on me like a cheap coat. In a way, the feeling was a comfort. If I didn’t feel so goddamned sorry for myself, who would? It’s my right, ok? As I cooked dinner, I looked over at Angela and gave her my fake reassuring smile. She calls it my “Koala Face,” and can see through the bullshit a mile away.
I was as energetic as a hot turd at dinner. Angela said nothing. I think she could feel the heat coming off of me and knew better. I looked over at Zelda, a face full of mashed potatoes. She looked at me and smiled her bit smile. I could see bits of potato sticking out of her prison bar grin of teeth. It was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was almost as if Zelda was telling me, “Get over yourself dad and play with me.”
I melted. I melted fast. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I began to laugh. At that moment, there was only one feeling: love. Love for my daughter. Love for my family. Love for feeling blessed we are doing okay and that everyone is healthy. She was right: get over yourself, Matt. I did.
I picked her up out of her seat and gave her a big kiss. I didn’t care that the potatoes got on my face. She made me feel like I could kick Mr. Blake THROUGH THE DICK at that moment. I’m a goddamn superhero to her. I’m dad. What is better?
There are things we can’t control in life. Where I am in work may be one thing. If I work hard, I’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, I’ll settle for trying to be the best father I can be to the best thing that’s happened in my life. Work is one thing. Life is something completely different. I think it’s time I change my point of view and start living.
Nothing will ever compare to having Zelda in my life. She is a lifetime fulfilled. She is my greatest creation, one that makes every accomplishment I’ll ever make in my career pale in comparison. She makes me proud to be a father. What better time to declare it than Father’s Day.
There are still things that matter. We need to work to have money for food and rent. I need to keep my dog and cat fed and healthy (shoutout to the pet parents). I need to ATTEMPT to not be an asshole to my wife. So, things do matter. But in the grand scheme of life, Zelda is the priority. Not the job. Not the prestige. It’s her.
Every time I see her smile I want to be a better fucking person. I try. We all try. But there comes a time when we all have to shut up and just do better for our kids. It’s not about me anymore. It’s all about her. I am ashamed it took me this long to realize it.
I win. I deal the cards. The game is mine.
My life can’t get any better. Everything else is just icing on the cake. Thanks for smiling at me, kid. You saved my life once again.
So, Mr. Blake, I will go home and play with my kid. With all due respect, Fuck YOU.
Here’s to the dads of all kinds who feel the same.
How do you poop when you alone with your daughter? It’s likely a question many a parent has asked at least once.
While watching Zelda alone this past week, I was faced with this timeless dilemma. Angela was away on a work trip, leaving me carte blanche decision-making with Zelda. All seemed well, at least for the first few days.
But how would I react on a warm Wednesday evening when I came home from picking up Zelda from daycare? For some reason, I made her a bean burrito the previous day, which had no effect on her digestive system (she has been having difficulty going to the bathroom, so I figured the high dose of fiber would help). Unfortunately, the burrito had every possible effect on me. Come on, any dealer samples his own product . . even if I sampled said product for dinner and breakfast/lunch the following day. By the time Zelda came home from day care on Wednesday evening, I was ready to reenact the Jeff Daniels bathroom scene in Dumb and Dumber. I didn’t have to go, I had to GO. So, what to do with Zelda while I unloaded my cargo?
There were several options crawling through my mind as I drove home, as my internal doomsday clock reached midnight. I thought of them all before carefully choosing the best one.
Option A: The Quiet Sleeper
If she is tired, I can put her in her crib and let her sleep soundly, leaving me to drop the other kids off at the pool in peace. Happiness and harmony. As any parent knows, this is ultimately a cruel fantasy, as my butt always cashes checks my body can’t cash. I was ready, baby. I was flying the rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong. My bowels felt the need for speed, and Zelda was not in the least bit tired as I edged towards jettisoning my “Kenny Loggins” into the danger zone.
Alternatively, if said child is still awake, I can hold it until she is ready for a nap or go to sleep and do my business then. That was not happening, either. I soon found myself gently farting and letting out air as careful as a bottle of soda that’s been rolling around the car for a week. Zelda kept looking at me every time I farted as if I had done something wrong. She smiled and made noises with her mouth to mock me. Clever girl.
The time was 6:15 p.m. I was still a long way from putting her down for the evening, and she still had to eat dinner. Sweat began to appear on my brow. I needed another option.
Option B: Cry it Out
The other option, closely related to the first option, is to simply leave her in the safety of the crib to cry while doing business. This is, of course, the correct option, but I chose to make things more difficult. I also tend to eschew all common sense when I am alone with Zelda. So, naturally, we move on.
Option C: The Helicopter Pooper
I could try and keep her within arm’s reach of me in the bathroom while I went. The door would be closed, so she would be safe from everything but the smell.
