Remember When Your Dad Embarrassed You?

I don't generally address very young women on this site, preferring I suppose to assume that my readership shares the same broad demographic of beaten-down ambivalently suspended adolescent reflexive self-deprecators as myself, but a story about Malia Obama feeling embarrassed by the way her dad likes to greet her fellow ten-year-olds with a firm handshake struck a nerve. My dad totally did that too! So younger readers, if you are here, take note: you're not alone if your dad embarrasses you, in fact, you are so goddamn lucky, which is good to remember when terrible things happen to you. My father used to embarrass me relentlessly, and to be quite honest, at the time the discovery that everyone else's fathers embarrassed them only made this worse. Other people had the luxury of being embarrassed by dads who played the Beach Boys when they drove carpool and maybe yelled antiquated cheers at their soccer matches.

My father played The Messiah in carpool. He called me my Chinese nickname, "Ting Ting," long past my eighth birthday. He used the proper tones when he did so: Ting Ting, because he was a pronunciation dogmatist: Solzhenitsyn, Saint Augustine, the Vaymar Republic. When dinner was ready — and we ate dinner every night together as a family, with candles, and grace, and sometimes the Messiah, although my mom would usually get sick of it and request Vivaldi or Bach and occasionally I could convince him to play something altogether radical, such as the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, which was a handy gateway to Miles Davis's 'Sketches of Spain' — he would summon my siblings and I with a baritone, "Chilldren! Dinner is on the table." He wore almost exclusively bow ties. Sometimes in tandem with suspenders that stretched over what was not even a customary dad beer gut but something somehow less cool.

I've never asked where my father ripped off the pompous Victorian patriarch persona. The other night we watched a DVD of one of his favorite old BBC shows Yes, Minister and I thought he maybe learned it from that. But my father is so uncool I doubt he would feel shame owning up to it if he ripped the act off Henry Higgins. He was so uncool he unabashedly loved musicals. Musicals as cheesy as South Pacific…so uncool he didn't even realize that was gay. In my father's favorite knock-knock joke, he announces it is Sam and Janet, which is to say, SamandJanet Evening, ha ha ha EYEROLL.

In early adolescence I blamed my dad and my mother's tolerance of - affection for, even! — his ridiculous personality for the fact I was genetically uncool. That is how uncool I was. I cannot overstate it. I must have been sixteen before it dawned on me that his near-ideological indifference to popular opinion was actually the coolest fucking thing to which I could ever be exposed. I imagine he got it from his mom, the day after whose birthday her first of seven children was born; she always was a kind of headstrong reactionary — both Tauruses, btw — but the cool thing is that, like with Barack Obama, he took the things he enjoyed and respected about his parents (and there were a few things they could have pulled off a lot better) and improved upon them. Namely: Catholicism and patriotism. (This is super Noonan of me, I know, but indulge?)

My grandfather came over in a ship from Turzovka, Czechoslovakia at the age of eleven or fourteen or something. I do not know much about the logistics of the voyage, only that it involved mediocre spaghetti and a pledge to himself never to look back. He told everyone to pronounce his surname "Tass-ick." He made it to West Point, married my grandmother, enlisted in the Army and proceeded to subject what would eventually be a nine-member family to the transient lifestyle Army brats are made of.

My dad could never join the Army on account of asthma, which was a good fucking thing. He joined the foreign service instead, where his language aptitude scores landed him in China training, and it was as a kid in China where it first was impressed upon me why, other than the whole "reactionary" thing, he'd stayed Catholic. There were no churches in China — well there was one Cantonese mass at the crack of dawn but his belief in trans-substantiation was not so ironclad that he did not feel we were better-served learning the Bible's important messages from his layman self. So every other Sunday for a few years of my life we'd sit around and talk the Testaments. I forgot most of it. But roughly the takeaway was: Love God above all things, love your neighbor as you love yourself, help Samaritans because they are people too, never cast stones and don't deny knowing the guy they're casting stones at, forgive your prodigal sons, ETC. ETC.

They are simple lessons, sure. But to impress such lessons onto someone as forgetful and intellectual lazy and impatient and generally badly-behaved as me, he must have infused them with a sort of deep emotion, because I cannot write or even talk about this without starting to cry. I can only tell you this: one night after his return a business trip to Guilin or Xiamen or somewhere I heard him crying in the living room as he told my mom a story. I caught only the end, about a beggar child who'd asked him for money — pretty common in third-tier cities that saw, at most, a couple hundred white guys a year — but the thing was, his arm was badly burned and blistering. Then he saw the child's mother, and deduced she had burned him herself, in hopes he'd elicit more sympathy that way.

The real tragedy was that my father had within his heart enough sympathy for the whole fucking country; of course he did, and we did too now that he'd moved us out there and shown us how that other billion or so got to live. (Very close together, sans A/C or much in the way of modern plumbing.) But surely this beggar lady was not accustomed to people like my father; he could imagine the past few decades of only-then-just-gradually-receding totalitarian rule had beaten her down, infected her with that contagious distrust for her fellow man that eventually begets the all-out societal disregard for human life that yields things like war and racism and the rational burning of one's own child.

So I do not tell you all this because I worry my father does not have within his heart the sympathy to forgive his prodigal, slutty, sinful, coarse-mouthed daughter's innumerable sins. I only tell you this so that you might begin to see me as a little bit more of a person, and understand that my only real interests lie in the pursuit of truth. (Okay, that and beer and telling jokes, but like, see, that's just me trying to keep me/you coming back every day for more Truth and celebrity photos.)The truth is complex, and I believe it is in accepting that complexity that we learn to put down our stones and empathize with one another as fellow humans.

Which is to say, please accept as part of the picture of the identity behind these posts that I have been handicapped since birth by the privilege of a highly eccentric, independent-minded, selfless (and while we're at it: uxorious pronounced uh-xorious) father. Who exposed me firsthand to the Beatles and Jesus and the failure of communism and Tang Dynasty poetry but never, among other things, the violence and misogyny and inhumanity to woman so often associated with his gender and the institutions (the country, church etc.) it founded. Perhaps, because of this, my feminism comes from a different perspective from yours. But I'll respect where you're coming from so long and hope that you can do the same.

(I should point out here that this dad in question is a big Republican. I'm sure this was one of those things that embarrassed me at some point, but it wasn't until I got over that and started truly trying to apply the honesty and sincerity and idealism my parents both tried to instill in me that I became the socialist heathen who does her part to make family gatherings so fun much fun these days.)

My father still calls us "children," but the truth is he never really tried to see us as anything less than future grownups, which I think is why the handshake thing got to me. Five years from now, see, Malia will realize how cool it was that her dad greeted ten year olds with a firm handshake, since what a firm handshake really says to a ten-year-old is one day, kid, you'll be an adult, and this is what adults do, they shake hands and bump fists and touch miscellaneous other body parts to a lot of people, and hopefully they're not carrying viruses or guns or whatever, but in the end you've got an immune system and a brain and passing a few germs back and forth in good faith is just a way to acknowledge that you're in the presence of another person, and sometimes that person, for whatever reason, is going to take the opportunity to hurt you, but as our fathers would probably quote their favorite cinematic hero Lawrence of Arabia as saying, the trick is not minding that part so much.

Maybe they're just still caught up trying to look cool. We've all been there.

Malia Finds Her Father "Embarrassing" [Sydney Morning Herald]

Obama's Picks? "Godfather," "Lawrence" [Chicago Sun-Times]