On top of a mountain behind a small town in Hong Kong, one can behold many things. There is the dark, green-blue mass we call the ocean. Beyond it, a softly sizzling landscape of buildings and skyscrapers. And above, a sky that bursts with clouds.
I stood on top of this mountain on a very rainy day, sometime during the lead-up to Typhoon Mangkhut, a ripping cyclone which cut across the Philippines and through southern China this past summer, the summer between my last year of high school and first year of college. My father and I were hiking up the mountain that lay as an evergreen backdrop to our peninsular town, where I’d grown up—the town a short ferry ride away from the city, the town where I lived off an unceasing smell of salt in the air, the town where every bus driver knew my name. Behind and above our town, my father and I were hiking Tiger’s Head.
The pre-typhoon weather brought a sweeping fog that blanketed any promise of a horizon view. For the last few minutes of the hike I trudged up a steep dirt path to the peak, while my dad stayed at a lookout point hundreds of feet below me. There, beneath the shelter of a small pagoda, he could wipe his now water-speckled glasses and rest.
“You want to go all the way up there? Go—I’m too tired to follow you,” he said in Chinese.
My father didn’t miss any view on that completely white-gray day, but he missed an extraordinary feeling of solitude and fantastic reality, something like a cool sauna in the thick of a tropical jungle. Beads of sweat and rainwater collected all at once on my arms, lips, and face, a sensation unfathomably satisfying. It is utterly pleasing to know that expanses of nature and civilization surround you, and yet to see only the cloud that shrouds them and consumes you.
I, alone, stood above my dad, alone. But as I was being engulfed by a gentle and beautiful solitude, my father was soaking in a type of loneliness that I had yet to know in my lifetime.
My father lives most of the year alone in our 1,500-square-foot suburban apartment in Hong Kong. He is a seasoned investment banker for HSBC. In his free time, he reads the news, watches 60 Minutes, peruses WeChat on his iPad, and hikes. He will often walk to the town plaza, shower and eat at the clubhouse, restock on groceries, and walk back home. That is his biweekly routine. His back is perpetually slouched in a subtle hunch, his brow quietly furrowed toward a screen. He seldom cooks a proper meal at home, and the piano across the kitchen sits dormant and shut. Occasionally, my father will clean the apartment: mop the floor, wipe down the windows and large mirrors, dust off the living room chandelier.
Things were not always like this.
When my father’s hair was blacker (he hasn’t aged ostensibly other than the strands of white that have sprouted on his head,) he would come home from work each day to his wife and two young daughters. Home was routinely filled with eyes and smiles and conversation; my father would serenade us with Michael Jackson songs after dinner when he was in a good mood, cook us the tastiest dishes out of our assorted leftovers on Sundays. On weekdays, dinner was my parents’ zealous intellectual debate, coupled with my sister’s and my spirited nonsense, over homemade dumplings. If my parents were lucky, the meal was followed by a set of songs sung by my sister as I pounded the piano keys.
Undeniably, home also held bouts of anger and pain: when panic attacks afflicted my sister, when my mother was fired from her headhunting job, when my father’s anger leapt out of bounds, when I started a foolish fight with somebody in the family. Too often, my sister and I would curl up on our bed and cover our ears to shut out our parents’ fiery shouts from the next room over.
But voices are voices. Loud or soft, they fill a house and turn it into a home.
The first departure from our home was my sister’s. In 2011, she was sent off to a therapeutic boarding school in the States, not on account of any disciplinary punishment, but after my parents debated and hesitated and took painstaking measures to find the best option of support for her first diagnosed bipolar episode. For the first time, our family had reached one of its four limbs to a town across the world called Madison, Connecticut. But my sister’s distance from us only augmented my parents’ care for her: phone calls and Skype sessions were almost as frequent as the incessant conversation concerning her wellbeing. My parents, thousands of miles away from the subject of their fretful speculation, continued to build their priorities around her. My sister was learning to make new friends, going to the movies, and unfolding herself in therapy sessions. At eleven, I did what I found most peacefully effective from afar: pray for my sister each night to a god I had abruptly chosen to believe in.
The second departure, not long after, was mine. My best friend in middle school started looking into college preparatory schools in the U.S., and soon we were taking SSAT classes together and I was filling out lengthy applications for boarding schools in states I only knew of on TV and in songs. (“Massachusetts” by the Bee Gees comes to mind.) In August of 2013, my mother and I scoured colossal department stores for the right laundry basket, winter coat, and snow boots. The following month, I started living away from home: a day’s costly commute from my parents and two hours’ commute from my older sister. My new environment was an exciting new test, andI was taking in more from my surroundings than I was giving out. My sister was on the cusp of adulthood, I on the cusp of puberty, and we were both edging out of our parents’ wrinkling reach.
The third departure, my mother’s, was a gradual one. Caught in a hectic schedule at boarding school and willfully ignorant during vacations at home, I didn’t notice that my mother was out the front door until the door had closed behind her. It was, as I view it, a decision formed by the culmination of various events and reflections. It was a decision both personal and interpersonal, rational and emotional, perplexing and elucidating. It was one that, for some time, contained “divorce” in its header, until the word was discussed and revised and ultimately placed aside. My mother decided to spend time practicing mindfulness at Buddhist monasteries abroad, eventually remaining in one for most of each year in upstate New York. She bought a meditation mat and cushion, learned to lead her own segments of the practice, and came close to shaving her head. It is a decision she continues to make and a process she continues to undertake today.
My father remains in our old apartment, overlooking a still marina and disheveled palm trees. He gets his hair cut once a month without fail, passing the kindergarten my sister and I attended on his way to the same town plaza. The three of us return to Hong Kong a few times a year, and on other vacations he flies to the U.S. and visits us. The same apartment is emptier now that the three of us have cleared out old things. In the fridge is nothing more than eggs, old congee, and soy milk. My father frequents the same mountain trail up to Tiger’s Head, sometimes with a colleague but usually on his own. He works five days a week in his worn dress shirts and trousers, his socks tattered with stubborn holes. He won’t quit his job soon.
Standing at the lookout point, I pictured my father sitting on a bench under the pagoda below me and scrolling through news feeds on his iPhone, a mere few inches in front of his face. He has removed his glasses to reveal creases by his eyes. His blue T-shirt is cold and soaked through. His hair is darkened by the fog.
“I am so lonely,” he tells me from time to time, sometimes through text while I am away at school, and sometimes in person, his eyes turned away from mine. My father holds his loneliness close to his heart. His loneliness I wouldn’t know, I couldn’t know.
I loved that mountain, and my dad loved it, too. When he was younger and I a baby, his back was in fit condition to hike the steeper trail up the mountain. He would climb, through brush and trees and on steep rocks and roots, almost every day, before stopping by the clubhouse to shower and coming back home. Alone, with neighbors, with friends, it didn’t matter. After the hike, he would always return to my mother, sister, and me at home in our apartment, a short walk from the trailhead.
One by one, each of us has left my father. My sister to therapeutic boarding school, I to boarding school, my mother to the Buddhist monastery, our footprints gently fading in the Atlantic. My father still hikes Tiger’s Head when we leave him, alone, at home. The three of us are visitors and he its inhabitant, its climber, its faithful companion.
My father used to tell me growing up how special our town was, wedged between the mountains and the sea. I didn’t understand it until now.
We walked back down the mountain together as the clouds matured into a steady rain. The fragrant, ripe soil permeated the air and browned my father’s gray sneakers. In silence, I thanked the earth for being there for him when the rest of us could not be.
By Becky Zhang