I decided against it. For one, it’s kind of gross to essentially hold onto your daughter while you poop. We are close, but not that close. Plus, I just didn’t want her to somehow remember years down the road of the time when I held onto her hand while taking a shit.
And what if she somehow got away? There’s no safety net. By now, she has figured out how to open doors, so she is already a triple threat. There are too many variables and unknowns. You can’t solve for X when your extra Y chromosome is off somewhere in the house, leaving you to waddle around looking for her with your ass looking like a peanut butter sandwich. No good. No.
Is this too graphic? If so, congrats: you don’t have children.
Option D: General Lemarque is Dead
This is ultimately the decision I chose. Here’s how it went down:
I wanted to:
Keep Zelda close by me and avoid all the tears and sadness
Keep Zelda occupied while I did the dirty business
Keep Zelda safe and secure
I decided, in my low-level of intelligence, to quickly draw up a plan to have Zelda play quietly with me by my side in the hallway, outside of the bathroom. I placed as many books and toys as I could in a line in front of the bathroom door and to the side in the middle of my hallway.
It was like the damn set of Les Miserables with the large barricade of toys I left in front of me. I couldn’t help but make up my own words to the musical while I hastily set it up.
BROWN. The hue of angry poop!
I (regretfully) didn’t take a picture of the set up because I tried to go as fast as possible. By the time everything was set up and the soldiers were amassing to fire, I figured it would take one minute, tops. Wrong. That has the exact opposite effect that I wanted. In the end, Zelda sat and stared at me the whole time as I went, playing from time to time with her sing a long sound tablet. I was dropping hot lava as we sang the ABCs together. Please God, let her not remember any of this.
I didn’t want her crawling away from the barricade and out of my sight. It ended up working. My dog tried to play Jean Valjean during this five minute musical and rescue Zelda, but to no avail. My barricade was a solid design. All my years reading about Civil War and WWI fortifications finally paid off. I think I finally know the true value of my education: to let me furiously shit for five minutes as my daughter watched in relative safety.
Stay in school, and you just might survive a bean burrito butt attack on an early evening when you are alone with your kid.
“And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go.”
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
I love my Chinese heritage. That might be obvious, given the name of this blog. I never let it define me growing up, but it certainly became a big part of how I grew up. Although my grandmother, the family’s matriarch, died when I was relatively young, she was always a guiding force behind my motivation to stay connected to family and teach my future children about their customs and traditions. Thankfully, my father and uncle are a living reminder of that heritage passed down from my Ying Ying (grandmother). Most important of all, I’m glad my DNA implanted a quarter of Zelda’s genetic makeup as Chinese.
Zelda was born a day after the Chinese New Year in 2016, which is why she is a “monkey” instead of a sheep. This year would be her first year of celebration, and Angela and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to show her more about Chinese culture first hand. My parents were also in town, which helped convince us that we could make the day of it. What’s better than some loud Chinese music to help a baby get tired out, right?
We began the day with a visit to my sister’s house in nearby Del Rey (A neighborhood in Alexandria, VA). After a quick breakfast, we gathered the kids together to receive their red packs, or lai see. The red packs are filled with money. Receiving a red pack was always one of my fondest memories growing up. I loved looking at the bright and colorful designs of the packs and the smell of the thin red paper. I can clearly remember a time when my grandmother smacked my butt because I snooped around her house for the red packs. “Ai yah, Matt Matt!” she said, as she went back to her kitchen to make our celebratory feast, the sweet smells of Chinese sausage, oxtail soup, long noodles, and crispy skin chicken wafting through every inch of the home. I can’t describe how good her cooking was. Nobody will ever cook better food than her. Period. But that is a story for another time.
The kids graciously accepted their gift of lai see. I think Zelda had more fun playing with the red pack than acknowledging what was inside. Maybe in a few years, she’ll start to smell the red paper and enjoy the designs.
After we said our goodbyes and left my sister’s house, we eventually made it to Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax where for a Chinese New Year celebration. By the time we got there at 1 pm, the mall was already packed. We fought our way through the crowds on the top floor just in time to catch the great Chinese Lion Dance. I grabbed Zelda and held her high on my chest to give her the best view possible. Remarkably, she sat through the entire dance and paid attention the whole time silently. The dance consisted of three lions receiving lai see offerings from children, and in turn use their good fortune to help fight off a demon (evil spirits) and bestow health, wealth, and good fortune for the new lunar New Year.
Zelda’s favorite part was when the lion (some call them dragons) dancers chewed and spit out lettuce greens into the audience three times (symbolizing the dispersal of wealth and good fortune). I hope she doesn’t do that later when we try to offer her salad. Happy and overstimulated, we packed her back in our car for the ride back home, stopping by the grocery store to pick up a few oranges to eat for good luck in the coming year. We were both surprised to find she loved them! Zelda’s first Chinese New Year is now in the books. Gung Hay Fat Choy!
