Chapter 11: A Month in the Basement
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
After I lived with the Yaos for a few days, my father decided to send me to live for the rest of the month with their daughter, Mrs. Mei. My father and the Yaos had to go to work during the daytime, and they did not feel comfortable leaving me home alone in their unsafe neighborhood. Mrs. Mei could provide daycare for me since she worked from home. I lived with her family in Brooklyn, New York for the entire month of August while my father lived with the Yaos in nearby Queens.
Mrs. Mei knew that my parents were Chinese immigrants like herself and were distant relatives, so she was sympathetic to us during our time of need, even though she had never met me before agreeing to take me into her custody. She worked as a sewing machine operator for a garment factory. The primary benefit of her job was that she was able to bring home large sacks of fabric and sew them into clothes at home rather than work in crowded sweatshop-like conditions in Chinatown like her mother, Grandma Yao. She set up a huge sewing machine and various tools in the basement and spent every day working down there. Working at home allowed her to bring in an income and simultaneously take care of her two young daughters. Her husband, Mr. Hand, worked as a jewelry repairman in a Chinatown shop. He made the usual daily hour-long subway commutes to and from work like millions of fellow New Yorkers. I refer to him as Mr. Hand since his Chinese name literally means hand when translated into English; it's not that weird—my Chinese name means country.
During the daytime, Mrs. Mei and I were the only people in the house since her husband was at work and her two daughters were attending a Chinese summer school located in their neighborhood. Her family did not rent out any rooms to tenants, so there were no strangers walking around the hallways. That reassuring quality made her house feel a bit more like a home. Mrs. Mei positioned her sewing machine so that she could have a clear view of the television set while she worked. We spent every morning watching The Price Is Right down in the basement while she sewed; she would periodically yell out her guesses for the prices of various items on that game show. She was a really good guesser, probably because she had been watching that show every day for over a decade.
During commercial breaks, Mrs. Mei would sometimes ask me about myself and my family. I told her a bit about my life in Louisiana and how I had moved around a lot when I was younger. Like many of her peers, she could not understand much English, so I spoke to her in Chinese. However, by this time, I had not lived in China for five years, so my Chinese-speaking abilities had greatly diminished. Pretty much the only people with whom I spoke Chinese was my parents, but we would often converse in a combination of English and Chinese phrases since both of them understood English extremely well for being recent immigrants. We could switch back and forth between the two languages and choose whichever one most naturally conveyed our thoughts at the moment. When I had to speak solely in Chinese, though, I could only talk about simple everyday topics; thus, I was never able to convey my deep feelings of loneliness and homesickness to Mrs. Mei.
I spent the majority of every day in the basement under her supervision. It was the same routine for the entire month: She worked non-stop sewing clothes, sheets, and other garments while I watched television, played video games on their family's Nintendo, and learned to type on their personal computer. When her daughters returned from summer school every afternoon, they usually played with each other, not with me. I could not really relate to them since they were a few years younger. I also didn't have any enthusiasm for playing with them; I was too busy daydreaming nostalgic thoughts about my Louisiana home that I would never see again. Around 6:30 PM every night, Mr. Hand would return from his Chinatown jewelry repair job and walk straight over to the Nintendo to start playing the game Dr. Mario while Mrs. Mei prepared dinner for the family.
I liked to watch Mrs. Mei cook because she was the only one in the house who would try to make conversation with me. I noticed that she had lots of old dirty rags lying around the kitchen. Whenever she finished wiping something with a rag, she would wash it, wring it to get out the excess water, and then place it back on the countertop to dry. She assigned each rag to clean a particular part of the kitchen. One was for the stovetop, another was for the dinner table, and so forth.
It took me a bit of time to realize that those funny-looking rags were actually paper towels which she washed and re-used. She loved using Bounty paper towels and even gave me a big speech about them as she was preparing dinner one day: "These paper towels are the best. You can re-use them so many times. See, watch ..." She took out a new paper towel from the roll and wiped down the counter with it. Then she washed it in the sink, wrung it to get out the excess water, and laid it out on the countertop to dry. "You can re-use them many times before you have to throw them away. See, look at these." She pointed to the wrinkled, dirty rag-looking things on the counter. "I've used these for the past few weeks. Each sheet can last at least a month before I have to throw it away. I have one sheet for the oily stove, another sheet for the counter, and another one for the tables. A roll lasts us a whole year or more." Mrs. Mei had always lived as a poor immigrant in the city, so she learned to save money in any way possible. I had never seen anybody re-use Bounty paper towels as much as she did, and I doubt that I ever will again.
