My parents married because of music.
They met at a mah-jongg party in Berkeley in 1967. Having come from Taiwan to study, my father was pursuing a PhD in molecular biology while my mother had just finished her Master’s in accounting.
At the mah-jongg party, they chatted and felt a spark, my mother’s liveliness a good contrast to my father’s more serious nature. But he didn’t ask her out. Nor at the next mah-jongg party, nor the next. Nor at a barbecue on campus.
“Are you sure he’s interested?” my mother asked the friend who hosted the original mah-jongg party.
“Yes!” her friend insisted. “My husband says he talks about you all the time. It’s Ai Li this, and Ai Li that. He’s just shy.”
Sometimes at get-togethers my father played the guitar. Finally, one time my mother asked, “How does that thing work anyway?”
My father brightened. “I can show you,” he said. He had been waiting for an excuse to spend more time with her. But, one thing: “Do you have your own guitar?”
She shook her head.
“You’ll have to get one,” he said. His, apparently, was too high quality for a novice.
She took out a precious $50 and bought a used acoustic. After they got married, she gave the instrument away.
To say they fell in love is a stretch. Maybe my father did. “The first time I met your mom,” he’d tell us, “I knew right away she was my match.” My mother would shrug.
While she was in grad school, she knew a young man interested in dating her. He was from Taiwan and nice enough, but he was studying to be a social worker.
“A social worker!” my mother cried, appalled. “What kind of money could he make doing that?” She hadn’t come to the States to be poor like they were in Taiwan, a family of seven surviving on her father’s meager teaching salary.
My father’s career choice seemed stable, if not highly lucrative. Plus he was tall. Surely they’d have a lanky kid or two.
They married in 1969, two days after Christmas. To save money my mother borrowed her friend’s dress and they held the reception in a church basement. There was no music, but there was lots of food.
* * *
When I was a kid in New Jersey, my father would still play his guitar once in a while. It was the same one from California, only now with the edges held together with masking tape.
“I left it in the window during a hurricane,” he’d tell us woefully. “So stupid.”
He always played the same song, “Spanish Romance.” To this day whenever I hear it, I think of my dad.
My brother and I learned the piano. For years we banged our way through Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, till our parents were positively sick of whatever we were playing. They liked to watch musical variety shows: Lawrence Welk, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, The Barbara Mandrell Show. I admired the Mandrell sisters because they could sing and play so many instruments – acoustic and electric guitar, lap slide guitar, the fiddle – except for the youngest who could only play drums.
None of us could carry a tune. I wasn’t bad in music class, but failed as a soloist, despite my wanting more than anything to be able to sing like the girls in Annie. My parents sometimes warbled Chinese songs as they did housework, but mostly kept their operatic pursuits to themselves.
* * *
The first fight I ever witnessed between my parents was when I was four. Hearing yelling, I came into the kitchen and found my father eating alone, every dish of food upended on the floor.
“Where’s Mommy?” I asked.
“In the bathroom,” my father said, continuing to eat. (Why was he so insistent on finishing his meal? Was he that hungry, or just a creature of habit?) “Be good and watch TV.”
Later, unable to keep away, I tiptoed up to my parents’ room. It was dark and the bathroom door was shut. I heard my mother crying and my father whispering to her.
I don’t even know what the fight was about. My mother could be overly sensitive and prone to silent grudges, followed by explosive rants. My father could be stubborn and impatient.
Another fight is known as the Chicken Argument because my mother threw, in anger, a whole raw chicken at my father. Horrified, I promptly burst into tears.
Inevitably they fought at the mah-jongg table. Back then it was their main activity. They’d play almost every Saturday, well into the night. My mother was one of those annoyingly skillful players who didn’t care about winning, while my father played nervous and lost hand after hand. Needless to say, Mom liked mah-jongg while Dad didn’t.
Again, what they fought about, they only know. I only remember how embarrassed and uncomfortable I was, overhearing them and their playing partners trying to get my mother to calm down and my father to stop baiting her.
At that time, a commercial for a divorce lawyer often played on TV. At the end, the gray-haired man would say, “Isn’t it time for a change?”
“Maybe it’s time for a change,” my mother would intone darkly.
“No!” I’d cry. I had read It’s Not the End of the World and The Divorce Express. I didn’t want to be like those kids.
My father would remain silent, either having not heard, or choosing not to.
Much of his frustration was silent then. Once during an argument with my mother, he punched at the air three times, he who’d never raised a hand to anyone.
