Chapter 10: South to North
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
After an initial year of major adjustments, my subsequent three years of living a fairly normal childhood in Louisiana were so much fun for the most part that I never wanted to leave. One Saturday morning in the spring of 1994, I jumped into my parents' bed as I usually did on the weekends. They used to lie in bed for hours after waking up, gossiping about their mutual friends or talking about their own lives. I usually listened while I squirmed around under the blankets or played with my Lego blocks in their bedroom, but I never paid much attention to what they were saying since they always talked about boring adult topics. But on that particular morning, I heard something that left me paralyzed with depression.
Half a year before that day, my parents decided to have me skip from fourth grade to fifth grade. I remember my friends from my fourth grade class pleading me to stay with them and not to move up to fifth grade. Some of my friends actually grabbed my shirt and begged me not to take those few steps down the hall into the fifth grade classroom. I was really touched by the sincerity in their voices. At that moment, I felt like I had made lifelong friends and earned my place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I had come so far during my first four years in America: I had matured from a scared little kid in an inner-city school who could not speak a word of English to a confident and sociable boy who went to sleepovers with friends, played baseball for a YMCA Little League team, and had pretty Southern girls in my classes comment on how I would get wrinkles when I was older since I smiled so much. I felt like I had endured enough challenges during my ten-year childhood to earn the right to grow up here as a normal teenager. Someday I wanted to tell my kids about my tough year in Switzerland, my experiences adjusting to life in America, and how I grew up to be a proud Southern boy. I was all ready to graduate from elementary school with my friends and take the bus with them to middle school the following year.
That's why I was devastated on that Saturday morning when my mother told me that our family was going to move to New York City at the end of the summer, live there for a year, and then relocate once more to Los Angeles, California. My mother had won a prestigious research fellowship that allowed her to spend a year working at a foundation in New York City, and she was simultaneously offered a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA, which she could defer for a year. She said that it was a phenomenal opportunity for her career advancement, and more importantly, an even greater opportunity for our family to expand our horizons. I did not believe her.
I had never doubted my parents before that moment. I had never fully understood why we had to move around so much when I was younger, but I always trusted that they knew what was best for the family. The closest I had ever come to questioning their judgment was when they wanted me to skip a grade. However, this was the first time that I was truly angry at my parents' decision, even though I was powerless to change their minds.
I did not believe that this move was good for our family. Not good for me, especially. I thought we had the greatest life we could possibly ask for here in Louisiana. But I was selfish and ignorant. I didn't know what else was out there. "We're moving to the big city," my mother told me, and I still remember thinking to myself, "What? We're already in the big city! There are so many chain stores here: K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Piggly Wiggly, Church's Chicken, even McDonald's! How much bigger than Baton Rouge can you possibly get?" The answer: much, much bigger. When I went back to visit Baton Rouge after a few months of living in New York City, I was surprised to see how everything there looked so small compared to what I saw around my new home, and I laughed at my younger self for actually believing that Baton Rouge was a blossoming metropolis.
At the time, though, I didn't care if New York City was cultured, cosmopolitan, or awe-inspiring. I didn't care about my parents' job opportunities or our so-called family opportunities. All I wanted was to stay in Baton Rouge with my group of friends and grow up alongside them. I despised the butterflies-in-my-stomach pain that always surfaced whenever I moved to a new place and started class at a new school as the new kid. I could foresee that our one-year temporary stay in New York City and subsequent move to Los Angeles meant that I would have to twice experience the gut-wrenching pain of displacement, of having no friends, of having no place to call home, of feeling left out, scared, and alone.
This was the first time I felt deeply sad for an extended period of time. I was never depressed (scared and anxious, but not depressed) about moving around and adapting to new environments when I was younger because I was never in a single place long enough to start feeling at home. But this place was different. I had spent four years here with countless sleepovers, video game matches, baseball games, and bike rides around the neighborhood. As soon as I started feeling like a normal kid, everything was going to be ripped away from me. I would have to start all over again—new city, new school, and new kids. Everything and everyone I knew up to that point in my life was just going to be a memory. It wasn't fair.
