Charles Yu’s “Interior Chinatown is this month’s Ballerina Book Club pick. The excerpt below is drawn from early on in the book and describes protagonist Willis Wu’s relationship with his father, Sifu.
Excerpt from “Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu
INT. GOLDEN PALACE
Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.
You are still not Kung Fu Guy.
You are currently Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy. Your kung fu is B, B-plus on a good day, and Sifu once proclaimed your drunken monkey to be nearly at a level of competence that he could perhaps at some point in the future imagine not being completely embarrassed of you. Which, if you know him, well, that’s a pretty big deal.
To be honest though it can sometimes be hard to tell with Sifu, who is famously inscrutable. If you could only show him what you’ve become. All you want is for him to make that face, the one that looks like internal distress possibly of a gastrointestinal nature but actually indicates something closer to Deeply Repressed Secret Pride Honorable Father Has for His Young but Promising Son; means Deliciously Bittersweet Pain That Comes from Knowing Honorable Teacher Is No Longer Needed. That’s how you see it in your head: he would make that face, smile, you’d smile back. Credits roll and you’d walk off, arm in arm, to the horizon.
OLD ASIAN MAN
These days he is mostly Old Asian Man. No longer Sifu, with the pants and the muscles and the look in his eye. All of that is gone now, but when did it happen? Over years and overnight.
The day you first noticed. You’d shown up a few minutes early for weekly lesson. Maybe that’s what threw him off. When he answered the door, it took him a moment to recognize you. Two seconds, or twenty, a frozen eternity—then, as he regained himself, his familiar scowl, barking your name
half-exclamation, half-confirmation, as if verifying for both you and himself that he hadn’t forgotten. Willis Wu, he said again, well come on, what are you doing, don’t just stand there in the doorway like a dum-dum, come in, son, let’s get started.
He was fine for the rest of the day, mostly, but you couldn’t stop thinking about the look he gave you, oblivion or terror, and for the first time you noticed the mess his room had become, not unusual for any other man his age living alone, but for Sifu, who taught and valued order and simplicity in all things, to have allowed his dwelling to reach this state of disorganization should have been a warning sign to all. Maybe not the first, but the first one that came to your attention.
Fatty Choy went around telling everyone that Sifu was on food stamps, saying how gullible can you be (“You idiots think being Wizened Chinaman pays well? Are you crazy? Why do you think he fishes bottles and cans out of the trash?”) but no one wanted to believe it. At least in public.
In private, the thought did occur. Sifu never had the lights on. Said it was to train the senses. He saved everything: disposable chopsticks, free glossy calendars from East-West Bank (“good for wrapping fish or fruit”), packets of soy sauce and chili paste from the dollar Chinese down the street. He’d patched his old fake leather couch so many times there were cracks on the patches. Which of course he also patched. The Formica two-top he ate on was the first and only kitchen table he’d ever bought, purchased for seven dollars and fifty cents from the salvage bin at the old restaurant supply warehouse down on Jackson and Eighth, that place long gone now (converted to INT. RAVE/GRIMY CLUB SCENE) but the table still there in the kitchen. An artifact of the previous century, it had worn down to a smoothness so comforting and cool it felt soft to the touch, the patterns of use, hundreds, thousands of meals together in the corner of that small, low-ceilinged room, the surface preserving the teachings of Sifu, wisdom over time recorded in the warp and wear, in the markings of the modest table itself. Come to think of it, Fatty Choy, despite the fact that he was and had always been a total gasbag, a mostly insufferable close-talking blowhard (made all the more insufferable by the fact that he was not infrequently right about things), was simply stating what you all knew but didn’t want to admit: Sifu had gotten old.
It was easy to lie to yourself about it. Although naively you believed he had by some miracle of genetics and sheer follicular willpower managed to reach his seventh decade without a single hair turning gray, in hindsight you remember once seeing an empty box of natural seaweed coloring in his wastebasket, Sifu emerging from his room with the occasional smear where he’d gotten a little careless and ended up painting the top edge of his forehead a swath of kelpish green.