Good Fortune vs. Being Fortunate
This Chinese New Year comes at a very tense and disconcerting time in American history. As a student of history, I am keenly aware of the steps the current administration are taking and the damaging effects of their actions. By far the most heartbreaking of his executive orders is the immigration ban. Watching the throngs of people in the audience today, most of whom were Chinese, it struck me how important it was to honor why people want to come to the United States: for a better life. I am the son of an immigrant from Hong Kong. My grandmother wanted to ensure her family had the best possible life possible. My grandfather, who was murdered by the Italian Mafia years before I was ever born, came to the United States and worked until his hands bled in Chinese laundromats in New York and New Jersey, most likely facing extreme racial prejudice in the process.
The Chinese call America the “Golden Mountain.” It is a land of freedom and opportunity. Let’s keep it that way. I would not be here without immigration. Zelda would not be here. I’m sure somewhere along the line, you wouldn’t, either. As proud as I am of my Chinese heritage, I am equally honored to be an American. Just like the thousands of men, women, and children who come her for the same opportunities. Or others who want to live their lives without fear. If my grandmother were still alive today, she would undoubtedly have a few things to say about the President’s latest assault on American life. We are all different races and ethnicities. But beneath that, we are American. Let’s remember that, and hope this year brings double happiness to everyone.
Either that, or we need to start sending lettuce by the truckload to the White House.
This past weekend, Angela marched with several hundred thousand like-minded men and women in Washington, D.C., alongside her friends Lauren, Holly, Meredith, and Sara. They marched to protest women’s rights, among others. Me? I had possibly the most important job of all: to watch over Zelda while they were off being badasses.
The night before the march, the ladies spent most of the evening crafting the sign they would carry the following day. Unfortunately, I was too tired to see the entire progress and went to bed before they finished. I was pleased to find this the following morning:
It was very emotional for me to see Zelda’s name on there. Equally emotional were the reasons why these women, some of whom were also mothers, chose to march: to resist the policies of the new presidency.
As early as the day before the election, Angela and I laughed off the idea of a Trump presidency. When the results came on the night of the 8th, we both sat up in bed stunned. We ended the evening quietly sobbing, wondering what the world would look like for Zelda over the next four years. Would she have the same rights that Angela has? Would they be taken away? How does a parent effectively conceptualize raising their children in America today. Have we now entered into “the Dark World?” It’s a serious question I am unsure about answering.
While the ladies marched, Zelda and I had a lovely daddy-daughter day together. After a few tumultuous morning hours trying to get her to realize that she was a. tired and b. needed to sleep, we spent the early afternoon in Fairfax looking through some records and buying fish sticks at Trader Joes. After eating several of the fish sticks back home, Zelda was pumped to see Mom and co. again. We celebrated their successful return from the jaws of the patriarchy with tacos. Obviously.
I think I have an answer to my previous question.
It’s dangerous to go alone. You need other people there standing by you. We all need each other standing by and holding ourselves accountable. If you can’t take that, then take this with you:
Kindness. Love. Compassion. Charity. Hope. Faith.
If you have that in your inventory, then others will follow with you. If you have these things, we will all make it through the dark world ahead.
It was such a pleasure to have so many positive influences on Zelda here with us this weekend. I can say that I see aspects of each of the women in Zelda. As she gets bigger and grows, I find myself picking out the character traits inherent in Angela’s friends. I see Holly’s outspoken kindness and charity. Lauren’s assertive determination. Meredith’s overwhelming warmth and hope for the best. Sara’s “tough as nails” personae.
I’d like to think there will be a time when we don’t have to march for equality or women’s rights. In the meantime, Zelda’s extended family and friends are great companions to go questing with into the fray.
It is important that Zelda knows about her family lineage. On Angela’s side, there are many cultural elements related to her Scottish family. I’m sure Zelda will eventually learn what “muckle” means, and about Angela’s rightful fascination with fried food. I kid that her introduction to Scottish culture should be a viewing of Trainspotting. No, probably not.
Although I would disagree with Ewan McGregor’s character when he shouts “It’s SHITE being Scottish,” I am biased towards Zelda’s Chinese heritage. After all, we named this blog “The Eng Dynasty.” With my parents in town this past weekend, Zelda had a chance to connect with her Chinese tradition on a whirlwind tour through the DC metro area.
PART I: All That and Dim Sum
My eating habits have been pretty good since I found out I was pre-hypertensive and pre-diabetic last month. The unspoken goal was to eat healthy for six of the seven days of the week, exercise, and allow me to have one cheat day (2 meals). Yesterday, we met up with my parents and my sister’s family for Dim Sum near Washington, DC. Yesterday was the cheat day meal I planned. Unfortunately, Chinese food isn’t known for being the healthiest, but the Chinese meal is a big part of my life.