My friends did not take the news well, either. They were upset by me moving to a classroom a few dozen feet down the hall when I skipped a grade, but New York City was a thousand miles away. They knew that I was never coming back. I collected everybody's home addresses and promised to write letters to them. There was no email or online instant messaging services back then, so it was much harder for us to keep in touch. These kids were my first set of real friends, and I was devastated at the thought of leaving them behind.
In hindsight, I now realize that my idealized future of growing up with my elementary school friends was all an illusion. Since teenagers naturally associate more closely with those who are in their classes or share their interests, my friends would quickly join different social cliques as they entered adolescence—the geeks, the drama queens, the stoners, the jocks, the outcasts, the rich snobs, the wannabe-gangsters, and so forth. The more academically-focused kids would enroll in the advanced math, science, social science, and English classes while most others would take the regular versions. The kids in the honors and Advanced Placement classes would start to lose touch with the kids in the regular classes, even those who used to be their best friends in elementary school.
When I was in high school, I asked Raymond, one of my few remaining friends from Baton Rouge, what actually happened to our elementary school classmates. He told me that he had lost touch with most of the kids we had played with and only still kept in touch with those who enrolled in the high school honors classes. We had a mix of white and Asian friends back in elementary school, but by high school, Raymond had lost touch with most of his white friends and associated almost exclusively with Asian kids since they were much more often in the honors classes together.
If I had stayed in Louisiana, I would have hung out with Raymond and other nerdy Asian kids. We would soon forget those pretty girls who used to invite us to birthday parties, since they would quickly join the cool crowd as the vicious fight for middle school popularity ensued. I would have stopped playing with my less studious friends when they started to grow out their hair, wear flannel and torn jeans, and listen to grunge rock bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. By high school, most of my former friends would probably be driving their pick-up trucks, smoking, drinking beer, and shooting rabbits with shotguns while I would be studying for SAT's on the weekends and earning community service hours during the summertime to polish up my resume for college applications.
In early August 1994, I flew from Baton Rouge to LaGuardia airport in New York City. My mother was finishing up her job at LSU, packing our belongings, and finalizing the sale of our house. She decided to send me to New York one month before her research fellowship began in September because she was too busy running errands to take proper care of me. Earlier that summer, my father had started a job as a sales manager at a Long Island telecommunications company. He lived in Queens, one of the five boroughs (districts) of New York City, in the home of an elderly Chinese couple, the Yaos. This was the first plane ride I had ever taken by myself. For the duration of my flight, the excitement and anxiety of traveling alone as a 10-year-old overshadowed the dismal reality that I had a one-way ticket.
My father picked me up from the airport in a crappy run-down car that he had borrowed from the Yao family. I had absolutely no idea what to expect of New York City, so I imagined the worst—rampant crime, muggings, pollution, and the suffocation of grimy city life. As soon as we exited the airport, the noise and traffic of the city overwhelmed my senses. Ever since I had left China five years prior, I had never seen highways with more than two lanes going each way, pedestrians walking faster than cars stuck in traffic, and pothole-filled roads which were jam-packed with so many different kinds of vehicles—yellow cabs, buses, vans, second-hand junkers, luxury sedans, ambulances, police cars, limousines, and trucks. I was scared and appalled that people honked and yelled so much while driving.
As my father concentrated on fighting his way through traffic, sweating from the lack of air conditioning and power steering in the car, I just looked around. First came amazement, then came disenchantment, then came the butterflies in my stomach again. I did not see a single thing that reminded me of home. Not one thing. The people here looked so different, so much more stressed and rushed all the time. Nobody smiled. Everybody just grimaced and honked their horns and cursed at one another while trying to get frantically from point A to point B. Nobody looked like the people from typical wholesome Southern families whom I saw everywhere around my former home.
