Written by Caroline Tsai.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.

My father sleeps on a bench every night. He uses a thin blanket and a flat pillow. He wakes up and puts them in a closet before the early-morning janitor arrives at 6am. He’s not supposed to be sleeping there.

I grew up in a well-off family. Not incredibly so, but comfortably so. My father got his PhD at UT Southwestern, then worked at Johns Hopkins for a few years, before being offered to run his own laboratory at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. They really wanted him to work for them – I remember that they came all the way to Baltimore, where we lived then, to convince him. They paid for us to fly to Omaha and visit the city. They paid for our realtor to help us find a house. They paid for all of our moving and travel expenses. They paid for the 5-star hotel we lived in for a month before we decided on and bought a house. 

My father made 100k a year. Our house was huge – four stories. Over the years, we filled it with things that we didn’t need but could buy simply because we had the money and the space. I did not know what privilege was until we lost it.

During my high school years, the government cut funding for cancer research. Throughout the years, my father slowly had to fire all of his employees, one by one. He never told us what was happening – he’s a private man. He thinks that it’s his job to take care of his family, to not worry them with problems that he thinks he should be fixing. Eventually, there were no employees left for him to fire, so they fired him. He didn’t tell my mother. He bargained for more time. She found out when the medical center called our house asking when he would have all of his stuff moved out of the lab, and she picked up the phone.

He couldn’t find a job for several months. He was older now, grey-haired and less energetic. His English has never been the best. He was turned down time and time again for younger, youthful, bright-eyed scientists straight out of school. Eventually, he was hired as a lab assistant by the University of Chicago-Illinois. He now makes 30k a year. In the US, it takes about 45k to provide for a family of five. 

He moved to Chicago the fall I left for college. My family could not afford housing for both of us, so he lives in his lab. He sleeps on a bench. He showers at the university gym. He uses the burners in the lab to cook his food. He wakes up before the janitor arrives and doesn’t sleep until everyone in the lab has left for the night. He works on his research from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep. Even now, he is not sure if he will be able to keep this job, or if he will lose it soon. I did not know any of this until over a year later. He did not think it important to tell me. 

I bought him a thick, warm blanket, and new pillow for Christmas one year. Both were expensive and better quality than what he has been using. He gave them to my younger brother to take to college. He says it’s better not to keep nice things in the lab, since he has to hide that he’s living there. He says that it’s okay, he doesn’t need them anyways. He says he doesn’t mind living like this.

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