This article received an Honorable Mention citation in the Sixth Tone China Writing Contest. To vote for this article for the Sixth Tone Writing Contest’s Reader Prize, please click here.
Looking back at the 18 years of my life, I don’t know what went wrong, or when it did. To be able to identify the twists and turns in my story necessitates that I step out of my story, which I can never do. I can only try my best to recall, to draw on memories I would rather forget, to sharpen the fuzzy images of my childhood, and thereby piece together a complete picture.
When I picture my family, there is always smoke. Lingering in the air, worming its way through every crack between the doors and windows of my home. There is no fire. Only ash.
The smoke comes from moxa sticks. A moxa stick is a type of traditional Chinese medicine. It is cylinder-shaped just like any other stick, with paper wrapped around its body. Its top and bottom are not covered by the paper, so the stick’s color of dried dirt can be seen. It is made the same way one would roll a cigarette, but with dried folium artemisiae argyi in place of tobacco leaves. When lit, wisps of smoke rise from the tip of the moxa stick, filling the room with the wisdom of the ancient Chinese.
Moxibustion works like magic. In a religion class I took in college, we defined magic as the correspondence between internal wishes and external events. However, in the case of moxibustion, the magic is working on acupoints and curing tenacious pains elsewhere.
I was never a person who could stand cold weather; I always chilled easily. I had to wear three jackets whenever I entered an air-conditioned room in summer, let alone in winter. So after graduating from middle school, I went to a traditional Chinese doctor to ask about my condition. She stabbed silver needles in my acupoints, attached small mounds of moxa to the needles, and lit them. It may sound a bit scary, but it isn’t at all painful, only prickly. I lay in the fuming ward for an hour every two days, the smell of burning moxa wafting in and out of my memories of that summer. Slowly, I stopped needing to wear jackets over my jacket.
My father was fascinated by the effect moxibustion has as well. He loved playing football when he was young, but it was an excessive love, and when love is too much it becomes a burden. Football gave him a pain in the right knee, permanent, incurable. He tried a dozen kinds of therapy in attempt to lessen the pain, all in vain. Maybe moxibustion wasn’t his last glimmer of hope, maybe he didn’t even have faith in it at first. Either way, he tried it and it cured his knee.
He explored his personal Eden with a fanatical passion, buying every type of moxa he could get his hands on.
From then on, it was like he had found religion in moxa sticks. Moxibustion became his sacred realm, pure, holy, perfect, unquestionable. He explored his personal Eden with a fanatical passion, buying every type of moxa he could get his hands on. Our doorbell rang all the time; packages flooded the small apartment we lived in. He poured all his love and devotion into moxa sticks, and it pulled him away from mother and me. I rarely saw him at home. Every time he returned home from work he immediately shut himself in his room for moxibustion, the only sign of him being present was the smoke that leaked from his door seam and slowly filled up the whole apartment. It’s a miracle he never set off the fire alarm.
Upon entering my senior year in high school, both my workload and study pressure ricocheted up, keeping me from home until after nine o’clock. My father would wander into the living room, bringing with him the thick and familiar smell of moxa, the smoke that I grew to despise. He would kindly offer to do moxibustion for me and my mother, saying it could lessen my fatigue from studying and my mother’s stiffness from working in front of a computer all day. With too much homework to be done, I would refuse and head straight back into my room, hearing his snort and catching fragments like “ignorant” and “don’t know what’s good for you” before the door shut. Eventually, I sought to avoid bumping into him in the living room, and I breathed a sigh of relief every time I escaped his lectures. He pestered my mother instead. I heard raised voices, endless quarrels.
With a daughter about to take the most important exam of her life and a husband who seemed to care only about moxa, my mother had to assume the role of the mature adult. Eventually, they reached a tacit agreement that if my mother let my father do moxibustion for her, he would not insist upon doing moxibustion on me. There would be times when I came home to find my mother in my father’s room, lying on her front as my father held a lit moxa stick over her back. I thought that things were about to get better, that moxa would hold my family together and reverse the damage it had done.