And even if he could still break a cinder block with three fingers, that was nothing compared to back in the day, his younger self, when he could do it with just one—a single powerful blow of any digit. You pick! You couldn’t bear to watch, peeking through your fingers when you were little, and as you got older still wincing in expectation of painful failure. But young Sifu never failed. He always found the necessary reserves of qi, was able to summon forth from whatever intangible reservoir the required force to smash through it, and everyone gathered around would clap and shout their praise at the latest demonstration of Sifu’s mind over matter, mental and physical, an impossible feat right there in the alley behind the kitchen in the middle of a Tuesday. At the sound of the exploding energy you would uncover your eyes and exhale with relief, proud and grateful that he had done it once again, hadn’t mangled his hand, and also slightly ashamed by your lack of faith, when everyone else, the assembled friends and strangers, had never doubted him in the slightest.
Your earliest memories of him as a young dragon, a rising star, thick straight hair the color of night combed slowly and carefully straight back in a lustrous wave. Forearms like steel barrels lifting you out of the makeshift playpen in the corner of the room and flying you around up above his head, almost crashing into the bed and the lamp and the ceiling as you laughed and laughed until your mother said sio sim, sio sim, that’s enough, Ming, please, stop before he gets sick, and he’d do one more revolution before setting you down safely, your feet back on solid ground, the world still spinning.
Whether we admitted to it or not, and sometimes you did admit it to yourself, right before falling asleep, in the way thoughts like this come to you: your first, best, and only real master, the source of all your kung fu knowledge, was no longer himself. He’d aged out of his role and into the next one, his life force depleting with every exertion. Wisdom and power leaking from him with each passing day and night. He’d played his role for so long he’d lost himself in it, before some separation that happened gradually over decades and then you waking one day to feel it, some distance that had crept in overnight. Some formal space you could no longer cross.
He’d always be Your Father, but somehow was no longer your dad.
No longer running up walls, no more leaping from the curved roof eaves of the Bank of America pagoda. More often found nodding off during a meal, eaten alone, in front of the six o’clock news. Long after you’d graduated into an adult role, you still continued coming to him for these weekly lessons, but the lessons had turned into a flimsy pretense layered atop their real purpose: your delivery of provisions on which your old man depended. A few groceries, toilet paper, his various prescriptions. Putting things out so they’d be easy for him to access, wiping the floor as best you could. There was only so much time. Checking for dampness on his mattress pad, changing it if necessary, picking up laundry, sweeping from his nightstand the accumulation of balled-up napkins enclosing clots of dried phlegm and blood. More napkins behind the nightstand and all around, a half-eaten pear under the Formica table, there since the day after your last visit, having dropped and rolled to a stop right in that very spot, left to slowly rot, the gentle descent into squalor not a function of sloth but simple, physical inability.
I’m sorry. I can’t reach.
It’s okay, Ba. I got it.
The apologies, the true sign—that this was not the man you once knew, a man who would never have uttered that word to his son, sorry, and in English, no less. Not because he thought himself infallible, but because of his belief that a family should never have to say sorry, or please, or thank you, for that matter, these things being redundant, being contradictory to the parent-son relationship, needing to remain unstated always, these things being the invisible fabric of what a family is.
You did what you could despite being generally ignored. Sifu-now-Old-Asian-Man having forgotten not just his kung fu technique but also his most loyal student, regarding you with a blank if slightly wary amiability, as one might endure an overbearing but helpful stranger. Your relationship having turned into a pantomime, a series of gestures in a well-worn scene, played out again and again, any underlying feeling having long since been obviated by emotional muscle memory, learning how to make the right faces, strike the right poses, not out of apathy or lack of sincerity, rather a need to preserve what was left of his pride.
The trick was learning what not to say. To enter the theater of his dotage quietly, sit there in the dark and not ask him any question, however simple, that might cause momentary confusion, might turn your rote interactions into something too raw, remind yourselves or each other of what was happening here, the inversion of the relationship, the care and feeding, the brute fact of physical dependency: If you don’t do this, he can’t do it for himself. If you miss a week, he sits in the dark. Not that he’ll die. Although there is always that possibility. But he’ll be lonelier that day, hungrier. He’ll lose something or drop something or break something and have to wait for you to call or come by. Staying in character avoided all of that, allowed you to prolong your respective roles for just a bit longer, and in a good week, when things were going along relatively well, you could get by, could walk through your blocking and lines, make it to the end of the day. But on bad days or if you’d stay too long, his patience or working memory would reach its limit, and he’d edge into a twilight distrust, fear in his eyes.
