It was a winding road separating mountain from sea; the sky was gloomy, then bright, then dark again. I couldn’t really hear the old car’s radio as wind beat against the glass of windows. Feeling an obligation to at least talk about colleges somewhat, he asked me what my motivation was.
“Well, I don’t know? You can’t just ask me such a general question and expect an answer in, like, five seconds,” I said.
“I would’ve given you an answer in three seconds when I was your age.”
“Oh yeah? What was it?”
He paused for a bit, formulating.
“You know how I boarded at the provincial high school? Our parents were only allowed to visit us once every few months or so. And one time, your grandfather visited.
I was so embarrassed; I mean, he couldn’t even speak Mandarin, right? I hated working the field, and I was dead set on leaving our village, so when your grandfather came, illiterate, dressed in farmers’ grabs and speaking in dialects … Well.
When he was leaving, though, he was fighting his way onto a crowded bus. And he turned away from me, so all I saw was his back. It made me cry, no joke. Right there, I made up my mind on giving him and mama a better life. And that’s what I said to the colleges, then to the companies.”
I looked at him for a bit; he returned my gaze through the front mirror.
He wasn’t telling the entire story. Baba achieved what he sat out to do—in fact, he did a lot more than just bringing my grandparents out of the village—but he was still lost. He was lost about his career, about my education, and about my little brother’s future. Beyond the frames of youth and poverty, Baba’s motivation—his purpose—became a lot more elusive.
I looked out the window again. I saw sunspots on open water, glistening like scales. Further back was a darker blue, then gray, then the wisps of clouds in the horizon. Even further back, I told myself, was Japan, then China’s rolling shores, then the little village. In that moment, I thought, I gazed over generations and generations of people, over the oblongs and squares of this earth. What were their motivations? Should we even be summarized by this singular absolute?
The radio was playing one of Wang Feng’s songs: “I want a blooming life,” it screamed amidst the static and the wind. We drove on.