I didn’t see my older brother’s face turn red. It was sudden. An outburst.
“Are you that rich? What do you know? I travel all over the world and to the United States a lot. The tipping has always been 10%.” With his eyeballs almost bulging out of their sockets, DC, my older brother, sitting on one end of the couch, yelled across the room while throwing coins onto my coffee table in the living room. His sharp words traveled through the air passing Emma, my sister-in-law, who was sitting between us and reached me, sitting on the other end of the couch. My mother, standing in front of the fireplace across from all three of us, shifted her gaze back and forth between us.
She didn’t want to have to choose sides. Not that she would choose mine anyway.
My brother’s words sounded like he admitted to having lost an argument to a woman and had to do something about it. I didn’t even know we were arguing.
I recognize the tone of exacerbation when a man loses an argument to a woman: the kind of exacerbation when you need to salvage your pride and restore your ego. The exacerbation when you can’t believe you lose to someone less than you. Not in intelligence, but in status and power.
Just right before his outburst, I simply said: “No. The tip for breakfast or lunch is at least 15% and the tip for dinner is 20%. Tim is a waiter. He can tell you.” My remark set my brother off because he couldn’t believe I would contradict him and therefore embarrass him in front of his wife and our mother.
I never waited tables before, but I learned enough from Tim, whom I was dating at the time. Time had been a professional waiter for decades. We just returned from having lunch with him at Phoenix, a Chinese restaurant on Cermak Road in Chinatown. It was the first time my family met him. Or the first time they met anyone I had ever dated in my whole life. It was special in that sense.
It was also special because my family, including my brother, my mother, and my sister-in-law, just arrived two days prior from Taipei, Taiwan, my homeland, for a visit for three days. It was August 2013. We hadn’t seen each other for more than a decade since I last visited the island in 1999. Throughout the years, I could have returned to visit them from time to time. I never did.
I chose not to.
After we returned home from lunch, DC asked me why I gave the cab driver 20% tip for our ride to Chinatown. To be fair, we were stuck on Lake Shore Drive due to the rush hour traffic. We were going to be late if the driver didn’t get us out of there. I just wanted to thank him for getting us to Chinatown on time to meet Tim. Our discussion went from tipping for cab drivers to that for wait staff at restaurants.
“Stop this. There is no need to argue over this.” My sister-in-law sat up and tried to mediate between us. By then my brother and I were both sitting on the edge of the couch bracing for confrontation. I was ready to respond. I had all the facts and arguments in my head.
But then I paused. I remembered why I chose not to return home. Not even for a short visit.
Born as the youngest one in the family and a woman in a culture that often devalued members of my gender, I realized very early on that I didn’t have much say in my family or in my society as a girl/woman. Even before my father passed away, my brother already learned to see himself as the man of the house, a culturally sanctioned hereditary role that came with the responsibility to care for family members as well as the power and authority to control and dominate them. He took the liberty to discipline me without the request from my parents. They didn’t need to. He knew he could do so simply because he was older and was a boy/man. He used to slap me across my face when we had disagreements or when he couldn’t win arguments. Physical force was the thing he resorted to when verbal assaults were insufficient to subdue me.
Of course, my brother wasn’t born a monster. He learned to slap me from my mother, who used to find ingenious ways to discipline us that bordered on child abuse looking back. He never had to control his temper either when interacting with my mother and I, both members of a lesser gender, and thus lesser in status and power. He learned that from my father.
When interacting with members of a lesser gender (or status and power), you don’t need to consider how they feel or what they think. You do as you wish. Growing up as a boy/man, my brother is socialized to forget that the other half has feelings and knows how to think. He never has to learn how to graciously lose arguments to them or to me.
At that moment of his outburst, I see my mother unwilling to take sides even when she knows I am right and he is wrong. Unwilling because even as a mother, she knows her place in relation to him as a man. I also see my own father staring back at me.
My brother is the exact mirror image of my father, not in his facial features, his lips, or his nose, but in his outburst. My father’s unpredictable temper was enough to terrorize my family, particularly my brother and my mother. We would tiptoe around him with fear, holding our breath waiting for him to explode at the simplest thing. He didn’t need to hit us; the fear was adequate to keep us in line.
I used to say that he had a terrible temper. Now I say he is abusive, verbally and emotionally, if not physically. It took me decades to name my family dynamics as domestic violence.
After my father died, my brother assumed the role as the patriarch of our family, as a dutiful oldest son would do. When I returned to do fieldwork in 1999, I witnessed how both my mother and my sister-in-law tiptoe around him, worried that his temper might flare up at the spur of the moment. One time my brother yelled at Emma at a restaurant publicly simply because she disagreed with him, without considering how it might have made her feel in front of us. For a second, I thought I was watching my own parents.
And now there he is, sitting in my apartment and having an outburst simply because I disagree with him. My brother has turned into the same man who used to terrorize him.
As much as my brother was terrified of my father, he also respected and adored him. While we both were victims growing up in an abusive household, he never did question the authority my father had assumed, knowing that he himself would soon claim it and use it to his own advantage.
I stopped myself right there. I felt sorrow for my brother or terror for my mother and my sister-in-law. I have tried hard to work my way out of the cycle of violence because I saw myself inherit some of it from my father. I never wanted to subject another human being to that dynamics.
I was glad I was not my father, but I ached for my brother, who didn’t know how to find his out way yet or didn’t know he had turned into someone else so familiar. At least to me or perhaps to my mother as well.
That was the last time I saw him.
And that was the last time I wanted to see him.
About the artist...
Ada Cheng is a professor-turned storyteller and performing artist. She has been featured at storytelling shows in Chicago, Atlanta, Cedar Rapids, New York, Asheville, and Kansas City. She debuted her second solo show, Breaking Rules, Broken Hearts: Loving across Borders, with Fillet of Solo in January 2018. In addition to performing it at The Exit Theatre in San Francisco in June, she will also bring it to the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York in October. Ada is the producer and the host of the new show, Am I Man Enough: A Storytelling/Podcasting Show, where people tell stories to critically examine the culture of toxic masculinity and the construction of masculinity and manhood. Her motto: Make your life the best story you tell. Her website: www.renegadeadacheng.com.
Want to see more of Ada's work?
Check out her piece, Affair, from Issue V: Fireworks!