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First published in the United States by Riverhead Books 2010
Copyright © 2010 by Jean Kwok
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eISBN : 978-1-101-18748-7
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
For Erwin, Stefan and Milan, and to the memory of my brother Kwan S. Kwok
I was born with a talent. Not for dance, or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school. Everything that was taught there, I could learn: quickly and without too much effort. It was as if school were a vast machine and I a cog perfectly formed to fit in it. This is not to say that my education was always easy for me. When Ma and I moved to the U.S., I spoke only a few words of English, and for a very long time, I struggled.
There’s a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time. Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown. I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions. And all the while, I have longed for that which I could not have. At the time when it seemed that everything I’d ever wanted was finally within reach, I made a decision that changed the trajectory of the rest of my life.
From my position outside the window of the bridal shop now, I can see the little girl sitting quietly at the mannequin’s feet, eyes shut, the heavy folds of falling fabric closing her in, and I think, This isn’t the life I wanted for my child. I know how it will go: she already spends all of her time after school at the shop, helping with small tasks like sorting beads; later, she will learn to sew by hand and then on the machines until, finally, she can take over some of the embroidery and finishing work, and then she too will spend her days and weekends bent over the unending yards of fabric. For her, there will be no playing at friends’ houses, no swimming lessons, no summers at the beach, not much of anything at all except for the unrelenting rhythm of the sewing needle.
But then we both look up as her father walks in and after all these years and all that’s passed, my heart stirs like a wounded animal in my chest.
Was I ever as beautiful as she? There are almost no pictures of me as a child. We couldn’t afford a camera. The first snapshot taken of me in the U.S. was a school photo, from the year I came to America. I was eleven. There came a moment later in my life when I wanted to move on, and I ripped this picture up. But instead of discarding the pieces, I tucked them away in an envelope.
Recently, I found that envelope and brushed off the dust. I broke open the seal and touched the torn bits of paper inside: here was the tip of an ear, a part of the jaw. My hair had been cut by my mother, unevenly and too short, parted far to the right and swept over my forehead in a boy’s hairstyle. The word PROOF covers much of my face and a part of my blue polyester shirt. We hadn’t been able to pay for the actual photo, so we’d kept this sample they’d sent home.
But when I join the ripped pieces of the photo and put together the puzzle, my eyes still gaze directly at the camera, their hope and ambition clear to all who care to look. If only I’d known.
A sheet of melting ice lay over the concrete. I watched my rubber boots closely, the way the toes slid on the ice, the way the heels splintered it. Ice was something I had known only in the form of small pieces in red bean drinks. This ice was wild ice, ice that defied streets and buildings.
“We are so lucky that a spot in one of Mr. N.’s buildings opened up,” Aunt Paula had said as we drove to our new neighborhood. “You will have to fix it up, of course, but real estate in New York is so expensive! This is very cheap for what you’re getting.”
I could hardly sit still in the car and kept twisting my head, looking for skyscrapers. I didn’t find any. I longed to see the New York I had heard about in school: Min-hat-ton, glistening department stores, and most of all, the Liberty Goddess, standing proud in New York Harbor. As we drove, the highways turned into impossibly broad avenues, stretching out into the distance. The buildings became dirtier, with broken windows and English writing spray-painted over the walls. We made a few more turns, passing people who were waiting in a long line, despite the early hour, and then Uncle Bob parked next to a three-story building with a boarded-up storefront. I thought he was stopping to make a pickup of some sort, but then everyone had gotten out of the car onto the icy pavement.
The people in line were waiting to go into the doorway to our right, with a sign that said “Department of Social Services.” I wasn’t sure what that was. Almost everyone was black. I’d never seen black people before, and a woman near the front, whom I could observe most clearly, had skin as dark as coal and gold beads gleaming in her cloudlike hair. Despite the frayed coat she wore, she was breathtaking. Some people were dressed in regular clothes but some looked exhausted and unkempt, with glazed eyes and unwashed hair.
“Don’t stare,” Aunt Paula hissed at me. “You might attract their attention.”
I turned around and the adults had already unloaded our few possessions, which were now piled by the boarded-up storefront. We had three tweed suitcases, Ma’s violin case, a few bulky packages wrapped in brown paper, and a broom. There was a large wet spot at the bottom of the front door.
“What is that, Ma?”
She bent close and peered at it.
“Don’t touch that,” Uncle Bob said from behind us. “It’s pee.”
We both sprang backward.
Aunt Paula laid a gloved hand on our shoulders. “Don’t worry,” she said, although I didn’t find her expression reassuring. She looked uncomfortable and a bit embarrassed. “The people in your apartment moved out recently so I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but remember, if there are any problems, we will fix them. Together. Because we are family.”
Ma sighed and put her hand on top of Aunt Paula’s. “Good.”
“And I have a surprise for you. Here.” Aunt Paula went to the car and took out a cardboard box with a few items in it: a digital radio alarm clock, a few sheets and a small black-and-white television.
