On Lunar New Year, we dressed up and visited our Buddhist temple outside Dallas. Dad wore tight jeans, brown loafers, and a button-down shirt that had armani emblazoned on his left breast. Mom rocked Chanel sunglasses and a Gucci clutch. They insisted my brother Brandon and I match each other with Lacoste polos, the crocodile insignias on display.
Everything we wore was fake.
At temple, we ran into families we barely knew and handed their kids red envelopes with fifty-dollar bills—money we pinched and hoarded when left to our own devices but in front of others we threw away magnanimously.
We bought the clothes during our second trip to New York City. When we first visited a few years prior, right before I started high school and Brandon middle school, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. At the airport, a heavyset man with an unidentifiable accent convinced us to follow him to the parking lot in lieu of calling a taxi. “A hundred dollars,” he said. “Flat fee, don’t even tip me. Plenty of room. You’re going to ride in style.” Mom and Dad looked warily at each other, but we lugged our belongings after this stranger anyway.
Somehow the man had undersold it. We rode into Midtown in a stretch limo, splayed out on squeaky leather interiors, pointing through tinted windows at landmarks we had seen in films. We were mesmerized by the flashing neon signs and the ant mounds of people and the Naked Cowboy. We stayed at the Marriott in Times Square. We couldn’t fathom that other neighborhoods belonged to Manhattan too, that not every inch of the city was covered in a shocking glow.
We discovered the counterfeit sellers on Canal Street while searching for Chinese food. Fake luxury handbags piled on blue tarps in broad daylight. Small Asian women with single-ear headsets handed us laminated sheets of paper displaying entire catalogs. We pointed, the women spoke into their earpieces, and we were led into alleyways and greeted by big men carrying trash bags full of merchandise, which we were allowed to pick through. We spent our dinner money on a few handbags and sunglasses—all for Mom—and ate McDonald’s back in Times Square, content and satisfied with our decisions.
Back in the hotel room, we switched on all the lights. After extracting and neatly arranging the newspaper stuffing from the purses, Mom donned the Chanel sunglasses and the Chanel bag and strutted toward the mirror. The neon from Times Square pulsed through the window like we were on a designer runway. She smiled at herself. She turned to the side; I caught a glimpse of the interlocked C’s in black leather I would see for years. Dad exclaimed, “Like a movie star!”
“I never imagined we could buy Chanel,” Mom exhaled. We passed the bags between us with pure elation. Dad checked himself out in the bathroom and then asked us if we wanted to see the gym. “Maybe tomorrow,” I said, along with Brandon and Mom. I wanted instead to bask in Mom’s excitement and gaze at the billboards outside our window.
The next day we took the train back down to Chinatown. It was mid-morning on a Monday in August, and though the sky was overcast, sweat accumulated under our hair and ran in tiny rivulets down the sides of our faces. We methodically traversed Chinatown, east to west, down south one block and again the other way until we made it through the neighborhood. By the afternoon, we saw high skyscrapers but still no sign of any of the sellers from the day before. We retraced our steps and cooled off in a Chinese bakery, assuming our beloved dealers started their days late.
Soon restless, we entered the next-door souvenir store selling keychains and “I Love NY” tee shirts. It was empty save for us. Mom asked the drowsy woman running the shop where all the handbag sellers were. The lady replied, “Only on the weekends when the police are off duty.” We sighed. “What are you looking for?”
“Prada or Louis Vuitton.”
“Follow me.” We traipsed through the shiny trinkets and kitschy wares to the back. “Wait here,” she said.
She eyed us for an extended moment. Then she squatted and peeled back the dirty carpet. She turned a key in a metal door and pulled it open. My family stood looking at one another, speechless, as the woman climbed down a metal ladder into the dark bowel of her store. A minute later, a fluorescent light flickered on and we heard some shuffling of plastic down below. We looked down the chute—dusty, barren, gray concrete looking back. Soon she came back up with plastic grocery bags in her left hand and wedged underneath her left arm. She handed one to each of us. Inside each was a purse encapsulated in a fleece garment bag.