I spent most weekends of my young life eating dim sum at a restaurant called Jade Villa (formerly Golden China) in Virginia Beach. To this day, it is still one of my favorite places to eat because of their weekend offerings. The sweet and savory dumplings, steamed buns, shu mai, roast pork, and other miniature Chinese delicacies helped form my palate. It was where my dad showed me how to use chopsticks, and where I discovered the stereotype that all Chinese restaurant restrooms are not created equal (as good as their food is, their bathroom is not as ideal). Angela knew it was important for me to pass this Chinese meal tradition on to Zelda. If I can remember correctly, one of the first places we took her out into the world after she was born was a dim sum joint in Rosslyn. Zelda slept through most of those earlier trips in the spring and early summer months. Now at nearly nine months, she is alert and eager to soak in her surroundings.
Unfortunately, she has yet to grow any teeth, so she couldn’t try any of the food. I can’t wait for her to move from baby formula, breastmilk, and pureed foods to solids. I need to make sure she enjoys Chinese food like I did (or at least try). The one time I gave her a little dab of soy sauce, she recoiled into a grimace. Poor girl. That will change. Thankfully for this trip, she was very awake and wanted to interact with everybody at the table, especially my dad. I took the opportunity to snap a few pics of their interaction.
PART II: Visiting the Empress
After lunch, we said goodbye to my sister’s family and followed my parents to visit the gravesite of my grandmother, Ng Ma Lui Ho (we just called her Ying Ying; or grandmother). Like dim sum, gravesite visits to my ancestors was a bit part of my upbringing. Growing up, my dad would lug our family up to New York to see his father’s gravesite in Queens while my grandmother was still alive (she died in 1997 from a heart attack). The goal was to bring the extended Eng family up there once a year. The visits not only served to update our ancestors on what we were doing but a way to honor them in a ceremony. We also had a chance to visit our relatives in Chinatown. Sidenote: Chinatown in the late 80s, early 90s was gross, rough, and altogether fantastic. My family’s apartment had rats the size of Cornish hens, but it was still a real slice of authentic New York. I don’t know if you knew already, but Chinese people are rather superstitious, so the ceremony had its ritualistic customs and traditions.
The gravesite service usually consisted of my grandmother stopping by a Chinese grocer off of Mott St. to purchase the necessary food, or offering, for my grandfather. The food usually consisted of my grandfather’s favorites: roast duck, roast pork, whole fish, noodles, etc. After purchasing the items (in Chinese culture this usually meant yelling at each other for ten minutes before an acceptable price was met), we would head out to the Chinese cemetery in Queens for the ceremony. At the ceremony, we would place the food along with three shots of his favorite drink (usually whiskey), flowers, incense, and fake money for burning. The most important part of the ceremony, however, was making sure the gravesite was properly cleaned and manicured (sometimes called Qingming, or Ching Ming). Although that isn’t a problem now, back in the early 1990s, the caretakers at the Chinese cemetery in Queens made it look like the grassland. As a result, our family usually brought basic garden tools to the site.
After family members cleaned the gravesite and the food, flowers, incense, and drink placed, the family customarily gathered around in a semicircle fashion for the formal ceremony to begin. All family members bow three sets of times (three is a significant number) and offer their condolences, well wishes, and prayers to their ancestor. After each successive bow, the youngest members of the family (usually my sister and I) would pour the whiskey onto the grave. The ceremony ended when the last of the fake money was burned to ensure they had enough funds in the afterlife. I told you we were superstitious. After that, we would all get in the cars and head back to DC to consume the food. We usually did this all in one day.
It was less formal event for our trip yesterday. It took about twenty minutes for us to get from Rosslyn to my grandmother’s gravesite in Suitland, MD. We didn’t have any booze and couldn’t find a flower shop in Suitland where my grandmother is buried. So, my dad improvised. The food offering was a bunch of bananas, and the drink was three bottles of water (Ying Ying didn’t drink). Zelda enjoyed playing in the grass near her gravestone. The moment was intensely emotional for me. Ying Ying died in 1997, so there was no way that she would have seen Zelda in her lifetime unless I fathered a kid before I hit puberty. I told her about Zelda, my family, and hoped she would bless us in the year to come. Tears streamed down my face as Zelda played on the grass near her marker. It was one of the most beautiful moments I witnessed in her short life. I’ll remember it forever.
She also took the time to visit my other relatives buried close by, including my great grandmother (Shee Hing Lim, d. 2008), great grandfather (Ng Hong Sing, d. 1984), and my uncle (Ng Bin Huon, d. 1956 due to birth complications).
