Birthday Boy

As the crow flies, it was a stupid idea to include Los Angeles on our round-the-world itinerary. For one thing, we were headed for Down Under. For another, Los Angeles was far from exotic or new to me. If you’re a born and bred Angeleno, there are only so many surprises the Southland can offer.

Birthday boy
Dad, Christmas 2019

But Dad’s birthday was coming up and Christmas, too. I figured it would be another year at least before I could make it back to LA. So I told myself Los Angeles would be an ideal opportunity to regroup. Shed the winter layers we brought for Korea and Japan together with all the souvenirs we had bought along the way. Book our stays for the second half of our trip. Maybe slow down a little.

So we flew from Tokyo to Los Angeles to celebrate Dad’s birthday.

Asian guilt

This is not to say that Frans was happy to be in Los Angeles. He ascribed our stay in the Southland to the guilt of an oldest daughter, as amplified by Asian norms of filial duty. As guilt trips go, mine is a kiddie ride at the carnival. Imagine being a child forced to take on the responsibility of saving your mother and then failing.

Much later, she would tell me the story of this day at those times when it seemed as if her limbs were too heavy to move and she stood staring into the refrigerator for long spells, unable to decide what to make for dinner […] she would tell the story the same way every time, as if ripping out something that had worked its roots deep inside her.

Lauren Groff, “The Wind” in The New Yorker, 1 Feb 2021

My little guilt trip merely induced me to spend as much of my visit as possible inside my parents’ house. We would eat all our meals together. I might drive one or both of them to a doctor’s appointment. Once, I got into the pool with them for water aerobics. While Dad napped and Mom played her computer games, I would execute my secret plan to clear out every closet in the house for the inevitable day they would have to move.

Packing box
Packing boxes

Not on this visit to LA. I had flights and hotels to book, visas to acquire, an itinerary crying out for completion for the last 3 months of our trip. I had delayed this moment for long enough. In between, there were menus to plan for Dad’s birthday and Christmas.

Once the planning was done, there were boxes to pack and ship, clothes to wash and mend, some items that had to be left behind in Los Angeles for me to fetch the next time I’d be in the US. If I look back at my travel journal for our time in LA, all I can find are to-do lists.

Being present

I had embarked on this round-the-world adventure without any explicit goal in mind. Subconsciously, I am sure I was hoping for the excitement that comes from novelty. More deliberately, I was hoping to learn.

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.

Pico Iyer, “Why We Travel” from Pico Iyer Journeys, 18 Mar 2000

Now, I wish I had spent less time looking ahead to what might come and more time seeing what was right in front of me. My parents, aging, increasingly unable to care for themselves yet too stubborn to countenance any change. My dad, tired, his batteries running out, sleeping all the time but never rested.

We went out for dinner multiple times during our stay. One night, it was the Happy Duck House for a menu of all things duck, except for the bowl of steamed eel on sticky rice that Dad insisted on ordering. For his birthday, we had a banquet of his favorite foods: pork shoulder, mapo tofu, frog’s legs with chestnuts, black cod, soup and long life noodles. He seemed to love it at the time though he said later on that it was lousy. His mood swung like that, from bright to black, depending on how much sleep he had gotten the night before.

Or maybe it was the company he kept. It used to be that Dad would tell me stories, hours at a time, about growing up in Shanghai or his time as a would-be soldier in the Chinese army. On this visit, he conserved his energy until his grandson Nick was at the table for Dad’s birthday dinner. Then Dad launched into a story about his first visit to Japan. He still knew the name of his hotel (Otani), where he ate dinner (Chinese) and how he spent the evening (at a 5-story nightclub with a Chinese-speaking hostess from Taiwan).

Birthday Boy
Last photo of Mom and Dad. Photo credit: Phil Kao

Dad turned 96 during our stop in Los Angeles. If I had been more present at that time, if I had sat next to him in his recliner chair and waited for him to find his words, what would he have told me? It was the last time I saw him alive.

[T]he sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head.

Pico Iyer