Soon, it became clear to me that my family was indeed very poor. Not just in terms of money, but also in terms of love and spirit.
Recently in Hollywood I chanced upon an Oscar trophy replica etched with the words “Best Driver.” I promptly bought it for my father and sent the present to Singapore. Over Skype, I told my mother about it.
“A trophy? For him?” My mother raised her eyebrows and pointed at my father who was standing at the other end of the room. The webcam was blurry and I couldn’t tell if he had heard her. “Did you buy wrongly?” she asked and snickered.
“Of course not.” I felt embarrassed for my father. “I thought it’s cute and Daddy can put it in his taxi.”
My mother honked with laughter. Despite having won countless awards in his company, my father is not recognized as a good driver in my family. His driving, characteristic of his impatience, consists of sudden jerks and turns that often leave us nauseated.
My father hasn’t always been a taxi driver. He used to be a commercial scuba diver, a good one, in fact, and often traveled overseas in submarines and ships to fix problems underwater.
Whenever we went swimming, my father, not wanting to miss out on a chance to show off to his children, would dive into the Olympic-sized public pool and swim two laps before coming up for air. It was really impressive.
Then, in 2001, the economy crashed and my parents found themselves steeped in debt. My mother’s human resource company folded and my father lost his job. We moved from our condominium, with floor-to-ceiling windows that faced an amoeba-shaped pool, to a government-subsidized apartment. We gave up our Mercedes-Benz, domestic help, and weekly trips to expensive restaurants.
I wasn’t particularly upset. At 13 years old, I was too young to comprehend what not having money meant. I didn’t miss the luxury (except for the swimming pool) and enjoyed taking the public bus with friends. Once, when my father looked particularly downcast over dinner, I said, “Daddy, don’t be sad. Look on the bright side. You were a diver but now you are a driver. The only difference is one letter but you get to experience two kinds of life!”
In retrospect, what I said, in my feeble attempt at consolation, sounded silly. But I never forgot how moved my father looked as he broke into a smile and said, “Good girl.”
That was one of the last tender moments we shared before everything fell apart.
My parents quarreled constantly. My father became temperamental and erratic, yelling at us over the smallest things. Every conversation revolved around money and every dollar was scrutinized and calculated to the last cent. My father tracked my public transportation usage with the keen eye of a detective, demanding a receipt each time I took the bus or train.
Suddenly, my household developed a monetary system. Every pencil my sister and I bought, every textbook and uniform must be accompanied with proof for reimbursement. If we were at the supermarket and I wanted a sweet, my parents would pay for it at the cashier and claim the dollar from me later.
Soon, it became clear to me that my family was indeed very poor. Not just in terms of money, but also in terms of love and spirit. We no longer shared things because “I paid for this,” and at meal times, the 12 chicken wings must be split four ways so that no one got more than their “fair share.”
I hated how divided the family had become and dreaded going home every day.
Now, even after my sister and I have started working, even after my parents have fully paid for their house, we are still a fragmented family. It is something even money cannot change.
“Best driver?” my mother mocked from my computer. “Haw haw haw! You must be joking.”
Maybe she was the one joking and was just teasing my father. I couldn’t tell. My father, on many occasions, had ridiculed her in that same manner. Squinting at the computer screen, I still couldn’t make out his face. He had not said a word. He shifted his weight from one foot to another.
At that moment, I wanted to call out to him. To tell him what took me years to realize. That I had bought the trophy because despite all the unhappiness, despite having made my sister and I feel like a burden, I appreciate him. I appreciate his efforts at providing for the family. I appreciate his long hours on the road, hours that had caused him nights of backaches and migraines that never went away even with medicine or acupuncture.
I appreciate that at the end of the day, he never bailed on us. But the words got caught in my throat. A few minutes later, my father left the room.
Jinny Koh, born and raised in Singapore, now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. She was the Fiction Editor at The Southern California Review while pursuing her Master’s Degree at the University of Southern California, and was also a finalist for Potomac Review’s flash fiction contest. She writes at www.bigandtinylove.wordpress.