When Vee Crawford-Wong’s history teacher assigns an essay on his family history, Vee knows he’s in trouble. His parents—Chinese-born dad and Texas-bred Mom—are mysteriously and stubbornly close-lipped about his ancestors. So, he makes it all up and turns in the assignment. And then everything falls apart.
After a fistfight, getting cut from the basketball team, offending his best friend, and watching his grades plummet, one thing becomes abundantly clear to Vee: No one understands him! If only he knew where he came from… So Vee does what anyone in his situation would do: He forges a letter from his grandparents in China, asking his father to bring their grandson to visit. Astonishingly, Vee’s father agrees. But in the land of his ancestors, Vee learns that the answers he seeks are closer to home then he could have ever imagined.
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The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong
Dad was like China, full of sad irony and ancient secrets. These were the words he used to describe the country he abandoned, and they were full of philosophy and poetry, like him, and I didn’t understand them at all. I knew he grew up in a little village along the Yangtze, and I knew he left to become a freethinking American, and I knew he’d never been back and he’d never take me, but everything else I had to imagine. Which usually wasn’t a problem, because I had a crazy imagination, but now it was a problem. Now I needed to know more, which was a big, big problem.
When I imagined Dad in China, I always saw the same thing: a hut, like ones I’d seen in National Geographic, perched on a muddy bank and about to tumble into the insistent current; and Dad as a raggedy, rascally teenager—in many ways just like me, the same slants and bulges, the same horrible sense of humor, the same awkward eagerness and lack of social skills. I always figured social awkwardness was a Chinese curse. I watched Dad putter around the edges of a social circle, never telling the right jokes at the right time, and using the wrong words and pausing in the wrong places.
Because of Dad my upper lip sagged a little and looked swollen, like I’d just been punched in the mouth. My teeth lined up too neatly. They were too small and flat for my mouth. Even though I played basketball, my shoulders sloped unathletically. I also had freckles. On my nose, my shoulders, even the tops of my knees. I had a mole on my left cheek, the cheek down there. It was galactic and had pulled other small moles and freckles into its orbit.
So a man goes to a doctor with a frog growing out of a lump on his head. The doctor asks: “When did this all start?” The frog replies: “It all began with a pimple on my ass.”
Frog, lump, pimple, ass. These were words that spoke to me.
“What are you laughing for?” Dad asked. He stood in front of the stove and cracked eggs into a wok. I was supposed to be setting the table.
“Is that lump-o-stuff?” I asked. That was our nickname for fried rice.
“Yangzhou style,” Dad said, “which comes from my very own village.”
This wasn’t true, or at least it wasn’t true that his village invented fried rice. Fried rice, like gravity and cockroaches, had probably been around since the big bang.
He tossed me the empty egg carton and said, “I appreciate the flavor of irony. Yangzhou fried rice is not actually from Yangzhou.”
I knew all this already. I stomped on the egg carton and put it in the trash. I watched the gunk in the pan—the egg congealing on the rice kernels and char siu and shrimp and carrots and cabbage, binding it all together. Lump-o-stuff.
“It’s like French fries and Hawaiian pizza. People desire things that seem exotic, even if just in name.”
I rolled my eyes. Most of the time Dad was an ophthalmologist, but sometimes he mentally time-traveled back to 1978 and all the philosophy he studied at Berkeley. Maybe whacked-out on drugs, too, but he’d never talk about that. Mom probably didn’t even know what dope smelled like, and he wouldn’t want to upset her. We didn’t like to upset one another. That’s why we couldn’t talk about anything. That’s why I didn’t know anything. That’s why I couldn’t do my homework, which was why I was going to flunk history. It was all my parents’ fault.
My history class at Liverton High, home of the Fighting Lions and two thousand fuckups, was a joke. Mr. Riley was a joke. He looked like a bellhop on safari: brown hair, brown skin, khaki pants, brown shirt every day. His suede loafers, brown of course, were scuffed at the instep, as if he played soccer in them. His skin was the color of dry dirt, the color of the first layer that you have to dig through to get to anything interesting and valuable. Sometimes he came to class with his Oakleys still on his forehead—his forehead, not in his hair or hanging around his neck—as if he were just stepping out of the sun-soaked pages of some men’s outdoor magazine. He should have been a PE teacher; his peppiness only marginally covered up his dorkiness and his lack of academic inspiration. His favorite idea was “the story in history,” so as we read about the Sumerians and Egyptians, he always wanted us to pause for a minute to appreciate the life of “Hatshepsut: The Noble Queen” or “Gilgamesh the King.”
Normally, I loved ancient history and the little pieces of people’s lives that they left behind without even knowing it; I loved digging to unearth those pieces and connecting them to make sense of a world that was utterly different from our own. Normally, I’d curl up on the couch with my National Geographic or Archaeology and read about the very same people and be in heaven. But I hated reading from our textbook, World Societies, World Histories, which weighed about ten tons and was written for a third grader. I hated that Mr. Riley didn’t know any more than the textbook. We were an honors class. Honors, schmonors. He only loved coaching girls’ basketball and riding his overpriced mountain bike. Every second I suffered through his class, I wished that Mr. Riley knew more and could get us out of our color-coded, outlined, memorizable textbook and into something complicated and real.