“Thank you,” Ma said.
“No, no,” Aunt Paula replied. “Now we have to go. We’re already late for the factory.”
I heard them drive away and Ma struggled with the keys in front of the looming door. When she finally cracked the door open, the weight of it seemed to resist her until finally it gaped wide to reveal a bare lightbulb glowing like a tooth in its black mouth. The air smelled dank and filled with dust.
“Ma,” I whispered, “is it safe?”
“Aunt Paula wouldn’t send us anywhere unsafe,” she said, but her low voice was laced with a thread of doubt. Although Ma’s Cantonese was usually very clear, the sound of her country roots grew more pronounced when she was nervous. “Give me the broom.”
While I brought our things inside the narrow entryway, Ma started up the stairs first, wielding the broom.
“Stay here and keep the door open,” she said. I knew that was so I could run for help.
My pulse pounded in my throat as I watched her climb the wooden stairs. They had been worn by years of use and each step warped, slanting sharply downward to the banister. I worried that a step would give way and Ma would fall through. When she turned the corner on the landing, I lost sight of her and I could only hear the stairs creaking one by one. I scanned our luggage to see if there was anything I could use as a weapon. I would scream and then run upstairs to help her. Images of the tough kids at my old school in Hong Kong flashed through my mind: Fat Boy Wong and Tall Guy Lam. Why wasn’t I big like them? There was some scuffling upstairs, a door clicked open and a few floorboards groaned. Was that Ma or someone else? I strained my ears, listening for a gasp or a thud. There was silence.
“Come up,” she called. “You can close the door now.”
I felt my limbs loosen as if they’d been deflated. I ran up the stairs to see our new apartment.
“Don’t brush against anything,” Ma said.
I was standing in the kitchen. The wind whistled through the two windows on the wall to the right of me, and I wondered why Ma had opened them. Then I saw that they were still closed. It was only that most of the windowpanes were missing or cracked, with filthy shards of glass protruding from the wooden frame. A thick layer of dust covered the small kitchen table and wide sink, which was white and pitted. As I walked, I tried to avoid the brittle bodies of the dead roaches scattered here and there. They were huge, the thick legs delineated by the harsh shadows.
The bathroom was in the kitchen and its door directly faced the stove, which any child knows is terrible feng shui. A section of the dark yellow linoleum floor near the sink and refrigerator had been torn away, revealing the misshapen floorboards underneath. The walls were cracked, bulging in places as if they had swallowed something, and in some spots, the paint layer had flaked off altogether, exposing the bare plaster like flesh under the skin.
The kitchen was attached to one other room, with no door in between. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a scattering of brown slowly recede into the walls as we walked into the next room: live roaches. There could also be rats and mice hiding in the walls. I took Ma’s broom, which she was still holding, inverted it and slammed the handle hard against the floor.
“Ah-Kim,” Ma said, “you’ll disturb the neighbors.”
I stopped banging and said nothing, even though I suspected we were the only tenants in the building.
The windows of this room faced the street, and their windowpanes were intact. I realized that Aunt Paula would have fixed the ones that other people could see. Despite its bareness, this room stank of old sweat. In the corner, a double mattress lay on the floor. It had blue and green stripes and was stained. There was also a low coffee table with one leg that didn’t match, on which I would later do my homework, and a dresser that was shedding its lime paint like dandruff. That was all.
What Aunt Paula had said couldn’t be true, I thought, no one has lived in this apartment for a long time. I realized the truth. She’d done it all on purpose: letting us move on a weekday instead of during the weekend, giving us the presents at the last moment. She wanted to drop us here and have the factory as an excuse to leave fast, to get out when we were still thanking her for her kindness. Aunt Paula wasn’t going to help us. We were alone.
I hugged myself with my arms. “Ma, I want to go home,” I said.
Ma bent down and touched her forehead to mine. She could hardly bring herself to smile but her eyes were intense. “It will be all right. You and me, mother and cub.” The two of us as a family.
But what Ma really thought of it all, I didn’t know: Ma, who wiped off all the cups and chopsticks in a restaurant with her napkin whenever we went out because she wasn’t sure they were clean enough. For Ma too, something must have been exposed in her relationship with Aunt Paula when she saw the apartment, something naked and throbbing under the skin of polite talk.
In our first week in the U.S., Ma and I had stayed in the short, square house of my aunt Paula and her family on Staten Island. The night we arrived from Hong Kong it was cold outside, and the heated air inside the house felt dry in my throat. Ma hadn’t seen Aunt Paula, her oldest sister, in thirteen years, not since Aunt Paula left Hong Kong to marry Uncle Bob, who had moved to America as a child. I’d been told about the big factory Uncle Bob managed and always wondered why such a rich man would have had to go back to Hong Kong to find a wife. Now I saw the way that he leaned on his walking stick to get around and understood that there was something wrong with his leg.
