Thank You, Karen Arnold

Parked in front of the television’s glare, my dad and I couldn’t help but laugh when we were first introduced to the hippie. She waltzed into her family’s 1960s kitchen, only a few minutes into the show’s pilot episode. A teenager late to dinner, of course, with a blasé look on her face and a bandana wrapped around her head. The ensemble stood out like a sore, liberal thumb amid laminate cabinets and made-in-America appliances. When her mom asked the reason for her tardiness, the camera held on her face as if searching for something, anything, to understand this flower child a little better. She gave the viewers nothing.

“Peace, Mom. Okay?” Her tone both asked and demanded it.

My ten-year-old eyes widened at this display of teenage defiance. Raised in an Asian household, I had no idea you could talk to your parents like that. Sure, Dad seized every opportunity to instill Americana in me, especially when it came to TV, movies, and pop culture. However, he refused to abandon two sacred tenets from our Filipino roots: eating rice and respecting one’s elders. Talking back to your parents? That was some white people shit.

I looked to Dad to gauge his reaction. He shook his head and snickered at the girl. While he wore bellbottom jeans and suede vests in his heyday, the attire was nothing more than a wrapper. He never subscribed to the culture of freeloading hippies. He grew up, got a job, and became a tax-paying adult. His logic sounded reasonable, so I shook my head and snickered too.

“You have so much bad karma in your life,” the girl disapprovingly said to her mother. Then, with those closing remarks, she walked away and retired to the sanctity of her bedroom.

That’s how I was introduced to Karen Arnold from The Wonder Years.

This hit series featured a quintessential American family going through life in the ’burbs. Karen was the oldest of the Arnold children and a hippie archetype who represented the counterculture of the show’s 1960s timeline. She wore her long blond hair in a free-flowing style, usually adorned by a bandana, a single braid, or a pair of colored-lens glasses crowning her head. Her storylines featured boyfriends, graduation, moving out, and other milestones I could hardly imagine. Between her age and fashion sense, there was little room for us to connect. I was a preteen wearing Limited Too outfits and whatever my parents bought me. Karen was on the cusp of becoming her own woman.

Throughout my childhood, this syndicated 80s television series about life in the 60s became a mainstay in my Nick at Nite schedule from the late 90s to early 2000s. Dad and I watched it nearly every weeknight at nine-thirty on the dot. Filled with nostalgia for a glorious yet tumultuous era, The Wonder Years was the kind of content that spoke to Boomers like my father. He identified with its suburban landscape and socio-political backdrops, such as the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassinations, and the Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, as a child, I connected to plotlines of best friends, school bullies, and young love. This time capsule of a show became a favorite for both of us as it managed to strike the intersection of our lives.

Our routine was the same each night. I clicked the numbers 3-3 on our remote until the Nick at Nite logo appeared on the bottom-right corner. My father got out our pair of foldable dinner trays. He assembled our meal of Domino’s mild buffalo wings—medium once I worked up my spice level—served on a bed of jasmine rice. A sublime Michelin-star dish inspired by Asian-American culture, of course. Nothing said bon appetite like red wing sauce, white rice, and blue cheese. Domino’s was a godsend for Dad’s night-shift nurse schedule and exhaustion. And yet, he took the time to remove the food from the takeout boxes and serve it on dinner plates. He tried his best to give our TV meals the tenderness of a homecooked feast.

By the time Joe Cocker sang the first line of The Wonder Years theme song, Dad and I were firmly planted into the living room carpet. We sat next to each other hunched over our trays while wing sauce stained our cheeks. My mom would have been appalled—a late bedtime, the junk food, my bad posture. I could imagine her shaking her head and sucking her teeth as I sucked every chicken bone dry. But, her rules no longer applied when I was visiting Dad. He was the cool parent—the highest honor a child of divorce could bestow unto their mother or father. A trait I never took for granted after witnessing life under Jack Arnold’s rule.

As the father and head of his household, Jack was the embodiment of everything his daughter was not. Rarely seen without a button-down shirt or a pair of ironed slacks, he was a nine-to-five working man as well as a Korean War veteran. He was able to silence any bickering among his kids with little more than a fiery glare and a tilt of his head. A subtle movement that conveyed, You better cut that shit out, without saying anything at all. Although this family-friendly show never featured physical disciplinary action, I could tell Jack was a belt guy.

“Work is work,” he said, punctuating each word.

That was his response after his always-cheerful wife Norma asked how his day went.

Dad laughed to himself while sucking wing sauce from his fingertips. He pointed a clean one at Jack’s face on our TV screen. “That’s your grandpa, right there.”

Every time Dad imitated his father, he’d channel a thick Filipino accent, drop his tone, and say a single word. The one my grandfather used in order to get his attention in a heartbeat. Ed! Ward! It was my dad’s formal first name with each syllable annunciated. Usually said with a tug at his buckle to instill fear. Grandpa was, indeed, a belt guy.

