Last month I went on a book tour and gave a poetry reading in an art squat in Baltimore with painted murals on the walls and statues of deities whose names I could not place. There were cats everywhere, paintings propped against walls, and a studio where someone was cutting down huge pieces of plywood to make something that I would not stick around to see. It occurred to me very briefly while I was staying there that this was exactly the kind of place my parents feared I would end up when I was a teenager who imagined running away from home and meeting miscreants on the side of the highway not because I loathed my parents or because they didn’t love me enough, but because they loved me too much and suffocated me with their constant barrage of sacrifice that ran concurrent with demands that my dreams align with theirs. I wanted to run away from home because my parents never let me out of the house, except to go to the school and to attend SAT prep school on Saturdays.
When the reading was over, we danced softly on our tippy toes because it was a Monday and the rest of the building was not going to play host to our antics and when the soft dancing was over, I crawled out onto the fire escape to dangle my legs next to a boy who made me want to stretch out every minute and every second we sat next to each other into a blanket that I could carry with me until I grew old.
“I went on an adventure,” I told my parents on the phone when I got back from poetry tour.
“Will you be OK on making rent this month?” my mom asked me in reply.
Last weekend, my parents drove to Brooklyn to help me move into my new apartment. My new bedroom has a window that opens into a fire escape that looks out onto the street. I opened it immediately, delirious from dragging my furniture up three flights of stairs. “I’m sooooo happy,” I yelled out to the stars, sticking my head out to see what was out there.
“You need to be careful,” my dad said, rushing over to hold the window up with his hands.
It is so easy for me to slip back into being the brat I have always been around my father. “Um, how is this not careful?”
“I don’t know, why don’t you ask your friend Diana’s grandmother? She crushed her fingers opening her window one afternoon. The whole thing came crashing down over her hands.”
“So what you are saying is that I should never open this window in case it comes crashing down on my fingers?”
“You never know,” my dad said.
“She broke every finger,” my mom said.
“Wait, really?” I said.
“She can’t open jars anymore,” my mom said, always the accomplice to my father, whose ability to dream up worst-case scenarios is so impressive that I swear he watches 1000 Ways to Die just to confirm that he’s already considered them all.
“Good god,” I said.
Moments earlier, I’d been dreaming about the summertime adventures I fully intended to have, my head sticking out of my new window over my new street, and now all I could think about was the rattling sound my window made when I opened it and how that probably meant there was a loose screw or an unsteady bar that would send the whole thing crashing down, and how am I supposed to go through life never being able to open a jar again when so many of my favorite things (ALL PICKLED FOODS) are stored in jars?
“So what, I can’t ever open my window if I want to have fingers?” I asked my dad.
“You never know. That’s the point. You never know,” my father said. “If you want to take a chance on breaking your own fingers, that’s your choice. I can’t stop you. You’re an adult now. I can’t tell you what to do and what not to do. I can only tell you that Diana’s grandmother broke her fingers opening the window in her apartment. She has the same windows you have. With these old apartments, you can’t guarantee everything is in working order. So if you want to chance it, that’s up to you.”
I imagined looking out the window to say hi to my friends downstairs and the window collapsing onto my back. I imagined climbing out to the fire escape for some air and the whole thing crashing down and breaking my neck. Oh god, I thought, I am doomed. Must mummify this window shut with tape and never breathe in outside air again.
“You never know” has always been my parents’ motto. Growing up, there was so much I could never know and so much they seemed to know. They knew it all: A girl whose parents allowed her to date boys in middle school and a year later she was a pregnant junkie literally found in the gutter, unconscious and bleeding by some cops. A boy whose parents let him take a frivolous trip to Beijing with his cousin before taking the Gao Kao exam, a test in China that every high school student takes in order to place into college, and then missed the cut-off mark for the school he applied to by half a point, which directly resulted in his becoming a raging, eternally broke and embittered alcoholic. Half a point! Not even a full point, but literally half a point destroyed his life, and my parents knew about it and never failed to mention it whenever I brought home a test score that was less than an A+. They knew about a girl who laughed so much that she literally went mute, another who played so many sports that she messed up her body beyond repair, a kid who ran away from home only to come back to shoot his own parents in the head. They knew about the girl who was allowed to stay out as late as she wanted with her friends, and five years later she took her own life when she was just a freshman in college. They knew about every single horrible thing that had ever happened to anyone ever, and in their minds, it all happened because these kids had parents who were too permissive. And by too permissive, I mean these parents allowed their children to do things like GO OUTSIDE.
