You say the streets are paved with gold.
You say even the maids have maids.
If we work hard, our dreams will be fulfilled.
So we come—on foot
by boats, ships, planes.
“Do me a favor, and get a new name,” said my boss. “Something American, like us.”
In the alleys and back streets of Chinatown are job agencies, where opium dens and brothels used to be. We gather behind the barred windows and iron gates, waiting to be dispatched as cooks, dishwashers, delivery boys, as receptionists, waitresses, nannies, housekeepers, button sewers. We work under the table for a minimum wage.
First bite of pizza—throw up on the boss’ shoes
Dirty streets littered with the homeless
No public toilets on American streets
Can’t understand a word, despite my English degree from Beijing University
Armani suit man spits on the sidewalk
Pork tastes like woodchips, tomatoes like mud
Lost in the subway maze
So high the skyscrapers, so low my basement
Vast shopping malls, my empty wallet
“Please, please become an American citizen,”
my brother begged me over the phone,
his voice severed by the long distance wire.
“This is the only way I can come to America.”
To keep my job, I changed my name to Penelope, then Penny. For ten years, I was known as Penny Wan.
Through the barred windows of Ellis Island, we gazed at Manhattan’s silhouette. Paradise was only a river away. Around us were the names of the deportees—the sick, half wits, anarchists, criminals, potential prostitutes—names carved into the walls with pens, brushes, nails, knives.
This is how you bus a table, she stacked dirty plates on her arm.
This is how you serve clients, she grinned, her face a mask of meekness and rage.
If they spit in your face, turn the other cheek.
If they forget to leave a tip, smile and say “Welcome back.”
Forget about your Ph.D., having taught in Beijing University.
You start from here, zero, she stamped the ground, hard.
We know the stink and hunger in a ship’s hold. We know the unforgiveness of the desert. We may be raped, drowned, dehydrated, caught, deported. May never pay off the loans to the snakeheads. May end up dead in a sealed truck, in the sea, become ghosts in deserts and foreign streets. We know. We know it all. From rumors, stories, eyewitnesses, movies. But we’re still coming, like marching ants, locusts, tidal waves. The moon guides us, pulling us to the other shore, by the heart.
The boy knelt into the sand, and kissed the soil of America.
Eight moves within eight months: Flushing, Brooklyn, Elmhurst, Harlem, Elmhurst, Rego Park, Flushing, Flushing. Finally a steady income from a law office—$5.00 an hour, cash, and moved into a house on Farrington Street, Flushing. $200 a month, heat and electricity. Across the street, a Korean brothel. Sharing kitchen and bathroom with a Vietnamese, a Malaysian, two Fu Jian ship jumpers. Our Hong Kong landlady believed in energy saving. Two hours of heat a day—more than enough. Taped our windows with plastic, wore sweaters, coats, hats and gloves to bed. Fought over the toilet and stove, over who ate what in the refrigerator. But we held out–this was our home, our dream.
Restaurants and gift shops line Chinatown streets like crows.
I constantly got lost in the maze, even though the Twin Towers
stood a few blocks away.
The U.S. consulate rejected my brother’s third application. He talked about borrowing thirty thousand dollars from snakeheads and jumping ship.
Did you have a toilet? bath? hot water?
Could you afford a car? a house? three children?
Color TV? VCR? Laptop?
Could you say whatever you wanted in your own country?
Last stop Flushing. Run up the subway steps. Do not look around. Do not glance at the car purring along Farrington Street. Do not panic at his open fly, pale hand up and down under the wheel, ring gleaming in the moonlight. Do not hear the whispered beckoning: Hey pigtailed China doll, won’t you come with me?
You’re in America now, you have nothing to fear, said my sponsor at JFK.
He inches his van through fish and vegetable stands, through underwear, bras, slippers, perfumes, through baseball hats, dragon T-shirts, Chanel bags, through throngs of shoppers and gawking tourists. “Too many Chinese, too many fucking Chinese!” he mutters as he enters the heart of Chinatown.
“Don’t tell me it’s impossible. I’m willing to wait, five, ten years. I’m willing to work, restaurants, laundromats. I just want my daughter to have a good education and freedom to choose where she wants to live, like you, Sister.”
5:00 A.M. The old man arrives at Confucius Plaza. Feet apart. Knees bent. Hands before the chest. A ball of fire. Sixty years of Taichi. Under the statue. Never missed a day. Since the ship’s arrival. No wife. No children to inherit his savings. He’s an American, an overseas Chinese, venerable Laundromat Wong on East Broadway.
We’ve been deloused, tagged, marked with chalk.
We’ve answered questions like “How many legs does a horse have?”
We’ve been stripped, poked in the eyes, ears, private parts.
When the officer called our names aloud,
we ran down the steps, screaming,
into the arms of our estranged fathers, husbands, brothers and sisters.
Go to Ellis Island. Go find your ancestor on the Wall of Honor. Trace it. Trace with a pencil. On paper. Our ancestors. 500,000 names. More to come. Inscribed. Steeled.
I sent home $400, my first month’s earning as a waitress, along with a photo of myself at the airport, grinning from behind a trunk, two fingers heavenwards in the shape of a V.
What do you really want?
What more do you want?
Wang Ping was born in Shanghai and grew up on the island off Shanghai, meaning “into the sea,” and she’s been sailing from island to island, continent to continent. For her, home lies in the languages she speaks, writes and dreams with. She’s published 12 books of poetry, fiction, children book, translation. She’s also a photographer and performance artist. She has a Ph.D in comparative literature and MD in traditional Chinese medicine. She’s professor of English at Macalester College.