Uncle, Uncle!


My lament was that a kind of intense beauty that I see given to me by science, is

seen by so few others; by few poets and therefore, even fewer more ordinary people.

—RPF


1


Uncle Tsai took up the smaller room beside ours. This was back when we lived in these low-rises situated across from the liquor store called Liquor Store, a 7-Eleven that played tinny recordings of what I later learned to be Stravinsky. Uncle was baba’s old college roommate, a physics PhD student at Illinois Institute of Technology who affectionately and exclusively referred to baba as 大哥 (viz. big bro/man/dude). It’s true that uncle had a few vices, but he also had a rare if not enviable sapere aude way with which he threw himself into his research, this total obsession with the pursuit of knowledge, of the inner workings of things, that verged on a sort of rapture. Uncle was what mama called a necessity borne of inordinate money pressures; to baba, a kindred spirit, a sustenance almost.

On certain summer evenings, he and baba would lounge out on the balcony in plastic lawn chairs while mama cooked. I’d sit near the sliding glass door, pretending to watch TV (mama didn’t like me listening to uncle), while they talked physics—leptoquarks and muons, of Great Men like Dirac, Feynman, Chadwick, Oppenheimer—sometimes work complaints, sometimes old classmates. I didn’t understand the theoretical parts much, though it was then I’d listen closest, collecting key phrases, trying to figure the contours of this great, all-engulfing physics thing, my intrigue only exacerbated by the vagueness and reverence and at times derision with which mama spoke of it.

Baba, unlike uncle, was rather soft-spoken and inward-dwelling, slouchy, so it was then, in these conversations, that I’d glimpse his hidden vitality: the way he could work himself up, red-faced, gesticulating staccato, talking for twenty, thirty minutes uninterrupted with all those barely strung together words stumbling. A strength to him.

One time, he got particularly frenzied discussing the principle of least action—which I understood, though hazily—in relation to light, then, in one swift motion, got off his chair and turned toward uncle.

Listen, baba said. If it’s true that light, at the point of entry, can simply know the shortest, quickest path through water, almost, almost as if it could predict the future, or at least as it appears to us, don’t you think there might be implications on our lives? Some parallels? Maybe, our own many paths, with all the wrong ones canceling out? Do you see where I’m going?

Little fatty, what do you make of all that? uncle said, turning toward me.

I agree, maybe, I said, a bit hot in the face, surprised they knew I was listening.

I’m messing with you, uncle said, turning back to baba. Keep going, maybe there’s something there.

The two of them went on for another few hours, skipping dinner; uncle, at one point, even standing up to applaud. That night mama and I ate alone, our private feast of boiled cabbage, pork sausage, Red Baron’s Meat Trio cut into four slices.

Look at those two, mama said.

I wonder what they’re talking about now, I said.

Mathematical elegance, equations, mama said. Curiosity, numbers, numbers numbers numbers.


2


A note on inordinate money pressures. Everybody we knew then—barring our landlord, and this regal old lady who lived across from us (after whose regality and, specifically, Town Car, I was named)—all worked in the same lab, and though we all lived off the same overseas per diem, our apartment was the only one furnished with lumpy third-hand furniture and a surplus adult man. Lucky family money, mama’d say of this.

It wasn’t rare in those days for me to wake to an empty bed on certain weekends, both mama and baba gone, only to find one of baba’s colleagues helping baba position a foreign piece of furniture—a 27” Zenith, a linty gingham sofa, a 300-watt floor lamp—in our eating-living-everything room. Often, they were moving elsewhere for some teaching role or another.

It was also these midmornings that I noticed a private unease overtake mama, especially with the better-educated, better-dressed wives and girlfriends, which nobody else—to my knowledge then, not even baba—seemed to register: the way she spoke louder, more boisterously, laughing that strange, projected laugh. She would say to these aunts, in an almost joking way, that we’d eventually repay them, how greatly we appreciated their generosity (though she never came near as rigid as the stodgy “generosity” might imply; she would bump shoulders, bear hug, cajole them in a curious way that often made her seem bigger). Then, after they left, and often with uncle and baba heading off to the lab too, mama and I would spend the afternoon cleaning, repositioning the new decor.

One afternoon, mama was trying to wipe something off a table that came stained when she let out a low guttural sound. She sat down beside me on the futon, not saying much before getting up and returning with an unopened Bud Light. It was the first time I had seen her with one. She must have noticed my discomfort since she quickly put her lips to my forearm and made loud fake fart sounds, over and over, which never failed to make me laugh even when I tried my best to resist.