“Don’t take it out!” the shopkeeper scolded. She peeked toward the entrance. “Look at it inside the bag.”
“These are Dooney & Bourke,” Mom commented.
“Sorry, that’s all I have. Do you still want?”
“Maybe. How much is it?”
“Mmm, no,” Mom replied. To us in Vietnamese, she said, “This brand isn’t even that expensive in real life.”
Mom continued, “It’s okay, we don’t need it.”
The shopkeeper replied, “Okay, forty.”
Mom said, “Twenty-five.” The shopkeeper clucked her tongue and shook her head.
“It’s all right, thanks,” Mom said. “Let’s go.”
We started toward the entrance until the shopkeeper called out to us, “Hey, okay! Fine, twenty-five dollars.”
“I knew she would fold,” Mom relished on the train back. She was relieved that we didn’t go home that day empty-handed. We showed up every day that week with the same routine: we ate wonton noodle soup, we scoured Chinatown for branded items, we ate fast food for dinner, and we headed home. We flew back on Friday, so we missed another weekend extravaganza of handbag sales, but it was implanted in our brains that we had to come back. Luxury awaited us.
When we made it home to Texas, we realized that half the wares we bought looked blatantly fake. Mom wore the Dooney bag to the mall, and when we compared it to a real one, it became obvious that the monogram’s spacing was too tight. The jacquard fabric was rough and pixelated instead of smooth and detailed. The faux leather on the Prada bag peeled away after a few uses. Our polos lacked a consistent fit—they went into the washing machine and came out in all sorts of shapes: boxy, stretched, cropped. But that Chanel bag turned heads; it really did.
Brandon and I followed Mom to a department store one weekend while Dad was mowing the lawn. Designer bags sat in open air atop wooden pedestals, secured only by a metal coil around the handle. Mom gingerly picked up a Fendi tote from its base as if it could sense her touch. “Feel the weight,” she said as she let it fall into my outstretched hands. It was heavier than it looked. I ran my hands over the cool, pebbled leather. We studied the clasp for marks and stitching, then clicked it open. We peered inside, counting the pockets, noting the branded lining, the tag’s shape and font, the metalware on the zippers. It was exhilarating to know the bag was worth nearly as much as our car.
A sales associate interrupted us. “Hi, can I help you?”
“Yes,” Mom replied. “I’m looking for a new bag, and I can’t decide between Fendi and Goyard.”
I caught the associate glance at Mom’s Chanel satchel and her face broaden into a smile. “Of course,” she said. “Let me show you a few different ones. Do you like Dior, too?”
Mom waved her hand. “Of course.” We let the woman explain the nuances between the bags. Once in a while, Mom and I looked at each other when we heard a detail we hadn’t known before. The associate asked Mom which bag she wanted to take home.
“So many choices!” Mom beamed. “How about this? Give me your card. I’ll think it over and give you a call when I decide. When are you usually here?”
We ambled away, and once out of earshot, we pranced and chattered about our new knowledge, giddy as thieves. We rotated between malls and outlets each weekend, an endless parade of stores we could gather intel from. Dad often chaperoned us, eager to join, but he usually rode the escalator to the men’s section while we examined purses. He was surprised that our fascination had lasted beyond our vacation.
It took Dad three years to save for another trip to New York. He was a traveling technician for an electronics manufacturer, and though his salary maintained the mortgage, vacations were unattainable unless he found other means to fund them.
Each Monday morning, he lugged his carry-on and fifty-pound toolbox to his car. He drove to the airport, took the shuttle, and flew coach to cities in the Midwest and Northeast. He then drove his rental cars to small towns in Minnesota and Massachusetts, to whatever company, research institution, or university his boss told him to go to. Usually, he was sent to fix a mechanical problem that the clients couldn’t solve on their own.
Brandon and I followed him to work once when he was on local duty in Dallas. He hunched a little the moment he walked through the sliding doors; his voice took on a low beat, a departure from his domineering tone at home. From the outside the building looked like a big brick box, but inside it was labyrinthian: entryways guarded by gated doors and followed by numerous crossroads and turns, the lack of windows obscuring my sense of direction.