I was wrong. One night, when I was splashing water on my face to keep myself awake enough to study, my mother walked over and asked if I could help her apply burn medicine: She couldn’t reach behind her back to do it herself. She then turned around and lifted her T-shirt, and I saw that parts of her back were red with skin peeling off. I felt fury boiling in me, and my voice was shaky when I asked her how it had happened. She told me that ashes fell from the moxa sticks onto her back, leaving wounds that my father insisted were indispensable in moxibustion. Twice this happened, and it wasn’t all. Just a few days after her skin stopped peeling off and returned to a healthy color, I came home and found my mother’s back covered in blisters and blood, with pus oozing out. The very sight of it stung. I was furious, and with no effort to conceal my anger, I confronted my father and blamed him for hurting my mother. He wasn’t the least bit sorry and defended moxibustion all the same, saying things like “Skin trauma is good for curing inner pains,” and “Wounds are where the heat enters your body and warms you up.”
His devotion to moxa had already become cult-like: It twisted and warped his mind. My loving father was long gone, replaced by a stubborn child. He sounded like a fundamentalist, screaming “Only the moxa!” in defense of his personal beliefs, regardless of how unreasonable and insane he sounded. After that final conversation, I handed in an accommodation request and moved on campus. I wouldn’t have to shut myself off from the smoke and the quarreling anymore.
I told my story to some close friends, and heard theirs. Y’s parents are professors who teach at the same university, and her father has been unfaithful to her mother many times with various other women. She was fourteen years old when her mother told her about her father. She had opened a drawer in her parents’ bedroom and found a roll of paper that looked like a receipt, except that it was totally blank. She brought it to her mother and asked her what it was. Her mother confirmed her suspicion: It was a receipt of a list of calls, one that served as an account of all the hours her father had spent talking to a woman on the phone when he was on a business trip in another province. He had been away on business for months, and when he finally got off the plane back home, his first call went not to Y’s mother, but to the other woman. All this had happened when Y was only three years old. The receipt was blank because by the time Y found it, it had been sitting in the drawer of her parents’ room for more than 11 years. The text on the receipt had worn away, but it didn’t make Y’s father less guilty: the damage had been done.
Despite her young age, Y remembered perfectly the delight that quickened her steps when she fled down the stairs of her building on her way to pick her father up. It was the first time she realized that a person could run down three steps at a time: away from the days spent without a father, and toward the person that she was hoping, praying, dreaming to see every day when he was away.
He loved playing football when he was young, but it was an excessive love, and when love is too much it becomes a burden.
My other friend, L, was even more unlucky. Her family consists of her parents, herself, and a younger brother. Her mother was a stay-at-home-mom, devoting herself wholly to taking care of the children, while her father supported the family financially. Her father was a manager at a successful company, and the economic status of her family was high, until he decided to start another company when the pandemic broke out. L and her mother tried to talk him out of it, to make him realize that the pandemic was a period of recession. They aimed for rational negotiation, ending up instead with quarrels. L’s father started the company anyway, and it suffered severe losses. L and her mother begged him to stop, to be realistic about the situation and cut his losses. Still idealistic and stubborn, L’s father sold a house to cover the losses of the company. A divorce followed, with L’s father refusing to take custody of either of the children and L’s mother using her personal savings to cover the expenses of the two children.
L’s father had graduated from Tsinghua University, one of China’s best, and his wits had made him successful at everything he did up till then. Eventually he became a person who would plunge into something without weighing the consequences. He was extremely manipulative, throwing tantrums when his orders were disobeyed or challenged. L told me that despite her father scarcely caring about anything other than business, her family still had to listen to him when it came to decisions concerning the children’s study, even though he didn’t know much about it and was constantly wrong. Her mother was always tolerant, saying his devotion to his business was also a form of love and support for the family. However, the scale weighing work and family was always tipped to the side of work. After the divorce, L’s father attempted to reestablish his unprofitable company, but these attempts were in vain. He never offered economic support to his former family and seems to have forgotten his wife and children, except for the times when he would appear drunk on their doorstep at 3 a.m. He may have been a successful student, then a successful businessman, but he was never a qualified and loving father.