Stop squinting, she said, sitting down beside me. You want to wear glasses your whole life? You don’t. They shrink your eyes all funny.

Then neither of us said much for a while, watching The Land Before Time, until mama popped the can open, making me flinch even though I was half-expecting it.

There’s a world where I would have taken you and left a long time ago, you know that? she said.

Huh? I asked. Leave where?

I’d take you back to Taiwan, and we’d live with grandma for a bit. Get my old job at the daycare. I’m not nuclear or atomic smart or whatever, but I can manage people. I can manage kids. You’ll be closer to your aunt and uncle, and have your own room, and I’ll take you to buffets to eat steaks, and seafood, and all the guava you can eat. All of that.

Really? I asked.

Why not?

What about baba?

If he gets a job, he can come along too, mama said.

But he has a job already.

No, he has his research. That’s an interest. A selfish one. It’s not a job.

Why not?

Do you know, your baba would end up just like uncle if it weren’t for me?

What is wrong with uncle? Why is that—

Why, why, why, you’re always asking all these whys, what are you, a little lawyer? Don’t you trust your mama?

Baba says they’re close, I said, feeling my face get hot. They’re, they’re really close. Baba says he and uncle are almost there.

Lincoln, your baba can do a lot of things. Maybe he’s a bit slow with real world things, but he could work anywhere. Really, anywhere, I’m not kidding—maybe not here, probably, but in Taiwan definitely.

Like what? I asked. What would he do?

Well, we just need to encourage him, be gentle with him, mama said. We can’t be too obvious, but we need to push him toward a job, okay? Slowly. “Baba, find a job, baba, find a job.” Okay?

Then she drank from her Bud Light and didn’t answer my question and turned back to the TV and we finished the movie, late afternoon by then, mama muttering something near the end, just as Sharptooth follows the light shaft to the Great Valley, something about how sad it was that none of the dinos, cute as they were, could escape their impending extinction.


3


The only reason baba kept going with a second postdoc was because of uncle—so mama said—and uncle’s high-minded impracticalness and all-consumptive loneliness. That entire fall, and winter, and spring was baba and uncle working themselves into a frenzy, sleeping at the lab more nights than not. It was the snowiest winter we’d ever had according to WGN-9. Eighteen inches. Me and mama didn’t do much of anything during that time. Vacuuming, cooking, making long-distance calls. A cousin was born overseas, then another. We walked out to the pond (filled with aimless ducks, then frozen, then thawed again) and back. Then mama became pregnant, and she’d ask me over and over if I was excited, whether I thought it was the right decision.

Then she began saying it, “baba, find a job,” repeating it, “baba find a job,” at first, rarely, like a jokey mantra: at the end of dinner, walking through Bermuda Food Market—“baba, find a job”—at the Chinese market with the dead fish smell, at the Chinese bookstore with the shrink-wrapped everything—and I would chant along, obediently and in-character—a private idiom, a call-and-response, sometimes three or four times a meal we’d do it, uncle burying his head in his bowl and me repeating in the same mindless way I much later recited the Pledge—“baba! find a job! baba! find a job!” and baba would insist, with a sort of strained face, how things were going well and we just had to be patient, and mama would get up and clean her plate, leaving the three of us: me watching, occasionally participating, as baba and uncle forced conversations about what they considered mundane.

What I didn’t understand was how there could be something baba, and uncle, seemed to enjoy so much, almost worship, that at once caused mama so much sadness, and even in the good periods, when baba and uncle were invited to present at all these out-of-state conferences, it felt like there was this tension running beneath everything, that made even the happiest things seem a bit forced.

That July baba took a week off, what he called a “mini mini sabbatical.” It had been months since mama or I had seen him outside of dinner. What prompted the break was a brief fainting on his last trip back to Taiwan, where he collapsed in the middle of a dinner, and where he awoke, according to him, feeling like he hadn’t experienced a gap in his consciousness at all, and that, rather, it seemed to be everybody else telling him, insisting, of the time that they had all lived, that he hadn’t. The diagnosis was something about blood sugar and exhaustion. Secret Cokes, mama said of this.

The first two days off he had some job interviews—somewhere like Virginia, or Pennsylvania—and the third day he spent pacing, the fourth laying in bed all day. On the fifth he took me to Burger King where he let me get a cookie dough ice cream pie. The lady handed me the wet glossy box and I waited quietly with my palm puddling condensation as baba ordered the rest of our meal. We sat at the corner booth and it was dark outside.

Do you want to stay in America? baba asked.