Brandon and I scurried behind Dad as he keyed us through, avoiding eye contact with the bespectacled men we passed. He found us a hallway to sit in with a window into his workplace. “You boys good here?” he asked. We nodded.
He then entered a small vestibule filled with white hazmat suits. He zipped up, pressed a button near the interior door, waited a minute, and then he entered the cleanroom—an impossibly white space vacuum-sealed from dust and free particles and filled with intricate steel machines. He waved to us and then he commenced his work. I watched him take apart a machine, piece by piece, which he organized across a vast table before reassembling it. He looked like a surgeon from the future.
Brandon and I eventually got bored of watching him, and we played pencil-and-paper games in a notebook, periodically looking through the window at Dad. The hours meandered by. His work seemed incredibly tedious, alone in a silence pierced by sporadic beeps from the forest of machines, the spinning of internal disks echoing like an ethereal wind.
His day was punctuated by a few bathroom breaks and lunch. He was a broad-shouldered man, five-foot-ten with big hands. At lunch, he barraged us with his typical braggadocio. “You see that machine in there? One point five million dollars. And only Daddy knows how to fix it. Only me. None of these PhDs or businessmen have any idea.”
He hushed when the client sauntered by to say hi. “How. Are. You. Doing. Anthony,” the man articulated slowly.
“Good. These are my sons,” Dad pointed. He crouched as if in defense.
The man greeted us. “Off for summer break, huh?” He turned back to Dad. “Machine good?”
“Yes, done this week.”
“Okay. Thanks.” The man turned to me. “Your dad is the hardest worker.” He walked away.
It took us a few moments to reestablish the cadence we had as father and sons. The sandwich I bit into was hard to swallow. It unnerved me to see Dad as the supplicant. He said nothing until he stood up with renewed vigor. “Time for me to get back to work, to support this family!” He trudged back into the fray, formless and mechanical, like a part of the scenery.
When he traveled, I imagined he followed the same routine. All I knew was that each week, he contributed to our future vacation. We counted down the weeks until we could get back to New York.
With each flight, he earned miles; with each hotel night, he earned points. His company offered a per diem to eat lunch and dinner while he traveled, but instead of spending it on his own meals, he bought gift cards at chain restaurants to use later. He spent months pilfering the hotels’ continental breakfasts for morsels he could eat for lunch, and for dinner, he relied on the free hors d’oeuvres in the concierge lounge—making meals of spinach pastries, chicken wings, and saltines. He traveled for more than a decade like this, saving in silence.
He flew out each week on Monday and like clockwork, he arrived home Friday evening, usually clutching a paper bag of airport barbecue or a dozen Egg McMuffins, booming “I’m home” repeatedly until we walked out to greet him. The food would last us through most of the weekend. He insisted that we go out to eat on Fridays, though always using a gift card that he saved from the week. Connoisseurship followed naturally from repetition. And how versed we were with the bar platters at TGI Friday’s and the pastas at Olive Garden. We could discern when there were new cooks; we knew those dishes like we knew our handbags.
It occurred to me as an adult that maybe Dad just wanted to spend time with us. I generally avoided his overtures, though, for our conversations were stunted from a lack of common knowledge of each other, and our respective English and Cantonese were both broken enough to prevent real dialogue. Because of the language barrier, small perceived slights—a tone change or a dissenting opinion—could tick his temper, so we kept conversation clear and light. He’d ask us about school, to which we replied with various forms of “good,” and we’d ask him about work, to which he would describe some vacant town, snowy and bleak.
I respected and appreciated him—I saw how much he dedicated to our family—but he was a weekend visitor to me, and he interrupted the comfortable ease that had developed between Mom, Brandon, and me over the years of his absence. We sang and created inside jokes while he was gone; we took to calling ourselves the Three Musketeers when he was in a different room. We found it tiresome to reexplain the week’s happenings when we had already processed it days earlier.
