Fatherhood, fear and the family gifts we pass down

"You turned out fine, right?" my mother said when I wanted to confront my own father. But had I?

Published June 17, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

The author and his daughter (Photo courtesy of author)
The author and his daughter (Photo courtesy of author)

I uttered a gasp, staring at my newborn daughter's cone-shaped head, emerging out of my partner's birth canal.

"It's a cone. Holy s**t. It's a cone!"

My voice was hoarse. Stephanie rolled her eyes upward. She was delivering a newborn; she didn't need this.

This was my first child as well as my first time in a delivery room. I had just spent almost 48 hours in nervous anticipation while we waited on Stephanie's final contractions. I snuck in a nap wherever I could, but by the time the child arrived, my nerves were frayed.

The nurses pulled out my progeny, covered in viscous fluid, almost cellular in its smallness, an alien creature with a cone head. Dear God, she had given birth to a mutant, like the ones in the X-Men comics I loved as a teenager. What would be her mutant ability? To give other humans cone-shaped heads?

The nurse holding my child took pity on me. "It's OK, Dad. All newborns are like this coming through the birth canal. Their heads go back to regular shape soon."

"Are you serious?" I stared at her, my eyes open wide like two huge full moons.

The nurse nodded, then gave me a little chuckle. "First timer?"

"Yeah." I was still catching my breath, trying to absorb what she had said. My anxiety was in hyperdrive. 

In the post-delivery room, Stephanie slept soundly. The morning sun bathed the room gently in a hazy light. My mother had driven up from Southern California to help us out. My father was absent. My mother said being there would have made him too nervous. This was true; extended periods with my brother's kids made my Baba uncomfortable.

So it was just Mama beside me, and then the hospital staff putting the infant into my arms. I looked over at my mother, my eyes asking, Are you sure I should hold her?

My mother nodded, a gentle look on her face. The nurse placed my daughter in my arms. I was practically shaking, wondering if I would drop her. She remained quiet, not crying. She blinked a couple of times and looked up at me as if studying this giant man in front of her. Charmed, I started to smile and couldn't stop. My mother later told me I had that huge smile plastered on my face all day.

"She's so peaceful," I said. "She's not crying at all."

"They're always quiet on the second day," my mother said. "They sleep a lot. The crying will come, believe me."

I looked down at my daughter. She still had that alien smallness but seemed more like a human being now. While Stephanie was pregnant, we each made exhaustive lists of girls' names. The one name that we both had on the top of our lists was Sophia, a name that rolled elegantly off the tongue. One day on this planet, my Sophia. I needed to protect her. That was my mission now.

"Sophia. Do you like that name?" I looked down at the small being on my chest. She kept looking at me, then closed her eyes again, ready to sleep. I held her just a fraction tighter.

I had a history of emotional volatility. Prolonged bouts of anxiety and depression dotted my young adulthood. An up-and-down Hollywood career cratered my self-esteem when things went wrong, and buffeted me to Icarus heights when things went right. But now I knew needed to be steadfast. This tiny creature needed me.

* * *

Sophia grew from that little cone-headed mutant into a vibrant, sweet and sometimes demanding five-year-old girl. She is Hapa — Stephanie is German and I am Chinese American. I had a strong desire to teach her the language, though I could barely speak Chinese myself. I would learn in order to teach her.

Every morning, before I dropped her off at preschool, Sophia and I would walk around Oakland's Montclair Village. When we arrived at the foot of a hilly street, I put my feet in a racing position.

"Do you have enough li chi to beat your Baba?" I smiled, teasing her.

"I have tons of li chi, Daddy!" And indeed, she did have lots of li chi, or energy. The two of us raced up the hill. She became winded but laughed joyfully the whole way up.

At the top of the hill, a white-haired man of about 70 smiled over at us. "You're giving her nice memories for when she's older."

Sophia stared at the man and pulled on my sleeve. "That's a lao tou zhe."

I couldn't help but chuckle. In Chinese, she had just called him an old-ass man.

"My grandfather used to walk with me when I was about her age," I said to him. "We'd walk through the Taipei breakfast stalls and he'd teach me Chinese."

