"SOLVING FOR FATHER"

creative nonfiction

Recognized by Scholastic with National American Voices Medal, Gold Medal

Recognized by National Council of Teachers of English with Superior Writing Certificate

Father:
You never liked words, and I never liked numbers, but in the end, what are we if not permutations of words and sentences of numbers?
 
2006. You teach me addition. I count on my fingers. 1 plus 1 equals 2.
 
2007. You teach me measurement. I press the ruler against stick figures. This one is 3 centimeters taller than that one.
 
2008. You teach me multiplication and division. I recite the Chinese multiplication table in the car every day until I have it memorized. You are happy because I am ahead of my American classmates. You give me smiley face stickers, but you do not smile.
 
2009. You teach me conversion between fractions and decimals. I ask you if all numbers can fit into fractions and decimals. You tell me no—there are irrational numbers, and I ask you how many. You scratch your head for a second and answer that there are infinitely many. I ask you how big infinity is. You answer that it is so big people could not assign a number to the word.
 
2010. You teach me basic algebra with only one variable in each problem. I ask you why we use letters as variables and you answer that letters can have any value we give them. I solve for x ten times every day because you tell me practice makes perfect. One day, you find me practicing carving letters into the math papers you give me. I have turned the 4’s into A’s and the 5’s into s’s and the 6’s into B’s. You give me a frowny face sticker and tell me to focus.
 
2011. You teach me two-variable algebra, but instead of x’s and y’s, you use squares and circles. You do this because you notice I am doodling shapes on my paper—you are losing my interest to these little ink figures. It does not work like you want it to. I draw horns on the square and label it “daddy” and draw a smiley face inside the circle and label it “me.” When I hand you the paper, you read my story about the evil square tyrant who wanted to turn everyone into squares and the circle hero who saved the world by writing a magical spell. You frown.
 
2012. You teach me how to factor quadratic equations, and I use factoring to split up the words in the books I read. “Infinite” turns into “(in)(finite) = (the opposite of)(with limits) = without limit.” You scratch your head when you see factored words on my math paper, and for a second I think maybe you will compliment me for my (creat)(ivity). But you do not understand these English words well, so instead you scold me for not focusing on the numbers. You show me how to use the quadratic formula, and I ask you what it means when I get a negative square root. You explain to me that some problems simply have no solution.
 
2013. You teach me combinations and permutations: “How many different birthday present boxes are possible if there are seven wrapping paper colors and eight bow styles?” I write: “No solution. You never give me birthday presents.” On a new paper, I make my own problem: “How many different lives are possible if only I got to choose for myself?” I list out the elements that can be combined and permutated to form my life: “writing stories,” “reading books,” “drawing things,” “playing sports,” “watching movies.” Instead my life only has one permutation: I wake up and I do math and I go to school and I do math and I come home and I do math and I eat and I do math and I sleep and the shadows of the numbers are still imprinted against my eyelids.
 
2014. You give me a geometry textbook that denotes all the criteria for congruent triangles: side-side-side, side-angle-side, angle-side-angle, angle-angle-side. I recite these rules, memorizing them by their metre and wondering if they would be classified as consonance. I transfer congruent triangles to my writing notebook, where they are now congruent concepts in my metaphors. If you and I are triangles, too, you would be equilateral and I scalene—we are fundamentally dissimilar and you complain that I do not follow your rules. Rules tell me parallel lines that never touch can be connected by a transversal, but rules don’t tell me how to make that connection between you and me. I wonder if there are rules for being a father—perhaps I should give you a How to Father textbook that teaches you to swap criticism for a smile.
 
2015. At school I join a class of kids three years older than me to learn more algebra—this time with radicals and exponents, absolute values and inequalities, axes of symmetry and maxima and minima. At home you and I argue frequently—I talk about my radical ideas of becoming an artist, and you tell me I am mutating exponentially with my American flaws; you say mathematics holds the absolute, objective truth, and I answer that some inequalities cannot be expressed in numbers; the axis of symmetry that divides us is both conceptual and concrete: a generation gap, a culture gap, a gender gap manifesting in conflict that rises and falls like the maxima and minima of functions on my test papers. One day at school, another kid and I are both calling our fathers to come pick us up. “Love you too,” he says. I lash out in fractured Chinglish against your criticism about my last math test crackling through the phone.
 
2016. At school I practice transforming matrix A into matrix B with various operations, and with enough practice I notice the matrix of you and me does not match the matrix of other fathers and daughters around us. So I spend this year trying to add and multiply and transpose our matrix. In autumn I plan our first family Thanksgiving, which ends up burning to ashes as the candle fire catches the fumes of criticism shooting off your tongue about my failure at the last math competition. In winter I thread together a small book of my writing and give it to you as a present, a hand-sewn piece of my heart, but little do I know that words are the spark to every world war and my words spark World War III when you hurl the book into the trash, exploding over the futility of stories in this scientific age. The rainbow Christmas lights spazz, and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” chimes louder and louder, crescendoing into dystopian insanity. Our matrix is incompatible with the ideal father-daughter matrix of (peace x joy).
 
