China Doll in a Tutu
Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from a draft of a longer story entitled "China Doll in a Tutu."
America. Four gleaming English syllables. Say it once and you know it is a place full of hope and dreams. Say it twice and you can almost see the Statue of Liberty towering above you. Say it a third time and you know you’re there. But this is not a Mary Antin novel. I am not a complete patriotic convert. Injustice exists everywhere, even in the land of red, white, and blue. I came to the U.S. with fairy tale expectations and inevitably experienced my treasure chest of disappointments.
Father had saved his yuan since the day my eldest sister, Ping, was brought into this world. This was forty-seven summers ago now, which may seem like ancient history in a country where everything happens finger-snap fast. You with your new books and new films and new fashions bombarding you day in and day out, whereas I grew up in a time and place where vendors' shouting in the marketplace was the only form of advertisement I ever knew.
But that would change before I could understand how or why. Finally the day the family had been waiting for pounced upon us with the stealth of a zodiac tiger: we had enough yuan to board a ship to America.
“Ping, Mei Yi, Chao, and Lee! I’ve got the money! Pack your things---the boat leaves in three hours. There isn’t much time!” cried Father as he ran into the shack.
None of us could believe our ears but we didn’t question our father, especially not in matters concerning money. Instead, we raced to Mother. She was in her bedroom gathering articles of clothing. As she jammed another set of silk pajamas into a big sack, she sighed. Mother did not seem excited, which was shocking to me back then. I thought she should have felt relieved after all the years of waiting for an escape from our tiny village.
My siblings and I milled in and out of our parents' bedroom, chirping in response to Mother's orders. We talked of America. Rumors of the country made it seem like Nirvana. But Mother hushed us all. Her thin face went pale. Her amber eyes went stern and her meek voice wavered.
“My children, that country is not what it seems," she said. "A woman in the market, the one who sells papaya, speaks of how her cousin and his family went to live there. The cousin died on the harsh journey to the place and his wife could not support her children in the new land alone. They died, also. It is a dangerous place.”
Cocky Ping asked, “But we shall go to America, no Mother?”
“Yes, my children, we will and we will be careful. Now pack your things but only what is needed."
My twin brothers, Chao and Lee, shot past me to fetch their belongings. I made way to gather my own things, realizing that I could not bring them all.
Together Ping and I stuffed one pink and blue sash, four white camisoles, two silk pants, two cotton dresses, one long wool skirt to share, three warm sweaters, and two silk dresses into our sack. We decided that we could choose one small item to remind us of our homeland. Both of us agreed on a petite Buddha figure. Stereotypes wouldn't bother me until I arrived in America.
Forty-five minutes later, my family bustled through the crowded harbor. A sea of jet black hair oscillated to and fro before we ourselves diffused into it. The noise level surpassed any description but just imagine the loudest thing you have ever heard, only louder. Vendors pushed fruit carts and children rode their rusty bicycles. The stink of fish and death hung in the air. We would just have to wait our turn to board the great ship of peeling paint and resident barnacles. There must have been hundreds of other Chinese families looking for a new life in America. To small children, this meant more boys and girls to play with, but our parents sensed more sinister prospects. I know now why my parents did not giggle as my brothers and sisters did.
My siblings and I squeezed between the older, bigger bodies surrounding us. As we darted in and out of legs, hopped over sacks and suitcases, and pushed children littler than us, our parents remained in the same place, wringing their hands and whispering to each other. Again, only hindsight puts the behavior of the young and old in stark relief. I didn't notice anything odd about my parents' reactions then. I was too busy chasing Chao, intoxicated by the sea air.
Eventually, playtime had to come to an end. After waiting for a couple of hours, it was our turn to board the ship. Father whistled for us and we scrambled to his side.
"Pick up your bags and stick close to us," he said and then clutched Mei Yi's hand.
A tall, bony man who appeared to be well into his forties did not bother to greet us as we approached the ship. He simply barked for our tickets. Father extended his callused hands to reveal all six. The man waved us on as if we were a stench he wanted to banish as soon as possible.
The boat was already crammed, yet there were dozens more waiting to get in. Children sprawled across the wooden floor at the feet of their elders. The whole place smelled of urine and vomit.
We wedged ourselves into a gap between two stacks of crates just barely large enough to squeeze in all of us.
A while after, the boat began to move. Lee was bored so I told him a story my school teacher said was popular in America.
“Mei Yi, did the wolf really eat Little Red Riding Hood?”
“Yes, that is why the woodcutter came to get her out of the wolf.”
“Hmm, I like 'Lon Po Po' better.”
Later on, gruel was brought to the passengers. It was gritty, cold, and watery but better than no meal at all.
We put forth all our effort to entertain ourselves. Chao sang a song of China, one all of us knew so well. We told old jokes and stories but mostly we fantasized about America.
My legs fell asleep because there as no room to stretch. I had to remain in the same position for hours. In fact, I even had to urinate in my clothes because there were no chamber pots and certainly no toilets. I grew seasick and threw up all over my clothing.
We tried to make the best of it but deep down inside all of us were screaming, “Get me out of this boat! Take me back to China!” Yet we were trapped. We lived on hope---that was all we had to feed on when the food was so meager.
Our bodies continued to struggle like this for two, maybe three weeks. The exact number of days no longer stays with me. I only felt fortunate and thanked Buddha that our lives had not been swept away like so many others' on the ship.
Then when we saw the San Francisco harbor from a tiny peephole, we knew it had been worth it.