I shrugged. I don’t know, I said. Is this about your job?

Baba didn’t say anything, but looked like he was considering.

Why does mama keep telling you to get a job? I asked. What are you and uncle doing if it’s not a job?

I guess we’ll know in a few months, baba said.

What’s in a few months? I asked.

Nothing, baba said. Nothing, nothing. How’s the pie?

What’s going to happen? I asked.

Don’t worry, eat your pie.

Why do you always talk to me like I can’t understand? I can understand, okay? I know when you’re not saying everything.

I just have to finish up our project, baba said. Me and uncle, it’s very close, and I’ll explain it to you once it’s all wrapped up.

You’re not answering me. Why don’t you ever, ever ever answer me? I just want to know: What is physics? Why are you and uncle always talking about physics this, and physics that, when mama says she hates physics and she hates research, and, and she HATES it, she always says how much she hates it, and so, why, why can’t me and mama understand?

It’s, sometimes, curiosity for—

Curiosity for curiosity’s sake, I know! I know what you’re going to say! Always! Noble and grace and all that! I know what you always say!

Oh good, good. What’s on my mind now?

You will say something about learning, I said. That it’s important to learn, and, and—

Mama’s right, he said. Really. Research is a selfish thing. I know it. Why then, right? Me and uncle, all our friends—why spend all this time when it doesn’t matter?

I didn’t say anything.

Look, I’m not trying to hide anything, I mean it when I say I can’t fully explain it. I ask myself a lot, so many many times, but, still, I can only find ways of talking around it, and all I can hope is that maybe one day you get a sense of something like it yourself, something you have to do, because it’s the only way. I think—it’s something personal. You could say for me it was reading QED—right, that Feynman book—where he explains path integrals of light, how light might somehow know the fastest path from point A to B, before it even enters the water—it was something that I had been thinking on and off about for a while, how mysterious and omniscient that was, that light just knew. His explanation was so elegant, how he put it, everything suboptimal eventually canceling out, negating, leaving only the most optimal path, and I remember the thirty-minute walk back from work—it was near the second year of when I was measuring the thickness of those silicon wafers—I was walking back home down this horrible smelling street with street vendors selling steaks and noodles and knock-off purses and the gin ca lai a, gin ca lai a, and it was then that I had time to myself to think. And I couldn’t stop thinking about questions like that, questions about why things were, it was like something was pulling me—it was, a bit like I had this lottery ticket, and all the slots were still covered and unscratched and I had a feeling that I might—on a slim, slim off-chance—that I had a chance at something bigger, of answering one of these questions and—your grandma? Hmm. Well, she, both of them, your grandpa, too—they didn’t tell me what I could or couldn’t do, they didn’t know much about all these university things, but she did ask, how could you give up so much money? The stability? And the only answer I could come up with was that somehow there was something more important that was really tugging at me. I mean, these were—are—questions about the universe, about, seriously, the stars and the moon, all us living people. I just felt if there was even a slight chance at something big, a chance at uncovering a bit—and, the lottery ticket still isn’t all used up yet, but back then it was so limitless, so I felt I had to give these problems a chance. All that was too good to give up; the closest thing I can think of was how I loved reading these essays and stories in this children’s newspaper your grandpa had subscribed for me, 國語日報, these essays, about snow falling in the winter and lotuses looking sad in the winter, about scholar men thinking about their home villages, and even though I didn’t really understand it, not then, I still felt a kind of poetry, like a kind of unexplainable beauty. Some fundamental elegance. Physics is like that, is what I’m trying to say, it is beautiful like poetry. It is you, and some pen and some paper, and you’re sitting there, like you’re the first one out there, searching this sort of quiet, unexplored place, and you see those who have come before you, footprints, you see points where they U-turned, where they stopped abruptly, sometimes almost moved by the elegance of the solutions so far, thinking, maybe I can take off where they left off, building upon, on the shoulders of giants. Uncover something. Do you see what I mean, Lincoln? Does any of that make sense?


4


The blizzard had delayed baba’s flight back from Ohio. I made uncle take me with to pick him up from the airport. Baba looked a bit small standing in the snow, and almost kid-like, huddled up in his dark green polyester coat with his hood up and the mouth latch velcroed. Uncle asked him how things went, and baba said, I’ll tell you later, and handed me one of those green Pringles, which I loved, and I spent the entire ride back trying to ascertain the state of Ohio: the people, the food, the hotel, what TV shows did they have? How was the weather? Did he meet anyone famous? Would I have my own room like mama said? Baba answered everything curtly.

