by CATHALEEN QIAO CHEN
When I was growing up in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, my parents and I would road trip up and down the scenic parts of the Rust Belt in our hideous mauve ’92 Geo Prizm, windows down and equipped with only a handful of free maps from the local AAA.
I would stretch across the back, seatbelt wrapped around my entire body and nodding off to the sound of rubber tires grazing past the asphalt highway. The moment before I fall asleep, when I can still see the passing miles of green from the corner of my eyes, Mom would turn around and smile. That sort of assurance, I realize now, I will never know again.
I was nine and I had only lived in the States for seven months. Dad was a traveling scholar in the process of attaining his second PhD from West Virginia University in Morgantown, a pleasant riverside town of 28,000. He had been in and out of my life in pursuit of academia since I was born, so finally Mom decided it was time to drop her own life in Urumqi, China for the three of us to be together. And so we were together.
We didn’t have much in Morgantown, but I would’ve never known. Dad supported us on a sparse teaching assistant salary and Mom took up cooking and couponing. Every other Sunday, she’d take me to the public library on Spruce Street and we’d sit in the storybook section to learn English from the likes of Judy Blume and Jerry Spinelli. It was a 30-minute walk and on days when Dad didn’t have to work in the lab, the three of us would stroll down together.
And of course, there were the mini road trips. On a clear, April Saturday morning, Dad would announce our itinerary: we were to depart in 40 minutes to picnic in Blackwater Falls State Park, a little gem in the nook of the Allegheny Mountain. Sure enough, we’d pack up our yard-sale cooler and hop on the road within the hour.
When I was even littler, I used to get very bad motion sickness. But I never once got sick in that pinkish purple Prizm, a well-worn haven Dad had bargained for $4,000 from a family friend. Even in the most tumultuous peaks of the Appalachians, I would only have to close my eyes and then feel nothing but the alpine landscape pulsating through the engine and then through my body.
In the Prizm, time and distance sort of blended into one gliding dimension incalculable by arithmetic, channeling alongside trees, highway rest areas and a capricious horizon. The backdrop of mountains and woodland was always, unfailingly beautiful, and never once did I dare to ask “are we there yet.”
As Dad drove, Mom would play her favorite cassettes. Among standard Chinese pop classics, there was one tape of famous love ballads from 90s blockbusters — Titanic, The Bodyguard and my personal favorite, Ghost. We must’ve listened to it a thousand times, because every time I hear those songs in the occasional elevator ride or during a nostalgia-themed bar night, I find myself mumbling the lyrics, goosebumps rising on my forearms.
Mom and Dad never caught on with the lyrics because of the language barrier, but melodies were enough for them. As the chorus would swell into a cheesy, well-expected key change, Dad would grasp for Mom’s perfectly aged left hand over the gearshift, and in the harmony of their soft hums, I understood why Mom and I had left China in the first place.
Some years later, I would find myself in another series of car rides, this time in the front seat of a white Kia minivan on Route 79. My companion was a few years older, an enigma even to this day with his rusty red hair and mild demeanor. Driving through a western Pennsylvanian town — smaller and whiter and somehow sadder than my Appalachian hometown — he would also reach past the gearshift to hold my hand, sometimes in silence and sometimes in the drone of BBC Radio.
He was an intent driver, unlike my dad, who sang and hummed and whistled to every familiar tune. We shared the occasional chatter, but for the most part, we reserved conversation for immobile moments. Just like that, car rides became a sacred and understood time for us.
One night, after dew had already glazed the blue blades of grass in my front yard, I snuck out of the house to meet him. The familiar white minivan was parked by a stop sign up the block. With the windows rolled down, he smoked a cigarette and swept me into a dream.
In lull, we cruised around town and somewhere down Main Street, I fell in love with him and I fell in love with the sound of our silence against the whirring engine.
And just as I fell in love with him in that typical, brash teenage manner, he broke my heart in the same brash way. And once again, I found myself sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, not the Prizm but a new silver Toyota Corolla. So much had changed, yet barely at all.
I was 16, angry, and spoiled with a two-story house and a white picketed fence — and the aimless suburban lifestyle that comes with a two-story house and a white picketed fence.
We had moved away from the beautiful, hilly town to a desolate black hole with nothing but a McDonald’s, two gas stations and 50-some Protestant churches within its three-mile radius. The ’92 Geo Prizm broke down ages ago and Dad finally settled with his multiple academic degrees as a professor at a small, liberal arts college nearby.
On one Saturday during the latter end of my teen years, we were down 79 to go to the nearest Costco. As per usual, I was nodding off in the backseat as Mom and Dad were bantering to some old tune by a dead Chinese pop star. They got rid of the cassette tapes, only to replace them with CDs of the same songs and albums.
Twenty minutes into the ride, Mom turned around to face me. “How are you?” she asked.
Fine, I said. I didn’t look at her. I was afraid she would see my anger.
“The trees are green again,” she said, pointing to the remnants of a nasty winter along the highway.
I didn’t say anything back, as I had grown accustomed to silent car rides. So she went on with her conversation with Dad and I went on with my half-conscious brooding.
Suddenly “Unchained Melody” came on. The synth arpeggios were almost tawdry in the moment, and my first instinct was to scoff. The last thing any forlorn teenage girl would want to think of is the image of Patrick Swayze intimately throwing clay with Demi Moore like it was karma sutra or something.
But as the chorus approached, I realized my parents were both singing along. I heard my dad’s voice, older and strained, alongside my mom’s clear, assuring refrain. And like second nature, I began to sing as well — the three of us together, not unlike a scene from National Lampoon’s Vacation, but maybe less silly and quite a bit more Chinese.
Cathaleen Qiao Chen is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Washington D.C. You can find her twitter here.
Paintings by Deborah Brown.
"Don't Pass Me By" - Field Music (mp3)
"Terrapin" - Field Music (mp3)