So I eagerly awaited the arrival of the food at our Friday dinners, as it gave us something to comment on: the portions, the taste, and the quality. And from there, I would sneak into conversations with Brandon while Mom took on the conversation with Dad.
I counted the days until he left, and once gone, the heaviness of his presence dissipated.
We made it back to New York City December three years later. We would fly American Airlines with free luggage, reside at the Marriott again, and this time, we’d have our own sedan from Avis. All, of course, paid for by Dad’s points.
This time, we landed in Newark and waited an hour in line to get our rental car. It was raining, and the smell of wet concrete mingled with the hash-brown grease indoors. The dim fluorescent light cast ugly shadows on our faces.
“New York, baby!” Dad exclaimed once we were on the road. I tried to perk up for his sake, but I was tired and hungry from waiting.
Mom held out a list of directions she had printed at home and directed Dad, though he mistrusted her navigation and clutched his own map from the rental center. He missed a turn.
“Dammit!” he said. “Learn to read a map.”
“I told you to take the exit. You missed it because your face was in your map,” she replied. “Look, it’s okay. We can turn around.”
He gripped the steering wheel and curled the map around it. “I do everything,” he hissed. We contemplated the rain as he yanked the car toward the next exit, the force pulling us against the door. Brandon landed into my shoulder and rubbed his head.
“Now what?” Dad said. Mom nervously flipped through the sheets.
“That’s not gonna help you, huh?” He pulled into a gas station and opened his map again, tracing his finger across the scraggly lines.
“Okay,” he said finally. He stared ahead and drove. On the way back around, he missed the exit again. “No help!” he lamented.
Mom shifted. Dad drove back to the airport and made a final loop, so that we started from scratch. We made our way into the Holland Tunnel, where another line awaited us. It was silent, except for some distant honks ahead and the windshield wipers, which continued to run so that the grips puckered against the glass, the suction a dreadful metronome. We waited an hour underground until we emerged into the still overcast sky. Cars beeped at us as we carefully moseyed uptown.
The glimmer of Midtown greeted us at last, like an old friend. Dad begrudgingly let the valet take our car, and soon we all made it into the warmth of the Marriott. Dad muttered to himself while we unzipped our suitcases and arranged our things. He paced back and forth. I didn’t like when he entered these trances; I only knew to avoid provoking him. Nod when he asked a question; agree with any accusation; apologize when given the chance.
He disappeared into the bathroom, his voice still permeating through the door. Mom said we could turn on the tv but with the volume low. We idly watched a cartoon sitting at the foot of the bed, unable to let ourselves relax.
When he came out an hour later, his pep reappeared. The mumbling had left him. “We’re in New York! Let’s see the concierge lounge. It’s five o’clock, and they should be setting up.” We followed him dutifully, putting on smiles.
The next day, we wore our flashiest outfits and drove down to Chinatown. Around and around we circled, looking for parking. Dad was whistling, unfazed and chipper. Mom was anxious to get shopping. “Five dollars an hour isn’t bad. Why don’t we just park there?”
“I don’t trust those parking people,” he said.
It took us twenty-five minutes to find a contender—without a fire hydrant or bus lane—but the sign above puzzled us. It listed other days but not Sunday. “Does that mean it’s okay to park or not?” Dad asked. We shrugged; we didn’t want to take responsibility in case we were wrong.
After some trepidation, he parked anyway. We walked to Canal Street and made eye contact with sellers on street corners, somehow all in uniform, clad in black puffer jackets and Gucci hats. The fog from our breaths plumed the air while Mom negotiated with them. Crowds circled around each seller, and people watched as we picked through bags, like they were observing a game of blackjack. Brandon and I stood close by in case Mom needed a second opinion on handbag believability. We let her negotiate.
Dad couldn’t stay still. While deals were being made, he orbited us, pacing and spinning his hands to make us decide faster. Soon he left us to check on the car, fearful of tickets or hoodlums breaking in.