That evening mama made uncle take me out on a walk, so we went to Toys’R’Us where we marveled at the endless aisles of LEGO and Huffy bikes and, especially, the Playstation, which I noted uncle wanted, along with one of those huge TVs, the ones where you had to carve out a custom-sized hole in your wall just to fit it (which was a thing I didn’t even know people did).

We looked around for two hours and bought a pack of Juicy Fruit. As we walked out the store, uncle stopped to gaze up at the late summer dusk. I looked too.

Appreciate it, yeah? uncle said.

I nodded, a bit confused and also tired.

It was dark by the time we got home. Baba was squatted next to a pile of loose papers, beside a toppled-over chair. He was supergluing the leg of a chair back on. The door to the fridge was open, too, and making this low hum, lighting up a puddle of liquid that had formed beneath it.

Without saying anything, uncle took me to the bedroom.

Stay in here, he said.

What happened? I asked, but he had already left.

I could hear uncle and baba talking through the door—mama had taken the car after what baba called a heated discussion and just drove off.

She didn’t bring anything, baba said. She’s pregnant, and, and doesn’t even have a license, baba said. Shouldn’t we call the police?

I’m sure she’s okay, uncle said. That woman, she’s so resourceful.

The police came around ten. I cracked the door open to look. They were towering men, with broad shoulders and pleated pants and rugged black oxfords that made baba and uncle—standing there in their tank tops and sweatpants and foam-soled slippers with the blue plastic netting—look a bit stripped down and unguarded.

They asked baba and uncle all these questions in a rapidfire English. At one point, uncle said something to baba in Mandarin and that really set off one of the cops, who started telling them that they were here to help, and that it was really unhelpful if they were going to go off hiding things from them.

Sorry, pardon me, uncle said. Pardon me, pardon me.

Burger King? Laundry? Dominick’s? baba said, enunciating each syllable sharply.

Whose wife is it? the officer asked.

It went on like that for a while, and I eventually lay on the bed crying and feeling sorry for everything that I had ever done wrong, and that all I wanted was for mama to come back, and then sometime soon after that I must have passed out, because the next morning I awoke alone. From uncle’s recounting, he and baba followed the police in uncle’s car, and after weaving through side street after side street, they eventually found mama parked a few blocks away, in the dim parking lot of a church.

Over breakfast I tried to ask mama what happened, but she just brushed it off with jokes, that she had to make sure the car was working, that she thought it was time to try religion, and all. Eventually she said, I had to think, alright? I have to think sometimes too. And then she cleaned up the plates and told me that I should try speaking to baba in English more.


5


A few months passed. Baba got a job fixing old Nokias and Palm Pilots, making twice what he made trying to suss out the inner workings of the universe, so mama evicted uncle. It was all rather unceremonious. Mama was civil the entire time, and he and baba shared a smoke on the balcony, alternating between animated and serious. Outside it was snowy, and gray, sometime before the holidays. Uncle pulled me aside just as he was about to leave.

Little fatty, look at me. Stand up tall and be confident, and speak what you think, and second don’t let your mama brainwash you with all that 二十四孝 nonsense, modesty and whatnot. In this country you stand up for yourself. I’m serious. It’s a little weird sometimes how quiet you are. It creeps me out but I also sort of get it. A playground of the mind, right? I can tell you, you’re going to grow up to become a really great man, I know you will, I have this feeling that you’re special, and I’ve learned you have to trust these feelings sometimes. There’s something too smart in your eyes, and don’t you lose that, you hear me? 台灣之光. But you won’t get there chasing this physics business or even this scholarly man nonsense either, really, look at me and your baba, I mean your baba, he’s giving up so much for you, and you’ll really thank him one day, and, and respect your mama, you hear? You talk back too much sometimes, like a little lawyer. But, really, don’t become a lawyer, they have no ethics. I should go. Your mama, don’t look at her, she’s going to explode if I stay longer, and, also, I left something for you, so check under your pillow, ha! Sort of like that tooth fairy thing now that I think about it—but don’t show your mama, okay? Okay, good, good. Good luck, little fatty, good luck and don’t forget me when you make it big, you’ll remember me, right? You’ll remember me?

I hugged him around the waist, tucking my head into his jacket so mama wouldn’t see me cry.

Alright, good, good, don’t get all sad on me. I’m just saying, just remember, just remember me is all.