Dad took pride in the fact that he wasn’t like his father—and so did I. His imitations and even the thought of being raised under an iron fist made me shudder. My dad showered me with fast food, late bedtimes, Barbie’s, Sailor Moon figurines, a box of comic books, several binders of trading cards, PG-13 movies (Okay, R-rated, but don’t tell Mom!), the entire Melanie’s Mall collection, a stack of pogs, reams of stickers, and above all, pure affection.

“What’s the password?”

He asked me this question in cases of father-daughter secrecy. When we weren’t sure if the other was a shapeshifter (a la Mystique from X-Men). When one of us may have been a doppelgänger experiment gone wrong (a la Cage and/or Travolta from Face/Off). Or, when we simply sat together in front of the television. Dad asked it nonchalantly just to check if my answer was still the same. It always was because the password was what we called each other.

Best friend,” I’d reply.

Our relationship was a stark contrast to Karen and her father. Any time she was in the limelight of this half-an-hour show, the plotline revolved around yet another blow-out between her and her dad. The point of contention being topics I could hardly understand at the time.

“The United States government is responsible for the oppression of Blacks, women, and free speech.” Karen said it over dinner, and she looked her father in the eye when she did.

“Well, perhaps, little lady, you’d like to live in Russia for a while, huh?”

Her words came to the defense of her new boyfriend, Louis, who was meeting the Arnolds for the first time over dinner. Played by a young John Corbett, he was far different from the perfect-but-too-perfect love interest, Aidan Shaw, who he’d later portray in Sex and the City. As Louis, the mere sight of his overgrown hair and peace-sign pendant caused unease. It escalated when he, being vegetarian, declined a serving of meat (a reoccurring theme for his characters; i.e. Ian in My Big Fat Greek Wedding). It erupted when he discussed Vietnam.

“It’s such a shame. A kid has to die for basically no reason.” Louis stated his case calmly as the family reacted to the death of a local drafted teen. He removed his glasses and straightened his posture, as if readying for the battle ahead.

Jack’s tone was stoic at first. “I don’t think it’s meaningless when a man dies for freedom and for his country.” However, his wrath was unleashed once Louis and Karen used terms like brainwashed, American government, and just like Korea.

“What the hell do you know about it? Who are you to say that?!” Jack raised his voice at the liberal snowflakes in his home. Kids who had no idea what sacrifice meant.

“Daddy,” Karen pled. “You never listen to what we say.”

She used a term of endearment to address her father, even while coming to her lover’s defense. Actress Olivia d’Abo delivered the line with an earnest yet conflicted tone that deepened her character. She seemed different from the stubborn girl in the pilot episode. The interjection, while simple, managed to walk the line between rebellion and respect. A kind of gray area I never knew existed.

Louis got up from the table, fed up with everything. He revealed a folded document from his back pocket. Draft papers for Vietnam. He and Karen then excused themselves and left.

The scene differed from a majority of the series, which usually relied on low-stakes plotlines and overly sentimental voiceovers. Here, a real topic was addressed. Conflicts were left unresolved. Silence filled the space. For a moment, Dad and I no longer heard the sounds of our chewing. We were hushed as if we had been sitting at the Arnolds’ dinner table all along. Both of us trying to make sense of where we stood in a topic that no longer seemed so black and white.

I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War, but, in a few years, I knew about the Iraq War. Everyone around me seemed to have an opinion on whether or not to support it, but I didn’t know what to think. I knew about the Twin Towers falling down in our country, bombs being dropped in another country, and weapons of mass destruction somewhere else. When it came to details beyond that, I looked to my dad for answers.

“Listen, Bush is our president for a reason. If the Commander-in-Chief says weapons of mass destruction, then we gotta respect that and support him.”

I nodded along. I understood my father’s opinions as facts especially when he spoke with such fervor. I knew better than to talk back like Karen did. After all, Dad wasn’t like Jack or my grandpa. He was the cool parent. My best friend. I didn’t feel the need to have my own opinions when his seemed so fully formed. What my father knew became what I believed.

“Should you pay more taxes if you make more money?”


“No. The answer is no. I shouldn’t pay more just because Joe Shmoe was too lazy to open a book or decided to live off welfare checks. Right?”


“That’s my girl!”

Going into Iraq. Tax cuts. Small government. Trusting Bush. Resenting Clinton. Acting less Filipino. Being more American. I adopted my dad’s views on all-things political. I recycled his talking points whenever I found myself in a school debate. I held on to his beliefs all the way up to my early college years. Beliefs that feel so far away from the woman I’ve since become.

My father and I no longer sit next to each other with foldable dinner trays on our laps. We sit at a dining table with him at the head and me and my stepmom at each of his sides. Instead of Domino’s buffalo wings, we eat roasted chicken. (Roasts are his specialty now.) We watch the news rather than Nick at Nite reruns. On one particular night, CNN played in the background. The breaking news at hand: the 2019 Women’s March.

“Here we go with this again.” Dad scoffed at the pussyhats with chicken still in his teeth.