PART III: Family is Everything
We ended the day by traveling up to Silver Spring to eat our second round of Chinese food. It was a birthday party for two of my cousins, Megan and Marie. It was great to see some of my extended family, some of which I have not seen since my Chinese wedding in 2012. My Aunt Anna took the opportunity to play with Zelda and introduce her to my relatives. It was a touching moment to see my girl interact with family and connect with her rich Chinese heritage. By the way, the food was phenomenal. I am convinced that the best Chinese food in the country is in Maryland. For NOVA people like us, it is well worth the trip. I am not looking forward to eating salad all week after all this good food we just had. Sigh. But it was worth it, especially for the interactions Zelda had with her family.
My grandmother would always say that family is the most important thing in life. Without it, your life has no goal or purpose. In traditional Chinese culture, your social circle usually does not extend outside of it. “Work hard,” she would say to me in Cantonese, “and love your family.” Ying Ying taught those values to my father, who in turn instilled that in me for my budding brood. You can be rich and successful all you want. Without family, however, you are nothing. I have to remember that from time to time as I strain myself to get work done and put Zelda or Angela on the backburner. It’s days like yesterday that remind me how thankful I am for having everything I need and more.
In case you are TL;dr about the last post, here is a quick summary: I have been stressed and frustrated, which has caused me to ramp up my unhealthy lifestyle. This caused me to start really feeling like dirt, forcing me to go to the doctor. Among other things, I found out that I am prediabetic. I am attempting to have this situation “corrected,” eating healthy and exercising for the sake of Zelda and my family. In sum, I want to shine. But it’s not always easy to do that.
I started to eat healthier. I started to run. I started to take care of myself. It felt good, for the most part. That didn’t mean there weren’t temptations, cravings, and pitfalls. The longer and harder I worked at trying to reverse the path I was heading down, the harder it got.
When I broke and got something semi-bad (i.e. Wendy’s Chili), I started to hear the voices in my head, telling me to eat some salad or go for a long walk or run. Of course, eating Wendy’s chili had its own side effects.
I mean, it’s high in fiber and has a relatively low-calorie count, right? It can’t be too bad. But that’s what a junkie keeps saying as they slowly kill themselves with drugs and alcohol. I was never into drugs, and I figured out that I only need alcohol sparingly. My addiction was/is food. Thankfully, you can’t inject a Big Mac into your veins….yet.
I knew my past addiction would get bad. I didn’t want it to get the best of me. I cursed myself when I thought of the bad food. I cursed myself at the thought of doing anything but exercising. When I drifted off to sleep, the thoughts became more vivid. It was like I transported to another world. Like a movie.
I stand near the counter. A man greets me. I am beginning to lick my lips.
MATT (to himself)
God, I’d give anything for some fast food. Maybe fried chicken.
MATT sits down and puts his hands up to his face.
My goddam soul, just a piece of fried chicken.
A little slow tonight, isn’t it?
Yes, it is, Mr. Eng.
What’ll it be?
Now I’m awfully glad you asked me that, Colonel, because I just happen to have two tens and two fives right here in my wallet. I was afraid they were going to be there until next April, wasted on some bland Panera salad. So here’s what: you slip me a bucket of chicken, a side of mashed potatoes. You can do that, can’t you, Colonel? You’re not too busy, are you?
No, sir. I’m not busy at all.
THE COLONEL turns away to buckets of chicken.
THE COLONEL turns with a bucket of chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuit to counter.
You fry them up, and I’ll knock them back, Colonel, one by one.
CUT TO: MATT sitting at the counter. COLONEL puts food down. COLONEL dollops mashed potatoes next to a thigh and wing. Gravy is involved.
Fat man’s burden, Colonel my man. Fat man’s burden.
MATT looks at his wallet then at THE COLONEL.
Say, Colonel, it seems I’m temporarily light. Is this a combo? Can I use a coupon?
How’s my credit in this joint anyway?
CUT TO: COLONEL
Your credit’s fine, Mr. Eng. No coupon required.
CUT TO: MATT
That’s swell. I like you, Colonel. I always liked you. You were always the best of the chain fast food joints. Best goddamned fast food fried chicken from Timbuctoo to Portland Maine – Portland Oregon for that matter.
Thank you for saying so.
MATT looks at his tub of fried chicken.
Here’s to five miserable weeks on the salad wagon and all the good it’s caused me.
He bites into the chicken and lowers his hand – then looks at the Colonel. It has taken over now. No turning back.
So it wasn’t completely like that, but you get my point right? I think like anybody that is addicted to something; the addiction will always be there. I just have to find ways to control it, keep exercising and keep my eyes on the prize.
I am going to get healthy. Not for myself. Not even for my Angela. It’s all for Zelda.
As it turns out, I have already had an injury related to my exercising: something my dad (the doctor) calls a Pes Anserine Bursitis. Basically, my left knee is messed up quite a bit. So for now, I’ll just hobble around like this. No axe required.
