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Dear Baba: A personal essay

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SEPTEMBER 24, 2022

As I sit here wondering where to start on this letter to you, struggling to assign words big enough to encapsulate the complexities of our relationship, it hits me that I’ve only recently started calling you “Baba” again, and that for a long time, you were reduced to “Dad.”

Our relationship has always been a rather tumultuous one, mellowing out only in these last few years, but I remember it being especially tense right before I left for college — with me at the peak of my teenage angst, and you struggling to understand that teenage angst.

We never seemed to be able to agree on anything. To you, my tops were always too low-cut, my extracurriculars were never meaningful and my stress was constantly trivial. It felt to me like, no matter how hard I tried, I could never please you.

The day you moved me into college, you seemed particularly irritable, and that, in turn, put me in a terrible mood. I’m a ceremonial person — I have always been one — and I had envisioned an emotional, teary goodbye, symbolic of the official end of my childhood, one that we’d all remember for the rest of our lives.

But by the time I was fully moved in and you were supposed to leave, all I felt was relief. I had wanted there to be a day, for once, where I didn’t feel like I had to tread carefully around you for fear that it would provoke you. I was angry, and I was, frankly, glad to be finally rid of you. I resented you back then for so many things that, in moments like these, I find myself overcome with guilt that perhaps I only loved you out of obligation. For a long time, I was convinced you felt the same.

I can’t remember now if I even gave you a hug when we said goodbye.

But that night, when I called Mama to show her the setup of my brand new place, she asked if I needed anything you guys could drop off for me. I laughed dismissively, teasing her for already missing me so much that she wanted to drive the hour back just to see me. She teased me back then, telling me that it was actually you who kept pestering her to call me, that it was you who spent the night moping on the couch and that it was you who wanted her to offer so that he might have an excuse to see me again and make sure I was okay.

“I really don’t even miss you that much,” she joked, “it’s your Baba who’s been the saddest.”

It took that for it to suddenly strike me that you have a life outside of being my dad. I don’t know how I had never thought of it before, and it’s difficult for me to solidify these thoughts into words even now. But before this, in my immature brain, you and Mama’s lives simply revolved around me and Ethan. It wasn’t meant to be selfish, it simply was. I had always thought of you as my dad — strong and dependable and capable of fixing anything — but only as my dad, and never as your own person.

I’m embarrassed to say that it took that long for the realization to hit me, for me to realize that you might be someone with a different role around his friends, someone with insecurities of his own, someone with difficult-to-process emotions that don’t necessarily involve me. And suddenly, the annoyance I held against you for messing up “my special day” turned into guilt.

I had been so fixated on the importance and excitement and apprehension that came with this day for me that I never thought about the emotional turmoil you, too, must’ve experienced dropping your oldest off at college. I blamed you for your irritability, which I realize now was probably triggered by the ambivalence of this day rather than your trying to be difficult.

That night, my first night at college, was the first time I gained a new understanding for both our relationship and for you, not only as my father, but as a person.

Distance truly provides perspective. As cliché as that may be, even being the mere 50 miles away at college has made me realize the extent of how much you and Mama provided for us and how sheltered we got to be growing up.

And there are so many things you did for me that I took for granted. You cut me fruit every single day, going out of your way to prepare only what I liked, even though the extra calories made me refuse it most days. You stayed up late reading my physics textbook so you could relearn the concepts and explain them to me, even though I would get frustrated when you didn’t know the correct terms. You took time out of your day to tell me about current events so that I could stay informed, even though I often acted like you were wasting my time.

Regardless, I’m glad I was able to come to this realization when I did. It’s given us the opportunity to mend past wounds, even some I never thought could be fixable. I think we’ve talked more in just these last two years than we did throughout all of my high school years. I find myself incredibly grateful now, finally, for things that I always should’ve been grateful for.

Sometimes, there’s still an emotional barricade between us because of the way our relationship was when I was growing up, but I feel it dissolving little by little, day by day. Still, I suppose this is why I had to put all of this into a letter, rather than just saying it directly to you.

And still, this is why I find myself struggling to say thank you. Gushy, emotional moments have never really been our thing, but I will say it here.

Thank you for the cut-up fruit and physics tutoring and news briefings. Thank you for taking the long way back to Berkeley every time so we can spend more time together. Thank you for being the best Baba you knew how to be.

Contact Manya Zhao at 


SEPTEMBER 24, 2022