I don’t quite expect the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. As I step into Mr. Song’s apartment, the familiar sounds from my childhood floats through the air and surprises me. In front of the television I see Huan, his eyes fixed, a quiet smile on his face. I crane my neck for a better view of the rabbiteared television’s screen. Even though it’s a different show than from what I remember as a child—different actors, different villains—all the important elements, such as the matching uniforms and over-choreographed stunts, are still alive and well.
All the important elements, such as the matching uniforms and over-choreographed stunts, are still alive and well.
My dad and Mr. Song, Huan’s dad, chat in Cantonese by the door. They put on their coats with a practiced precision that suggests they have been doing this routine together for years, even though this is the first time we have ever been in their apartment. While they dress, dad translates Mr. Song’s Cantonese into English for me, standard instructions for the babysitter: Huan speaks Cantonese, but his English is very good, I’m sure you’ll have no problem understanding him. Why don’t you go and talk to him? Oh, wait. This part’s important. Mr. Song points to a list of numbers pinned to the face of the refrigerator. My cell phone number is here. Emergency numbers. Here is the neighbors’ number. They speak a little English. If you have any questions, call. Okay? With that, Mr. Song then waves Huan over to the door. They exchange a few words and then hug tightly. After they part, Huan makes a beeline back to the television, to sit in the same spot as before.
My dad nods at me and says, “Have fun Jason,” and they are gone in less than fifteen minutes from when we first entered their apartment. As their heavy footsteps disappear down the stairwell, I glance again at Huan, who is somehow still oblivious to my presence, his eyes locked on the dancing screen. I’m not thrilled with the idea of babysitting, and at seventeen, I could probably find a less embarrassing job. But I could never find one that pays as well for so little time spent.
I check out the rest of the apartment. Huan’s bedroom is messy. On the floor and across the desk are piles of shirts, underwear, and socks. The walls are lined with dozens of posters, nearly all of them comic book superheroes. There is one Power Rangers poster pasted in the far corner of the room, featuring all five Rangers standing with their right hands fisted and raised into the air.
In the corner of the room, sitting on top of the headboard, a neatly arranged framed photo and tiny cup catches my eye. Carefully avoiding the piles of unwashed clothing, I make my way towards the bed, and as I edge closer, the items come into focus: a photo of a young woman dressed in red and a tiny cup filled with sand and several spent sticks of incense. I recognize it, something I can now vaguely recall in my handful of trips to Hong Kong as a kid; a Buddhist shrine honoring the dead. I lean in closer. At the foot of the cup is a ring of ash, circling it like a dark halo. In the picture, against a pearl background, the woman sits on a stool in a red sleeveless blouse with her hands on her lap. She has almond-shaped eyes and smiles with pursed lips, balled cheeks.
I recognize it, something I can now vaguely recall in my handful of trips to Hong Kong as a kid; a Buddhist shrine honoring the dead.
We don’t have a shrine like that for my mom at home. Before she died, she requested an American funeral with a wake and burial, not a cremation. Dad, as he often did, initially protested but eventually relented. And so, in our house, instead of dimly lit incense adorned shrines, there are pictures of the three of us, bright and cheery. On the living room mantle is a framed picture of mom’s own choosing before she died: a day at the beach one summer, with mom in a blue sundress, dad in a white tank top, and me in wrinkled shorts. Under the brightly burning sun we smile, all teeth and sunglasses, with pastoral cuts of sea and sky at our backs. It was what she wanted to present to those who came into our home: a happy, healthy, all-American family.
I ask Huan what he wants for dinner from the kitchen, which is small and poorly lit. The sink is filled with half empty pots and pans, each of which holds rainbowed pools of grease and water. I open the cabinets and find a couple of clean bowls, two spoons, a fork, and a plate.
“Ramen,” he says. “It’s in the pantry.” The first words I hear from him today.
The pantry is filled with plastic-wrapped items adorned with Chinese characters, none of which I can understand. I choose the packaging that looks most like the Maruchan Ramen I’ve had for dinner on occasion, but when I open them, they’re unrecognizable. They’re paper thin and translucent, fragile to the touch, and the sauce packet is filled with a dark paste, not powder. I put the only clean pot I can find on the stove and dump the noodles and sauce into water.
After five minutes of boiling, the noodles uncurl, the water darkens with brown speckles. I pour one bowl and then call Huan into the kitchen to eat. He eventually appears, bleary-eyed and curious, as if suddenly aware that his father had left him with a complete stranger. He seats himself at the table and I lean against the refrigerator.
“Thanks,” he says. He pauses. “You don’t want any?”
