Root Words

Jimmy Chen tries to understand his father’s odd vernacular.


I look out the window: the dry eucalyptus leaves are hanging in a blur.

“2:30,” I say.

“You’re crazy,” he says, changing into the left lane and hitting the gas, “2:27.”

My father and I are driving back from Copeland Sports after getting 60% off of athletic apparel he won’t use. He asks me to guess what time I think we’ll get home. This is a game we’ve been playing since I was a child. Whatever time I guess, in some Freudian-mom-nipple competition, he beats it just to prove me wrong.

At the red light, he says the timing is off, that the stupid people who designed this town haven’t figured out the proper traffic light intervals. He’s an algorithm guy and enjoys dissecting inferior logic. He sneezes so loudly the people in the car next to us jolt in surprise.

He hits me in the arm and signals to the gigantic plastic bag in the back seat.

“They gave me a pork.”


“Buy one get one free,” he smiles.

“What does that have to do with pork?”

He hits me again. “You don’t know? Haha,” he says, his wide denture-less smile showing off the gaps in his mouth.

I resign. “Please tell me.”

“Pork — it means something extra, like the fat of the pig.”

“You mean perk.”

“Yes. Pork.”


“Same thing.”

“No — these are two very different and distinct words. You want to say perk.”

“Pork. Like the extra fat. Everyone likes a pork in life.”

I give up. “Okay, pork.”


My father arrived in America with three hundred dollars, a hard-shell suitcase, and a friend’s phone number. Three weeks later he had a job at a bank. Three weeks after that he had a modest apartment. He learned English by watching the news every night with a dictionary in his lap. He named himself Philip because he, a lover—as he considered himself to be—understood phil to be the root for love. One night he saw a woman, my mother, walking down the street, and followed her to a party. He conspired with the party’s host to be the only man available to drive her home. Three weeks later they copulated. Three weeks after that they were married.

My father has a way of getting things done. My parents’ house is one gigantic Home Depot showroom. Everything is re-installed, re-tiled, re-wired on a recurring basis. Before my mother has a chance to acclimate to the latest set of new light fixtures and toilets, a new one appears. She screams every time she cannot turn off a light because a pre-set timer overrides it. She points to the six remote controls on the side table. “Why do you do this to me?” she asks.

Waking up at the respectable hour of 9:00 a.m., I hear my father solemnly reciting all the tasks he completed since 4:00 a.m.

“I pruned the roses, dug a ditch, painted the lamp, played tennis, sold stocks, installed a hard drive, sanded the cedar planks in the closet, and took a shower.”


He shows me a cut on his arm from a thorn, “You lazy.”

“I’m depressed.”

“Ha ha,” he says with pity, “depressed.”

Waking up at 4:00 a.m. is not particularly impressive when one falls asleep at 8:00 p.m. every night. After dinner, he goes to the sofa, removes his socks, turns on the television, fiercely grabs hold of one of the six remotes, and is asleep in 20 minutes. Before he dozes off, however, he explains to me the meaning of HDTV. All channels in the 700s are high-definition, and he makes fun of people (my mother and I) who would even consider watching a non-HD show.

Among other things my father brings home on a bi-monthly basis are flat-screen TVs. He breathes heavily on each new box like a teenager in heat, holding the object of his passion awkwardly and banging it into walls. Taking the remote from his hands after he falls asleep is an art form; one must do it with equal measures of cunningness, grace, and confidence. If successful, one can watch any non-HD show one wants.

My father just recently discovered the bounty of e-cards. His tennis buddies have an ongoing exchange of “dirty” e-cards, some of which get forwarded to me. There’s something about being an aged man having worked in an office for over thirty years that depletes him of all sensibility. He calls me on the phone.

“Check you email.”

“I’m at work now.”

“I sent you e-coffee. Ha ha,” and hangs up.

The e-card is an animation of a coffee machine. Viewers are to drag their cursor to the coin and drop it in the slot, at which point some coffee comes out. Then, the coffee machine door swings open, exposing a monkey behind the door. Herein is the joke: the coffee is monkey urine. The custom signature says, “Coffee’s on me. Hogs, Dad.” I don’t call him back because I already know the conversation:

“You mean hugs.”

“Yes, hogs.”

Jimmy Chen lives in San Francisco and works at a large institution. He suffers from various undiagnosed personality disorders, and enjoys food. He can be found here.