I never asked Mrs. Mei about her family's past, but I was always curious to learn how they ended up in America. It wasn't until years later that my parents told me their immigrant story. When Mr. Hand was growing up in China, he was a high school dropout with grand ambitions. He instinctively knew that the world outside of China was somehow better and more exciting than what he had seen in his own life, even though he had no idea why or how. He managed to escape from China to Hong Kong by trying to swim over there illegally, getting caught on the shore by police dogs, being brutally beaten by the officers, and almost dying of pneumonia in a jail cell. The Hong Kong police were compassionate enough not to send him back to China after releasing him from jail. Mr. Hand worked in Hong Kong for a few years and eventually saved up enough money to get to America in the late 1970's. Since he was uneducated and could not speak English, the only jobs that he could find in America were the same types of manual labor that he performed back in China. He worked in various restaurants, grocery stores, butcher shops, and shipping companies, all within the confines of Chinatown.
Even though the quality of his impoverished life in America did not fulfill his ambitions, he acquired a magical symbol of status which gave him prestige over his peers in China: After a few years, he obtained a U.S. passport, which legally designated him as a citizen of the United States of America. It took my family over ten years of wading through the muck of various government bureaucracies before we attained U.S. citizenship. We intimately understand that a U.S. passport is the Holy Grail of any immigrant's journey.
One time when Mr. Hand came back to China to visit friends and family, somebody introduced him to a young Miss Mei, the only daughter of the Yao family. She was in her early 20's and worked for the municipal public transportation company as a bus conductor. She had a bright future in her hometown and good prospects for attaining a college education. Since she was a pretty young woman, she had plenty of male suitors including the sons of government officials and influential public figures, many of whom came from families with high social standing.
Back in early 1980's China, social status was everything. You were either part of the proletariat (commoners) or part of the ruling class of Communist Party government officials who received all the benefits. There was no capitalism or free enterprise, so nobody could start their own business and become a millionaire. Nobody could get promotions to double their salary. Everybody except for the few who belonged to the ruling class lived a humble existence. My parents had to buy food using government-issued meal tickets since all food was rationed. Every morning, they received one ticket for their bread ration, another ticket for their meat ration, and another one for their rice ration. Everybody earned the minimum amount of money necessary to survive and to feed their families. Nobody had extra spending cash to buy cars, televisions, or other luxuries. That was the Communist way of life. Everybody was equal. Equal in social standing and equal in relative poverty. Everybody was equal ... except for the people who actually had the power to run the government. They drove around in fancy sedans and ate at banquets paid for by government funds, paid for by the People's money. Miss Mei had the beauty, work ethic, and intelligence necessary to make her an attractive wife for the most status-filled men in her hometown, so several of these powerful men chased after her.
When a mutual friend introduced Mr. Hand to her as a potential marriage partner, she felt no love towards him. But that was expected. Few people in China at the time could afford to marry for love. Most people married in order to better their social standing or to improve their economic status. It was heartless, but it was real life. Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage only in developed countries where people have the freedom to choose their partners in their personal quests for happiness. Many people in poor third-world countries do not speak of love; there are no horses or carriages. Well, there are horses, but they are used for transporting spices and goods across the country and then eaten as meat when they become injured. Third-world life is brutally pragmatic. Everything has a concrete and practical purpose, and the purpose of marriage is usually to enhance or at least maintain socioeconomic status. So Mei had a choice between Mr. Hand, a man who came from a humble working-class background, and several more cultivated suitors who were the sons of government officials or other respected members of high society. However, Mr. Hand had one thing that none of the others did—a U.S. passport that could provide his future wife with a one-way ticket to America.