* * *
This isn’t to say my parents never got along. Sometimes they did, too well. Once I was woken in the middle of the night by a high piercing call. I was only twelve, but I’d seen enough Cinemax movies to know what it was, and lay there trying to fall back asleep as wave after wave of horror washed over me.
But it wasn’t over. At dinner the next day, my brother, who was nine, asked, “What was the matter with you last night, Mom? Did you have a stomach ache or something?”
Faces burning, my parents stared down into their rice bowls. I held my head in fresh dismay while my brother (the poor kid) pinked, realizing his mistake.
* * *
The worst fight my parents ever had was after a mah-jongg party. I was in college and had a friend over. We were sleeping when my mother started screaming.
I couldn’t understand her, except for curses like asshole (si pi yan) and prick (hun dan). She shrieked them over and over.
“What is that?” my friend asked from her sleeping bag.
“My parents are fighting,” I said hollowly. I was eight years old again, and my mother was throwing a raw chicken.
“Oh, that’s all,” my friend said, and went back to sleep.
To her it wasn’t a big deal, but to me it was like the end of the world.
The next morning I found out why they had been fighting. While they were playing, my mother began to sing along with the stereo. Soon, one of the other players, a man, joined her. Together they sang, his better voice masking hers. As they finished, my father said, in front of everyone, “Ai Li, you really shouldn’t flirt with him.”
Dead silence. Even the music on the stereo had stopped playing. Thankfully, the round ended and they had to mix the tiles, the roar drowning out everyone’s embarrassment.
For the rest of the evening, my mother didn’t speak to my father. He tried to joke with her, but she’d only murmur a response.
Afterward, in car rides home or that very morning, I’m sure people gossiped about what happened, the way they, and my parents, did whenever any drama ensued. Like the time a woman threw her chips at my mother, after losing yet another hand, or when another woman, rumored to have mental illness, accused someone of making eyes at her husband, then called her a cunt.
“He was just jealous,” I told my mother.
“That’s what he said,” she said, red-eyed. “He still shouldn’t have said that.”
Things seemed to worsen after my brother and I left for college. I couldn’t put my finger on it – an air of unhappiness, of tension. My father began staying home while my mother went to play. He’d mow the lawn, work on his paintings, or read. He’d play his guitar, “Spanish Romance,” again and again.
* * *
My last year in college, my parents started singing karaoke. “Give it a try,” their friends said one weekend. They had their own machine.
My mother did, badly yet unembarrassed. Then my father, more hesitant but better.
“You’re pretty good!” the friends said. “And you didn’t even practice.”
My father was pleased, gaining confidence as each person gave the mike a whirl, some not bad but most just awful.
“I still say you were the best,” the friend told my dad.
After the evening was over and my parents were driving home, my father turned to my mother and said, “Maybe we should get our own machine.”
“Maybe,” she said. She had seen him brimming with confidence, had noticed he was more open and talkative afterward. “I’m sure we can find an inexpensive one.”
After they had their own set-up, my father became a karaoke aficionado. They joined two clubs, and he took his practicing seriously. He sang a little every day while my mother waited till the last minute and rehearsed just hours before the get-together. My father liked both Chinese and American singers. His favorites were Bette Midler (“The Wind Beneath My Wings,” “The Rose”), The Carpenters (“Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun”), and Sarah MacLachlan (“Angel”). Occasionally he sang a duet with my mother (“Endless Love”).
“I know I’m not the best,” he liked to say. “But I work hard.”
He was indeed one of the better singers. He didn’t overdo it with impossible-to-reach Celine Dion notes, or undero it by mumbling into the mike. He stayed within his range, sang modestly, and with feeling.
“Who’s that?” a childhood friend asked during a Christmas party at my parents’. “He’s pretty good.”
“That’s my dad!” I cried, beet-red, more embarrassed than proud.
How good, or bad, you were didn’t matter, only that you had tried. People would always cheer, and in that way, everyone was a winner.
* * *
My parents aren’t perfect. They still bicker occasionally; once in a while, my mother still explodes at some invisible slight.
But they’re better. They’re balanced. They both have something they’re good at.
Sometimes my father still sits out of mah-jongg, but often the parties have both mah-jongg and karaoke. He likes being the DJ, changing discs and adjusting volume and frequency as people take their turns. Sometimes they ask his advice.
He discusses voice techniques with my mother, who mostly nods, the way she did when he was teaching her guitar. Maybe she’s only pretending to listen, but it doesn’t matter. The music is still holding them together.