Even on the worst days, he never completely forgot you for more than a minute or two—somehow in his paranoia you sensed he always knew that you were someone to him. You suspect that only made him more afraid of you, your presence a vague familiarity triggering in some deep part of his memory an inchoate, low-level anxiety, the son returning home, the lost son come to assert his right to challenge the father.
In the months since, he eventually settled into a new, diminished equilibrium, even began to work again, as Old Asian Cook or Old Asian Guy Smoking, which was rough, was a hard thing to see for anyone who’d known him back when. Known what he’d been capable of. A new role, a new phase of life, it could be a way of starting fresh, the slate wiped clean.
But the old parts are always underneath. Layers upon layers, accumulating. Which was the problem. No one in Chinatown able to separate the past from the present, always seeing in him (and in each other, in yourselves), all of his former incarnations, the characters he’d played in your minds long after the parts had ended.
In that way, Sifu had gotten this old without anyone noticing. Including your mother—deemed to have aged out of Asian Seductress, no longer Girl with the Almond Eyes, now Old Asian Woman—living down the hall, their marriage having entered its own dusky phase, bound for eternity but separate in life. The rationale being that she needed to continue to work in order to be able to support him and for that she needed a minimum amount of rest and peace of mind, all true, and that they were better apart than together, also true. The reality being that they’d lost the plot somewhere along the way, their once great romance spun into a period piece, into an immigrant family story, and then into a story about two people trying to get by. And it was just that: getting by. Barely, and no more. Because they’d also, in the way old people often do, slipped gently into poverty. Also without anyone noticing.
Poor is relative, of course. None of you were rich or had any dreams of being rich or even knew anyone rich. But the widest gulf in the world is the distance between getting by and not quite getting by. Crossing that gap can happen in a hundred ways, almost all by accident. Bad day at work and/or kid has a fever and/or miss the bus and consequently ten minutes late to the audition which equals you don’t get to play the part of Background Oriental with Downtrodden Face. Which equals, stretch the dollar that week, boil chicken bones twice for a watery soup, make the bottom of the bag of rice last another dinner or three.
Cross that gap and everything changes. Being on this side of it means that time becomes your enemy. You don’t grind the day—the day grinds you. With the passing of every month your embarrassment compounds, accumulates with the inevitability of a simple arithmetic truth. X is less than Y, and there’s nothing to be done about that. The daily mail bringing with it fresh dread or relief, but if the latter, only the most temporary kind, restarting the clock on the countdown to the next bill or past-due notice or collection agency call.
Sifu, like many others INT. CHINATOWN SRO, had without warning or complaint slid just under the line so quietly it was easy to minimize how painful it must have been. The pain of having once been young, with muscles, still able to work. To have lived an entire life of productivity, of self-sufficiency, having been a net giver, never a taker, never relying on others. To call oneself master, to hold oneself out as a source of expertise, to have had the courage and ability and discipline that added up to a meaningful, perhaps even noteworthy life, built over decades from nothing, and then at some point in that serious life, finding oneself searching for calories. Knowing what time of day the restaurant tosses its leftover steamed pork buns. Not in a position to turn down any food, however obtained, eyeing the markdown bins in the ninety-nine-cent store, full of dense, sugary bricks and slabs and disk-sized cookies, not food really, really only meant for children, something to fill the belly of a person who once took himself seriously. Buying this food without hesitation, necessity overcoming any shame in simply eating it, and not just eating it, swallowing it down more quickly than intended, a young man’s dignity replaced by a newly acquired clumsiness, the hands and mouth and belly knowing what the heart and head had not yet come to terms with: hunger. Nothing like an empty stomach to remind you what you are.
To be fair, it wasn’t as if anyone in Chinatown was in a great monetary position to be helping Sifu. Old Asian Woman did what she could, but as work slowed down, had enough of a challenge trying to take care of herself. And you just starting out, contributing what you could manage, a bag of food or medicine, once in a while a piece of fish or meat. That’s what you tell yourself anyway. The truth being that if each of you had done a little, together it might have been enough.
From “Interior Chinatown: A Novel” by Charles Yu. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Charles Yu.