“Ma, can we eat now?” My cousin Nelson’s Chinese was awkward, the tones not quite right. He must have been told to speak the language because of us.
“Soon. Give your cousin a kiss first. Welcome her to America,” Aunt Paula said. She took three-year-old Godfrey’s hand and nudged Nelson toward me. Nelson was eleven years old like me, and I’d been told he would become my closest friend here. I studied him: a fat boy with skinny legs.
Nelson rolled his eyes. “Welcome to America,” he said loudly for the adults’ benefit. He leaned in to pretend to kiss my cheek and said softly, “You’re a rake filled with dirt.” A stupid country bumpkin. This time, his tones were perfect.
I flashed my eyes at Ma, who had not heard. For a moment, I was stunned by his lack of manners. I felt a flush crawl up my neck, then I smiled and pretended to kiss him back. “At least I’m not a potato with incense sticks for legs,” I whispered.
The adults beamed.
We were given a tour. Ma had told me that in our new life in America, we would be living with Aunt Paula and taking care of Nelson and Godfrey. Their house seemed luxurious to me, with orange wall-to-wall carpeting instead of the plain concrete floors I was used to. Following the adults around the house, I saw how large Aunt Paula was, nearly the same height as her husband. Ma, thinner after her recent illness, seemed small and fragile by comparison, but it was hard to think too much about it. I’d never been allowed to walk on bare feet before and I was amazed by the prickly feel of the carpet.
Aunt Paula showed us all her furniture and a closet full of linens but what impressed me most was the hot water that came out of the taps. I’d never seen such a thing. In Hong Kong, the water was rationed. It was always cold and had to be boiled to make it drinkable.
Then Aunt Paula opened her cupboards to show us the shiny tins and pots inside. “We have some very fine white tea,” she said proudly. “The leaves unfurl to become as long as your finger. Very delicate aroma. Please, feel free to drink as much as you like. And here are the pans. Best-quality steel, wonderful for frying and steaming.”
When Ma and I woke from our night sleeping on the couches, Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob had left to take their kids to school and attend to their work managing the clothing factory, but a note said Aunt Paula would be home at noon to arrange things with us.
“Shall we try that special white tea?” I asked Ma.
Ma gestured at the counter. It was bare except for an old ceramic pot and a box of inexpensive green tea. “My heart stem, do you think that those things were left out by accident?”
I stared at the floor, embarrassed by my stupidity.
Ma continued. “It is not easy to understand Chinese. Certain things are not said directly. But we must not be annoyed by small things. Everyone has their faults.” She put her hand on my shoulder. When I looked up, her face was calm and she meant what she said. “Never forget, we owe Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob a great debt. Because they got us out of Hong Kong and brought us here to America, the Golden Mountain.”
I nodded. Every single kid at my old school had been openly envious when they heard we were moving to the U.S. It was difficult for anyone to escape from Hong Kong before its scheduled return from British to Communist Chinese rule in 1997. There was almost no way out in those days unless you were a woman, beautiful or charming enough to marry one of the Chinese American men who returned to Hong Kong in search of a wife. This was what Aunt Paula had done. And now, she had been kind enough to allow us to share in her good fortune.
When Aunt Paula returned to the house that first morning in America, she suggested that Ma and I join her at the kitchen table.
“So, Kimberly,” Aunt Paula said, tapping her fingers on the vinyl tablecloth. She smelled of perfume and had a mole on her upper lip. “I’ve heard about what a bright child you are.” Ma smiled and nodded; I’d always been at the head of my class in Hong Kong. “You will be such a great help to your mother here,” Aunt Paula went on. “And I’m sure Nelson can learn so much from your example.”
“Nelson is a smart boy too,” Ma said.
“Yes, yes, he is doing quite well in school, and his teacher told me he would make a wonderful lawyer someday, he’s so good at arguing. But now he will really have a reason to work hard, won’t he? To keep up with his brilliant cousin?”
“You are putting the tall hat of flattery on her head, older sister! It will not be easy for her here. Ah-Kim hardly speaks any English at all.”
“Yes, that is a problem. Nelson’s Chinese needs help as well—those American-born kids! But little sister, you should call her by her American name now: Kimberly. It’s very important to have a name that is as American as possible. Otherwise, they might think you were fresh off the boat!” Aunt Paula laughed.
“You’re always thinking of us,” Ma said politely. “We want to start helping you too, as soon as we can. Should I start Nelson’s Chinese lessons soon?”
Aunt Paula hesitated. “Well, that’s what I wanted to talk about. It’s not actually necessary any longer.”
Ma raised her eyebrows. “I thought you wanted Nelson to learn better Chinese? What about taking care of little Godfrey and picking Nelson up from school? You said their babysitter was so expensive, and careless too. Will you be staying home to take care of them yourself?” Ma was bumbling in her confusion. I wished she’d just let Aunt Paula speak.
“No, no.” Aunt Paula scratched the side of her neck, something I’d seen her doing before. “I wish I could. I’m so busy now with all my responsibilities. The factory, all of Mr. N.’s buildings. I have a lot of head pains.” Aunt Paula had already let us know that she was very important, managing the clothing factory and a number of buildings for a distant relative of Uncle Bob’s, a businessman in Taiwan she called “Mr. N.”
Ma nodded. “You must take care of your health.” Her tone was searching. I too wondered where this was leading.
Aunt Paula spread her hands wide. “Everybody wants more money, everything has to make a profit. Every single building, every shipment . . .” She looked at Ma, and I could not make out her expression. “I imagined that bringing you here would help with the children. But then you had a few problems.”
Ma had been diagnosed with tuberculosis about a year earlier, after all of the paperwork to bring us here had already been finalized. She’d had to choke down huge pills for months. I remembered her lying in bed in Hong Kong, flushed with fever, but at least the antibiotics had put an end to the coughing and handkerchiefs tinged with blood. The date for our journey to America had been postponed twice before she got clearance from the doctors and the immigration department.
“I’m cured now,” Ma said.
“Of course. I am so glad you are well again, little sister. We must be certain that you do not relapse. Taking care of two active boys like Nelson and Godfrey, that will be too much for you. Boys are not like girls.”
“I am sure I can manage,” Ma said. She gave me an affectionate look. “Ah-Kim was also a monkey.”
“I’m sure. But we wouldn’t want the boys to catch anything either. Their health has always been delicate.”
I was trying hard to truly understand Chinese now, like Ma was teaching me. In the awkward silence that followed, I understood this was not about illness. For whatever reason, Aunt Paula was not comfortable with Ma caring for her children.
“We are grateful you brought us over anyway,” Ma finally said, breaking the tension. “But we cannot be a burden to you. I must work.”
Aunt Paula’s posture relaxed, as if she’d stepped into a new role. “You are my family!” She laughed. “Did you not think I could provide for you?” She stood up, walked over to me and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “I’ve gone to great lengths and gotten you a job at the clothing factory. I even fired the old worker to make space for you. You see? Your older sister will take care of you. The job is picking up a dead chicken, you’ll see.” Aunt Paula was saying that she’d gotten Ma a sweet deal, like a free chicken dinner.
Ma swallowed, taking it in. “I will try my hardest, big sister, but nothing ever comes out straight when I sew. I’ll practice.”
Aunt Paula was still smiling. “I remember!” Her eyes flicked across my homemade shirt with its uneven red trimming. “I always laughed at those little dresses you tried to make. You could practice ten thousand years and never be fast enough. That’s why I’ve given you a job hanging dresses—doing the finishing work. You don’t need any skills for that, just to work hard.”
Ma’s face was pale and strained, but she said, “Thank you, older sister.”
After that, Ma seemed lost in her own thoughts and she didn’t play her violin at all, not even once. A few times Aunt Paula took her out without me to show Ma the factory and subway system. When Ma and I were alone, we mostly watched television in color, which was exciting even if we couldn’t follow it. Once, though, Ma wrapped her arms around me and held me tight throughout an episode of I Love Lucy, as if she was the one seeking comfort from me, and I wished harder than ever that Pa were here to help.
Pa had died of a stroke when I was three, and now we had left him behind in Hong Kong. I didn’t remember him at all but I missed him just the same. He’d been the principal of the elementary school where Ma taught music. Even though she had been supposed to marry an American Chinese like Aunt Paula had, and even though Pa had been sixteen years older than Ma, they had fallen in love and gotten married.
Pa, I thought hard, Pa. There was so much I wanted here in America and so much I was afraid of, I had no other words left. I willed his spirit to travel from Hong Kong, where he lay, to cross the ocean to join us here.
Ma and I spent several days cleaning that apartment in Brooklyn. We sealed the windows in the kitchen with garbage bags so that we had a bit more protection from the elements, even though this meant that the kitchen was always dark. When the wind gusted, the bags inflated and struggled against the industrial tape that held them in place. According to feng shui principles, the door to the bathroom cast a ray of unclean energy into the kitchen. We moved the stove a few inches, as far away from the bathroom’s pathway as possible.
The second day into our cleaning we needed more supplies and roach spray, and Ma decided to make the trip to the convenience store a bit of a celebration, for all the work we had accomplished. From the affectionate way she ruffled my hair, I could tell she wanted to do something extra nice for me. We would buy some ice cream, she announced, a rare treat.
Inside, the store was tiny and crowded, and we stood on line with supplies until we got to the front, where there was a dingy glass display behind the counter.
“What does it say?” Ma asked me, nodding at one of the cartons. I could make out a picture of strawberries and the words “Made with real fruit” and another word, beginning with a “yo,” that I didn’t know.