Sophia beamed, looking at both of us. "You're teaching me Chinese, Daddy. I'm learning Zhong wen like you did."

The old gentleman nodded at us as he walked on. "You're continuing the positive cycle that your grandfather started."

"Yeah, I guess I am." I let that sink in for a moment. Sophia waved at the lao tou zhe as we walked off.

* * *

I was ten years old. The streets of Taipei were frenetic and I was worried that I would get lost. But everything was OK because my grandfather, my Yeye, held my hand. I looked up at his face, his big bushy grey eyebrows and lively eyes looking down at me.

"What would you like to eat today?"

"Let's have those buns we had yesterday!"

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, my Baba struggled with his life in America. Feeling displaced, he would often be harsh to me. His anger seemed arbitrary.

My grandfather walked us over to the morning market where the Taipei vendors hawked their wares. We approached the squat woman with the metal cart, steam rising up from its lid. She smiled at us and we saw that she was missing a number of teeth. Still, the smells from her cart were delicious — savory and sweet at the same time.

"I'll teach you how to say it," my grandfather said, pointing to the steaming buns the vendor pulled out of her cart. The white doughy outside hid a savory and delicious cha shao inside. Yeye kneeled down to me.

"Bao Tze," he said.

"Bao Tze," I repeated, the sounds hesitating on my lips.

I was there in Taipei for the summer to learn Chinese. Growing up in California's San Fernando Valley, there wasn't much opportunity to learn the language. My summer trip was to help remedy that. But the classes I took weren't interesting, with their boring teacher in front of a boring white chalkboard.

But I adored these early morning walks with my Yeye. I could tell he also loved showing me Taipei and sharing the Chinese language with his little grandson. I retained more in these morning walks than I ever did in class.

"Bao Tze," I repeated, a little more confident this time.

"That's it. Very good," my grandfather said, patting my shoulder. He paid the vendor with a few coins, then handed me the steaming bun.

* * *

I felt grateful that Sophia enjoyed spending time with me. I also was grateful for my close relationship with my grandfather, developed and nurtured during those summer trips to Taipei. But my relationship with my own father wasn't nearly as harmonious. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, my Baba struggled with his life in America. Feeling displaced, he would often be harsh to me. His anger seemed arbitrary. Sometimes, he silently ignored me, an ice giant in his lair of an office. Other times he was cruel.

"Trust me, she's got all sorts of anxiety. You just don't see it yet."

In the seventh grade, I had become a Dungeon Master, role-playing with a few of my middle school friends. Creating a lovingly crafted Dungeons & Dragons campaign helped my self-esteem. (God knows middle school was rough on us all.) One spring afternoon, I created a new adventure featuring vampire lords that had me jumping up and down in excitement. I swung open our front door and hopped on my Schwinn, about to bike over to my friend Ken's house.

"No," my father's voice boomed from the hallway. He grabbed my shoulder. "You didn't tell me about this."

"I did. You just don't remember. I had it planned for a long time."

"No," he repeated.

"My friends are expecting me! It's my campaign!"

"Your schoolwork isn't finished."

"I can do it tomorrow!!"

He looked at me, narrowed his eyes. "Don't forget, I can still do things to you."

I remembered, years back, he had savagely struck my bottom with a belt when my grades weren't up to par. I stood there, bursting with pain and rage. Sometimes I would go play D&D without any problem while he ignored us, locked away in his office. Why this time? It seemed like he just wanted to show me that he was in control. Trying to hold back tears, I wheeled my Schwinn back into the garage under his watchful gaze.

* * *

Like Baba and me, Sophia was also prone to emotional outbursts. Her teachers at preschool said she was sometimes distracted. I brooded about this; my father suffered from anxiety and depression. My grandmother had similar issues. It's in our blood. Our family gifts.

One night, while Sophia was sleeping, I approached Stephanie as she was reading. 

"You know, I think Sophia might have gotten away with avoiding these anxiety things I have."

Stephanie gave me a pointed look. "Trust me, she's got all sorts of anxiety. You just don't see it yet."