My home, like L’s, failed to provide shelter for me. The place that should be full of love is now riven with tension, my father’s mean words. Minor disagreements over some random thing always resulted in him verbally abusing my mother and I. The feelings I have for him are so mixed they’ve begun to collide and conflict inside me: I love him because we have the same blood flowing in our veins; I blame him for not taking up his responsibilities in the family. I feel indebted to him for his nice deeds in the past; I hate him for who he is now.
Last September, my mom and I went back to my father’s hometown in Inner Mongolia to visit my grandfather and my step-grandmother. My grandmother died when I was seven years old, and left me with only the fuzziest images of her. I only knew that lung cancer took her life. One day, when I was loafing around the house, I found a moxa stick lying on the table. I picked it up and rushed to find my grandpa, to tell him that moxa sticks are dangerous and shouldn’t be overused. But before I got the chance to talk, my grandpa told me calmly that this particular moxa stick had belonged to my grandmother. Like my father, she was also fascinated with smoke. Her smoke drifted off both moxa sticks and cigarettes, and together they blackened her lungs so much that she died of lung cancer. How ironically heartbreaking that my family has a history of being bewitched by smoke.
By now, my father has inhaled so much moxa smoke that his lungs have begun to fail him. He coughs endlessly, clearing his throat way too many times during conversations. My mom and I tried to persuade him to get his lungs examined, lest he suffer my grandmother’s fate. But the only reply we got when we suggested an examination was that, “Western medicine is deceitful and total bullshit!” We have no choice but to let his health float away with the smoke.
I don’t know where my dad’s obsession with moxa sticks will lead us. I can’t bear to think how his lungs are already blackened by moxa smoke, how one day it might even claim his life. I feel moxa smoke lingering in my blood, see the smoky serpent coiling around my family tree.
The moxa, the blank receipt, the money lost for a hopeless company, all these objects are manifestations of deeper problems, problems that tore families apart. And these problems all seem to stem from fathers. I had a conversation with one of my sociology professors, and she offered up a number of potential reasons why fathers struggle with responsibility. This seeming “father problem” could have something to do with how men are not as good at inter-family communication as women, and how they love their family but have a hard time expressing their love. It may result from society’s expectations for fathers, of the fathers being so weighed down by pressure that they need to escape from their responsibilities, to break the boundaries that society set up for them and to catch their breath. It might be a reflection of our patrilineal mode of society, of how men were meant to hold power, to have the whole family agree with their every decision, which causes some of them to become proud and reckless. One thing that the professor kept repeating was that these fathers have their reasons, that they are also victims of the perpetual difference between genders, of conventions in society, of the parenting they received. They’ve got their reasons — and these reasons are “handed down” from generation to generation.
As a child, I thought a lot about why my family was filled with anger instead of love. These disputes left permanent marks on me, even as I’ve tried to hide them. They became skeletons in my closet, memories that are painful to draw on. Now I begin to wonder: Does my father have skeletons in his closet? Does Y’s, or L’s? Did these skeletons break out, charge at us, when our fathers failed to be excellent fathers? Will our skeletons break out and charge at future generations as well?
It has been many months since I left home. Despite the semester ending and summer vacation already starting, I cannot return home due to the pandemic. Weird though, how I was never very enthusiastic to return home, to see my parents. I can’t see myself as happy at home as now I am at school. I should be. I think the moxa smoke is clouding up my vision.
Sadey Dong is the pen name of Dong Weiran. She is a sophomore at Duke Kunshan University, a skateboarder, and an expert in cat behavior.
(Header and in-text images: Shijue and 500px/VCG)