When I was in elementary school, my parents were so suspicious and fearful of trick-or-treaters that we once spent an entire Halloween with all the lights turned off, crouched behind our couch, ignoring knocks at the door until it was midnight and the neighborhood children were back in their homes, pillowcases stuffed with candy, while my dad lectured me on the sheer stupidity of going out into the dark streets and accepting candy from strangers that undoubtedly contained all kinds of razors and needles that, once consumed, would travel through your bloodstream and pierce your once-beating heart.
“And for what?” he said. I didn’t speak up, but I knew for what—it was for the happy, careless, childish life I wanted so badly to live before it was too late. I spent so many afternoons alone and locked in my house, pressing my face against the drawn curtains of my living room and watching the other kids on my block play soccer, the dark pit in my stomach growing darker whenever someone passed by my house and remarked, “I think this house is haunted. I’ve seriously never seen anyone go in or out.” When my fifth grade teacher assigned us to write an essay on what we loved about winter, the other kids wrote about snowball fights, building snowmen, and the pleasure of lying down on freshly fallen snow to make snow angels. My essay was a few sentences long and it was about how snowy days were exactly the same as not-snowy days because I spent every day in my house, watching TV, doing my homework, eating the snacks my parents left for me, and waiting for them to come home from work so I could eat dinner and have someone to talk to. Once I asked my dad if I could go outside and play in the snow and he asked if I had brain damage. Another time, in middle school, I asked my parents for permission to go to the movies, and my dad said, “Again? Didn’t you go last year?” and when I whined, “But the other kids in my class go every week, sometimes two or three times a week,” my mom replied, “That’s them. You’re not them. You’re you. We’re not those kids’ parents. We’re your parents.”
My parents grew up a few blocks from each other in Shanghai in the 1950s and ’60s. Their entire world was contained within a 10-block radius. They knew all of their neighbors by name. They were children of the Cultural Revolution, a time when schools were shut down and teachers were vilified for purportedly supporting the oppressive bourgeois regime. My dad had friends who chased after their teachers with glass bottles and my mom knew of some neighborhood boys who tied one of their professors to a tree and taunted her until she went mad. When my parents left their apartment building, they couldn’t put one foot in front of another without running into people who had known them since they were babies. They left that world to come to New York, to raise me in a city where a person could go miles without ever running into a familiar face. The rules they grew up knowing had no place in the new country they lived in, and they were fucking terrified. They read horror stories in the Chinese-language newspapers about how American children were growing up to be high school dropouts and teenage moms and druggies. The woman who lived upstairs from us had been mugged at gunpoint two separate times on the way home from the subway. They told me about their first apartment in East Flatbush and how they lived next to a drug house where they saw young girls in belly tops going in and out with zombie-glazed eyes, and when I told them I didn’t get it, they didn’t elaborate, they just told me not to become one of those girls if I knew what was good for me, and of course I didn’t, because how was I supposed to know what was good for me when I lived my entire life indoors? When my only experience of the world was the same five blocks I walked to and from school on the weekdays? When my knowledge of what went on out there was from inside my parents’ car when they took me along to the grocery store, and from inside my house where I spent every afternoon, peering out from behind my living room window to spy on the kids in my neighborhood who rollerbladed when the weather was nice, and I had to wonder, were they all rollerblading their way to certain death, or was it possible that the world was not as horrifying as my parents had made it out to be?
“We know what’s best for you” is the party line that all strict parents repeat. When I got to high school, I met kids whose parents didn’t care what they did, and it hurt them in a way I could not even begin to appreciate. I, on the other hand, was dying for my parents to stop caring so much. I didn’t know how to fight them, because every prohibition was always “for [my] own good.” I wanted the right to call them monsters when they wouldn’t let me go to my friend’s house after school, but they weren’t. My dad worked 60 hours a week and took night classes in computer science so he could get a better-paying job to save up for my college fund. When we were too broke to afford meat, they bought it for me anyway and watched me eat and waited until I was done to suck on the bones I left behind. Instead of buying himself new shoes, my dad bought me cowboy boots I didn’t need but coveted because they had little bells attached at the heel that jangled when I walked, which meant my dad had to continue wearing his dress shoes with holes in the soles and one icy winter night, he came home shaking uncontrollably from the cold. How was I supposed to hate my parents when they insisted on constantly sacrificing for me? And how was I supposed to be happy when the life they wanted for me, the life they were constantly sacrificing to make happen for me, was not one I wanted at all?