Our bodies untensed when he left our periphery. The transactions became smooth, our budget slipping away. Mom and I caught mistakes in certain bags—mismatched zippers, inauthentic fonts on garment tags, faux leather—and were proud to acquire some (at a discounted price, no less) that we knew would be indistinguishable from the authentic ones in the high-end boutiques a few blocks north.
Dad returned in the middle of a transaction. “Where have you guys been? I’ve been calling you like crazy,” he said to Mom.
“We’re exactly where you left us. Don’t blame us for your stress with the car,” Mom said. She was distracted with the bag she was examining.
“You never know,” he stammered.
“We should have taken the subway. So much easier.”
“You are unthankful. All of you.”
It was at that moment that a smaller man from the stream of people passing by bumped into Dad’s torso with his shoulder. “Hey, watch where you’re going, idiot!” Dad shouted at him.
The guy talked back. Dad got in his face, looking down on him. Mom pulled Dad away. Dad shook her off. The guy huffed away. Dad looked at a seller who was staring at us. “You see what I have to deal with? My own wife doesn’t know when to back off.”
Our expedition ended. We followed Dad back to the car. He felt around in his pockets for his keys. His phone was gone. He dug every pocket. He rummaged through Mom’s purse. He dumped all the merchandise from our shopping bags onto the concrete as he searched. He hustled back to Canal Street while we picked up our belongings.
By the time he came back, he was screaming. We got into the car, and he locked the doors. We sat there, burning away the two hours we had left in the meter, while he called us useless dogs and other names. His eyes darkened, blank in trance, as he yelled and jabbed his finger into our faces—cheap cinnamon cologne whipping our nostrils. Deep, hidden ridges formed in his brow. He raged on, transformed into the belligerent man I feared would appear. I knew this man would be unrecognizable to his coworkers, to our extended family and friends, but I expected his arrival. I knew he would come out when reality departed from his expectations.
I looked away when I could, afraid to acknowledge this side of him, to replace my distant respect for him with fear. I turned my head to look out the window, my breath lightly condensing on the glass, and watched as a family of four, wearing nearly matching black parkas, bounced down the street, bumping into one another in light jubilation. I envied their ease. If they looked over at our car, perhaps all they’d see was a family waiting to warm up a car while a dad told an emphatic story—the terrible soundtrack of Dad’s barking sealed away.
Dad drove us back to the hotel continuing the diatribe. In the room, Mom started to yell back. Brandon and I stared at a silent tv, as if we had our own bubble, pretending to disappear.
They moved to the bathroom and shut the door. Their screaming overlapped. Soon, I heard some shuffling and then a thud. Suppressed exhales. Silence. I felt a pang deep inside my rib cage. I turned up the volume on the tv.
They exited later, Mom’s eyes bloodshot, her gait somehow changed, her hand resting on her stomach. Dad changed into gym clothes and left the room.
After a few minutes, I worked up the courage and asked Mom, “What happened?”
“Oh nothing, baby. We got over it.”
My arms clamped at my side, concealing the sweat in my pits. Brandon and I stared ahead, unable to inquire further.
That evening, we walked over to Red Lobster. Dad had procured a stack of gift cards—some ten dollars, others twenty-five and fifty—so we were to feast. It was the most upscale Red Lobster we had ever seen. Double-height ceilings, walnut trim, a shining bar. Dad’s smile gleamed in the low light. “My boys, I love you. I’m going to show you the whole world. My points will take us everywhere. Where next? California? Paris? Miami?” He gloated, Mom silent nearby, working up a smile.
The waiter arrived to take our drink order with a basket of biscuits already in hand. His smile matched Dad’s. When he left, Dad said, “Order anything you want. When in New York!”
“Go ahead, baby,” Mom said.
I hesitated, then told my parents I wanted the fried fish.
“Think bigger,” he said.
“How about the crab legs? We have two hundred dollars in gift cards, don’t worry.”