As we drove through Queens, I noticed that the people I saw on the streets and in adjacent cars were mostly black and Hispanic, but there were a fair number of white people as well. However, these weren't the white people I was accustomed to seeing. They were dark, tanned, and hairy, and they looked more like Mario and Luigi from Super Mario Brothers than the clean-cut patriarchs from idyllic 1950's television shows. These white people were likely the offspring of working-class Italian and Eastern European immigrants. They were still Caucasian, but they looked far different than the fair-skinned white people I had been used to seeing back in Switzerland and Louisiana. I didn't know how I was ever going to fit in or make friends in this strange new place. Even the white people didn't look white! I quickly realized that the big city was most definitely not a black-and-white world. It was everything in between: brown, yellow, gray, red.
When my father stopped at a gas station to refuel, something caught my eye: two golden arches. McDonald's! Finally, I saw the first sign of home. I begged him to give me money to buy a hamburger. I didn't want to grab a burger from the White Castle next door since I had no clue what it was, but I had eaten at McDonald's countless times, both in Switzerland and Louisiana, so I knew exactly what to expect there. McDonald's was a strange symbol of constancy throughout my early childhood (how appropriate, since they were one of the pioneers of commercial globalization). I loved ordering their trademark Happy Meals to get the toys, and I often bought two or sometimes even three additional hamburgers to fill me up. I had been hooked on their fast food ever since I left China.
After I bought my burger, I went back outside to watch my father pump gas at the station. I looked up and saw huge bridges and overpasses, which I had never seen in Baton Rouge. We were directly underneath a highway, so the noise was deafening. We had to yell just to communicate. Now I knew why everyone in the city was yelling all the time. It was so loud here that shouting was the only way to overcome the background noise.
I took another look around, but I still saw nothing that reminded me of home besides those tacky golden arches. I couldn't believe that a few hours ago, I still thought that Baton Rouge (with a population of less than 300,000) was a big city. I looked across the East River and saw the majestic Manhattan skyline—the World Trade Center twin towers, the Empire State Building, and the Chrysler tower. I couldn't imagine so many people packed so densely on a thin island; it would be another month before my family became one of them.
After an hour of battling traffic, my father and I arrived at a three-story house in a working-class Queens neighborhood. Grandpa and Grandma Yao greeted us by manually opening up a chain-link gated fence (laced with barbed wire) and allowing our car to enter their short driveway. I had never seen locked fences protecting people's driveways before. It looked like we were entering the confines of a maximum-security prison, but the Yaos' warm welcome assured me that I was in friendly territory. The Yaos were our distant relatives on my mother's side; we were connected indirectly through several marriages but not by blood. They tried their best to be hospitable even though they had never met my father or me before we moved to New York City; Chinese custom encourages people to try to treat distant family members with as much affection as close kin.
I always addressed our elderly hosts as "Grandpa Yao" and "Grandma Yao," even though they weren't my real grandparents, because it's Chinese custom to always address older people with these terms of respect. Throughout my childhood, I always felt uncomfortable hearing my friends call adults simply by their first names, since it's extremely rude to do so in Chinese culture.
When I first saw the Yaos' house, I thought that it was huge since it had three floors plus a basement. I loved big houses and looked forward to exploring this one, but my father told me that the Yaos rented all three floors out to tenants in order to make extra money. I couldn't believe that Grandpa and Grandma Yao lived in their own basement while total strangers roamed around on the other three floors! I couldn't imagine renting out even one room of our four-bedroom Louisiana home since I thought that a home was only meant for one family.
I soon learned from my father that many new Chinese immigrants in the city pooled family resources together to buy homes, but then rented out rooms to tenants to help pay for the mortgage. My parents actually had several friends whose American Dream was to buy a home and rent out most of the rooms to tenants, confining their own family to a cramped corner; they felt that it was strictly more prestigious to own a home rather than to rent an apartment, even though the latter would provide them with more privacy and personal space.
I understood that my father and I were also tenants in the Yaos' home. Even though they were distant relatives, my father still paid them a few hundred dollars for rent. We slept in a bedroom on the first floor. The last time I slept in the same room as my father was five years earlier when we lived on the second floor of his Chinese restaurant in Switzerland. I used to wake him up at 5 AM to pester him with curious questions, but now I knew better. I was twice as old and many times more mature. I knew that he could not afford to be disturbed. He had just started his first job after graduating from LSU with an MBA degree, so he needed all the energy that he could muster from a good night's rest to prepare for work the next day. He needed to work hard to prove himself and to climb the corporate ladder.