PART I: All Food and No Exercise Makes Matt a Fat Boy
Jack Torrance: Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here.
Delbert Grady: I’m sorry to differ with you sir, but you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know sir. I’ve always been here.
So. Where did I leave off last?
I know that most of my posts here on this blog sound like I am complaining. For more info, see Exhibit A and Exhibit B. Most of those dad issues and dad problems were my personal struggle with handing having a kid. I thought the feeling was getting better. It did, but silently, I was getting worse in other ways.
As it turns out, I was handling the stress of being a new dad and a busy summer work schedule with bad food and beer. I sought my personal release in the opening and subsequently emptying bag after bag of chips. I drank cup after cup of coffee. If I could sit on the couch, I would without a thought. I took my Fitbit off months ago because I was tired of seeing myself only get 2,500 steps a day. Among other things, that completed my holy trinity of bad living: stress, bad eating, and no exercise.
I remember coming home after a particularly rough day at work in late August. We were up most of the night with Zelda, and I was jonesing for some coffee. I must have had 8-10 cups of coffee that day. Zero water. I came home with a bag of McDonald’s in hand and ate it all within five minutes. I had a diet coke, which meant it was about 2:00 pm without a single drop of water that wasn’t either steeped with Arabica or doused in caramel coloring and aspartame. Around four that afternoon, I was getting ready to pick Angela up at the metro when I began to feel funny. I was flush and pale. My stomach ached. Could it have been the McDonald’s? My muscles tensed, and I could feel the chunks rise to release. After throwing up a few times, I tried downing as much water as I could in the 20 minutes I had before Angela would be waiting for me at the King Street station in Alexandria.
Unfortunately, all that did was make me throw up more. I had felt dehydrated before, but this time was terrible. The worst part was that I didn’t learn from my lesson. After I had got over it after a night of eating a half cup of soup and drinking 3-4 Gatorades, I was back to my holy trinity of bad living. Bring on the stress, the McDoubles, and the Malibu pipeline of couch surfing (As a bonus, I can say that I am all caught up on several shows, including watching the entire Game of Thrones series in just under a week and a half).
A few weeks later, I began to wake to a tingling sensation in my tips of my fingers and toes. My fingers on my right hand also felt cold. I also felt drained and was peeing all the time, at least more than usual. I also felt dizzy and had trouble concentrating on my vision on several occasions. It was odd, to say the least. I remember the conversation I had in bed with Angela as we sipped our morning coffee and played with Zelda:
Me: Hey Ang, I am feeling super weird. My body’s extremities are on pins and needles, and my right hand feels cold. Plus all this other stuff is getting to me with my body. Super odd.
Angela: That is very weird. Do you need to go to the doctor?
Me: No. I don’t think so.
Angela: Okay. But whatever you do, don’t look up your symptoms online.
The first thing I did was look up my symptoms online. Based on the symptoms I had, WebMD told me I had one of the following:
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Type 2 Diabetes
I didn’t think it was carpal tunnel syndrome and having multiple sclerosis seemed way too far-fetched. But diabetes? That one seemed plausible. Everything began to add up: the stress, the bad eating, the lack of exercise. All of it had taken a toll on my body.
I immediately began to accept that a. I had diabetes or something worse and b. that I was dying. After that, the paranoia enveloped me. I envisioned Zelda growing up without me. I imagined losing my foot or worse. I imagined being too overweight to play with her. Worst of all, I envisioned two beautiful women staring down at my grave. One was Angela, the other Zelda. Zelda couldn’t have been out of high school yet, but I remember in the dream that I could clearly see them, but they could not see me. It was like a two-way mirror. I pounded my fist against my grave, screaming that I loved them. I woke up that night fully drenched in sweat and panting. When I got to work the next morning, I made the call to a general practitioner for a physical and bloodwork. I had to know. Was I doomed to become Wilfred Brimley shortly before my untimely death?
Enough was enough. I couldn’t handle not knowing what the fuck was going on with me. I couldn’t handle having that dream again. Two days later I had my answers.
First off: I gained over twenty pounds since April. The doctor looked at me skeptical of my belief that I had diabetes. I was half right. Alongside some pre-hypertension, I was prediabetic. “Unless you change your lifestyle drastically,” she said, “you will develop diabetes within a few years…maybe sooner.” She gave me no medicine, but quite a few bitter pills to swallow:
Eat a diet of heart healthy foods
Reduce caffeine consumption
Prediabetic isn’t a death sentence. It’s a wake-up call. I could thankfully pull myself out of that grave and live a bit longer with Zelda and Angela, provided I did something about it. All of my previous attempts to get healthy had failed. Let’s discuss some of my greatest hits:
2003: Attempting to lose weight from the Freshman 15 I gained eating Dhall food at JMU, I tried to run. Everywhere at JMU had hills. It didn’t last long. I chose beer pong instead.