People in early 1980's China had a love-hate relationship with the United States. On one hand, the U.S. represented the evil imperialistic capitalist superpower which tried to bully the rest of the world into being friendly towards their own economic and political interests. The official Chinese government propaganda taught its citizens to hate capitalism because it supposedly spawned greed, corruption, immorality, and violence. Of course, the government had its own agenda to simultaneously promote socialism as a panacea for social ills. Chinese children were taught that the United States was a dangerous place filled with sin and corruption caused by the free flow of money. Although some Chinese citizens hated the United States because they had been indoctrinated with the idea that capitalism was inherently evil, many adored the United States because of the prospect of unlimited financial opportunities that capitalism was rumored to make possible and also because their own government made it such a taboo subject (the best way to arouse curiosity is through censorship).
Most Chinese citizens at that time did not have much information about the United States besides the fact that it was a sinful place filled with money everywhere. Many dreamed of becoming rich in the New World. Due to U.S. immigration laws, though, it was very difficult for Chinese nationals to immigrate to and gain citizenship in the United States. That was why Mr. Hand's U.S. passport gave him such powerful leverage when he tried to woo the young Miss Mei: A U.S. citizen can apply for his/her spouse to legally immigrate to the U.S. and start the process of becoming a citizen. This law is the basis for mail order bride services and also for illicit "fake marriage" business deals where a U.S. citizen gets paid a large sum of money to legally marry a foreign person just so that he/she can move to America, but the two are not actually romantically involved.
Mei was an obedient girl who knew to put the priorities of her family before her own. Even though her parents had decent jobs in China, her two younger brothers were stuck as factory workers. She had the dream of finding them a better life in America, a life filled with money and opportunity. She wanted to get her family into America, and she knew that the easiest way to do so was to marry somebody with a U.S. passport like Mr. Hand. As soon as she immigrated to America, she could fill out the paperwork to sponsor her family members to come over as well.
Mei could have married into a prominent family in China and lived a relatively privileged life, but she sacrificed her chance for a better future in order to provide a rare opportunity for her family to come to America. She could have probably lived a much more comfortable life in China than how I saw her in the basement of her Brooklyn home, working non-stop every day sewing clothes for less than minimum wage. But back in the 1980's, all she knew was that America was rumored to hold the possibility of great riches. She decided to marry Mr. Hand. They moved into a tiny two-room Chinatown apartment located in lower Manhattan, New York City. They never found the fabled riches.
As soon as Mrs. Mei arrived in this country, she applied for immigration visas for her parents. After a few years of red tape, Grandpa and Grandma Yao joined her in America. As soon as they arrived, they in turn applied for their two sons (Mrs. Mei's brothers) to come over as well. The Yaos did not care too much about moving to the United States since they were already fairly established in China, but they wanted to give their two boys the opportunities to make money in a place where they heard that "you can do anything if you put your mind to it." They knew that if they did not come to the U.S. and sponsor their sons to immigrate, it would be much more difficult for Mrs. Mei to directly apply on behalf of her brothers because of how immigration laws worked. This pattern of chain migration—spouse, then parents, then siblings—is an extremely common way for immigrants to get their entire families into America with the shortest waiting time.
Grandpa and Grandma Yao came to the United States primarily because they wanted to provide the best possible opportunities for their sons. What they did not realize was that social advancement was nearly impossible without proper education, English language skills, and familiarity with Western culture. Like the many Chinese immigrants who inhabited Chinatowns, ethnic enclaves, and working-class urban neighborhoods throughout the country, all members of the Yao family were not college educated, could not speak, read, or write in English, and remained completely unfamiliar with Western ways of life.
How could they possibly earn reputable jobs as white-collar professionals or even as office workers when they could not hold meaningful conversations in English? There was no hope. For the ten years that they lived in America, every member of the Yao family was stuck working in manual labor in Chinatown or Chinese-owned businesses. Their two sons worked various jobs as auto mechanics and construction workers. Mother and daughter both sewed clothes for a living. Father worked in a sign-making and painting business. Their unassimilated status and lack of U.S. citizenship made it easy for unscrupulous employers to exploit their labor and pay them far below minimum wage. Did they even know that there was such a thing as minimum wage? Even if immigrants like the Yaos who came to this country legally knew that they were being exploited, what better alternatives did they have?