I could not sleep well during my first few nights in New York. There was no air conditioning. The hot and humid August weather mixed with the stench of the dirty streets outside the first floor window made me want to vomit. The butterflies in my stomach never went away. I sat awake in bed for hours every evening, listening to the clock ticking and trying to hypnotize myself into going to sleep. In the middle of the night, I could hear dogs barking and cars driving past the house. These were the barks of ferocious guard dogs, not the friendly pets that I used to see people walking in my former Baton Rouge neighborhood when my parents and I took our nightly post-dinner strolls. I reminisced about my friends and the fun times we had playing video games, eating pizza at birthday parties, and even going to school. It was all gone.
The Yaos were in their late fifties and had been in America for more than ten years. Like many Chinese immigrants in the city, they could not make it into the mainstream because they had neither transferable skills nor adequate English language proficiency. But they were hard workers who were willing to take any jobs available to them. Back in China, Grandpa Yao was a high-ranking hospital administrator, and Grandma Yao was a head nurse, but without the proper credentials, they could not remain in their respective professions once they arrived in America. Since they could only speak Chinese, local Chinese-owned businesses seemed to be their only option even though the wages were extremely low (when you were being paid "under the table" in cash, there was no such thing as a legal minimum wage).
Grandpa Yao worked in a small Chinese-owned sign-making and painting business down the street from his home. Grandma Yao sewed clothes in a garment factory in Manhattan's Chinatown. Every afternoon at 5:30 PM, Grandpa Yao would get off work and drive for almost an hour through rush-hour traffic to Chinatown to pick up his wife from work. Sometimes they grabbed Chinese food and groceries before heading home. They had been doing this same daily routine for over a decade.
The Yaos had three children who were in their late 20's and early 30's. They lived in other parts of New York City. They were hard workers like their parents, but due to their lack of English proficiency and formal education, they were also stuck in blue-collar jobs in ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown—sewing clothes, fixing cars, and performing other below-minimum-wage manual labor.
At first, I felt sorry for the Yao family. They didn't appear to be able to realize the American Dream of living in a suburban house and taking leisurely strolls along the sidewalks. Four years after coming to America and starting from scratch, I felt that my family lived a decent middle-class life in Louisiana. We had the beginnings of the American Dream—two cars, a four-bedroom house in a safe neighborhood, and a modest but steady source of income from my mother's university job. The Yaos had been in America for over ten years, yet they only managed to buy a home by pooling the collective savings of all five family members and renting out the majority of it to strangers. They lived in a dangerous part of the city where people put double deadbolts on their doors and barbed wire over their gated fences. Yet they seemed to be happy. I couldn't understand how anybody could be satisfied living in such a dump. Didn't they know what they were missing? Didn't they know about large backyards or magnolia trees or pretty Southern girls? Wait.
The Yaos absolutely did not know what they were missing. Maybe that was why they were happy. They lived in Queens, New York ever since they came to America, so they never experienced life in any other part of the country. They had little social (or even physical) mobility. Ever since they immigrated to America, all they knew was a small world within a big city, consisting of Chinatown and other Chinese-owned businesses where they didn't need to speak English to interact with others. They relied on a network of Chinese friends like themselves who could not speak English but managed to survive in the city through years of experience and accumulated shared wisdom. They loved going to Chinatown to speak their native language and to eat their favorite Chinese foods. They knew enough English words to be able to read the subway signs so that they could make their way to Chinatown and back every weekend.
Like millions of their working-class immigrant peers, the Yaos never seemed to be able to assimilate into mainstream American culture. Instead, they thrived on a transplanted Chinese culture within ethnic enclaves. Opponents of (mostly non-Anglo) immigration often cite the inability of people like the Yaos to learn English and integrate into the American mainstream as a drain on this nation's resources. However, I witnessed firsthand that the Yaos were grateful to this country for providing them with the opportunity to earn more money than they could back in China; in return, they contributed to American commercial prosperity by performing manual labor for less pay than what their unionized "native" American peers would accept.
