It’s always held such an ambiguous place in my life.
I’ve never celebrated Father’s Day for as long as I can remember. To say that I’ve had somewhat distant relationships with the father figures in my life, my three stepfathers, is putting it mildly. I never knew my biological father.
It’s not to say that I don’t have fond memories of the person I’ve thought of as my father for most of my life, my first step-dad, Yingsak Panichkul.
He wasn’t an affectionate man. I don’t have memories of tight hugs, sitting on his lap, or even holding hands with him as a small child growing up in Los Angeles. There was always this distance between us, but then there were also flashes of warmth. The affectionate greeting he allowed himself to offer came in the form of a nearly daily wrestling match when he would come home, take off his tie, wrestle me to the floor and tickle me as I struggled to fight back. At some point, he would have me in a headlock with one arm while tickling me with his free hand until I bit his arm and he would let go.
I remember pestering him to let me accompany him whenever he would run errands or go shopping. I loved going for drives with him in the 1960s-era Chevy Impala that he had, with tail lights that looked like rocket engine cones, and curved sculpted flares that wrapped around the side and rear of the car that reminded me of stingray wings. I’d stick my arm out the window as he drove, imagining that we were flying and my hand movements were controlling the movements of the car. After a while, he would scold me and tell me to bring my arm back into the car, warning me that it might get ripped off my body if it struck a passing object.
On special weekends, we were treated to one of his favorite foods: Thai Boxing Square Chicken, named after the public park in front of the Royal Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was born. The park turned into a huge food market on weekends. I remember him pounding cilantro root, garlic, ginger, and cilantro leaves in our mortar and pestle. He was seated on the kitchen floor. His feet held the mortar firmly in place as he pounded with the pestle. I watched and helped scrape down the sides. When I was clear, smack, smack, smack, he would start mashing again.
He would then stir fish sauce into the resulting green paste, smear a cut-up chicken with it, and let the bird sit for several hours before grilling it.
Even if I was in my room upstairs in our tiny two-story apartment, I could smell the chicken when it hit the grill. The aroma was unmistakable. My mouth waters just writing these words.
We had come from Thailand to Los Angeles for my dad to study at the University of California at Los Angeles. After Dad finished his MBA, he uprooted us and took us back to steamy Bangkok.
There were no more wrestling matches. I was a little older now. And for some reason, no more Boxing Square Chicken, either.
He went to work in a bank, Mom went to work in a hotel, and after a few months of settling in, I was shipped off to boarding school.
No one bothered to tell the headmaster that although I could speak Thai fluently, I could not read or write it after spending so many years in the U.S.
In those days, if you did poorly on tests or homework, you were spanked. The teacher always had a long wooden ruler on his desk, but it wasn’t used to measure anything.
When I got called to the front of the class and the ruler rose off the desk and became airborne, it landed with a smack against my thigh.
It was about a month before Mom came and retrieved me from boarding school. I was so happy to see her that I remember flying to her as fast as my feet would carry me and hugging her, tears stinging the corners of my eyes.
When I got home, Dad was gone.
It then became clear to me what transpired on a day months before, when Mom and I went to surprise Dad at work to pick him up for dinner, and we didn’t find him there. We had caught him out with his secretary, who was also his mistress. My parents’ marriage ended. My time at boarding school was meant to give Mom and Dad space to deal with ending their marriage. It was years before I ever heard from Dad again, and once I did, things were never the same between us.
Looking back now, I don’t feel like I’ve been cheated in life by not having a relationship with Dad. He’s half a world away. I don’t know if he’s even still alive. A lot of time and distance separate us.
But, whenever I make Boxing Square Chicken now, I can look back and remember those wrestling matches with Dad as I smash the cilantro and garlic in the mortar and pestle, firmly held in place between my feet as I pound away while sitting on our kitchen floor. Smack, smack, smack.
Thai Boxing Square Chicken
1. 7 cloves garlic, chopped
2. 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) fresh ginger, chopped
3. 1 cup (240 ml.) chopped cilantro
4. 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) mirin (not salted)
5. 4 tablespoons (60 ml.) coconut milk
6. 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) Maggi Seasoning
7. 1 tablespoon (15 ml.) fish sauce
8. 1 teaspoon (5 ml.) fresh ground white pepper
9. Juice of 1 lime
10. 1½ tablespoons (22.5 ml.) vegetable oil
11. 1 whole chicken, butterflied or cut into pieces
1. Pound together in a mortar and pestle garlic, ginger, and cilantro. Whisk together with remaining ingredients.
2. Coat chicken and marinate for at least an hour. (We marinate overnight.)
3. Cook on charcoal grill until done and serve.