2007: Stress from grad school forced me to cut back on the caffeine. I also attempted to channel some creative energy back into playing music again. Both failed. By the end of the semester, I was pounding 4-5 Red Bulls a day and speedballing Coke Black to keep the edge off.
2009: My roommate and I, realizing we had become a bit pudgy, attempted to eat “nothing but fruit” for a month. We went to the grocery store and bought about $75 worth of fruit. If you don’t know what that looks like, tell a cashier at the bank to give you $75 in ones and spread it out on a table. So much fruit. By the end of the first week, we were both permanently glued to our toilet seats. It took me about a year to eat a banana again. The catch: we both gained weight.
This time would be different. I had something to keep me going: Zelda. I plan to be around for a lot longer, and I want to be there for Zelda every step of the way. The way things were going, I could feel myself getting closer and closer to that horrible dream I once had. I needed to find a way to do all of these things and improve my life.
I checked myself into a “mental Hotel” as fall approached. I was the caretaker of my body. I had a goal to lose 30-40 pounds by the first day of May. Why? Because I had to. For the first time, I wanted to.
So I began to eat better. I choked down salads I didn’t want to eat and counted calories. I downloaded an app for the “couch to 5k” with the intention to begin running. I started running but had to abandon that effort (more on that later).
I would go to the store to pick up food for dinner. I began to see visions as I found myself staring at the junk food aisle. Visions that still haunt me today.
But I couldn’t. This was all for Zelda. A war raged in my mind. I felt myself unraveling like so many times in the past. No. I had to do my best. I had to shine. My determination was the only weapon I had to my innermost thoughts.
Did I ever have a single moment’s thought about my responsibility to Zelda to be healthier? Did I ever think for a single solitary moment about my responsibility to my family?! Did it ever occur to me that I have agreed to get in shape by May the 1st of next year? Did it matter to me AT ALL that my family has placed their complete confidence and trust in me, and I have signed an unspoken contract – a contract – in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do I have the slightest idea what moral and ethical principles I would wrestle with along the way DO I? Has it ever occurred to me what would happen to my future if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities Has it ever occurred to me? HAS IT?
All Food and No Exercise Makes Matt a Fat Boy.
All Food and NoExercise Makes Matt a Fat Boy.
All Food and No Exercisr Makes Matta Fat Boi.
All Food and No Exercise Makes Matt a Fat Boy.
All Food and No Exercise Makes Matt a Fat Boy.
AllFood and Noexercise Makes Matt a Fat Boy.
I don’t have a lot of hobbies that I still keep up with. If I did have to say I have one, it would be watching movies. For a young man eager to understand and wide-eyed about the world, they are a visual window into a thousand worlds, both real and imaginary. That principle is true for films about fathers as well. As a lifelong lover of film, I’ve always picked up different character traits and “dad-to-be” pointers over the years in a never-ending search to figure out what it would be like to be a father…without having to be a father. What better way to think about a fantasy life than in an endless stream of make believe? Just like other teen movies, college films, or romantic comedies, the reality was far different than the fantasy world immortalized on the silver screen. Then reality hits. Just like other teen movies, films about college, or sappy rom coms, the reality of life as a father is far different than the fantasy world immortalized on the silver screen.
Which dad would I be? The cheap and uptight kind like Steve Martin in Father of the Bride? Ed O’Neill’s loveable buffoon character in Dutch? The proud yet tortured soul embodied by Harry Dean Stanton’s character in Pretty in Pink? Or (hopefully) not the John Ritter full-on sad bastard of Problem Child.
Some may look at To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch as the quintessential father figure from film. That is wrong. In my humble opinion, the greatest dad in film history is Clark Griswold. Why? Among many other humorous reasons, he reminds me the most of my own dad.
My dad is in interesting guy. It wouldn’t be fair if I compared him to JUST Clark Griswold. That’s not quite his style. Sure, he loves vacations and had the potential to go overboard in “dad mode” on several occasions growing up. It’s not enough. It’s more complex.
If I had to put my finger on it, I would say that he is the perfect mix of Clark Griswold and Confucius. He is a dad who has always given me little pearls of wisdom throughout my life. They were never exactly worth of the Dialects, but nonetheless important. These lessons, at first dismissed as mumbo jumbo by yours truly, have become the guiding principles for my life and, subsequently, fatherhood. I didn’t appreciate them before, but I sure as hell do now. I use them every day in my attempt to be half as good a father to Zelda as dad was to me.
Like Griswold, dad always found a way to tell me these important life lessons while on vacation. So in honor of those long road trips and the myriad advice he gave to me from the driver’s seat, here are the top five life lessons my dad, AKA “The Confucian Griswold,” has taught me over the years about life and fatherhood.