“I’m not hungry,” I say.
He frowns. “This is weird.”
“What do you mean?”
“Me and dad usually eat together.”
I laugh and shrug. “Don’t worry. We do it all the time at our place. It’s no big deal.”
His nod is curt and his face is already in the mouth of bowl, his voice replaced with an enthusiastic slurping. He doesn’t complain about the food, doesn’t even look up, and swallows the whole thing in fifteen minutes.
Two years ago, when mom died, I half expected dad to go back to Hong Kong for good and to take me with him, back to a country I’ve only visited a handful of times in my entire life. In my more delirious moments, I fantasized that it would be just him on the plane. He’d appear in the doorway of my room one night, a squat green rectangle of luggage behind him, and tell me his flight back home was scheduled early next morning. And that’d be it. No questions, no answers. Gone. He’d finally get what he’d always wanted and I’d be free.
In my more delirious moments, I fantasized that it would be just him on the plane.
That, of course, didn’t happen. When mom finally went one Tuesday night, what followed was nothing, really, less than nothing. Dad went into the bedroom and came out ashen, as if he’d seen a ghost. And though he didn’t say a thing, I knew what had happened the moment I saw his face. I was sitting at the dining room table at the time and when he looked at me I noticed his eyes were dark and moist in a way I had only seen once before—when he learned over the phone that his father, my grandfather, had passed away in Hong Kong. Standing there, he paused for the smallest of moments before walking into the living room where he sat in the recliner and buried his head in his hands. I often wondered what was going through his mind back then. Grief, surely. But was there anger? Loneliness? Did he rage inside or was he frightened? I couldn’t tell at the time. In his inaction, all I could see was cowardice. In his silence, all I could hear was weakness. He avoided the comforting word or consoling touch, and instead chose to let me discover for myself what I already knew.
For the longest time, I didn’t do anything. I, like my father, merely sat at the dining room table and stared at my open textbook, my homework. Calculus. Finally, I pushed my chair away from the table. I laid my pencil down next to my notebook. I stood up. I pushed the heavy chair back underneath the table. Then I made my way upstairs to the bedroom, alone.
In the car, I glance at my father as I fiddle with the radio dials. He drives with his hands set at ten and two, the setting sun casting long shadows across the dashboard.
“Did you have any problems?” he says.
“With Huan? Please.” The speakers fuzz in and out as I turn the dials.
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s just say the kid would pee his pants if the Power Rangers ever came into town.”
“The Power Rangers?”
“It’s that TV show, remember? The one I used to watch all the time when I was little.” I pause and look at my father. His brow is furrowed and he nods intently, as if deep in thought. “It’s a TV show about superheroes who fight space monsters and robots. There’s five of them and they all have matching uniforms in different colors.”
Green Day coming in tinny through the speakers. I can barely hear it above the undercarriage of our minivan, which makes a steady whirring noise on the highway. When we speed up, the noise turns into a whine, and when we slow down, it dissolves into the distance.
After a while he says, “It sounds strange.”
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s all very childish.”
I lean back from my hunched position over the radio, feeling the soft plush of the chair against my shoulders and head. Outside, the sunlight fades from the sky, and the lamps framing the road begin to glow like candle wicks.
“Can you watch Huan again Wednesday night?”
I run my hand across the dashboard, feeling the leathery material with its bumps and wrinkles raised against my palm. I search for the burnt out spot on the far right side of the dashboard, which is almost hidden, tucked away next to the passenger window. The pocket of space where mom would drop her cigarettes when the wind from her open window blew too hard, where the ash collected and burned.
The pocket of space where mom would drop her cigarettes when the wind from her open window blew too hard, where the ash collected and burned.
Sitting here, I can’t help but to think of myself as a different her. Different gender, different age, different clothes, different hair. But at the same time, exactly alike. Sitting in the same seat, on the same highway, being asked the same questions. I look out the window. Now we are suspended high, driving across an overpass, and for a moment I can see everything past the thicket of trees which line the highway: a row of stores and a parking lot filled with cars. They glitter brightly. I tell my dad yes.
When we arrive to their apartment on Wednesday night, Mr. Song greets my dad with a bear hug while jabbering in Cantonese. I recognize one phrase in his rapid-fire litany of words—Mingzi, my father’s Chinese name—which comes and goes like a flash of light. Unlike the first time two nights ago, Mr. Song is relaxed and boisterous, the barrier of unfamiliarity with his friend’s son lifted from just one visit. He slaps dad on the shoulders as if they are long lost pals. In actuality they’ve only known each other for weeks, a month at the most. When I had asked where they met, my dad mumbled something about stopping at a bar one day after work and would not elaborate any more.
