Breaking Through: Chapter 3, Part 1

Father (Lies on the Sickbed),  Part one, Early Life (1999-2013)

By the time, journalist Keith Zhu is 18 years old, he decides to write a short serialized novel, Breaking Through, reflecting on his life experience. Zhu wants to show his background and his dream through this novel, the unique points of his life and also the depression he had on the road to achieving his goal. For Keith’s first chapter, read Chapter One: Road Trace . For Keith’s second chapter, read The old man on Waikiki Beach.

I have never seen a family portrait in any of the five houses that my family has stayed. Inthe 18 years since my birth, there has never been a single one. My mother has said that we don’t have this kind of family tradition, and every time she tried to put her lens toward me, I just pushed her away. Now, when I look at those scattered old pictures that mother texted me, I could not even piece together a single moment of my childhood.


My father’s house, or the house in my town of birth, was just across the street from his workplace. It was a company-assigned house. We moved in when I was about two years old. This marble-floored house ended my life of living in a 484-square-foot flat.

Aunt Liao (right) took care of Zhu for much of his childhood.

Aunt Liao (right) took care of Zhu for much of his childhood.

I have barely stayed in that grandiose house. Mother raised me with a lot of people since I was born: her friends, father’s sisters and his ex-wife. I had been sending back and forth during my early life. Mother’s best friend in town, Aunt Liao, was a civilian journalist at the local radio station. I stayed with her the most time.

She loved telling me the story of me yelling at father. “When you were about one or two years old, there was an evening your dad called home and asked you to speak to him. You just grabbed the phone and yelled at him: ’you just never come back home,’ and then you threw the phone away.”

I did not have a clear memory of what she was talking about, as I was too young to remember what happened to me. However, I remember the story, from when I was about three years old. Father took me to his business place, and I wet my pants. He took all my clothes off and put me in his car, turned on the air conditioner and called Aunt Liao to take me home.

“You always being a shirker! Remember once your son stumbled on the balcony? Instead of helping him stand up, you yelled at us to come and get him up!” Aunt Liao always used this story to tease my father. She would support my mom when father was grumbling about mother failing to take care of me. But actually, they are good friends too.

Although father’s workplace and the great house were face-to-face, he still left before I woke and came home after I slept. He had work in the day, and feast in the night. In my few recollections of the great house, I could only see father when he was negotiating business on the first floor meeting room, where the atmosphere was always infused with the pungent smell of cigarette and white liqueur like his car, and loud yelling voices after father and his guests all got drunk.

Chinese New Year’s Eve was supposed to be the time for Chinese families to gather and hang the cerise-red Chinese lantern on the wall. But I dreamed a monster showed up from the droplight above me; his hand was trying to reach me and choke me, inhibiting my chest. I woke up from the nightmare in a cold sweat. I walked outside and saw my father was dining with some friends on the first floor.

They were yelling so loudly, drenched in alcohol, seemingly enjoyed the last day of the Chinese New Year week. Mother, the only woman in the house, was in the kitchen. The boiling hot-pot on the table was spouting the steam out, I was hungry, but instead of saying anything I went back to sleep.

Zhu (center) with his parents pose for a photo in their home country of China.

Zhu (center) with his parents pose for a photo in their home country of China.

I remember that Aunt Liao took me to visit my father twice at the same hospital The door of the ward was open, but somehow we did not walk into the room, just stood by the door and looked inside. I saw a man wearing the hospital gown; a couple IV bottles were hanging over his head, a tube dropped down to his left hand.

Aunt Liao told me that the man on the sickbed by the window was my father; he overdrank. I gazed at him for a couple of seconds; I did not know if he was looking at me too or not, I did not see he was wake or not, we stepped away.

Father has thousands of friends and relatives. Sometimes father took me to his place—Zhu Jia Nao. That’s a small village named for our family, Zhu, where father was born. Every time we arrived at the village, all of father’s relatives would come out and appreciate me and him. I always hid in the room on the upper floor until father finished his business.

There was a small factory which was founded under father’s support right by the train station of that village. Two of father’s friends were in charge; I’d only known their surnames since father only called them Stupid Huang and Stupid Yan.

Stupid Huang was a quiet person and dressed somewhat appropriately, but I did not get to know him very well like I knew Stupid Yan. For a long time, I thought Stupid Yan was father’s best friend since I could see him everywhere. He kept the short beard, always had a cigarette behind his ear, had never spoken without foul language, and teased me with dirty jokes all the time.


When I was seven, father moved mother and me to Wuhan. It was a global city 30 miles away from my birth town. Father put me into the best local elementary school where I wanted to go, he then stayed alone in my birth town and continued working at his company. We also took our housemaid to Wuhan to take care of housekeeping since mother had a job. Mother put me in an after-school center to take care of my homework and took me home after she finished her work.

Father called home every day after some daily routine, mother would ask me to speak to my dad. He only had one thing to say to me, “Son, I miss you. Do you miss me?” Sometimes I could almost smell the alcohol spreading to me from the other side of the phone; he yelled the way like he used to do after got drunk: “Son! Miss me? I do all of that business for you, all of those money belongs to you when you grow up!”