“What’s wrong with it?” I took the bait. Really, I seized it.

“Let me ask you something, why don’t we have Men’s Rights?”

“Because men don’t need it. You guys already have everything.”

I looked my father in the eye when I said it. I no longer nodded along. I came prepared with feminist talking points, statistics on everything from wage gaps to sexual assault, and my phone at the ready in case a fact-check was needed.

Dad didn’t back down either. He deflected my so-called facts, poked holes in my biased arguments, and mustered a conservative comeback for everything. He knew my liberal college and New York City lifestyle had turned me into an Obama-voting, anti-war, universal-healthcare, down-with-the-white-patriarchy snowflake. We did our best to avoid politics at the dinner table, but that evening was different. For no other reason than me being exhausted from yet another year as a woman of color under Trump’s regime.

“Please,” my always-cheerful stepmom begged. “Let’s talk about something else.”

It was worth a try, but Dad and I were already on a roll.

When quips and statistics failed to work, I decided to aim for his soft spot. An issue I never thought I’d question: his ability as a father. “Oh, I’m sorry,” my tone anything but apologetic, “I thought having a daughter would make Dad more supportive of my rights.”

That did it. My words succeeded in crossing the line. My father inhaled deeply as his face reddened. How infuriating it must be to raise someone who grows to question you.

“Don’t you even think of talking to me like that. I’m your father! Alright?”

“You’re the one who’s yelling.”

“I’m not yelling.” He was yelling. And, while he didn’t tug at his belt buckle, he wanted to. “You think you’re so smart. You know what I think? I think you’re the sexist.” He put down his fork and knife to point his finger in my face when he said it.

Inches away from each other, we never felt so far apart. Far from Wonder Years reruns, buffalo-wing dinners, and who we were. We were no longer the father-daughter duo who spoke in movie references and best-friend passwords. We were like Karen and Jack Arnold; my dad and his father; a liberal and a conservative.

My emotions finally caught up to my words. My eyes welling up with tears. Sweat building on my forehead. My bleeding liberal heart ready to burst. Is this what Karen felt like during every argument with her father? Dad saw the tension building on my face and smirked. He held on to a third Asian tenet: associating emotions with weakness. “Wow. That really got to you, huh?”

I didn’t have a response. His punch to the gut landed, and, with that, I lost the will to fight. I was struck silent for the rest of dinner until the next morning.

“I’m gonna head out,” I announced at breakfast.

Dad paused in the middle of his coffee. “Thought you were staying the whole weekend.”

“Yeah… I have a lot of work to catch up on.”

“Oh. Okay. Sorry to hear that.”

I got on the next train home, and I was proud of myself for doing so. I stood my ground after years of letting my father dictate my beliefs. But, in the days that passed, not even the entire Melanie’s Mall collection could fill the hole in my heart. I hung on to every word from our fight. I longed for the relationship we once had. I asked myself how the hell we got here. A father and a daughter, once on solid ground, now split apart. Our two worlds drifting away only to collide.

In the wake of the Trump Era, comment sections, and all-out Twitter warfare, a heated political debate is a more than plausible reason for ending a relationship. A difference in opinion has never felt so black and white. There’s little room for remorse, or regret, or longing, or any other emotion that ate away at me those days after our argument. And yet, a world apart, Dad felt the same way. He did something that, I imagine, did not come easily. Something rarely done in Filipinx culture, in American culture, or in the make-believe Anytown, USA of The Wonder Years. He apologized. The words I’m sorry and love you flashed on my phone, right before I went to bed that night.

My thumbs hovered over the screen for a moment as I tried mustering a worthy response. Love you too, Dad. Always will. With these few words, I walked the line between rebellion and respect. The one Karen Arnold introduced me to so many years ago. Not everyone would care to invest in this sliver of gray area, I know. My dad and I, however, try our best to find it, to fight for it, and to hold on to it at all costs.

In season three, Karen held back tears when she opened her father’s gift for her eighteenth birthday. It was Jack’s old kit bag from the army. When she stumbled on his dog tags inside, she handed them back to him, and, for a moment, they held on to each other. With birthday candles illuminating their hands, Karen and her dad put an end to their latest fight. Instead, they held on to a sliver in time that was still theirs. A shared moment before she graduated, moved out, and was no longer daddy’s little girl. The episode then concluded, in true Wonder-Years fashion, with a remark from Kevin, the youngest of the Arnold children and the show’s protagonist and narrator. “Some things are deeper than time and distance,” he said. “And your father will always be your father.” Even as a child, I understood the gravity of those words. I knew that in a world that often seemed so black and white my father and I would always dare to meet in the middle.

Kristen Gaerlan is a writer and native New Yorker. Her roots are in the Bronx, and the roots to her roots are in the Philippines. Her writing has been featured in The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, Hyphen Magazine, and other publications. She’s currently working on a memoir in essays about Filipino-American identity. Follow her on Twitter @gaer_said.

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Issue 11.1

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