During my first few days in New York City, terrible images often flew through my confused mind and haunted me during my waking hours and in my sleep. I had this recurring nightmare in which I would be in the Yaos' house looking outside from the first floor bedroom window. I would see Grandpa Yao walking back home after work, carrying bags of groceries and whistling a cheerful Chinese tune. All of a sudden, I would hear gunshots and see his wrinkled face freeze in shock as he was shot repeatedly in the back. His arms would then flail wildly as the groceries dropped to the ground along with his lifeless body. And that was it. No shooter, no motive, and no purpose. That was it. That was what I thought of the city: cold-blooded and senseless killing.
Grandpa Yao was always cheerful and smiling, but his grizzled face and calloused hands revealed that he was a tough man built for hard labor and a rough-and-tumble life. He told me that he never turned down a fight when he was a young man in China. He showed me his scars and ensured me that the other guys ended up looking worse. He encouraged me to fight if the other kids at school ever gave me any trouble. He told me to stand up and fight dirty, to kick kids in the groin, to gouge out their eyes, to use pipes and wrenches as weapons, and not to take shit from anybody, no matter who they were—black, white, Hispanic, or Asian (he freely used derogatory slurs for all races as he spoke to me in his coarse Chinese slang). However, Grandpa Yao grew up in an antiquated world where everyone was scrawny, malnourished, and unarmed, so fights didn't turn deadly. He was no match for the drug dealers and gangsters in the parts of the city he frequented, which were infamous for their atrociously high gun violence and murder rates in the early 1990's. I was afraid that he would randomly get killed one day and not even know why.
Along the same paranoid lines, I had a bizarre nightmarish fantasy that my father would win the lottery. My father bought a lottery ticket one day, and I strongly felt that we were going to hit the jackpot. I had such an undeniable feeling that the six numbers on TV were going to match those on his ticket. It was the closest I had come to having a spiritual experience. I somehow knew that we were going to win. However, I did not immediately fantasize about the lavish cars and beautiful house that we could afford to buy with our winnings. Rather, I remember this terrible fear gripping me as I sat in the back seat of his car riding through Queens, thinking about how much we would be the targets of theft and murder if we suddenly became millionaires. The lottery winners usually went on TV to sign their big ceremonial checks, and if we went on TV, then everybody would recognize our faces and try to come after us. I thought about what a horrible life we would lead in a few days when we won that money. I thought about walking down the streets in constant fear that somebody would kidnap me and use me to extort ransom from my parents. I wanted to destroy that ticket so we could be spared from that abysmal fate.
This perverted way of thinking dominated my mind when I first moved to New York. It was precise logic mixed with delusional paranoia. I had been thrown out of my home and banished from my friends. Worst of all, nobody around me could understand what I was feeling. I remember standing outside the Yaos' home and looking up at the night sky within the confines of their barbed wire fence. The sky was so bright from the city lights that I could barely see the moon. I wanted to look up at the stars while lying on the grass in my own backyard, but that backyard was not mine anymore. We had already sold our home in Louisiana.
There was nobody I could talk to about my feelings of anxiety and homesickness, so I let my imagination run wild. Everywhere I went in the city, I would imagine that strangers were coming after me. Even standing within the safety of the fence that separated the Yaos' house from the street, I thought about the slim but non-zero probability that a stray bullet would fly right through the holes in the chain link and dig into my flesh (I heard news stories about people being killed by stray bullets while sitting in their homes). I always tried to avoid standing in large open areas and to constantly seek shelter behind pillars or walls in public places so that bullets could not hit me. I always looked for windows and doors so that I could plan out escape routes in my mind. I slouched down in the back seat whenever I rode in cars so that I wouldn't accidentally catch a bullet in the head. Stand up straight. Sit up straight. People would tell me all the time but I never listened. I wanted to make myself as small a target as possible. I never destroyed that ticket, but thankfully we did not win the lottery that week.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo