the streets are paved with gold.
New York: heart of America, gateway to paradise.
"Do me a favor, and get a new name," said my boss. "Something American, like us."
In the alleys and back streets 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, waiters, as secretaries, receptionists, waitresses, nannies, housekeepers, cleaning ladies, button sewers, caretakers for the dying. We take below minimum wage. We work under the table.
To keep my job, to avoid being called Ting, Tin, Pin, Pink, Pig, 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, low wits, anarchists, criminals, potential prostitutes--names carved into the walls with pens, brushes, nails, knives.
how you bus a table, she stacked dirty plates on her arm.
We know the hardships in a ship's hold, its stink, hunger, lack of air. We know the unforgiveness of the desert, its cactus, scorching sand. 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 stray ghosts in deserts, foreign streets, wandering in hunger and thirst. We know. We know it all. From rumors, stories, eyewitnesses, media. But nothing stops us. We're coming, like marching ants, locus, tidal waves. The moon guides us, pulling us to the other shore, by the heart.
The boy sank his knees 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 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 Fujian ship jumpers. Our Hong Kong landlady believed in energy saving, believed two hours of heat a day was enough to keep us warm. Taped our windows with plastic sheets, wore sweaters, coats, hats and gloves to bed. Fought over the toilet and stove, over who ate what in the refrigerator. But we had no complaint. This was our home. Our dream.
and gift shops line Chinatown streets like crows.
Last stop Flushing. Run up the subway steps. Do not look around. Do not glance sideways 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 have nothing to fear now, nothing at all, said my sponsor at the airport.
5:00 am. The old man arrives at Confucius Plaza. Feet apart. Knees bent. Hands before the chest. A ball of fire. 60 years of Taichi. Under the statue. Never missed a day. Never a beat. 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.
been deloused, tagged, marked with chalk.
I sent home $400 dollars, my first month earning as a waitress, along with a photo of myself at JFK, grinning from behind a trunk, two fingers heavenwards in the shape of V.
He inches his van down Mott Street, 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.
you say whatever you want in your own country?
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.
my dear, my heart and liver,
our neighbors with
At fifteen, my father ran away from his widowed mother to fight the Japanese, and had been trying to return home ever since.
He lost his left ear in a bayonet fight with a Japanese soldier. Two years later, the National Army cracked his eardrums with American cannons.
The night I arrived in JFK, the Mets won the World Series and the noise on the street went on till three. I got up at six and went to work in my sponsor's antique shop in Manhattan.
He never lost his Weihai accent, never learned Mandarin or the island dialect.
"Did you jump or fly?" asked my Fuzhou landlady from her mahjong table. Seeing my puzzled face, she laughed and told me her husband jumped ship ten years ago. When he opened his fifth Chinese takeout, he bought her a passport and flew her to Queens.
The only thing he liked to talk about was Weihai, its plump sea cucumbers and sweet apples, men with broad shoulders, stubborn thighs, and girls with long braids making steamed bread.
please become an American citizen,"
don't know why," she said, shivering from behind her fruit stand.
"Back at home, I could go for days without a penny in my pocket,
and I didn't feel poor. Now, if my money goes down below four figures,
I panic." She scanned the snow-covered street of
back the message,
On her sixtieth birthday, my grandma went home to die. The trip involved two ships, one from the island to Shanghai, then from Shanghai to Yantai. From there, she would take two more buses to reach Weihai. I carried her onto the big ship at the Shanghai Port, down to the bottom, where she'd spend three days on a mattress, on the floor, with hundreds of fellow passengers. "How are you going to make it, grandma," I asked. She pulled out a pair of embroidered shoes from her parcel and placed them between my feet. "My sweetheart and liver, promise you'll come to see your old home soon, before it's too late."
without an ancestral home
The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai rejected my brother's visa applications three times. He talks about borrowing thirty thousand dollars from snakeheads and jumping ship.
I hired my babysitter when I heard her hometown was fifty miles away from Weihai.
The president visited the rice paddies in Vietnam where a pilot was downed thirty-three years ago. He vowed to bring every bone of the fallen hero back to America.
where I'm from,
My father tried to return home after his demotion from the Navy. With his rank, he could only get into a coalmine town five hundred miles away. No one in the family wanted to go. He went alone, and was soon hospitalized with TB. My mother sold her furniture to bribe the county administrator and ordered me to go out with his son so that my father could come back to the island.
lady stopped her cart
They swore, before boarding the ship, that they'd send money home to bring more relatives over; in return, they were promised that if they died, their bodies would be sent back home for burial.