The man behind the counter said in English, “I ask got all day. You gonna buy something or not?” His tone was aggressive enough that Ma understood what he meant without translation.
“Sorry, sir,” Ma said in English. “Very sorry.” That was about the limit of her English, so then she glanced at me.
“That,” I said, pointing to the strawberry cartons. “Two.”
“About time,” he said. When he rang up the price, it was three times more than it said on the carton. I saw Ma glance at the price tag, but she averted her gaze quickly. I didn’t know if I should speak up or how you complained about prices in English, so I kept silent as well. Ma paid without looking at the man or me, and we left. The ice cream tasted terrible: thin and sour, and it wasn’t until we got to the bottom that we found the fruit, jellified and in one lump.
On the way home from the store, I didn’t see any other Chinese people on the street, only blacks and a very few whites. It was quite busy, with some mothers and working people, but mostly groups of young men who swaggered as they walked. I overheard one of them calling a young woman on the street a “box.” The girl didn’t seem so boxlike to me. Ma kept her eyes averted and pulled me closer. Garbage was strewn everywhere: broken glass by doorways, old newspapers floating down the sidewalk, carried by the wind. The painted English writing was illegible and looked like swirls of pure anger and frenzy. It covered almost everything, even the cars parked on the street. There were a few large industrial buildings on the next block.
We saw an older black man sitting on a lawn chair in front of the used-furniture store beside our building. His face was turned up to the sun and his eyes were closed. His hair was a silver poof around his head. I gazed at him, thinking that no Chinese person I knew from home would deliberately try to make themselves tanner in the sun, especially if they were already as dark as this man was.
Suddenly, he leaped up in front of us and sprang into a one-legged martial arts pose with his arms outstretched. “Hi-yah!” he yelled.
Ma and I both screamed.
He burst into laughter, then started speaking English. “I got cha moves, don’t I? I’m sorry forscaring you ladies. I just love kung fu. My name is Al.”
Ma, who hadn’t understood a word he’d said, grabbed my jacket and said to me in Chinese, “This is a crazy person. Don’t speak to him, we’ll just tiptoe away.”
“Hey, that’s Chinese, right? You have anthn you can teach me?” he asked.
I had recovered enough to nod.
“So, there’s this very fat guy who comes into my store. What can I call him—he’s a real whale?”
“Whale,” I said in Cantonese. Now Ma looked at me like I had gone insane.
“Kung yu,” he repeated, with the tones all wrong.
“Whale,” I said again.
“King yu,” he said. He was really trying. Still gibberish but it was closer.
“That is better,” I said in English.
Ma actually giggled. I think she had never heard a non-Chinese person trying to speak our language before. “May your business be good,” she said in Chinese.
“Ho sang yee,” he repeated. “What does that mean?”
I told him in English, “It is to wish your store much money.”
His face broke out in the biggest, whitest smile I had ever seen. “Now I need that. Thank you.”
“You welcome,” Ma said in English.
Aside from Mr. Al’s store, many of the storefronts we could see were empty. We lived across the street from a huge lot filled with trash and rubble. There was a leaning apartment building sunken into the back of the lot, as if someone had forgotten to demolish it. I had seen black children clambering in the rubble, searching out bits and pieces of old toys and bottles to play with. I knew Ma would never let me join them.
On our side of the street, a few shops were open: a store with hair combs and incense in the window, a hardware store.
Even with the spray, the roaches were impossible to exterminate. We sprayed all the cracks and corners with roach spray, scattered mothballs through all our clothes and in a thick ring around our mattress. Still, the brown heads with wiggling antennae appeared out of every crack. As soon as we left an area or became too quiet, they approached. We were the only source of food in the entire building.
It was impossible to get used to them. I’d seen them in Hong Kong, of course, but not in our apartment. We’d had a nice simple place. Like most people in Hong Kong then, we didn’t have luxuries like a refrigerator, but Ma had kept our leftovers in a steel-mesh cage underneath the table and cooked every meal with fresh meat and vegetables just bought at the street market. I missed our neat little living room with its red couch and piano, on which Ma used to give lessons to kids after school. The piano had been a gift from Pa when they got married. We’d had to sell it when we came here.
Now I was learning to do everything noisily, thumping around in hopes of keeping them away. Ma often hurried to the rescue, clutching a bit of toilet paper to kill the roaches near me, but I screamed when I looked down at the sweater I was wearing and found a big one clinging to my chest. I don’t like to think about what happened when we slept.
I know that that was when the mice and rats came. Our first night I’d been aware of something running over me in my sleep and quickly developed the habit of sleeping burrowed deep in the covers. I wasn’t as afraid of rodents as I was of roaches, because mice are at least warm-blooded. I understood they were small living things. Ma was terrified of them. In Hong Kong, she’d refused to have a cat because she was afraid that they would bring her offerings of their prey. It didn’t matter that a cat actually reduced the number of live rodents. None was allowed in our house. After that night I told Ma I should sleep on the side of the mattress away from the wall because I needed to pee sometimes. I wanted to protect her from having to sleep closer to where the mice and rats were likely to be active. These were the small graces we bestowed upon each other then. They were all we had to give.