This time I bring my backpack, which holds my homework and a DVD rented from the library. It’s the very first Power Rangers movie titled, uncreatively, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. I place my backpack on the floor and follow dad and Mr. Song into the kitchen. They have already spent at least twice as much time in the apartment as they had on Monday. Mr. Song pauses for a second and ruffles my hair, as if I were a child, before continuing in Cantonese. Hearing the both of them use the language is like recalling a forgotten memory. Distant and strange, yet vaguely familiar. Growing up, mom had banned the use of any language but English in the house in an attempt to ensure our complete assimilation. Yet despite her best efforts, I still overheard my fair share of Cantonese, mostly from dad talking on the phone to relatives or conversation with the rare friend from Hong Kong. I came to know the language as a distant acquaintance, something I could distinguish from Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin, but not understand in any capacity.
Mr. Song stops in mid-stride on his way to the refrigerator and cracks a joke. He begins to mime wildly, his palms perpendicular to his face, spaced apart about twelve inches, as if he were holding an invisible shoebox. He shakes the box and his voice lilts in question, then spikes in exclamation, and my father, a faint smile playing on his lips during the joke, suddenly breaks out into laughter. Something I haven’t heard in a long while. My father closes his eyes and his shoulders shake. His voice rings through the apartment, high and light and full of life.
My mom and dad used to argue unlike any couple I had ever known. When they got mad, instead of getting louder, their voices shrank until they were hushed and quiet and almost whispering. I could always tell when they were in the middle of a bad fight whenever the house became abnormally still.
When they got mad, instead of getting louder, their voices shrank until they were hushed and quiet and almost whispering. I could always tell when they were in the middle of a bad fight whenever the house became abnormally still.
Because they spoke so softly when arguing, eavesdropping without alerting their ears to a squeaking floorboard or groaning doorframe required a fair amount of creativity. When they retreated to the basement, I knelt on the carpet and placed my ear against the floor vent in the den. When they moved to the master bedroom, I went into the guest bedroom, both of which shared a single wall, armed with a glass for listening. Most often though, they argued in the kitchen. It was located in the center of the house, from which you could see clear through nearly every room on the first floor. In those cases, I sat at the foot of the stairs and cocked my head at a slight angle, bringing my left ear close to the wall. From there, in that posture, I could hear everything, as if I were sitting between them, mom and dad both whispering into each ear. Their voices came in tight and restrained. They argued, as they often did, about going back to Hong Kong.
“No,” said my mom. “It’s not reasonable.”
“I want you to think about it.”
“We have a life here.”
“Just think about it.”
“Steven.” Her voice grew hard, as hard as it possibly could without rising above a whisper. There was a pause, then the crisp sound of my mother brushing several items from the cutting board with a single hand.
“I hate that word,” said my father.
“What? Your name?”
“I already have a name. We already have names, what is wrong with them?” I could imagine my father shifting in his chair, his hands wrapped around a mug of tea.
“That is exactly my point. We already have a life here. New ones. Your son has a life here.”
“What do we have that we could not get in Hong Kong?”
There was another lengthy pause, a press of silence that hung in the air.
“You ask us to leave our lives, our whole lives for what you want. My job, your job, our friends, Jason’s school and friends,” she said.
“Yes, all that, but no family. We have no family here.”
“We are family,” she said. “We are all the family we need.”
Halfway through the Power Rangers movie, during one of the scenes where all the Rangers are dressed in civilian clothing and not jumping around kicking alien ass, Huan declares, “These characters are all different.” An exclamation of surprise, as if realizing something for the first time, even though we are already thirty minutes into the movie.
I pick up the DVD case and scan the back of it. “Well, this was made in 1995,” I say. “All these actors are in their forties by now. They’ve probably moved on to bigger and better things. You know, like starring in soap operas or managing their own car dealership.”
“Well, this was made in 1995,” I say. “All these actors are in their forties by now. They’ve probably moved on to bigger and better things. You know, like starring in soap operas or managing their own car dealership.”
“The show you love has been on the air for over twenty years. It’s older than you are. I mean, I used to watch this show when I was your age. That’s weird.”
On the screen, the Pink Ranger, out of uniform and dressed in a pink blouse and pink scrunchy, says something dramatically, her arms gesticulating wildly.
I look at Huan. “So kids today still find this stuff cool, huh?”
“They fight and they win. They always win.” He says it with confidence, as if it were law chiseled into stone, and to a certain degree, I suppose it is and always has been. The Power Rangers’ undeniable dominance over all alien invaders.