So we ordered as a family, our table fuller than it had ever been, a steaming mass of crustaceans and fries before us. We hesitated. Dad picked up a crab leg, cracked it open with the metal tool, and handed it to Mom. He created crab spears for each of us, and he cheered us before dipping his crab claw into butter. Upon taking my first bite, I realized we hadn’t eaten all day. The crab was sickeningly sweet.
By the end, there weren’t any leftovers to take home. When the waiter gave us the check and left, I watched as Mom extracted the wad of gift cards from her purse and handed them to Dad. He sorted them on the table by credit size. I scanned the tables and faces around, suddenly embarrassed that someone would see. Dad stacked the cards like poker chips and stuck them into the billfold, which sat ajar by nearly an inch.
The waiter came back and picked up the billfold. He opened it to look inside, and the gift cards streamed out onto the floor. “Oh, my,” the waiter said.
Dad got on his knees with the waiter, and together they gathered the cards back in the billfold. “Sorry,” I blurted out to the waiter.
“Not a problem,” he said and ducked out. I watched as he walked away with the taco of cards toward the register. He scanned, then tapped, scanned and tapped, looking to the ceiling while the machine processed.
Mom broke into a smile when she caught my glance and looked over at the waiter. “Poor boy,” she said, shaking her head.
The waiter came back with the receipt, and a single gift card. “Your final balance is written on the back of the card. Thanks for dining with us.”
Before he could pull away, Dad asked, “Can we tip with the rest of the gift card too?”
“Let me check,” the waiter said and left.
I looked around the table. Mom’s lips rose into a smirk. Dad placed his hands behind his head with a content smile plastered on his face. Are we just going to pretend today didn’t happen? I thought. I looked into their faces for answers. I couldn’t find any. I didn’t know they were as good at pretending to us as we were to the rest of the world.
All I saw were the broken red shells on the table, an army of crabs obliterated by us, and Mom’s new purse dangling on the chair next to her, its chain a fresh gold glimmer and the leather a calm, unbroken surface.
At Lunar New Year two months later, I scanned the temple for brand-name logos out of habit, but I quickly lost interest. My trance was broken; it was hard for me to care what people wore. I preferred instead to watch interactions among other families and guess how they acted at home. The signs were invisible to me, though, and all I noticed was the red that everyone wore to celebrate the new year.
Mom pointed out a woman wearing a Louis Vuitton crossbody. “Let’s see if it’s real,” she whispered to me, and we crept over to her vicinity. I still loved that Mom and I shared a secret skill we could bond over, though I now wondered how long we’d keep it up. A quick circle around the woman, and we knew. We returned back to where Brandon and Dad were sitting.
“The V and L were switched,” I said.
“I know, so fake, huh!” Mom giggled.
“What was that?” Dad asked.
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
I felt momentary remorse for brushing off his inquiry. I hadn’t known how to address him since we got back from New York. I kept my distance.
Following the afternoon prayer, the attendees began to say their goodbyes and exit the main hall. A mild day greeted us outside. The sun hid behind some clouds. Beyond us was an uneven concrete pavilion dotted with great white statues of Buddhist deities. The ramblings of the attendees yielded to the sound of the wind brushing tree branches. The festivities were done, but we remained.
Mom pulled out a bundle of incense and a lighter. We were to pray at each of the dozen or so statues, bow three times while holding the burning incense to our foreheads, and finally deposit three sticks into the ceramic pots of rice at each altar. “This is what we came here for,” she said. “We don’t pray enough.”
We walked to a marble Buddha sitting cross-legged. I looked at Mom. “What should we pray for?”
Mom and Dad looked at each other. Dad led, “We should pray that our family has good health and good luck, that our ancestors above protect us and keep us safe.”
Keep us safe from you, I thought. I nodded to him anyway. I stood there trying to compile my thoughts, trying to figure out what it was I hoped for. Ashes on my incense sticks curled over; smoke swirled in the air. The swell of jasmine and burning wood nipped at my nose. Soon, my family—Dad first, then Mom, then Brandon—bowed and deposited their incense into the bowl before walking ahead to the next statue, leaving me behind. I wondered what they prayed for. I squeezed my eyes shut in concentration.