I always said some rituals and passed the phone to mom, then they start talking about the family business, and I could still hear mom occasionally mention my name on the phone.

Father only came to our house and stayed over the weekend, but I stayed outside with my friends all day during the weekend. As the king of kids, I used to bring my friends to my house. But since once when my father yelled at one of my friends for disassembling my air-soft gun, every time my friends discussed hanging out in my house, they all would ask: “Is your father home?” For an occasion, I even asked father when he arrived on Friday: “Why do you come to my house again? (This house was bought under my name)” He just laughed and teased me: “This is my house too!”

Zhu blows out the candles on his cake at his 10th birthday party.

Zhu blows out the candles on his cake at his 10th birthday party.

When I was in elementary school, father would take me back to my birth town every summer vacation. But instead of staying in that great house, I stayed with Aunt Liao. Father brought me back to Wuhan when the summer vacation wa over. My birthday was in the summer, so I spent my 10th birthday in my birth town. I used to dream to have an illuminating candle on the four-layer cake in my birthday party, and those all came true on my 10th birthday.

But none of my friends were invited to the party. This big ceremony was filled with father’s friends or business partners. I knew nobody there except father and mother. Nobody sang Happy Birthday. I did not receive any gifts either: all I had was a strangers’ toasts

On a raining day in that summer, at the age of ten, Aunt Liao and I found a dying rural dog on the street. We bought some milk and dog food and took her home. We made her a warm dog crate, and turned the heater on to raise her body temperature. After a whole afternoon’s campaigning, she went back to live, then became my first dog. Since she was shaking when we first found her; thus a proper appellation was given: Shaky Shaky.

After hearing that I picked up a rural dog from the street, father brought me a purebred German Shepherd. He wanted the German Shepherd to replace Shaky; he said that dirty homeless dog must have a lot of bacteria and contagions in her body. I insisted on keeping both Shaky and the German Shepherd, Aunt Liao started a tug of war with my father for me but eventually lost.

Father took Shaky Shaky to the Stupid Yan’s factory. When I saw her the next time, the factory had already marked half of her body white. When the summer was over, father did not allow me to bring the Shepherd to Wuhan, he then put him in my best friend’s grandfather’s factory.

Zhu (right) waves to the camera with his father (left).

Zhu (right) waves to the camera with his father (left).

Father had brought Shepherd to Wuhan for couple times when he visited us. The next summer, I went back to my birth town again. I went to my best friend’s grandpa’s factory and met my Shepherd. He had already grown up to a massive course, and he could still recognize me, but he could not run to me and hug me since he was chained in a corner in the middle of nowhere. I asked people where my Shaky Shaky was; I remembered that somebody said the factory people made her into a dog hotpot and ate her.

Somehow I was not surprised.

All I had learned about “what is a Father” was through reading the textbooks or novels. I had read several poems and articles that appreciate the paternal love in the elementary school. I liked it when father came home on the weekends, and we competed in gun-shooting, that was the game between father and son; I liked it when we were experimenting with smoke-bombs, and we almost burned up the house; I liked it when we stayed together a whole afternoon, cracked the code of gift cards by using hexadecimal calculation.

In the year when I was a 4th grader, I had the first family trip in my memory. We traveled with our best friend family, the Liu family, to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). The son of family Liu was one of my best friends, who was 4 years younger than me, we call his father Millionaire Liu due to his imaginary business success.

The first night we arrived, we went outside together, the air was cold, we roamed in the ancient architectural complex. When we walked to a small bridge, Millionaire Liu suddenly grabbed his son, put him on his shoulder and rushing to the bridge.

Father looked at me and asked: “Son, do you want to do that too?” I looked at father with my questioning eyes, then he grabbed me, put me on his shoulder and chasing Millionaire Liu and his son.

We did not reach Millionaire Liu, but whenever Millionaire Liu accelerated, father accelerated too. When the two fathers were accelerating, they both made the sound “ho ho ho,” simulating the noise of a running train. Son Liu kept screaming and cheering “Let’s go, dad!” But I just kept silent. After the game, mother came to me and said: “Did you see you father’s face turned ashen?”

Son Liu used to be the one that I had been jealous of. He had an electric golf car and drove it everywhere. Millionaire Liu brought a lot of materials for his son to transform his car. The first time I saw this car, it was a cab with a taximeter. Couple weeks later it became a police car with an alarm lamp and whistle. Son Liu also had an assault boat; he called me to hang out in the East Lake almost every weekend. And they family traveled abroad twice a year, and I had never travelled outside of China once.

Keith Zhu (right) sits with his parents when he was a child.

Keith Zhu (right) sits with his parents when he was a child.

Mother always used Millionaire Liu as an example to criticize my father when he was basking on the sofa and watching TV.

“Hey, Millionaire Liu always takes his son outside and does some exercises with his son, so why can’t you just take your son do some exercises? And look at yourself, you do need some exercises!” Mother stood with her arms akimbo and said while gazing at father. “Do you know what Millionaire Liu said that touched me? He said: ‘You see I am fifty plus right now but my son is only an elementary kid, I cannot be weak and lie on the sick bed before he turns to an adult.’”