“You know,” I say, “you should take some martial arts classes or something like that. Put all that Power Ranger knowledge to good use.”
“I’ve tried, but dad won’t let me.”
“He says it’s because he can’t drive me all over the place. But I think it’s because he thinks it’s too dangerous. I think he doesn’t want me to get hurt.
He doesn’t let me do anything.”
“Well. That’s no fun.”
I look at Huan, who lies on end of the couch with one leg splayed over the edge, his head flat against the cushions, as if he were sleeping. After a moment I say, “Huan, can I ask you a question? Is that your mom in the shrine in your room?”
“Can I ask how she died?”
He pauses and what fills the space between us is not uncertainty, but thought. He speaks carefully, as if wanting to get every detail right.
“Well, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember her very well. I was only two when she died. Dad says that she had an asthma attack while at work. A bad one. He says that by the time the paramedics arrived, she was gone.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
He shrugs. “It’s okay.”
“Did you guys give her a Buddhist funeral?”
“Dad says we did. He says that even though there weren’t many people there, it was beautiful. Everyone was dressed in white, even me, and we burned gold paper for mom in heaven. Then we burned her body so that her soul could be set free.”
I nod. A final question eats at me, something that Huan cannot possibly know. Why are they still here? Why didn’t they go back to Hong Kong? I turn and look outside the window to my right. They are alone in the States and have been for nearly a decade. But do they understand how alone? A father whose English is so poor, he must rely on others—his son, my father—to play translator. A child who cares for nothing but superheroes, monsters, and robots. Together they survive, but just barely. All it will take is one slip, one falter, the one thing that will loosen what holds them together and drive them apart.
I go into the kitchen and make dinner. Ramen again. After the movie, he eats and after dinner, he goes back into the living room to watch more television. With little to do but waste time before dad and Mr. Song come back, I wander the apartment and check the rooms I haven’t seen yet. There’s the bathroom, which is cramped and has a small framed painting of a picturesque pasture hung on the wall. There’s the second pantry, which is packed with towels, tissues, and unopened boxes. Eventually, I walk into Mr. Song’s room and survey the area. A bed with the sheets unmade, a little end table with one lamp, and a nightstand. On the nightstand is another shrine with the same picture of Huan’s mother, the same mismatched cup filled with sand and spent incense.
If both our mothers were alive today, would they have gotten along? What kind of kind of double-dating couple would Huan’s parents and my parents have been? They’d speak Cantonese together, surely. But then, maybe my mom wouldn’t have. Maybe in her assimilation, she’d smile politely, because politeness, after all, was the least she could muster in a social situation, even in one that reminded her of a time and place she no longer wished for. But then, maybe Mr. and Mrs. Song would have been just the kind of people she needed. People who spoke like her, people who would make her feel like she was at home without ever having to leave home. Then maybe she wouldn’t have enforced the “English only” rule in our house and I would know not one, but two languages. Maybe she would’ve let dad give her a Buddhist funeral. Maybe the one picture of her in our living room would not be the three of us at the beach—the one that I can’t recall even taking but a small photo of her smiling gently behind a cup of sand and spent incense.
Because politeness, after all, was the least she could muster in a social situation, even in one that reminded her of a time and place she no longer wished for.
I walk over to the bedroom windows, which gives a perfect view of the alley and peer across the semi-wet corridor. Standing next to the dumpsters are the outlines of two familiar figures. Dad and Mr. Song. Carefully, I slide the bolt holding the window in place out of its frame and then lift the glass as quietly as I can. With the window open, slivers of sounds slide into the bedroom—cars idling on the street, echoed footsteps on concrete, the voices of my father and Mr. Song. It reminds me of all the times I’ve ever eavesdropped on my parents; the precious feeling of accessing a forbidden conversation, conversations that I could not always comprehend, but knew were special nonetheless. I place my ear against the window’s screen and hear my father’s hushed voice bouncing off the narrow walls of the alley. He speaks in Cantonese, but the thrill of eavesdropping is still the same. Safe, from my vantage point two stories above where they stand, I lean against the screen, reaching for a better view.
I see two different arms. One hand holds a lit cigarette and waves it emphatically. I press my cheek more firmly into the screen, feeling the wire mesh imprint rows of tiny squares into my face. What are they saying? Maybe all I need is to see them. Maybe their words, once married with their actions and body language, will unravel the truth of their conversation. Their voices grow soft, the way it did when mom and dad argued, softer and softer still, until I could hear and see almost nothing. One arm disappears from view. I strain against the screen, hearing it tear in protest.