"It doesn't always pass through generations, you know. She might be totally fine. What do you think?"

She didn't seem convinced. 

* * *

A few weeks later, Sophia and I had lunch together at a Mexican restaurant. I ordered spicy beans by accident. Sophia prefers mild flavors.

"It's too hot!!" she screamed. I apologized and gave her some water. 

"It hurts!" Even after she drank the water, she looked at me as if I had done it on purpose. 

"Let's go home," I said. 

"No. Daddy, you hurt me."

We try our best, but sometimes we still hurt our children. Maybe there were shades of grey to my father's behavior toward me, too.

One could argue that this was just a kid's typical outburst, the kind she would grow out of with age. But I already felt guilty for my mistake, and the guilt hung around and grew into a dull ache in my body. Was her screaming and crying a sign of emotional darkness I had passed down to her? We were giving Sophia a good life, but I also gave her my DNA. Perhaps it wasn't just a positive cycle I had started with my daughter, but a negative one as well.

After that, I doubled down on my promise to protect her. One day, we walked out of an ice cream shop into the parking lot and Sophia ran off toward our car. I raced to her and grabbed her hand tightly.

"You need to hold my hand. Always. This is dangerous. Wei xiang." My eyebrows knotted; I was angry. The Chinese words for "dangerous" were sharp on my tongue.

"But no cars are here, Daddy! Not wei xiang."

"It doesn't matter. It's still dangerous. A car could come from anywhere. You're being a bad girl."

"You're being mean."

I looked down at her sternly and gripped her hand even tighter.

"Daddy! Too tight."

First, Sophia refused to look at me. Then, as I strapped her into her car seat, she looked at me petulantly. "I don't want to learn Chinese anymore."

Her words floored me. On the drive home, I felt like I had failed her. But it also made me realize that as parents, we try our best, but sometimes we still hurt our children. Maybe there were shades of grey to my father's behavior toward me, too. Maybe there was a complexity there I hadn't explored. The iciness I felt toward my father thawed a little bit.

At home, I unstrapped her seatbelt. "Come on, sweetie. We can climb the big tree. I'll make sure I'm standing next to you."

Sophia's eyes brightened. She loved climbing the big oak tree in our Oakland front yard. She was frightened of falling, but I would be there to catch her.

* * *

One day, we visited my parents' old house in the San Fernando Valley. My mother picked Sophia up off her feet, calling her bao bei, Chinese for "little treasure." I held my daughter's hand and together we examined Nai Nai's ripe tomatoes in her garden.

"Look at the fang qie, so yummy," I told Sophia.

I knew I was a better father. But I also gave my daughter a gift I never wanted for her.

"You can speak English to me, Daddy. All my friends speak English at school."

Baba walked outside. He was still in a haze from his latest bout of depression. We hadn't seen him yet; his face was scraggly, his white hair rangy. He lifted his eyes up at me.

"Oh. Kuang."

I said nothing back. We didn't usually have much to say to each other. He approached Sophia to say hello, and my stomach tensed a bit. Without even thinking about it, I moved over to hold her hand. My father paused, then turned around and retreated back into his office.

Later that evening, Sophia tried to rush into her Yeye's office, but I stopped her.

"Sophia, let's go watch TV. Let Yeye read his books."

"I want to say hi to him."

My mother strolled over and took her hand. "Yeye can sometimes be a scary monster. Let's go see if we can see some rabbits in the garden. They come out at night." My mother said the Chinese word for "scary," ke pa, with a gentle lilt, but something serious remained in her tone.

"Ke pa." My daughter tried the word on her lips. I lead her to the garden, the sky covered in stars.

My mother followed. "You're a much better Baba than your father was," she said. I knew she was trying to be nice, but her words pierced me. I knew I was a better father. But I also gave my daughter a gift I never wanted for her. That night, I twisted and turned in my childhood bed, unable to sleep.

The next day, we hiked a pleasant gravel trail. Beneath my mother's purple old-lady pants, her comfortable sneakers made a measured pace up the hill. Stephanie and Sophia were up front, out of earshot. Once again, my father wasn't with us. 

