In the back row of a Beijing cinema, as the music swelled over the speakers and Judy Garland flickered across a dim screen, I saw my father cry for the first time in my life.
It surprised me. My father had always been the authoritative type; one day when I was six, I came home from school to find him standing calmly in the middle of the living room, booking a transcontinental flight while a small platoon of moving men bustled around him. My mother and I were moving to Australia, he explained after he finished the call. Yes, sweetie, you have to go, your mother wants you both to move back home. No, sweetie, I’m not coming with you. But I’ll visit all the time, I promise.
And then, noticing my hysterical protests, he attempted a smile.
It’ll be an adventure. Like in Wizard of Oz—remember? With Judy Garland?
I did remember. He’d brought home a bootleg DVD of the film earlier that year and we’d stayed up until midnight watching it, engrossed. It was the first Western movie we’d seen together.
Of course, I replied.
So we moved. I didn’t fully understand why my father was staying behind in Beijing, why he and my mother were apart and no longer spoke to each other except with words like custody and settlement. But I sensed, even back then, that moving to Australia was an act of escape. I knew they were both fleeing—from their marriage, from each other, from whatever had suddenly and irrevocably shattered between them.
At first, I found everything about Australia strange. In my mother’s tiny hometown of Rockhampton, most people had never stepped foot outside of the Podunk neighbourhood in the Podunk city where they were born. To them, hearing me say I came from China was as shocking as hearing a green-skinned, six-limbed alien announce that they heralded from the moon. For the first few weeks after they bombarded me with questions—where’s China? What’s it like over there? Is it true that you eat dogs and pray to Mao Zedong instead of God?—but I never managed, in my faltering English, to stutter out a single answer.
But even more disconcerting than the culture shock was the absence of my father. It was strange to live without him, to not wake up to the sound of his radio blasting or pull my white shirts out of the laundry and find that he’d smuggled in a red sock and stained everything pink. He visited, of course—every few months he’d show up on the doorstep proffering a box of chocolates for me and a cheque for my mother, and for the first few visits he even forced himself to be interested in our activities. He’d take me to the library, drive me to birthday parties, politely feign interest when my mother held him hostage with our endless list of complaints (no car, poor heating, intermittent electricity). Eventually, though, the visits grew less frequent. By the end of our third year there, he couldn’t stop his eyes from glassing over with boredom as I dutifully briefed him about my life at school. The boxes of chocolates started appearing in the bin, untouched.
Then, in the fourth year of our exile, my mother told me that we were going back to Beijing to visit.
I found China in a worse state than I had left it in. That was the year of major air pollution—when our plane touched down, I looked out of the window at what seemed like an apocalyptic wasteland. It was summer in Beijing, a scorching one, and as the stifling breeze crawled along the runway swells of yellow dust billowed like ghosts. My father greeted us at the gate with pollution masks. When he drove us home, he switched on his headlights so the beam could scythe through the soupy air.
I’ve been given a promotion, he explained as he drove. I’m spending more time at work now, a lot more time. But I’ll still take you to the park on the weekends, he added, like an afterthought. You understand.
I tried to understand. My father had always been busy, but he now worked such incredibly extensive hours that he often spread out a blanket and slept in his office. On the few occasions that I visited him there, he sat ramrod straight in his chair, refusing to make eye contact and replying to my questions with evasive monosyllables. On the weekends, he drove me to the park or to the museum and waited by the car while I finished amusing myself. Then he dropped me off and told my mother that we really bonded together, as if these awkward excursions were supposed to make up for years of paternal neglect.
But one day, about half a year after we’d forged this uncomfortable arrangement, we got lost on our way to a restaurant and found ourselves trapped in a dense maze of ramshackle buildings. My father was in a bad mood—something had happened at work, I guessed, although I knew better than to ask. His mouth was set into a tight line, his hands clenched so tightly around the steering wheel that his knuckles were white. We drove in terse silence, the sky growing dark around us. Eventually, we reached a squat dirt building in the middle of nowhere—Memory Film Centre, the flickering neon sign proclaimed in Chinese. The rundown building looked more like a public toilet than a film center. Now Playing….
I squinted at the sign, incredulous. Now Playing Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland.
My father slammed on the brakes.
We’re not going to the restaurant, he said. We’re going to see a film.
Inside, we bought our drinks and squeezed our way into the back row. As the halogen lightbulb flickered off and the opening credits rolled across the stage, out of the corner of my eye I could see that my father had visibly relaxed. He had removed his stiff work blazer and, for the first time that I could remember, he had loosened his tie.
At the end of the movie, when Dorothy was bidding farewell to her friends in Oz, I leaned over to him and whispered: do you remember? We’ve seen this one before.
He didn’t reply. On the screen, Dorothy was tapping her red shoes and reciting the magic incantation that would bring her back to Kansas. There’s no place like home, she was chanting.
Do you remember, dad? When I was six?
There’s no place like home.
It was the first Western film we saw together.
I turned my head and saw tears glistening on my father’s cheeks.
There’s no place like home.
I never mentioned the tears. But later, sitting in the car, I asked him if we could see a film together next weekend.
About the author: Jennifer Zhou is currently attending high school in Beijing, China. She speaks two languages fluently and is learning a third.