We set out a handful of mousetraps and quickly caught a few. Ma shrank back when she saw the limp bodies, and I wished desperately that Pa were alive so I wouldn’t have to do this. I knew I should have removed the dead mice and reused the mousetraps, but I couldn’t handle touching the dull flesh, and Ma made no complaint when I used a pair of chopsticks to pick up the traps, an act I immediately recognized as extremely unhygienic. I threw the traps, mice and chopsticks away, and after that, we put out no more mousetraps. That was Ma and me: two squeamish Buddhists in the apartment from hell.
We put the Tong Sing, the Chinese Almanac, at the head of the mattress. There are many phu in these books, words of power written by ancient masters that can pin a white bone demon under a mountain or repel wild fox spirits. In Brooklyn, we hoped they would keep any thieves away. I slept badly in that apartment and was jolted out of sleep by cars rumbling over potholes in the street. Ma whispered, “It’s all right.” Then she tweaked my ears to bring my sleeping soul back to my body and brushed my forehead three times with her left hand to ward off evil spirits.
Finally, my hands no longer came away covered with dust when I touched the walls. When we knew the apartment was as clean as we could get it, we set up five altars in the kitchen: to the earth god, the ancestors, the heavens, the kitchen god and Kuan Yin. Kuan Yin is the goddess of compassion who cares for all of us. We lit incense and poured tea and rice wine before the altars. We prayed to the local earth god of the building and apartment to grant us permission to live there in peace, to the ancestors and heavens to keep away troubles and evil people, to the kitchen god to keep us from starving and to Kuan Yin to bring us our hearts’ desires.
The next day, I would start school. Ma would begin her job at the factory. That evening, she sat down with me on the mattress.
“Ah-Kim, I have been thinking about something since visiting the factory, and I realize I have no choice,” Ma said.
“What is it?”
“After you get out of school, I want you to come join me at the factory. I don’t want you here in this apartment by yourself, waiting for me every afternoon and evening. And I’m worried I won’t be able to do the finishing at the factory alone. The last woman who had my job had two sons who came to work with her. I have to ask you to come to the factory with me after school and help me there.”
“Of course, Ma. I always help you.” I put my hand on hers and smiled. In Hong Kong, I’d always dried the dishes and folded our laundry.
To my surprise, Ma’s face flushed, as if she were about to cry. “I know,” she said. “But this is something different. I’ve been to the factory.” She took me in her arms and squeezed so hard that I gasped, but by the time she pulled away, she had recovered control. She spoke softly, as if to herself. “The road we could follow in Hong Kong was a dead one. The only future I could see for us, for you, was here, where you could become whatever you wanted. Even though this isn’t what we’d imagined back home, we will be all right.”
“Mother and cub.”
Ma smiled. She started tucking the thin cotton blanket we’d brought from Hong Kong around me. Then she laid both of our jackets and her sweater over the blanket to keep me warm.
“Ma? Are we going to stay in this apartment?”
“I’ll talk to Aunt Paula tomorrow.” Ma got up and brought her violin case over to the mattress. She stood in the middle of that darkened living room with the cracked walls behind her, lifted her violin to her chin and began to play a Chinese lullaby.
I sighed. It seemed so long since I had heard Ma play, even though we’d been in America for only a week and a half. In Hong Kong, I’d heard her teaching music at school or giving private violin or piano lessons in our apartment, but she was usually too tired to play in the evenings when I went to bed. Now Ma was here and her music was just for me.
In that third week of November, I started school. Ma and I had a hard time finding it because it was many blocks away, beyond the area we had explored so far. This new neighborhood was cleaner than the vacant lots and empty storefronts that I had seen closer to our apartment. Aunt Paula had explained with pride that my official address would be different from the one where I actually lived. I should use this other address whenever anyone asked me.
“Why?” I’d asked.
“This is another of Mr. N.’s buildings. It’s one you wouldn’t be able to afford to live in, but using this address will allow you to go to a better school. Don’t you want that?”
“What’s the problem with the one I would go to normally?”
“Nothing!” Aunt Paula shook her head, clearly frustrated by my lack of gratitude for what she had done for me. “Go see if your ma needs you.”
Now, trying to find this better school, Ma and I walked across several big avenues and then past a number of governmental buildings with statues in front of them. Most of the people on the street were still black, but I saw more whites and lighter shades of black people, possibly Hispanics or other nationalities I couldn’t identify yet. I was shivering in my thin jacket. Ma had bought me the warmest one she could find in Hong Kong, but it was still made of acrylic, not wool.