Follow Directions – I think there are always occasions to go by the book, and other times to deviate from the prescribed path. Most of the time in my life, however, I should have listened to my father and followed directions. I can remember him saying it over and over to me as I cried over Geometry homework. How many times did I fail at something when I should have just read the manual first? TOO MANY. Now, he gives me step by step instructions on what to do with Zelda if she is showing signs of sickness. Every time I screw something up as a dad, I think about my own father and his words of wisdom.
I recently found out the hard way that following directions will be an important trait to pass down. When we were preparing Zelda’s nursery in the late fall of last year, I figured I could put together simple Target shelves together. You know which ones I am talking about. I’m sure you’ve owned some at some point in your life. Anyways, I felt that I was already a pro because of all the IKEA furniture I put together, so I left the instructions in the box when it came time to putting the Target shelves together for Zelda’s baby books. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I ended up putting the shelves together correctly…just backwards. I wish you could have seen the look on my face when I told Angela with glee that I was done, only to find that I had it wrong and needed to take it apart completely. Apparently it was priceless, but you’ll (hopefully) never get to see it again. That was too rough for words.
Take pictures of Everything – My dad’s vacation outfit is pretty much the same: khaki shorts or pants, collared shirt, and brown Sperry’s. This is hilarious, because I am starting to look like this all the time:
The only thing missing from that outfit that fits my dad to a “T” is his camera. He takes his camera everywhere. Lord help us if he missed out on a photo opportunity growing up. Of course, we have it much easier today with cellular phone cameras. My dad was hardcore: camera bag, 18 rolls of film, and an itchy trigger finger. But it is nonetheless an important lesson: always be ready to capture a moment that will last a lifetime. My dad taught me that no opportunity is too small for a photo. He has proof. Lots of it.
Every time we come home to visit my parents, one of the first things I always do is look through my dad’s countless photo albums. He has kept a meticulous record of our family from before my sister was born up to their grandchildren. In all, I would say my dad has 60 or 70 of them. My dad always said that if the house was on fire, the first thing he would go for would be his photo albums. As he once told me, “they are the legacy of our family. They are more priceless than gold.”
Of course, this brings up another Father’s Day project for dad: digitization. But having physical print is so “dad” that I can’t fault him for it. For now, you do you.
Keep a Diary – My dad has written in a diary every day for the last two decades. Although I was never allowed to read it, I would sometimes sit in his study and watch him write. For him, it is a way to keep a written record of his life. In some cases, this blog was meant to be a poor excuse for a diary; a digital catharsis. That might be the case if I kept up with it. I’ll work on that.
I would like to keep a diary, like the photographs, as a record of my own memories and personal experiences with me and my family. I hope I can pass that down to Zelda one day.
Make Traditions, Even if They Are Stupid or Embarrassing – As a Kid, my dad loved to embarrass me. The more embarrassing, the better. They came in all forms, shapes, and sizes. The most common were of course staged photographs:
“HEY MATT, GO STAND BY THAT MIME. HE WON’T TOUCH YOU.” (He did)
“HEY MATT, GO STAND THERE NEED THAT MAN AT THE NUDE BEACH. IT’S HILARIOUS.” (I did, and it was, because he had old gross balls and was listen to a Bob Marley cover band from the sand. Those balls haunt me to this day, and I still can’t hear “Stir it Up” without thinking of floppy testicles.)
Like Clark Griswold, his embarrassments were (and remain) endearing. I think that’s a safe way of saying that it’s always better in hindsight. It’s funny how much I thought it affected me back then, because I find that it’s pretty much all I talk about now.
I can’t wait to embarrass the shit out of Zelda. In some cases, I already am:
Along those lines, one of the traditions of my family did growing up that I have extended to my family is developing a distinct language. For instance, “stank” might need something smelly to you, but to the Eng family, it means to “be mad at.” An “Eng’s Mix” means nothing to you, but if I told my mom and dad I wanted one, they’d make me an orange juice with ginger ale. Angela and I have developed a distinct language of our own in the few months since Zelda has been born. Here is your vocabulary lesson:
“wipes and dipes” – “You need to change Zelda’s diaper.
“C.W.A.N.” – Cold water at night (aka bringing a glass of water to bed).
“Jamz” – Poop.
“bobo” – Fake, not the real thing (as in using a chicken patty for chicken parmesan, AKA “bobo parmesan).
Don’t get me started on my nicknames I’ve come up with for Zelda: Z-Gram, La, Le, Z Baby, World War Z, Plump, Tubbo, Mini me, etc. to name a few.
Family is Everything – The last one is the most important. It is the guiding principle from my dad that I will never forget. No explanation necessary:
Above all else, family is everything. Work hard, but love your family harder. Nothing else matters.