Say I’m Sorry Say I Love You

Nicole Zhao



I didn’t tell my parents where I had gone because I knew that, in my household, it was wiser to invite forgiveness than to ask for permission. When I got to our home in Elmhurst, Queens, Papa laid out his grocery hauls of the day, orbs lolling on the clear plastic atop the floral tablecloth—oranges, persimmons, plums, mangoes, lychees, longan. It was the summer after my junior year of college.

I entered the word “depression” into the Google Translate app. Yōuyù zhèng, I confessed, showing Papa the screen. Wǒ yǒu yōu yù zhèng. I told him I’d just seen the doctor for it. I showed him my new medicine bottle. 

He nodded. He was sad that I was sad. 



I’m going to go out and play mahjong, my dad said, sitting at the edge of my bed. Then, I’m going back home to China. So, goodbye. Okay? 

I was thirteen. It was spring break in my last year of middle school. At 8:30 a.m., my dad had woken my sister, then ten years old, and me up from a sleep that I had fully planned to extend past noon.

He’s just bluffing, I thought. He had always made casual references to going back to China for good in the past, but this time felt serious.

Okay, I said, nonplussed. Papa left the room. I turned over in my bed and tears streamed down my cheeks.

Papa came back into the room and spoke for two hours, trying to squeeze as much paternal wisdom in as possible — a last speech from father to daughters.

This is not the life I imagined, he said. Your mother really broke my heart deep. She took my life. She broke me forever.

By this time, I had heard the stories so many times that I was numb to them. I tuned them out like a song playing while I was on hold. I don’t recall exactly when the stories started, only that he started telling me because I was “old enough to understand and needed to know.” The scenes of my mother’s wrongs against him played out on repeat, the backdrop to my childhood.

My mother never talked to his parents. She refused to give him money for his father’s hospital care in China. Securing her role as the sole earner for the household, she forbade him from taking English classes, learning to drive, or getting a job, despite his pleas to escape the house for fresh air. She secretly drew up her own will without his consent. When his mother was on her deathbed, and he handed my mother the phone to say hello, she shrieked that she had no money to give and left the room. She demanded he meet her needs, without heeding his. She constantly wore a frown and spoke with anger, much the same way she would speak to my sister and me. 

To my mother, my father was nothing more than a tool for her to have children. While she worked sixteen-hour night shifts, he soothed our infant cries, developing insomnia. In between cooking us meals daily, he dreamed of killing himself. 

When he told me about the time he went to the store to buy the materials, I held the pain that poured from his mouth in my small hands. Later, we’d learn the word for what my mother did to my father: abuse.

I felt selfish for wanting my father to stay. Who was I to keep him from his fulfillment? I berated myself for wanting to keep my father from his happiness when I had taken so much from him already. That night, as they fought, I prayed that my parents wouldn’t separate and tried to focus on my book. I worried that, without my father, I would have to eat McDonald’s everyday from then on.



When he awoke, my father was startled by the face of his dead mother. She peered over him, eyebrows knitted.

Ah Míng, she said gently. He felt her familiar enveloping fingers press into his elastic skin, loose from the lack of exercise. Xǐng lái.

She looked as if she had peeled from the picture framed in the living room, but her skin was the translucent, bluish hue of skim milk. The ripples of cream pulsed and buzzed, encircling one another.

Mama? His heart instantly ached. He gripped her forearm, but his fingers slipped through the fog of flesh and he nearly fell over himself on the sofa bed on which he slept the days away. When she sat by his feet, he felt the warmth of her ghost body. He longed to embrace her. Mama, I hate it here. I have no life here.

Qi ge ya. Qi ge dua ba, she chided him. It was a man’s duty.

So he stayed.

The specter of his ever-possible departure haunted my childhood. The shadows of my mother’s sins and crimes against him sat on the furniture, like the relatives I never knew, ghost eyes trailing my movements. The guilt of knowing nothing I could ever do could make his sacrifice worth it. A layer of ever-present combustible dust that coated every dinner, vacation, milestone celebration, ready to explode at the slightest spark.