Two shoulders and a neck. Two necks, pressed close. As I lean further, I see the back of someone’s head with a hand running across his shoulders.
The hand snakes up behind the head, grabbing the hair, fistfuls of it, and then the heads are locked together, kissing, faces crushed, grinding, breathing, two desperately wanting to be one.
When they come through the door seven minutes later, I give Huan a little wave goodbye and then, without saying a word to either my dad or Mr. Song, I walk briskly through the open door, forcing my way past their coats, down the stairs, and to the minivan. I wait there, inside the idling vehicle, staring at mom’s cigarette burn on the dashboard, a wrinkled button pressed into the dark grey material. After a few minutes, I see the front door of the apartment complex swing open, my father walking towards the minivan. I do not look at his face.
As he sits down and snaps the belt buckle in place, I can tell he is mad by his heavy silence. He shifts into drive and we move. I run my right index finger over the cigarette burn and it feels like the hide of a komodo dragon, rough and folded. I do not speak. I wait for him to speak and when he finally does, his voice comes out hushed and low.
“What is wrong with you? Where are your manners?” he says. “Mr. Song paid you fifty dollars for three hours of work and you cannot even say ‘thank you’? Or ‘hello’?”
Outside the minivan through the windows, I watch the buildings pass by as we take the onramp to the highway. The street lamps flicker to life against the growing darkness, pools of orange blotting the road at steady twenty feet intervals. We pass trucks to our right. Cars pass us on our left.
“What is wrong with you? Where are your manners?” he says. “Mr. Song paid you fifty dollars for three hours of work and you cannot even say ‘thank you’? Or ‘hello’?”
“You will be lucky if he ever asks you to watch Huan again,” he says.
“Wouldn’t you like that,” I say.
“No. What do you mean by that?”
I think of mom and her cigarettes. How they probably led her to her lung cancer. I think of her sitting in bed in the months leading up to her death. Her little back propped up by stacks and stacks of pillows with the plastic mask that feeds her oxygen sitting on her lap; on demand and always within reach. Their bedroom is a good room, a well-lit room. When the blinds are pulled open, morning light streams across the egg shelled colored walls. Yet despite the brightness there’s an air of fragility that all the sunlight, “Get Well” cards, and flowers cannot dissipate. I can see mom’s sinewy arms, the fat and muscle torn away from the limbs, and her head, which is bone-smooth, covered by a poorly fitted wig, one that makes her face look off-center, always tilted.
In this room I think of their arguments. Their whispers, which were low and careful when she was healthy, are now faint, almost soundless, like gossamer threads. Her voice is nothing. When she speaks, it is only in inhales and exhales and imperceptible flickers of muscles. And yet, they still argue. They argue like mimes, with artful and exaggerated gestures, pacing and waving, crossed arms and dark eyes. By now, though I cannot hear a single word passing between them, I am sure of the content. He wants her to go back to Hong Kong before she gets too ill. He pleads with her. He begs her. Your family, he says, your mom, your dad, your aunts and uncles, your brothers and sisters, your home. She shakes her head. This is my home, she says. This is my family. I want to die here.
In the minivan I sit as still as I possibly can, like a statue made of marble. I stare out the window and watch the dimly lit trees and buildings whip by over and over again, melting in and out of a patchwork of shadows. My throat is dry. I say, “You should go.” Then I feel my voice slip, but only for a moment. Before I speak again I pause, to make sure my words are confident. Steady. I say, “You should just go back to Hong Kong. I’m going to Northwestern next year on scholarship. I can live on my own. There’s no reason for you to stay, you don’t need to babysit me anymore. I don’t need you.”
Again, I touch the burnt spot on the dashboard. It is dark now. Too dark to see anything inside the minivan except for the dim lights illuminating the buttons and dials of the radio, a series of numbers and lines floating in a sea of black. The burnt spot is rough under my finger, the texture of hundreds of tiny pebbles. I rub it over and over again, and find that it brings me comfort.
Eric Tanyavutti was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, and is currently earning his MFA at the University of Illinois for Fiction. He has been previously published in the Potomac Review and the Concho River Review, and has work forthcoming in The Tusculum Review.
About his story: In its earliest drafts, “Shrine” started out as an exploration of the Cantonese dialect, and how language, even amongst family, can serve as a way of disconnecting and isolating individuals. But the more I revised the piece, the more artificial that conceit felt, and I eventually found that “Shrine” allowed for more depth if the characters stood on their own. Once I removed the symbolism, the piece was able to focus more fully on character, and it became a story about immigrants and their tenuous and shifting connections to each other and their country.