Dad hates leftovers, so much that he’s willing to mix nearly any combination of foods to reduce the number of dishes left after a meal. Mom, who cooks less often than him but somehow produces an equivalent amount of food, expends absolutely none of her precious mental energy on organizational tasks like fridge arrangement. Over fall break, my first time home from Yale in four months, I watch Dad open the fridge, groan and spend 15 minutes repositioning the teetering stacks.
“Leave them alone! They were just fine the way they were,” Mom insists in exasperated Mandarin, hands covered in dish soap.
“Look at them,” Dad retorts, throwing plastic wrap back over the noodles, which he has decided are too large a portion to be feasibly mixed with anything. “How can you stack them this way?” He unwraps two of the other bowls, chopsticks poised to combine the two.
“Don’t mix those!” She groans as he does it anyway. “You’re so strange.”
“Your mom always bullies me,” Dad grumbles, turning to me as he puts the bowls back in the fridge. I hear Mom scoff over the splash of water and the clink of glasses. “So mean.” Nodding sympathetically, I flip the wooden chopsticks in my hands and use the rounded back ends to scoop the vegetables into the meatball bowl, like Dad told me to five minutes ago. I’m thankful to be back at home, where my parents’ minor quarrels take the place of the intense sociopolitical debates I experience on campus.
I am my father’s daughter in more ways than one. I have his memory, which means that I never forget what’s in my biology textbook — but once I return from a trip, it’s like it never happened. We’ve been to Ocean City at least 10 times, yet Dad and I can barely remember the name of a single restaurant or hotel that we’ve visited. For the two of us, the problem is always names.
“Hey, that’s Rebecca and Nicole from that swim meet in fourth grade!” my childhood friend Rachel says, nudging me toward the other side of the room. “Remember them?”
“Um … ” I don’t even know which two girls she’s referring to, but I nod anyway. “Yes?” I then invariably endure the awkwardness of faking my way through a 10-minute conversation — which, of course, would never happen to Mom. Mom has a sense of direction like a GPS and complains if it takes her more than five seconds to remember the name of that one diner we went to when I was 12. She told me once that she remembers exactly how many eggs her friend’s parents used to put in their rice porridge back in grade school. I wouldn’t be surprised if she knew the names of the chickens that laid the eggs, too.
There are differences in my family for which I’m particularly grateful. Mom doesn’t care for art; Dad is a sentimental pack rat. That’s how all of my childhood doodles accumulated in the basement — on the walls, in filing folders, in stacks of creased sketchbooks. There’s a crayon drawing of my family somewhere in there, one that I only remember because something back in 2004 compelled Dad to snap a picture of the crinkled sheet and upload it to his computer. The drawing is endearingly wrong-looking in all sorts of random ways, enough that it’s indistinguishable from any other seven-year-old’s doodle. Everyone is a yellowish orange because I couldn’t find any skin-colored crayons; my brother’s head is three times smaller than everyone else’s, even though he’s equally tall; and between us there’s a skinny crescent moon with a face and a blue night cap. Mom admits that the doodle is “cute,” but she also admits that if it weren’t for Dad, there would be no proof that little Catherine had even known what a crayon was.
Those stacks of drawings chronicle a large portion of my childhood. Crayons transitioned to colored pencils, then to graphite and pastels and paints and pens. I can’t recall the times that I sat and drew, but just as my ears know the cadence of my parents’ bickering, my hands know the shape and strike of every tool against paper and canvas. Even after catering to all my artistic desires for 19 years, Mom is so resistant to creativity that even drawing a stick figure would be a taxing attempt at abstraction. Not that Dad invests any time in drawing or writing either, but I know that my ideas come from that little bit of him in my brain, the bit that likes to drift from reality and tries really hard to make things just right, even when they don’t have to be. Even my younger brother draws only out of academic obligation, but I like to think that there’s hope for him, just like there’s hope for my episodic memory. Right? Well, I don’t know. All I know is these Yang family facts, and all the Yins that hold my identity together.