We passed an apartment complex and a park. Finally, we found the school. It was a square concrete building with a large school yard and a flagpole waving the American flag. It was obvious I was late—the yard was empty of people—and we rushed up a broad flight of stairs and pushed open the heavy wooden door.
A black woman in a police uniform sat behind a desk, reading a book. She wore a tag that said “Security.”
We showed her the letter from the school. “Go downda hall, two fights up, classroom’s firsdur left,” she said, pointing. Then she picked up her book again.
I understood only that I had to go that way and so I started slowly down the long hallway. I saw Ma hesitate, unsure whether she was allowed to follow me. She glanced at the security guard, but Ma couldn’t say anything in English. I kept going, and at the staircase, I looked back to see Ma in the distance, a thin, uncertain figure, still standing by the guard’s desk. I hadn’t wished her good luck for her first day at the factory. I hadn’t even said good-bye. I wanted to run back and beg her to take me with her, but instead, I turned and made my way up the stairs.
After a bit of searching, I found the classroom and knocked weakly on the door.
A deep, muffled voice came from behind the door. “You’re late! Come in.”
I pushed it open. The teacher was a man. I learned later his name was Mr. Bogart. He was extremely tall, so that his forehead was level with the top of the blackboard, with a raspberry nose and a head bald as an egg. His green eyes seemed unnaturally light to me in his wide face and his stomach stuck out from under his shirt. He was writing English words on the blackboard, from left to right.
“Our new student eye-prezoom?” He gave a strange smile that made his lips disappear, then he looked at his watch and his lips reappeared. “You’re very late. What’s your exsu?”
I knew I had to answer so I guessed. “Kim Chang.”
He stared at me for a second. “I know what your name is,” he said, enunciating each word. “What’s your exshus?”
A few of the kids snickered. I took a quick look around: almost all black with two or three white kids. No other Chinese at all, no help in sight.
“Can’t you speak English? They said that you did.” This came out as a kind of grumbled whine. Who was he talking about? He took a breath. “Why are you late?”
This, I understood. “I sorry, sir,” I said. “We not find school.”
He frowned, then nodded and waved at an empty desk. “Go sit down. There.”
I sat down in the seat he had indicated, next to a chubby white girl with frizzy hair that stuck out in all directions. My fingers were shaking so much that I fumbled with my pencil case. It opened and everything in it clattered on the floor. Now most of the class laughed and I scrambled to pick up my things. I was so flushed I could feel the heat not only in my face but in my neck and chest. The white girl also bent down and picked up a pen and a pencil sharpener for me.
Mr. Bogart continued writing on the blackboard. I sat up straight and folded my hands behind my back to listen even though I couldn’t follow it at all.
He glanced at me. “Why are you see something that?”
“I sorry, sir,” I said, but I had no idea what I’d done wrong this time. I looked around at the other students. Most of them were sprawled in their chairs. Some had sunk so low that they were practically lying down, some were leaning on their elbows, a few were chewing gum. In Hong Kong, students must fold their hands behind their backs when the teacher is talking, to show respect. Slowly, I loosened my arms and placed my hands on the desk in front of me.
Shaking his head, Mr. Bogart turned back to the blackboard.
Our class went to the school cafeteria for lunch. I had never seen children behave the way these Americans did. They seemed to be hanging from the beams on the ceilings, shrieking. The lunchroom ladies roamed from table to table, yelling instructions no one heard. I had followed the other children and slid a tray across a long counter. Different ladies asked me questions and when I only nodded, they plopped foil-covered packages on my plate. I wound up with this: minced meat in the form of a saucer, potatoes that were not round but had been crushed into a pastelike substance, a sauce similar to soy sauce but less dark and salty, a roll and milk. I had hardly ever drunk cow’s milk before and it gave me a stomachache. The rest of the food was interesting, although there was no rice, so I felt as if I hadn’t really eaten.
After lunch, Mr. Bogart gave out sheets of paper with a drawing of a map.
“This is a pop quick,” he said. “Fill in allde captal see T’s.”
The other kids groaned but many of them started writing. I looked at my piece of paper and then, in desperation, glanced at the white girl’s sheet to try to see what we were supposed to do. Suddenly, the sheet of paper slid out from under my fingers. Mr. Bogart was standing next to me with my test in his hands.
“No cheap pen!” he said. His nose and cheeks were flushed as if he were getting a rash. “You a hero!”
“I sorry, sir—” I began. I knew he wasn’t calling me a hero, like Superman. What had he said? Although I’d had basic English classes in school in Hong Kong, my old teacher’s accent did not in any way resemble what I now heard in Brooklyn.
“ ‘I’mmm,’ ” he said, pressing his lips together. “ ‘ I’m sorry.’ ”
“I’m sorry,” I said. My English mistakes clearly annoyed him, although I wasn’t sure why.