Tied to a longan tree in the middle of Zoumating village in Fujian on a hot June day is a frail man. It is the penultimate year of the Cultural Revolution. The man is surrounded by sixteen people of all ages. His pregnant wife, seven-year-old son, and twelve-year-old daughter watch alongside one hundred other villagers, helpless and transfixed in silence.

That seven-year-old boy was my father. To this day, it is the saddest day of his life. A child was the first to throw a stone at the man tied to the longan tree. Starting at noon, they beat him unconscious with fists, stones, and branches until the late afternoon. Tears streamed down my father’s and his sister’s faces. 

God has eyes! He’s watching you! the boy cried, pleading them to stop beating his father, but they continued. Terrified that his unconscious father’s eyes would never reopen, he shouted at him not to sleep, in Puxian, their local dialect. Ah Zheng, no kun, no kun!

The beaters barked at him and his sister to stop crying or else they and their pregnant mother would get beat, too. They sprinted after his sister with fists and palms raised, ready to strike.

By 7 p.m., it was dark and raining. The other villagers had finally dispersed. The boy watched as a man clad in a poncho emerged from the darkness and strode up to the tree, the long barrel of a shotgun resting on his shoulder. Ah Zheng! he called after his father, still strapped to the longan tree. He clutched the butt and swung the gun at his father’s stomach, lurching him forward. Annoyed by the boy’s shrieking, the man struck the boy’s forehead. My father still has the scar from that day, a small notch along his hairline.

Later, the boy and his sister took his father down from the tree. The boy ran into the part of his house with shrines and incense, where the three families in Zoumating that shared the surname Zhao gathered to pay respects to their ancestors—a dark and damp room where the boy often saw ghosts milling about. 

He knelt down, clasped his hands together, and prayed, God, you have eyes. You can see that we have no food, no clothes, no place to talk freely. Bless us, and make sure my father doesn’t die. Please, if I have children, please don’t have them live like me, suffering like this. 

When the rain dissipated, my father saw, with eyes upturned to the sky, the clouds part and a beautiful, red-roofed house appear, radiating light. Perhaps my father is not dead, he thought. He was right; his father was unconscious, but still alive.

This memory would not return to my father until forty years later. One night, he dreamt vividly of that day and of the red house in the sky and woke up crying.


1950s – 1960s

In Zoumating village, located in Huating town, in the Chengxiang district of Putian municipality, in Fujian, in 1948, robbing and opium were popular occupations. My grandfather, unmarried, had his own business—he wasn’t rich, but he had made a bit of money, enough to buy land. People in need begged him for food. They knocked on his window each night, and my grandfather came out and shooed them away.

A year later, in 1949, Communists proclaimed victory over the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and these bandits became village leaders in government. That was when the beatings began. 

Over the next ten years, my grandfather would get beaten regularly by the villagers he had previously spurned. At its peak, he was beaten for twenty-nine nights straight.

The village leader would knock on their family’s window, oil lamp in hand because electricity would not come to my father’s village until 1990, and beckon him to come outside. They would take my grandfather’s arms and raise them up behind him, his shoulder blades pulled back. With his wrists tied to the bar outside, they would leave him there all night. At dawn, shoulders aching and blood rushing back down through his veins, he’d have to go farm for the day. The rest of the village never knew why he went crazy.

Your father was the most intelligent, most successful and competent farmer in the whole village, always producing double the crops of anyone else. It’s so sad that he lost his mind, people would tell my father while he was a young man.

I still don’t know why my grandfather was beaten. It may have been because the bandits who became village leaders wanted to enact revenge on those who had spurned them in their time of need. Perhaps the beatings were part of Mao’s campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries, in which Mao encouraged people to execute “enemies of the masses.” In Fujian, the rate of execution during this campaign was nearly double that of the country as a whole. 

Perhaps there is no sense to it at all.



When my mother came to Fujian, it was like a sign from God. 

