By Janice Lam
“Her innocence and English”, said father, “were what first got me interested”.
It was one of those quiet post-dinner father-and-daughter walks, which my father usually filled with his criticisms on current issues, relatives’ follies and, well, me. This night was different; having just reunited with my godmother who was credited for introducing my parents to each other and migrating to Canada in the early 1990s, my father started this ‘How-I-met-your-mother’ talk.
I chuckled at my father’s “frankness”. With a background knowledge of his worldly youth, I knew what he meant by “innocence”. It was the significance of English in their romance that was interesting. My father, you see, does not speak an ounce of English. He was schooled in rural China and smuggled his way to Hong Kong at the age of sixteen. My mother, born and raised in Hong Kong, made her way through Secondary Five before she worked as a receptionist (her first job) and met my father at work.
“For a guy like me, a girlfriend who knows English was certainly a treasure.”
So my father loved my mother (partly) because of English.
What he forgot though, in this pleasant moonlight stroll, was that he used to hate me because of English.
Of course, he didn’t hate me. No parents hate their child. But, in my childish imagination, the look of his face when he knew the truth about my University programme choice was hatred. I, the eldest daughter, was going to do a degree in law or business. He knew that that is the way up in Hong Kong. That was the plan. He just did not know what BA, BBA and LL.B stand for and that I had it in me to cheat him with all these incomprehensible English acronyms.
I love English. I have loved writing in English, ever since I knew enough English to write. It was necessary to write in English, a language he does not understand, because my father, like any anxious and authoritative father, would read my journal and reproach me for it. (“I am your father. That’s what gives me the right!”). It was necessary to write because I, like any sensitive teenage girl, hated my father. So I disguised my own secret journal as schoolwork and wrote. At first, the syntax was simple enough; ‘I hate him’. Subject-verb-object. (Him. That person. That third person singular object pronoun. But never father. Not even my.); then stealing lines from movies and songs and fused them with chaotic hormones, it became more angry and free (or freer?); and as my feelings were more layered, my English writing became more mature. (Or was it the other way round? Am I mixing up my adjectives?)
“So if Mom didn’t know a bit of English, I wouldn’t exist.”
“No.” he laughed heartily.
“And I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
“Who’d have known… An illegal immigrant from China who is illiterate in English with a daughter studying English in HKU!”
Indeed. A Hong Konger migrating to Canada; a mainlander smuggling to Hong Kong; a young innocent woman marrying the first man she met; a teenage girl hating her own father; a father recounting his romantic story to his daughter; a middle-aged man musing on the who’d've knowns; a college student writing, studying and thinking in a colonial language… How extraordinary.
I smiled affectionately, as I imagined my mother would.
“Hey dad,” I nudged him a little while walking arm in arm. “Do you think I can find a guy with my innocence and English?”
“Not one as good as me.”