"I want to talk to Baba about something." My words were low, soft. Mama didn't look back at me. "I want to talk to him about hitting me when I was a kid. With the belt."

My mother still wasn't looking at me. But when she spoke next, her voice was tense. "He only did it once."

"No. He did it more than once."

I had her full attention now. "That's the way it was back then. Did you know that our teachers, they slapped our hands with sticks?" Her voice became increasingly agitated. 

"During World War Two, Japanese soldiers killed millions of Chinese back then. That didn't make it right." I knew this was a ridiculous comparison, but I was angry.

My mother turned around, her lips pursed. "No, you can't talk to him about it. He's just getting over his new depression. He's not OK yet."

A pause. I saw that Sophia had stopped and was listening to us now.

"Fine. I'll wait," I whispered.

My mother turned away from me and started walking again. When she spoke again, it was harsh. "Why do it now? What's the point?"

"He's got to know that it was wrong."

"You turned out fine, right?"

"Did I?" 

Later that night, my father ate his dinner silently. I avoided him. But Sophia laughed all through the meal, then watched a Taiwanese kid's show in the living room until bedtime. I left the dining room and went to the living room, where many years ago, as a graduating college student, my father and I sat. The walls were covered with scrolls filled with Chinese characters. I was almost 21 years old then, wearing a ripped Nirvana t-shirt, skinny and unsure of myself. At that time, my father's eyes were clear and confident.

"Your mother tells me that you're thinking about going to teach in Oakland?"

I looked down at my hands. I had applied for Teach for America and gotten in but was hesitant to do it. "Yes."

"What about making films?"

"I don't know. I like doing it," I said. "But it doesn't seem like that would be a good idea? It's pretty risky."

My father paused, then studied me, as if trying to solve a puzzle. He looked away, over at the scrolls, then back at me. "When I was younger, I wrote a novel."

"What's it about?"

It didn't seem like he wanted to talk about the book. "You should pursue what you want to do. If you don't want to teach, if you want to make films, your mother and I will help you go to film school."

I was stunned. This wasn't what I was expecting.

"Thank you," I said to him, as he nodded, put on his slippers, and headed to his office.

I said goodbye to those memories of my father and myself and walked upstairs. The house was silent now; everyone else had gone to sleep. I opened the door to Sophia's makeshift bedroom. I sat beside her, careful not to wake her, and touched her black hair, fine and young like silk. Being there made me happy and sad at the same time. Eventually, my daughter's beautiful hair would be rough and raw. Just like mine and my father's. Sophia started to shift, perhaps sensing that I was there. I remained with my daughter, protecting her from nightmares.

Early the next morning, I headed downstairs for breakfast. My mother was still upstairs, doing Tai Chi exercises to the sonorous tones of a YouTube video.

"Sophia, come here," I heard my father say.

I immediately tensed and rushed downstairs. I saw Sophia in the kitchen, eating some buns that my mother had cooked early in the morning. My father sat near her, and Sophia looked up at him from her chair. I paused. 

"These are good," Sophia said to her Yeye.

"They're called Bao tze." My father picked up a bun and opened it up to reveal its red pork insides. "Can you try to say that?"

Sophia thought carefully, then said, "Bao tze."

Her Chinese tones were a little off.

"Try the first tone: Bao, like you're singing a song." I watched as my father drew a gentle stroke in the air, as if conducting.

"Bao tze," my daughter said again. Her tones were perfect this time.

"Good job," my father told her.

"My daddy teaches me Chinese sometimes."

I stayed in the hallway, watching the two of them. Baba was giving my daughter a gift, too. 

Dedicated to Yaming Joseph Lee (1943-2023)

By Kuang Lee

Kuang Lee is a writer and filmmaker. He is the founder of Satellite Films, an Addy Award-winning production company specializing in commercial films and documentaries. 
Kuang’s narrative feature, "BUDDY SOLITAIRE," starring Golden Globe Award Winner Sally Kirkland, was distributed by Hulu and toured major film festivals. 
You can find Kuang’s work at and get in touch with him at


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Asian American Chinese American Essay Fatherhood Fathers Parenting