Word had spread throughout the farming village: an American woman had come to find a husband. She was conducting interviews from a house a few miles away. Upon hearing about her arrival from his cousin, my father’s ears perked. 

Don’t worry! he told his cousin in Puxian, grinning. One-hundred-percent chance, I will get. Fresh from two years in the army and muscles rippling, he knew that he would “win.” He would be chosen. He stowed his army headshot in his chest pocket, hopped on his bicycle, and pedaled to the house in the dry summer heat. 

My mother sat alone in a dark room.

Hello. How are you? he said in stilted English, the basics of which he had learned in the few years of school he could afford to attend.  

My father listed his credentials: I can sew, do laundry, cook. It was not typical for men in his village to cook, but he had learned in the army, cooking for 150 men at once. He spoke in Puxian, which my mother did not speak. But because her parents had immigrated to the Philippines from a neighboring village, they spoke local dialects that approximated one another. 

You can cook? My mother’s eyes twinkled. Ten years his senior, my mother had spent her late 20s and early 30s establishing her career as a nurse in the States. Now in her mid-30s, she was anxious to have children. His strength and cooking abilities made him the perfect choice.

Papa nodded. He took out a piece of paper and started writing the words he knew in English: 

Banana. Good morning. Car.

In the end, he bid her farewell.

No questions? my mother barked.


Everybody here asks me, ‘Do you have money? Do you have a car? Do you have a house?’ Why don’t you have any questions? 

Flabbergasted, my father replied, I don’t know you. It’s not my right to ask you that.

My father was confused why she seemed angry. He thought she seemed stupid, but if she lived in America, she couldn’t be stupid. He thought she must simply want a good man to marry, and he knew he had a good heart. This was fate.

Whether you pick me or not is your choice, my father continued. I don’t have a choice. I know life is not easy for a woman by herself in the outside world. I hope you take care and be safe.

My mother gave my father her address so they could exchange letters. The next day, the news exploded across the village: The American woman had chosen my father.

My father wrote my mother letters every month, but he did not receive a response until November. In October, he called to wish her a happy birthday, but her brother picked up. She wasn’t home.

In late January 1993, she returned to Fujian, where they got married at the local courthouse in the capital. Nine months later, I was born in New York. 



In college, I lay in bed and missed class everyday, only to roll out at 5 PM and pull an all-nighter. I had no idea what to do with my life or career. I felt worthless watching everyone thrive socially and academically while I could barely find the motivation to eat on time. 

The feeling was compounded knowing that I was only in college because of my parents’ hard-earned money and sacrifices. I was the reason my father had stayed in America and eroded his future; how could I be so wasteful? 

I read self-help books. Friends counseled me with tactical suggestions that felt impossible. The shame sent me into spirals.

When someone at the university posted online about their own depression, I was curious. I read through the symptoms: persistent sadness and emptiness; feelings of guilt and worthlessness; loss of interest in activities; oversleeping; irritability; difficulty taking care of one’s basic responsibilities; thoughts of suicide. I checked each one as I went down the list. I read that depression is a medical condition, which soothed me. I was not a bad person. My brain chemistry was firing differently. 

Research suggests depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Like any medical condition, it requires treatment.

When I decided to see a therapist, she said it sounded like I’d had chronic moderate depression since the middle of high school. 

You are very hard on yourself, she said. You don’t have to be. 

The world started to crack open.



I’m sick, Papa told us. I’m sick in the head.

The men had been following him. He locked eyes with them in the supermarket, between the dried mushrooms and live fish, their hands on the glass jars of pickled mustard. Earlier that month, he heard tapping on the line as he spoke to his brother, punctuating their punctuations. Tap. Tap tap. Tap. He stopped calling his brother.

At the Fujianese restaurant where he played mahjong weekly, the men showed up as new customers. When my father saw them, he bolted out of the restaurant, their eyes following.

His friends in China stopped returning his calls. Two weeks later, his best childhood friend huffed, terse, into the phone that he had said bad things.

What bad things?

He had no idea what they were talking about. He was puzzled how his memory seemed to be in patches. He wondered if he were an illusion, whether perception was just imagination. 