Many working-class Asian immigrant parents pressure their kids to excel in school and to attend good colleges because they understand that education is the most sure-fire way to break the cycle of poverty. These parents have already given up on themselves; instead they place all of their hopes and dreams in their children. They work long hours in factories, butcher shops, and grocery stores for below minimum wage, with the hope that their children do not have to live next door to them and follow in their footsteps by working in those same jobs.
Despite their unfavorable circumstances, the Yao family felt like they were getting paid much more in America than they did back in China. They could report back to their friends in China that they earned as much in a day as laborers in China earned in a week or even in a month, which would garner immense awe and respect. However, to preserve the family's pride, they didn't tell their friends that the cost of living in the United States was orders of magnitude greater than the cost of living in China. This selective reporting was one of the reasons why the illusion that anybody could come to America to make big money, even without an education, kept propagating back to Chinese citizens. In relative terms, the Yaos were actually far poorer in the United States than they had been in China. Plus, they had to deal with higher crime rates and live in a society where there were snobby rich people driving around town in their fancy cars. If they were still in China, they wouldn't have been wealthy, but at least everybody else around them would be equally poor.
Mrs. Mei's family lived in a two-room apartment in Chinatown when they first moved to America. I actually visited that apartment, which they still rented under their name but sublet out to tenants. When I entered the front door, I saw a tiny kitchen consisting of almost nothing but a sink and a stove. Adjacent to the kitchen was a toilet seat. In the same room! A kitchen and a bathroom all in one. You couldn't take a shit and cook at the same time unless you wanted to puke. The second room was a bedroom with a large bunk bed. Five people once slept in that room: Mrs. Mei, Mr. Hand, his mother, and their two daughters. After Mr. Hand and Mrs. Mei worked for a few years to accumulate a bit more money, they moved out of Chinatown and into the Brooklyn house where I lived during my month-long stay with their family.
There weren't many days when I had an opportunity to get out of the house during that month. There was no reason for me to be outside during the daytime, nor did I want to prance around outside. In my paranoid mind, the city was unreasonably dangerous, and I was not going to make myself a bigger target by walking around on the streets. I knew that I was relatively safe down in the basement. I never saw much sunlight, but at least I was protected from the stray bullets that might sneak in through the first floor windows.
The only time I remember venturing out on the streets of Brooklyn away from Mrs. Mei's home was to go on a class trip with her daughters' school. Their school was similar to the Chinese school that I had attended in Louisiana, except that it was much smaller and held every day during the summer in a local public elementary school. Mrs. Mei's daughters told her that they were going to see The Lion King in a movie theater with their class. Mrs. Mei thought that it would be a good idea for me to go along with them and see other children since I had been stuck in the basement for so long. She received permission from the teacher and walked me to school that morning. I was a bit scared to enter a classroom filled with strangers since it reminded me of the many times I had to do so over the past few years. However it wasn't so bad since these kids were all Chinese, so at least they looked like me, and I was only going to see them for a day.
The teacher took about 20 children, all around my age or a bit younger, on a 20-minute walk to the movie theater. This was the first time that I saw the Brooklyn neighborhood during the day. There were lots of little specialty shops along the streets—grocery markets, florists, hardware stores, and cheap jewelry boutiques. It wasn't as dangerous as I had previously imagined. Nobody looked like they were loitering around the streets just to come after us. I was still a bit scared that we were such prominent targets, though. I was in a crowd of 20 little Chinese kids accompanied by only one adult who was not much bigger than we were. I tried to blend in by walking in the middle of the pack so that I wouldn't be as easily seen by strangers. I was on full alert, ready to run for my life at any moment's notice. Unfortunately, I didn't know where to run because I had no clue how to get back to Mrs. Mei's home. I had no idea how I was possibly going to survive a year in the city if I couldn't even keep myself mentally composed during a 20-minute walk in the daytime with a group of other kids around me.