In order for us to “appreciate” history more—“appreciate” being a flimsy word meaning “talk about nicely without learning anything of substance”—he’d given us a week to write an account of our own family history. I considered starting with Australopithecus, going into great detail about gradual bipedalism and stone tool development, and ending with Homo sapiens, dot, dot, dot. That could cover the necessary five pages. Or I could write about Peking man, my seven-hundred-thousand-year-old ancestor, a skeleton that had an outside chance of connecting prehumans to humans, who was dug up outside of Beijing and then lost when the Japanese invaded China during World War II. That would be more exciting, like a mystery and an adventure story all rolled into one life. Mine.
I could write some joke of a paper and risk flunking for being a smart ass, or I could blow a hole through my parents’ happiness. I could keep the comfortable silence, or I could ask the impossible questions.
These were the impossible questions: What’s the huge problem with our family? Why is our family history such a big, bad, dirty secret? Where are my grandparents and why can’t I meet them? Why don’t we talk about the past? Why don’t we talk about your families? How come I know, without even asking, that I’m not allowed to ask these questions? That it’s better, it’s always better, to keep my mouth shut?
I only knew my parents in their current daily lives. I knew random things, like their favorite foods and what their sneezes sounded like. What could I possibly mine from their lives that would be a story worth writing about?
• • •
My parents met during Dad’s residency in San Francisco, where Mom—my lonely, divorced mom—was a dental assistant. She must have fallen for Dad’s brains, because she was tall and blond and from Texas, and he was a goofy, middle-aged Chinese guy. Despite all their differences, they went ahead and fell in love and for some reason decided to have me. Maybe Mom made Dad more American, and Dad made Mom more exotic and cultural, and it was as easy as wanting what the other had.
Then why me? Why have a kid when you’re not going to give him brothers or sisters or grandparents or cousins? And why name him Vee Crawford-Wong? Who names their kid after a letter in the alphabet, one of those weird ones at the end, one that in third grade no one ever practiced in cursive because it barely ever came up? What was wrong with something normal, like Michael or Joe or Fred? Couldn’t they have guessed that I’d end up with nicknames like Veegina and guys making Vs with their fingers and sticking their tongues in between, which they did for years before I realized what it meant? And then Crawford-Wong. What was so special about either one? There were over two million people in America named Crawford. And Wong. How unique. Half a million in the U.S. and then truckloads more in China.
I was like that joke: If you’re one in a million, there are a thousand people just like you in China!
I was most likely a mistake. They would never have gotten married if it hadn’t been for me. I could imagine them going out for greasy Chinese, and they’d be using their chopsticks to pick mushrooms and snow peas off the lo mein. It’d be raining, because in movies it’s always raining when people are serious and sad, and Mom’s rubber-ducky scrubs would practically glow under the bright fluorescent lights. They’d both look crazy: Mom in her scrubs and Dad with his hair all wild because he’d have rubbed his head a million times.
Dad: Sometimes we choose our destiny, and sometimes our destiny chooses us.
Mom: Kenny . . .
My dad’s real name was Ken-zhi, which meant “earnest,” but he went by Kenny. Kenny Wong. A good old American boy.
Dad: Now that you’re pregnant, we must do the right thing.
Mom: What is the right thing?
Dad: We will raise a perfect son who will play football and be popular and graduate magna cum summa summa laude magna laude, from Harvard of course, and then he will invent a new way of doing laser eye surgery that will revolutionize sight for the entire universe.
Mom: Well, okay. We could do that.
Mom was always agreeable. She tried too hard; she was almost too sweet; she never talked about her family or her ex-husband or anything else that wasn’t wonderful. The only time she ever cried was once a year when she got a Christmas card from her parents. I’d learned to hide in my room when I saw the envelope leaning against the tacky Santa-shaped candles we could never bring ourselves to light and melt.
I couldn’t stand watching Mom cry. Maybe when she found out about me, she had cried and then had covered up her sadness and done her best to make Dad happy, hoping that the lima-bean-like lump inside her would grow up to be a magna cum dream boy. And instead of a dream boy she got lumpy old me, who even at five preferred digging up the yard to studying Latin or doing whatever else a dream boy would do. Maybe she’d been trying to be happy for fifteen years, but here I was, bigger than her now, and still someone she’d never even wanted.
I prided myself on my investigative skills, my ability to navigate the past with the smallest of clues, but I was a total failure when it came to my family. All my imaginings—that Dad was Chinese royalty or some top secret intelligence official, that Mom’s family in Texas were oil billionaires, that one or both of them was running away from a heinous crime or hiding out in the witness protection program—all of these ideas were straight out of HBO and I knew I couldn’t believe them. I always had a complete failure of imagination when it came to my parents. They were simply Mom and Dad, and I was their weird, mediocre son, and there were endless things we couldn’t and didn’t talk about.