He told us his friends and family from China had shunned him for something he doesn’t remember saying, but it must have been really bad. Now, the Chinese government was after him. He can’t ever return to China because the government would kill him. The Fujianese restaurant workers he used to play mahjong with were spies reporting findings on him to the Chinese Communist Party. It is why his friends in China don’t talk to him anymore. 

I forget what I said, but I said some really bad things. Revenge or something, he said, staring into the distance. I have good in my heart, but it came out. They wrote bad about me in the newspaper.

It’s okay, Papa, I told him, touching his forearm. That’s in the past now. You can move on.

I can’t. I did something really bad, but I don’t know what it is.

His fingers wrapped around the cup, index finger and thumb stroking up and down, rubbing the styrofoam raw and rattling it as he talked. The rambles did not make sense; his words were just disparate memories and scenes strung together by free association. At some point, he mentioned Princess Diana. 

These were how all our conversations went. When he started hearing voices, my mother brought him to the Bellevue psychiatric ward and told us he was on vacation.

My sister and I found him a Chinese-speaking psychiatrist and a therapist. 

Split personality disorder was the diagnosis. Symptoms include, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, “the presence of two or more distinct personality states” and the inability to recall memories. 

The primary identity tends to be “passive, dependent, guilty and depressed” with other personalities being more aggressive and hostile. 

It was a relief to have a name for what was happening, even if other psychiatrists provided different diagnoses: paranoid schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder. 

Still, there was a framework. There was context. He was not alone.

He started going to therapy every two weeks. Four years later, my heart soars when he tells me over FaceTime that he feels better, that he is returning to himself.

The therapist thinks that I said those bad things because I was so ko li mia when I was small, he says. I had a lot of pain, but I controlled it. Kept it tight inside and forgot it. But then when I got to America, with your mother treating me so badly, it just all came back. 他说,不是你的错,是你的病. She said it’s not my fault. It’s my sickness.


2008 – 2011

In contrast to my father, my mother did not share much about her past or feelings. Only her criticisms, her insecurities, her demands, her complaints. Even her silence, which she wielded as a weapon when upset, was deafening. 

During big fights, we would scream until we were out of breath, our shrill voices rattling the walls. She’d interrupt me mid-sentence or pick out little things I’d say and twist my words. I’d complain that she wasn’t listening to what I was saying, she’d misinterpret, I’d jump up and down, wring the fabric of my shirt, hop up on my bed, clap or stomp—anything to make her stop cold in her yelling. Then, she’d smirk in contempt and the cycle would repeat for another hour. My mother would often take out the spoon we used to stir food in the kitchen pots, and I’d shut the door on her to prevent her from coming in and hitting me with it. She’d whack it on the door—whack, whack, whack—until the white paint on my side chipped and flung everywhere. 

The next day, we’d forget. I’d greet her as she came home from work. The words would escape my lips before I could remember we’d fought the day before. “Sorry” was a weakness, and therefore not in our vocabulary.

Or, the day would be tense, the silence taut, like a drum, waiting for someone to capitulate with the first word. With each fight, I would grow in hardiness. Until she’d give me a plate of cut apples and a cup of tea and chide me to put my coat away. I’d chomp on a slice, relishing my sweet win, watching the dust settle once again.


August 2019

When my mother took my father to watch the latest superhero movie at the AMC in Times Square, I was surprised.

That’s very nice of you, I told her. Why did you decide to do that?

She had never done that.

Oh, you know, she demurred. He likes Jason Statham. Sometimes, a date. It’s nice. We had issues back in the day.

What kind of issues?

Marital issues, you know. Ups and downs.

Like what?

Like hitting.

Where? I asked. It was the first time I had heard about it.

On the head sometimes. It’s light, but it adds up. You know. When he gets angry, he loses control.

Well. You did some messed up things to him.

I don’t know what he talks about, not learning English, not learning to drive. I don’t know what that’s about.

You didn’t let him learn English or learn to drive.

