Daughter of the Mob
Dad was old-school, backwards in every sense of the word. If he were any more backwards, he would have died before he ever lived. In a sense he has, but that’s getting ahead of myself. If only he knew to quit while he was ahead, maybe I would never have learned that I’m a daughter of the mob.
As I had known him, dad was an upstanding guy and a very hard worker. My parents had owned restaurants since the early 80’s and made an honest living about 14 hours a day. There were weeks at a time when I’d never see him, weeks when I’d be awake and off to school before he woke up and nodding my sweet head off, lofty in fantastic dreams, by the time he came home. The man who slept in a room down the hall was a stranger to me, but he was my father, and I loved him for that. He may not have been the prodigy brain surgeon that stereotypes about first-generation Chinese immigrants would have dictated, but that didn’t matter to me. My home was safe, comfortable and I was thankful. I remember looking up at his lean, muscular body, which was heavily saturated with tattoos of green, blue and red dragons, and knowing from the bottom of my heart that he was unequivocally my provider, protector and personal hero.
His idea of a good time when we were all home together consisted of watching kung-fu soap operas as a family. As the resident patriarch, he’d lounge back on the living room couch with a smug face of entitlement while my sister and I took off his socks and massaged his feet as my mother served up a home-cooked meal from a piping hot kitchen. Sometimes it would just be alone time for him and me, such as when he let me play with his gun or when he’d let me count his stacks of money. I can thank him for my arithmetic skills—I’ve been counting to the thousands, one 20-dollar bill at a time since I was five years old.
Life changed though, on August 15, 1995, when my father Yick Man Chiu was formally indicted on twelve counts of conspiracy in racketeering, extortion, murder, gambling and robbery. I was wearing an old pair of fuzzy slippers, helping my friend with algebra homework on my bedroom floor when my mom came in with the news. Feeling nauseous, I cupped my mouth with my hand as tears glossed over my eyes like rain coating the windshield of a stationary car. It now takes three hours by car to visit him at the United States Penitentiary in Allenwood, PA from Baltimore, where he left me in my tracks, breathless, abandoned and disillusioned ten years ago.
Scarred now still, I wish that day never happened. Sometimes I kid myself into believing that all those old wounds have healed, though I never kid myself for long. The men in my life that leave me sprawled on the floor, kicking and screaming through my days, always bring my mind back to the first man who betrayed me. Every time I think that I’ve run away from it, it’s time to face the music again. It’s Father’s Day. It’s his birthday. A newspaper reporter named Joe Mathews is following me on my walk home from school in his car, asking me questions about him, like a fucking predator. For God’s sake, I was 13 years old.
When my father was indicted along with several of his accomplices, it became headline news in the Chinese newspapers. At best, those stories glorified the dangers of mob life. At worst, they painted my father as a powerful, pompous schemer. The American media didn’t catch up for years until Mathews decided to write an expose on local underground dealings for the Baltimore Sun. His story made it to the front page of the Sunday Sun on October 19, 1997 with a full-color photograph of my father, editorially chosen for its particularly snarling, sinister qualities. What readers didn’t see was that cropped out of the bottom right corner was me, wearing a purple silk headband, who he was holding on a sunny afternoon in our front yard.
I never knew that Mathews forged on with writing his article without having spoken with anyone in my family until Morgan Meyers decided to ruin my life at lunch during the fall of my freshman year in the Dulaney High School cafeteria. She ran up to me, waving the previous day’s paper in my face, asking me if the man in the picture bearing the caption, “Convicted: Yick Man Chiu, prosecuted as a tong member in a slaying,” was related to me. This is how I found out that my father is in jail for paying someone a grand to shoot a guy point blank in the head four times, to mess him up so bad that it took the police more than a year to identify the body, which was left in a ditch alongside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway outside of Baltimore City. I had previously known that dad was in “trouble,” but I had never known the gruesome details. I was devastated. God, why? Why in front of everyone? What a bitch. Who asks that?
I spent the remainder of that afternoon crying in a bathroom and in my guidance counselor’s office. He told me over and over again that what my dad did had nothing to do with me, that kids could be mean, and that they’d forget about it soon. It was too easy for him to say and I didn’t buy it. It sounded rehearsed out of an introductory-level psychology textbook. I could see from the nervous look in his eye that he had no idea what he was talking about. From that day on, I walked into school knowing that somehow, my past was more tainted than those of my peers. Every day I look in the mirror and I see traces of my father in my own face and body—all 5’7” of my seemingly put-together, A-student self is perpetually haunted by reflections of a monster.