Friends of mine have, as adults, gotten to know their parents as people with whom they swap intimacies and truths. I can’t have that. The only intimacies I have are the years of my life that overlap with the years of my father’s life, and at each intersection, I think: The age I am is far too young for the responsibilities he bore. How can I resent my father for being the product of such a staggeringly unfair world, one that systemically suffocates some people more than others?
And I can imagine, too, the giddy power my father must have felt upon moving to America in the ’90s to discover that McDonald’s was now the stuff of everyday. Cheaper than fish, more accessible than fresh fruit, simpler than a long-distance phone call to Beijing in which he felt compelled to hide his difficulties, his loneliness and alienation.
I can imagine the balm of preternaturally smooth processed meat to a tongue made clumsy by translation; how sugar might soothe an ego bruised by rejection, racism and the need to ask if a store accepts food stamps. I can imagine how, when language for the above is difficult, it might be easier to hand your child a golden nugget — how the gesture is a promise of abundance and pleasure, however short-lived.
Autumn is a time when the skin of the world feels thin, perhaps permeable; it is the season in which my father was born and died. This autumn, we’re eight months into a pandemic that too many public officials, including the current president, have called the “Chinese virus,” a dangerous characterization that shimmers with xenophobia and implied blame. I know a taste of the uncertainty that my father, with his thick accent and expired visa, knew. No number of years lived in this country, no degrees or good deeds, can protect me from the anxiety of having a Chinese face in a year that has seen a surge in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.
Under such conditions, the demand for perfect virtue feels impossible, even cruel. And so I binge bad television when I can’t handle good books. I smoke one cigarette a week. And on occasion, I get the damn chicken nuggets. There are vices we must allow ourselves, even if they theoretically shorten our lives by a day or a week or a year — because first we have to get through this day, this week, this year.
Is it wrong to compare my father to a processed piece of deep-fried food, that unholy creation that is like a chicken translated again and again until it achieves a new form of existence? Because I think of him whenever I bite into one. If that sounds weird — OK. It’s a more faithful representation than the usual metaphors of fathers as safe harbors, rocks or teachers. None of those ring true when it comes to my father. A chicken nugget, then. Some religions, after all, think of Christ in a piece of bread.