The bus stopped suddenly. The woman behind me bumped her head against the baby pack. "Go back to Laos," she shouted angrily, "and breed in your own place." "Ma'am," I turned to her, "I'm Chinese. We breed only one child for each family." "I don't care," she roared. "Just go back."
I'm not sad."
My mother buried her husband on the island, where he lived for forty years.
"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."
My friends call me "banana"--waxed yellow skin, but white and mushy inside.
Back from America, my mother furnished her home on the island, bought an apartment in the suburb of Shanghai, and is considering a third one in Beijing. "A cunning rabbit needs three holes," she wrote to her daughters, demanding their contributions.
comes to me only
a small city
roof with animals underneath
The Magic Whip
the mark of
Hearing that the Manchurian horsemen had crossed the Great Wall, the last emperor of Ming went to his garden and hung himself on a tree. The Manchu warriors took over the Forbidden City. "No woman is allowed to bind her feet and every Chinaman must wear a queue," ordered the first emperor of Qing.
the black down on my shins,
She trades her voice for human legs, rises naked from the sea to meet the prince on the beach. She wraps her shame with a cloak of brown hair that drapes to the ankles. I cried over the book stolen from a sealed library, and vowed to keep my hair long.
I poured the kerosene into a wooden basin, and let go of my braids. "Are you sure you want to do this?" asked the old village woman who gave me the folk recipe. "Another way to get rid of those bugs, once for all, is to shave your hair." I nodded, bent my head, and slid the black cascade into the kerosene. Fumes smarted my eyes and pricked the scalp like needles. Count to three hundred and all the lice and the eggs will be dead, I muttered through clenched teeth. I was fifteen, had just left home to work on the village farm. I was determined to save my hair, at any cost.
her daughter's hair
When they caught the adulterers, the villagers broke the man's legs and plucked the woman's pubic hair clean.
In Hong Kong, she cut the braids she'd kept for fifteen years. She arrived in JFK the next day, the new C-bob perched on her scalp like a battered helmet.
braided talismans into their queues.
A woman without pubic hair is called a "white tiger"--a man killer.
up over his shirt
She caught him again with a woman in their bedroom. "I can't go on like this. You keep the son and I'll take care of this one," she pointed to her swollen womb, and left. Within a week, her hair became matted and the braids formed into the shape of a cobra with a raised hood, lice in the locks like worms. And no man would go near her.
Tough hair on a girl equals stubbornness equals disobedience equals bad luck.
to women friends:
"I'm so tired of my hair. I'm ready to cut it," I whined to a friend. "If you cut it," she said sternly, "you'll have nothing left."
Another outbreak of lice in the nursery. Teachers pulled her out to examine her head. They always started with her, for some reason. They didn't know that lice hated kinky hair. Its nappy jungle made it too difficult to reach the scalp for blood.
The laws of the Great Qing: removing a man's queue is punishable by decapitation.
friend caught me in the bathtub shaving with his razor at 3:00 a.m.
The nurse shaved her, told her to relax. The doctor walked in, face behind a mask. He injected anesthesia into the naked armpits, then cut along the marks drawn on the skin. He peeled. She felt the tugging and pulling, her arms jerked up and down like a puppet. He finished the last stitch. "All gone. No more sweat, no more fox stink," he said cheerfully. "Are you really eighteen?" he examined her face. She looked up at his sparse eyebrows, couldn't tell him she was fifteen, but had already smelled so bad that nobody could come close, couldn't tell him she had to sell her pet chickens to pay for this. "I know it's none of my business," he said. "But if you are younger, the sweat glands may grow back and you'll need another operation."
up hearing this every day:
Names for haircuts: crimp, bangs, snake mane wave, curly cue, buzz cut, spike, coif, upsweep with attitude, brow-tossing, ringlet-topped, shoulder-brushing, tousled-finish, wind-blown, dred-like, razor-cut, luscious body, hip with a flip, down-to-there.
When the Last Emperor was dethroned, the New Republicans forced men to cut off their queues on the street.
A treatment for hysteria: depilation of pubic hair. When blood rushes to the pulled roots, the "heated" head will cool down.
She got a perm in Midtown Hair. Her lover opened the door and laughed. "Where did you get this Afro cut?" The next day, she found a Korean salon in Flushing, and straightened all the curls. She ate ramen, ten cents a package, for the rest of the month.
Colorsilk Natural Instincts
Nice 'n' Easy Les Blondissimes
The body dies, but the hair continues to grow.
constantly stop her
Wang Ping is the author of American Visa, a collection of short stories; Foreign Devil, a novel; and Of Flesh and Spirit, a collection of poetry. Born in Shanghai, she teaches creative writing at Macalester College.