How Rock Ballads Brought My Father's American Dream To Life
For as long as I can remember, my father has maintained a large collection of records. As a child, this only had the effect of making music seem terribly uncool. He was the one recording hours of MTV on one VCR and whittling his findings down to a greatest hits tape on another VCR. He was the one who always wanted to go to Tower Records and browse the aisles, picking up old favorites in whatever new format was available. He would buy Rolling Stone and Spin and carefully transcribe their lists of the year's, decade's or era's best albums, and then he would return to Tower Records and buy the ones he thought he would like.
For a while, this represented the apex of American possibility — the idea that there would be a new innovation the following year; that there would always be some newer and better model. Our American dream was a modest one. I never thought I could become President (of the United States or of our third-grade class). I knew people would always assume I was from somewhere else.
But being aware of the limits of assimilation early on was weirdly liberating. I focused on the things I could control. I grew comfortable in the margins and awaited the conversations I felt comfortable joining. At some point in middle school I realized that my dad's habit had prepared me for the social hierarchies of recess. I effortlessly acquired the pop know-how that is the teenager's surest commodity. All I wanted for my life was to make as much money as my parents so I could amass my own collection of stereo components and records.
It's not that my parents measured their worth in relation to their possessions. For my father, music wasn't a social thing. Listening to music was one of the few joys that had survived from his childhood in Taiwan to his life in America, boxes of LPs and the bulky turntable he soldered together himself surviving stints in Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, Texas and then California. I imagined that his expanding record collection and the chance to be first in line for new gadgets — a Discman, a Laserdisc player, second-wave Beta decks — were part of the reason he had come to America.
One of his favorite pastimes was making mixtapes for long trips in the car. He'd tape rock tunes from his early years in the United States. Bob Dylan, a voice he first heard through the walls of his apartment, thanks to a neighbor who played his stereo sociopathically loud. The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" always terrified me. Each time Blind Faith's "Sea of Joy" came on, he and my mother would reminisce about a former coworker named Lenox.
By the late 1980s, he had moved on to rock ballads — Guns N' Roses, Cheap Trick and Foreigner joined the fray. He would carefully map out each cassette on a notepad, calculating how best to maximize each side's 45 minutes. Sometimes, he would record the songs on one side and then reverse the order on the other, creating the possibility of an endless loop of any given song thanks to the "auto-reverse" button.
For some reason, "Everytime You Go Away" by the British singer Paul Young stands out in my memories. I must have heard it hundreds of times, Young's studied crooning atop satiny instrumentation engineered specifically for slow-dances and Dolby stereo. I remember fixating on the opening line about a couple ill-equipped to "solve any problems." This was more than just heartache. The use of the word "problem" was weird to me, as though this was algebra and therefore literally impossible. "Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you." I imagined a head and torso with no limbs, the result of one too many break-ups and make-ups.
Silicon Valley boomed; so did Taiwan's semiconductor industry. Soon, my parents' friends started moving back to Taiwan after decades away, occasionally breaking the family up so that the children could finish high school and remain in America for college. You would run into classmates at the airport and realize that you were both dropping your dad off at the airport, so he could go back to work. There were murmurs at school of families stretched too thin in their long-distance affections or, worse yet, secret, doppelganger families across the Pacific. "Taking a piece" of someone took on a new meaning, as divorce suddenly became a very real force.
I grew paranoid that my parents would split as well, even though I had absolutely no reason to believe this was possible. My dad wearied of the American corporate ladder and my parents eventually decided that he would move back to Taiwan, too, where a job as an executive was waiting for him. It wasn't ideal, but it worked for us. We would exchange nightly faxes about what was going on. My mom would spend a lot of the '90s on airplanes, looping from Taipei to the Bay Area and back. I would visit him any time there was a break from school, though I loathed being away from America.
Each Sunday afternoon during those interminable, humid summers in Taiwan, I would insist on listening to ICRT, Taiwan's only English-language radio station, for Casey Kasem's American Top 40 chart show. My parents humored me. They had fond memories of listening to the station when they were kids, back when it was Armed Forces Radio. I obsessed over the countdown, devouring all of Kasem's anecdotes about former Laker Girl Paula Abdul or the supergroup Damn Yankees, how Bad English had come up with their name — stuff like that.
My dad wasn't as interested in new music now that he was back in Taiwan, and listening to the countdown together was probably an attempt to connect with him, to remind him of the American splendors he might one day return to. It took me a while to understand that this was our life now — that my parents had worked really hard in order to have a place in both of these worlds. Their assimilation would remain an unfinished project, and my father's records began to seem like relics of a life I would never truly comprehend, forever of the past.
My time in Taiwan began to feel like more than some kind of punishment and, the big summer blockbuster from Hollywood notwithstanding, I began treating them as month-long sabbaticals from the unyielding rhythms of American culture. I became fascinated with the version of America you experience from a distance: the knock-off key-chains and bags adorned with American faces; kiosks devoted to bootleg pop cassettes; English learning centers, TOEFL cram schools. Scaled-down approximations of the abundance that is the American's birthright.
These were the raw materials of someone else's American dream-from-afar, someone like my mother or father. Those pop songs on the countdown, so glossy and carefree, even in the throes of 'tween heartbreak, described worlds unlike those I would see out the window of my parents' car. I surrendered control of the stereo, and my dad started playing his old tapes again.
Hua Hsu is a staff writer for Grantland. His work has appeared in Artforum, The Atlantic, Slate, The Village Voice and The Wire. He teaches at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman. You can follow him @huahsu.