The songs have been bluesy and slow so far, dumdeedumdeedumdeedum; that laggy sultry rhythm that hangs in the air and drips from our bodies. In the winter, a basement somewhere can feel like the center of the earth.
“What is blues dancing like,” my friends sometimes ask when it gets mentioned.
“I don’t know how to describe it, you just have to do it,” I respond.
The band is about to play the last live song.
T. jumps off the stage after playing the harmonica for the previous set and finds me at the back of the room. I’m trying to cool off, is it even winter time? In that room, no one can tell. Time stops, weather ceases to exist. After he takes my hand, just our luck: the band plays the first few notes of the fastest song they’ve played all night.
“Do you dance balboa,” he shouts over the rapid brmbrmbrm-ing of the drums. I yell back my signature answer, “Um, I have before… I think?” with a sidelong glance that means, “No, I have no idea how to dance balboa,” but he’s already started hopping around with his arms around me. Immediately I feel overheated; at once anxious yet also electrified about how quickly I need to follow his feet.
We are whirling now in feverish half-circles. Among the things you learn later in life: one day, you will finally have danced in so many different people’s arms that you will no longer feel panic at not knowing the steps. Just a lot of sweat from the movement. I don’t even know what beat we’re stepping on but the turns are fast and I can’t think about anything except speed and breathing fast enough to keep up. The room is orange, afire with heat and beat. I’m committing the often-warned-against sin of looking at the ground while flying.
He is cheerful at my frenzy and relents over the music, “Okay, okay, we can dance the whole notes,” and suddenly his embrace stills and the air flattens out like the Mississippi river photographed from afar. I’m riding the whole notes, I’m swimming in my uncertainty and delight ― the steps like taffy now.
It’s humid against the stage. I feel myself wanting to dance fast again, I’m always wanting more of the thing I just had, the thing I didn’t think I could take more of. Like sweetness, like direct sunlight, like the break-your-heart kind of love. But he is already pulling me back into the basic blues step, dumdeedumdeedum and I’m swaying again, for once not keeping track of time. In blues dancing, they always dip you at the end. If they don’t know when the song is ending, they keep dipping you until the last note sounds.
“Aren’t you afraid of falling,” my friends say.
“Aren’t you afraid of never having the chance to fall,” I respond.
Ten minutes later I’m going home, I’m walking west on 14th street, the cold hitting my skin and reminding me what life feels like. I don’t even put my coat on, am I even from Texas anymore? I blow my breath into the air, watching it twist and rise in the wind, balboa-ing into the sky.
Many tragedies have already occurred this year – both in my personal realm and out in the larger realms of this country and the world. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and I try to celebrate my family every day (even from afar): steeping myself in gratitude for their love and hope for their well-being. This Sunday is Father’s Day, which always falls on or close to my birthday.
* * *
When my sister and I were kids, my mom would give us pots and pans to bang on like drums. In the living room we had free reign to hold big spoons up like microphones and giggle while shaking our little behinds. Mom would laugh, telling us how we were so good at “扭屁股” as toddlers.
My father listened to all the songs you’d expect a dad from his generation to listen to. I remember groaning in the mornings when I’d hear Broadway musical songs start blasting through the thin walls. I’d cover my ears, fully knowing that this was his subtle morning wake up call. He always preferred to have Rodgers and Hammerstein take the heat of a teenager’s wrath at getting up early. As a side effect, I learned all the lyrics to “The King and I,” “Sound of Music,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He would put Peter, Paul and Mary cassette tapes on repeat, and he made us attend guitar classes to learn folk songs.
Yet there was always a chasm that I couldn’t cross to get close to him: the stereotypical strict and stoic “Asian dad” that sternly directed me to the collection of World Book Encyclopedias rather than answer my questions himself. Like the way he placed Broadway musical songs in between us and him, I felt that he wedged his career in there too. In lieu of “I love you,” he would declare variations of “Go study harder.” I was terrified of him, not because he was mean, but because he was always the strong, strict silent type. And I wanted to be perfect for him, I never wanted to let him down. I thought that you were supposed to be terrified of your dad. Maybe as a kid that’s the only way you know how to feel when you’re in awe.
He always worked incredibly hard to help the people around him. I didn’t see him as much as I hoped because he’d often leave for work before I woke up and return after I had already gone to bed.
A few years ago I went to a restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown for lunch. The restaurant owner came up to our table and started chatting with me in Mandarin. When he found out the name of my father he bowed to me out of respect. I stood there in shock. Because I rarely interacted with my father outside of his strict requests for me to behave or do better in school, I was unspeakably moved at how revered my father is in his community; like a king, even.
So one of my fondest memories is a big cliché, but it’s a cliché because it matters. Though he often spent more hours at the office than at home, I remember the few occasions during which he would put my tiny toddler feet on his feet to dance around the living room, and sing in a Sinatra-like voice (with a pretty thick Taiwanese accent). Whirling around the room with my handsome dad grinning at me, I felt like a star in a musical.
My parents came to the States knowing almost no English. They met each other here while studying at university in South Carolina. They never had the means or time to take a honeymoon together. I think often with indescribable gratitude about how they have encouraged (or at least silently conceded to) my adventurous curiosity and desire to live my life fully.
Though I’m sure my mom worried endlessly over the years as I went on frequent trips, I have been filled with gratitude that they’ve given me a life that allows me to chase my wanderlust to far corners of the world. My first solo backpacking trip found me in Paris along the Seine, watching people dance the polka to live music. I promised myself I’d learn how to dance it, and my senior year I took a ballroom class and whirled around the room laughing while boys arduously led me into the merry polka steps. I felt determined that one day I’d be able to take my parents to places they were never able to see when they were younger.
In November of last year, I casually texted my mom about where she would like to travel if she had more free time. She loves sitting at home in the living room watching travel shows, and we talked longingly of colorful India. She quickly added, “But first, New York City to see you.” I had to be sneaky because it’s difficult to get my mom to agree for me to do nice things for her. So I covertly booked the plane tickets that night.
My mom (with her well-worn skill of basking in Taiwanese and Texan heat) feared it would be too cold in New York City in December but braved it anyway. My parents’ first time in the city, and luck was on our side as the benevolent sunlight shone down on us. While researching good things to do that weekend, I stumbled upon an incredible coincidence: “The King and I” was playing again in New York City during a Broadway revival tour at the Lincoln Center. We had the amazing opportunity to go together, and I still remember my Dad’s eyes, silently watching in real life this musical he had loved for decades from afar.
Afterwards, I asked him if he enjoyed the show. “Well, it didn’t put me to sleep,” he responded with a smile. Which, in case it isn’t clear, is a compliment of the highest order with my dad.
After watching the musical, on their final day in New York City, I took my parents to Central Park. We walked past the Shakespeare statue, and I talked about how I would dance tango with friends during the summertime in this part of the park. During the “King and I” song “Shall We Dance?” Anna teaches the King how to dance the polka.
I exclaimed to my dad, “Would you like for me to teach you how to polka?”
Even now, the little girl inside of me is a little bit terrified of him. I steeled myself for my dad’s stoic scoff and possible responses: that we were in public, that he was tired, that he’d be embarrassed. To my amazement, he held out his hands to me. I showed him the step slowly. And we danced around the statue, laughing and shuffling as I hummed a polka beat while breathlessly counting “one two three AND, one two three AND” while the sun shone down on us in New York City in December.