I don’t know. My mother thumbed her handbag and shifted in her seat. I forget.


November 2019

An hour after I turned 26, my father’s brother called him from China. Their father had died. 

My father lit incense three times a day for forty-nine days. I came home that Sunday and knelt to the ground in front of the burning incense sticks my father had stuck into stemless wine glasses filled with dry rice. I bowed my forehead to touch the hardwood floor, stood up, and did it twice more. I cried for the passing of my last living grandparent, even though I did not know him.

For seven Saturdays, my father squatted in front of an old scorched pot in the kitchen and lit the sheets of gold-lined joss paper piled inside. The rim of the pot was shining metal, but the bottom and sides were a matte black.

My mama told me within 1.5 minutes of the paper burning, it reaches the dead! my father said. I took some joss paper and added it to the flames, watching them lick and dissolve the sheets and flare in gentle anger. The fire danced and devoured atop the crumpled, blackened pile at the pot’s bottom. Smoke filled the apartment, silent save for the crackling fire. Our smoke detector was broken.

Are you having trouble breathing, Papa? Like, why do you do this all the time? I touched my tongue to the top edge of my lips to demonstrate. He had been doing that repeatedly, like it was a tic, his wet tongue heavy and swollen as it lolled outside his mouth and dabbed his lip.

Not trouble breathing, he said. 痛苦. Pain.

That night, my mother could not find the pearl earrings and necklace set she had worn in Vegas. 

Where’s my jewelry? she barked at my father from the dining room.

I don’t know.

You were in my room today.


My mom was getting upset. Wearing her scowl, she gathered her purse so she could disappear for the night at the casino.

My father got up. Where are you going now? You blame me for taking your jewelry, and now you want to leave?

Tears rolled down her face. It seemed to simultaneously happen in slow motion and end before I registered it: a slap.

And another one. 

I was enraged—angry at my mother for selfishly provoking my father in his grief. 

Why would you accuse him of stealing your jewelry when his dad just died? I asked her. Can you not keep your thoughts to yourself?

Her bloodshot, wet eyes roved around the room and her pitiable look made me even angrier. When I yelled in her face, towering more than four inches over her, she raised her arms instinctively in defense. I grabbed her bony forearms, saying, Do you remember when your parents died? She trembled in my grasp, and I rattled her even more. I said, Are you capable of empathy? Are you capable of understanding pain outside yourself?

You don’t know, she sobbed.

My grasp loosened. Her face revealed a deep pain I had never seen before. She was right, I didn’t know. She had never told me. Whenever I asked her about her life and past, it was like pulling teeth. Truth always seemed fickle and elusive in our household.

I had always viewed my father as trapped, and her as the warden. But perhaps in imprisoning my father, rendering him financially and socially dependent on her, my mother had unwittingly imprisoned herself, chaining him to her and losing the key. 

My parents: prisoners in their own home—of one another and of their own minds. 

I let go of her arms, rested my hand on her shoulder, leaned close, craned my neck so our eyes were level, the way I saw teachers do with kindergarteners. 

Mama, you have to say, I’m sorry, I said slowly, maintaining eye contact even as she tried desperately to look away. Can you say, I’m sorry, about the jewelry because you know you shouldn’t have said that today?

I know, it was a mistake for me to verbalize it. I’m just upset because it was a lot of jewelry I liked, and now it’s gone, but it’s okay. Her voice quieted as if she were telling herself as much as she were me. I’ll buy new.

I know you’re sad, and it wasn’t right for him to do that. But if you say, I’m sorry, that’s powerful. He’s never heard that from you.

She squeezed her eyes shut and looked off in the distance. It’s hard. It wasn’t hard before, but now it’s hard, because he hit me.


She paced in place before turning to the living room. Ah-Ming, she called flatly. I’m sorry.

Sorry for what?! my dad barked. You bullshit treat me like shit!

My mother simultaneously deflated and hardened. You see? I say sorry and this happens?

Still, it felt like magic. 

Like the impossible had happened.

Visual Art: Chanell Stone, Court Mirages.