Mr. Bogart wrote a large “0” on my paper and gave it back to me. I felt as if the zero were fluorescent, blinking in neon to the rest of the class. What would Ma say? I’d never gotten a zero before, and now everyone thought I was a cheat too. My only hope was to impress Mr. Bogart with my industry when we cleaned the classrooms after school. If I’d lost any claim to intelligence here, I could at least show him I was a hard worker.
But when the last bell finally rang, all of the other kids ran out of the room. No one stayed behind to mop and sweep the floors, put up the chairs or clean the blackboards.
Mr. Bogart saw me hesitating and asked, “Can I help you?”
I didn’t answer and hurried from the classroom.
Ma was waiting for me outside. I was so happy to see her that when I took her hand, my eyes became hot.
“What is it?” she said, turning my face to her. “Did the other children tease you?”
“No.” I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand. “It’s nothing.”
Ma looked at me intently. “Did some child hit you?”
“No, Ma,” I said. I didn’t want to worry her when there was so little she could do. “Everything is different here, that’s all.”
“I know,” she said, still looking concerned. “What did you do today?”
“I don’t remember.”
Ma sighed, then gave up and started teaching me how to get to the factory by myself. She went through a long list of things for me to be careful of: strange men, homeless people, pickpockets, touching the dirty railing, standing too close to the edge of the platform, etc.
Once we passed the entrance of the subway, the roar of an incoming train blocked out her words. Behind the grimy windows, we could see the walls of the tunnels speed by in a blur. There was so much noise that Ma and I could speak little on the subway ride there. There were two boys about my age sitting across from us. As the taller one got up, a bulky knife fell out of his pocket. It was sheathed in leather, the black handle grooved to fit a large hand. I pretended I wasn’t looking and willed myself to be invisible. The other boy gestured, the first one picked it up, and then they left the train. I peeked at Ma and she had her eyes closed. I huddled closer to her and concentrated on learning the stops and transfers so I wouldn’t get lost by myself.
When we got out of the train station, Ma turned to me and said, “I wish you didn’t have to take the subway by yourself.”
That was the first time. Going to the factory after school would become something so automatic that sometimes, even when I needed to go someplace else years later, I would find myself on the trains to the factory by accident, as if that were the place to which all roads led.
Chinatown looked very much like Hong Kong, although the streets were less cramped. The fish store was piled high with sea bass and baskets of crabs; grocery store shelves were stocked with canned papayas, lichee nuts and star fruit; peddlers on the street sold fried tofu and rice gruel. I felt like skipping beside Ma as we passed restaurants with soy sauce chickens hanging in the window and jewelry stores that glittered with yellow gold. I could understand everyone without any effort: “No, I want your best winter melons,” one woman said; “That’s much too expensive,” said a man in a puffy jacket.
Ma brought us to a doorway that led to a freight elevator. We took the elevator upstairs and exited. When Ma pushed open the metal door of the factory, the heat rushed out and wrapped itself around me like a fist. The air was thick and tasted of metal. I was deafened by the roar of a hundred Singer sewing machines. Dark heads were bent over each one. No one looked up; they only fed reams of cloth through the machines, racing from piece to piece without pausing to cut off the connecting thread. Almost all the seamstresses had their hair up, although some strands had escaped and were plastered to the sides of their necks and cheeks by the sweat. They wore air filters over their mouths. There was a film of dirty red dust on the filters, the color of meat exposed to air for too long.
The factory took up the entire floor of a massive industrial building on Canal Street. It was a cavernous hall bulging with exposed beams and rusting bolts covered in ever-thickening layers of filth. There were mountains of fabric on the floor next to the workers, enormous carts piled high with half-finished pieces, long metal racks hung with the pressed and finished clothes. Ten-year-old boys rushed across the floor dragging carts and racks from section to section. The fluorescent light swirled down to us through the clouds of fabric dust, bathing the tops of the women’s heads in a halo of white light.
“There’s Aunt Paula,” Ma said. “She was out collecting rent earlier.”
Aunt Paula strode across the factory floor with a load of red fabric in her arms, distributing work to the seamstresses. The ones to whom she gave the bigger loads seemed grateful, nodding repeatedly to show their thanks.
Now she had seen us and she came over.
“There you are,” she said. “The factory is impressive, isn’t it?”
“Older sister, can I talk to you?”
I could see this wasn’t the response she wanted. Her face seemed to tighten, and then she said, “Let’s go to the office.”
Although no one dared to stare openly, the workers’ eyes followed us as we walked with Aunt Paula to Uncle Bob’s office at the front of the factory. We passed women using machines I had never seen before to hem pants and sew on buttons. Everyone worked at a frantic pace.
Through the window of the office door, we could see Uncle Bob sitting behind a desk. His walking stick leaned against the wall next to him. We entered and Aunt Paula closed the door behind us.
“First day, eh?” Uncle Bob said.
Before we had a chance to reply, Aunt Paula spoke. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have much time,” she said. “I can’t let the other workers think I’m showing you any favoritism, just because you’re family.”