Then baba said one more goodbye and mama said nothing and we watched uncle get into his yellow VW, and we watched him wave through his snow-crusted window, and, afterwards, I found his parting gifts wrapped discreetly in an old issue of 世界日報: a deck of Playboy playing cards, a scratched-up Sony Universal Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits cassette, his red hat with the backwards Nike swoosh, and a worn-around-the-edges but intact MAX-A-MILLION scratch lotto.


6


That was the last time I saw him, and it wasn’t until one Thanksgiving when I was in middle school that we spoke again, on the phone. We were by then a family of four, and baba had been pulling in good, consistent money from the phone repair job for a few years, enough for a 3BD/1.5BA in a quiet suburb. I was surprised by how familiar uncle’s voice still sounded. He was living by himself in California, on his fifth postdoc. A real record, he said. The weather is amazing all the time here, and the girls are just incredibly sexy, you have to visit sometime, you have to. He had spent time in Ohio, Virginia, Geneva (briefly), and then back State-side, up and down the West coast. At one point, unprompted, he said, No time for a family, that’s for sure. I told him that I was happy for him. And then I hung up, a beat early, cutting him off just as he was saying—I think—how glad he was I remembered him.

In the intervening years I didn’t think much about him until many years later, last week in fact, when out of curiosity I asked mama if she remembered Uncle Tsai, whether she knew what he was up to and she said, rather matter-of-factly, that he had died.

Who? Mandy asked. Is he the tall guy in the pictures?

Yeah, with the hat, I said. This whole side to baba you don’t even know.

It’s terrible, really terrible, baba said. Maybe things weren’t as easy then, but it’s hard not to miss those days—they were so exciting and, and rich. So intellectually rich. He was a real genius, you know? I remember listening to him talk and thinking: How can someone not feel something inspired listening to this?

Mama said he killed himself, she thought, before she went to get more sink water to make the folds on the dumplings stick tighter.

The whole uncle thing, she said as the faucet ran. It makes your heart a bit sour, huh?

Later that night, I found his obituary on The Morning Call’s website. Above it was a loud banner ad, the gravity-defying profile of a sleek toothbrush, rotating seemingly forever.

Dr. Wen-Yu Tsai passed away unexpectedly on June 4, 2012, in Bethlehem, PA. Dr. Tsai was born in Taichung, Taiwan, and in 1993 immigrated to the United States to complete a doctorate in high energy physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He served as adjunct faculty in the physics department at Lehigh University where he will be fondly remembered for his kindness and industriousness.

Below that was a low-res headshot that looked as if it’d been cropped from a much larger group photo, where, behind overlapping shoulders, was uncle with his tight-lipped smile and black cap pulled low, his eyes barely visible through the darkened photochromic lenses, squinting as though the sun were too close and too bright.


7


I am hiding by the shelf of Capri Suns stacked high, triple, quadruple my height. I am holding this yellow Halloween-sized bag of M&Ms, and there’s a vague smell of pizza grease in the Super K-Mart. It’s all super bright. 大哥, 大哥, look at us, uncle says. We’re in this, what did that, that, what’s his name? Franklin Benjamin? That this country was built for the pursuit of happiness? What sort of happiness is that? How can you just leave without results?

You’ve already said that, baba says.

That’s because it’s just this sort of research, it takes time, sometimes a lot of time, look, you think people like us get here on accident? That we got this far, it’s 老天爺, it’s him giving us opportunities from up above, and you’re giving it all up? Just to glue together some cell phones?

It’s only until I take a few English classes, baba says. Then, who knows? Maybe I’ll come back.

And you’re happy with that? uncle says. Are you?

Lower your voice, Wen-Yu, you’re shouting, baba says.

I’ve made my peace with it, you know? uncle says.

What?

大哥, look, I’m not trying to sound over the top, but, but physics—I don’t know about calling, or fate, or whatever—but what we’re doing, I can tell you, it keeps me going. Especially now when we’re so so close, really, on the verge of something major, and, and let me say this: I’ve accepted it. I’ll be content leaving this world with nothing but having solved this problem. Do you understand? Do you understand me? Sometimes, sure, I try to imagine the world where I studied electrical engineering, or computers and all—and how comfortable I’d be, all that money and certainty and stability, but it’s always the same conclusion! I couldn’t do it. Those engineers are so imprecise, so rigidly focused on the practical. But this discipline we’re in, it’s really far more than the calculations and theories, isn’t it? It’s a pursuit. Some emergent quality, this life force, looming just beyond all that we really have. Something affirming. But can’t you see? It’s too late. It’s damning as it is affirming. You can’t ever unknow it.

That kind of intense beauty.


 

HAN CHANG is a designer and writer. His work is also in World Literature Today.