2017. At school I learn about parametric functions and practice drawing spirals on my graph paper, and at home you tell me to do more math, but I am old enough now to formulate my once formless discontent into structured arguments. Numbers can predict stock market trends and measure elements, numbers can move airplanes and define oil prices, but can numbers predict human behavior and measure emotions? Can numbers move hearts and define meaning? Numbers do not work on shapes without outlines, concepts without borders—they see precision, not nuance, and simply cannot feel what words can feel. You hear what I am saying, but you are not listening. Instead as you watch me draw the spiral on my graph paper, you feel me spiraling out of your control. These parametric equations bring too many new variables, and desperate to cancel them out, you shout at me that words blur and numbers give clarity, words madden and numbers give responsibility, words bankrupt and numbers give prosperity, words fragment and numbers give stability, words are difficult to define, but numbers are completely definitive.
 
2018. At school I learn about imaginary numbers, and I notice that the real and imaginary axes never coincide except at the origin, when both are just nascent—I realize you and I have never seen eye to eye because we exist in different dimensions. You are made of real, rational numbers, of straight lines, of equal signs. I exist in the imaginary realm, I am irrational, I am made of waves and probabilities, I am a superposition of inequalities. We think in different characters, speak in different phrases, behave in different languages. The space between us is more than the space between x’s and y’s, or the space between arbitrary constants—it is the space between 1 and i—so close they can almost touch each other if only they belonged to the same plane. Entirely fundamental gaps cannot be bridged. The fact is: you and I are reflections in each other’s worlds—present, but impalpable. Some systems simply have no solution.
I run away this year. When I come back after spending a cold night at the park wrapped in a sleeping bag, your eyes are swollen and red with what I think is anger. You ask me why I did it. I don’t tell you. You wouldn’t understand, because there are no numbers involved.
 
2019 (a). You are not here to teach me about calculus. After I ran away last year, we decided you would go to China for a while to avoid conflict. Your study becomes quiet and empty, yet your numbers still linger in the shelves. One day, I am flipping through your old college textbooks for help and I find a letter, soiled and thin, tucked between pages of piecewise limits. I open it and try to integrate its contents from the few Chinese phrases I can glean. It is a letter of warning from your father scribbled in hasty blue ink: Son, never speak too many words. Never write words that can be used against you. Never listen to words that do not come from those in power. Never fall in love with words the same way I did. I wanted to study literature because I thought I could tell the truth of the world with my words, but I didn’t realize that history is written by the victors and that those who question history are erased from it, sometimes loudly, sometimes not. When they took my job and hung my crimes around my neck and forced me to confess in front of a crowd, they were loud. But when neighbor Zhao disappeared one night and showed up dead on his family’s doorsteps two months later, they quietly wrote it off as suicide. You see my scars, you see the bone-thin children, you know what I speak of. Heed my words, then hide them well.
 
2019 (b). I am working on derivatives when I decide to write you an email for Father’s Day. I like derivatives, I tell you, because they can describe the nature of change at a specific point, or within the entire function. f(us) is changing, I tell you, because I am starting to integrate the story behind your numbers. The larger function is changing too, I tell you, because we are in a new world now. I have learned to see derivatives, I tell you, like I see words: mercurial, young, free. Words are fluid like slope fields, capable of creating currents that bend the function of history. Those who stole your words from you in the Cultural Revolution could not read between the lines of your derivatives. I heed your numbers, I tell you, but I will not hide their story.
Your response to my email is wordless: it is a picture of a small, hand-crafted book of prose in your apartment in China. I blink several times and the picture is still there. I call you. Floods of words rise in my throat and I can feel the same flood on the other side of the line, on the other side of the earth. The space between us may be 7,000 miles of land and ocean but we are in a new plane now. This is the place where numbers and letters meet, where concrete and abstract overlap, where real and imaginary give birth to the complex reality of you and me.

PRESENT. You are back from China. You have been reading and I have been deriving. You have learned to measure in words and I have learned to make art of numbers. At times I think perhaps I would like to travel back on the x-axis, to when everything was as simple as 1 plus 1 and my words were small and light. But then I remember that we are in a one-way function, and chaos is continuously approaching infinity. We are continuously adding to our standard deviation, ever oscillating with increasing amplitudes, ever spiraling outward, ever expanding in complexity, but complexity and chaos are not separation. In fact, the more we expand, the more you and I and words and numbers become
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