We stopped by a candy store before reaching the movie theater. All of the other kids immediately grabbed bags and stuffed them full of their favorite candies. I thought it was a bit odd that we stopped at a candy store before entering the theater. I knew the usual movie theater rules—No outside food allowed in the theater. I wondered if the teacher also knew this rule. I thought of two possibilities: Either he knew but decided to allow the kids to sneak in candy in their pockets, or he had no clue about the rule at all. I briefly thought of a third possibility—movie theaters in New York did not have that rule—but that seemed unlikely.
Did these kids realize that they were not allowed to bring candy into the theater? Or did they also know about the rule so they were preparing to sneak in the candy by stuffing it into their pockets? Either way, I was not going to buy anything. I didn't like being sneaky, and I didn't even like candy. After all of the other kids paid for their candy and happily held the bags in their hands, I figured that they would start hiding it in their pockets before we entered the theater.
At that moment, I thought it was clever for the teacher to allow the kids to buy candy at the store since it was much cheaper than buying it inside the theater. Chinese immigrants, especially those belonging to the working class, always found small ways to save money (like how Mrs. Mei re-used her paper towels). Thrift was a virtue. Pragmatism was a mantra. White lies were okay to some extent and some light rules could be bent. No outside food allowed in the theater? Fine, we'll sneak it in. No problem. That was the immigrant way. When we lived in Louisiana, my family saved money whenever we went to eat at a local restaurant using the following scheme: The adult buffet was $6 but the children's buffet was only $3. My parents would order the children's buffet for me and then order something tiny for themselves. I would grab as much food as I could from the buffet and bring it back to feed my whole family. We saved $3 on every meal. It seems laughably silly now, but we counted every single dollar back then. One time, when a waitress saw that my mother went to the buffet using a child-sized plate, she told her that she was going to charge her the adult price. My mother grew furious and instantly boycotted the restaurant. We never went back there again. She told me that the restaurant could have made $3 from us buying the children's buffet, but now they would make no money from us. As we exited the candy store, I thought the same frugal immigrant ethic flowed through the Chinese school teacher's mind: Bend the rules a bit. Save a few bucks. Keep the kids happy.
As we approached the movie theater, the kids were happily swinging their bags of candy around and making no attempts to hide them. As we approached the box office, we each bought our own ticket and proceeded as a group to enter the theater. The two theater employees saw all of these Chinese kids, each holding a bag of candy, and told the teacher, "I'm sorry. We can't let you bring outside food into the theater." No shit! The teacher looked confused. "But these are kids," he tried his best to plea in his heavily-accented English. "Please just let them bring their candy inside this one time." But the theater employees were unsympathetic. They had to do their job. "I'm sorry, but rules are rules."
The teacher stood in disbelief, shocked at hearing about this rule for the first time. I gave him way too much credit for his shrewdness; it turned out that he was so unassimilated that he had probably never even been to a movie theater in America before, and the equally unassimilated working-class Chinese parents of all the students had never taken their families to the theater either (there was no reason to watch English movies if they didn't understand English). "Look at them. They are just kids who want to eat their candy. They mean you no harm." The teacher's English was not good enough to plead any longer, so he just gave up. He told all of the kids that they would have to finish their candy outside or throw it away. Only a few minutes remained before the movie started. The disappointed kids stuffed a few pieces of candy into their mouths and threw away all of their bags in the trash can outside the theater. They probably made some lucky homeless guy with a sweet tooth very happy.
The movie theater candy fiasco was one of the few lighthearted moments in an otherwise depressing month. I felt alone and homesick every day because I never saw my parents. I couldn't even write letters to my Louisiana friends because I didn't have a return address; they could not send mail to Mrs. Mei's home since I was only a temporary guest there. I felt like I had gained so much in Louisiana but suddenly lost it all for reasons beyond my control. I had no idea what my future looked like. All I knew was that I didn't want to be stuck in this house like the members of my host family. I needed to do well in school so I could go to college so I could find a good job so I wouldn't have to live in a neighborhood like this one and re-use Bounty paper towels or sew clothes or work as a jewelry repairman or constantly watch my back to see who was following me on the street. I felt genuinely grateful for Mrs. Mei's compassion, but I really could not wait to get out of that house.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo