by Raymond M. Wong
Author’s note: Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
My father and Uncle Number One’s son, Hoy, accompanied my mother and me on the hourlong train ride from Hong Kong to mainland China. Skyscrapers and congested streets had given way to flat, open country. We skirted long stretches of crop fields and vast plains, and patches of scraggly, gnarled-limbed trees pocketed the landscape.
I turned to my mom beside me and asked, “Who are we seeing again?”
“We go visit your uncles in Canton. Uncle Number One have house. Number Two, Number Four, maybe they come visit.”
“What about Number Three?”
She shot me a scathing look. “Your father Number Three.”
“Oh.” A moment later I said, “Number Six is Uncle Chun-Kwok, and Number Seven’s the one who talks a lot.”
Surprise surfaced on her face. Then she nodded. “Number Five die last year.”
“What happened to him?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I not hear yet, but maybe they say something later.”
My mom’s uncanny knack for obtaining information: after she introduced me to customers at her restaurant and when we were safely out of earshot, she would recite their education, occupation, marital status, major accomplishments, the size of their house, number of children, and usually a defining characteristic such as a teenage son in drug rehab. The amazing thing—and I witnessed this on many occasions—she asked the most personal questions and they answered!
Not me. I tended to keep things to myself, but more so with my mother. I had seen her torpedo my stepfather with information he freely provided. Her aim, always true, resulted in the target’s surrender, or annihilation.
“Your father ask what you think about Hong Kong.” My mom’s voice jarred me from my thoughts. I looked across the aisle at my father.
“It’s different from America, the people, the customs, everything. It’s kind of overwhelming,” I said.
She translated this into Cantonese and he spoke again.
“He say sorry he not have enough room for us. He ask if okay for you stay with Uncle.”
I gazed at my father. “You don’t have to apologize. It’s been wonderful staying with your brother’s family.”
As she relayed this, he smiled. A moment later he posed another question.
“He say you thirty-three. Do you get marry soon?” My mother trained her eyes on me.
“I don’t know about that,” I said.
Hoy, cheeks drawn into a devious smile, commented. He gestured to me and his booming voice drew the attention of nearby passengers.
Mom responded as if he had insulted her taste in living room furniture. A disquieting feeling accompanied the fact that my Chinese name kept popping up in their debate. After listening to their interminable argument for as long as I could stand, I said to my mother, “What are you talking about?”
She looked at me, to Hoy briefly, and back to me. “Hoy crazy. He say you still young, should go out, have fun before get marry. He say life short, have to enjoy. I think he loco.”
Hoy flashed a gaping grin, giving me the thumbs up with his thick hand.
He nodded at me and said something in a tone rife with conspiracy.
Mom swiped the air as if trying to repel mosquitoes.
Hoy didn’t let up. He kept egging me on, as if I understood his every word.
My mother reprimanded Hoy again, and he splayed his hands wide, palms raised in a pose I could picture him using at an arraignment hearing. In a point-blank interrogation befitting a prosecuting attorney, she pressed her attack—short sentences slamming the opposition in rapid succession so as not to allow rebuttal.
To his credit, Hoy seemed to manage some deft sidesteps, squeezing in a few retorts.
My father watched in silence.
The combatants continued, moving ahead, I suspected, to philosophical and value differences unrelated to my relationships with the opposite sex. The glint in Hoy’s eyes told me he was in his element. He goaded her, leaning forward to speak in loud, short sentences, then propped back in his seat, smiling in silence as he waited for her reply. Mom retaliated with her bludgeoning force of will and I wondered if Hoy realized what he was up against. They were still at it when the train came to a halt. If my father hadn’t called their attention to this, they might’ve battled right through our stop.
As if the fray with my mother amounted to nothing more than chitchat, Hoy lifted the two bags from under his seat and proceeded to an exit.
Once off the train we walked through a station much different from the one in Hong Kong. Here, barren stone walls, absent of billboards or advertisements, surrounded us. The signs above displayed only Chinese characters. The empty walls and concrete floor didn’t extend a warm greeting—just the opposite; I felt a palpable trepidation.
I looked at my mom, who stayed silent. Did an unsettling tension grip her as well?
We followed the wave of people through a long corridor and climbed a set of stairs to another hallway. My father stopped at a counter and tore off four sheets of Chinese-printed paper from a pad. He gave one to each of us, but I saw nothing to write with on the counter. My mother reached into her purse for a pen and filled in her document and mine, her hands fashioning Chinese characters with ease. I asked about the forms.
“Arrival papers, like the ones in Hong Kong,” she said and handed one to me. I folded and inserted it into my travel belt.
We started forward. My mom surveyed the surroundings and said, “Have to be more careful here. Uncle Chun-Kwok tell me before that China even more dangerous than Hong Kong.”
Three lines formed ahead. Hoy and my father went to one, my mother and I to another. I set the travel bag down. Mom peered at it, so I reached for the strap.
She said, “Prob-ly check the passports here.”
I looked around, and people averted their gazes. Why had they been staring? Then it registered. We were Chinese communicating in English. My mother once hired a waiter, an American student with military-length, reddish-blond hair and a youthful face that reminded me of Ron Howard. The guy studied Chinese and often traveled to Hong Kong. When I ate lunch at the restaurant, the new waiter served me. My mom, ringing up tickets at the cash register, gave him instructions in Cantonese. He responded in kind! There aren’t many sights stranger than a Caucasian face vocalizing Chinese sounds and inflections. My mother went out of her way to speak loudly and often to him while I could only gawk in amazement.
In the center line travelers carried department store bags stuffed with merchandise. Some lugged packages of clothing, boxed candies, dried fruit, and even carts containing small appliances and stereo equipment. An old, hunched man supported two heaped baskets on the ends of a bamboo pole across his shoulders.
I asked my mom, “Why are they taking so many things to China?”
“Some people not often get chance go to Hong Kong, so they bring back a lot for family,” she said.
At the front a soldier wearing an olive-green uniform and hat stood ramrod straight next to the man inspecting passports. His hat displayed a red star against a gold leaf-cluster insignia. Red stripes ran down the sides of his tight-pressed pants and a holster attached to the thick black belt at his waist held a handgun.
Unlike the Hong Kong airport, the man checking passports here didn’t have the benefit of protective glass. He stood at a simple wooden podium with no computer console, yet the guard stationed by him posed a more formidable obstacle than anything in Hong Kong.
The visa inspector studied each person as if fitting him for a uniform. He thumbed through the individual pages of the passport, stamped it with force, and handed it back in an abrupt and firm dismissal.
The checkpoint consisted of a chrome metal gate. Instead of a turnstile, a section of the bars swung forward to allow entry. My mother passed through without incident, and to my relief, I did too. Beyond it I glanced back at the soldier. He stood impassive, his face betraying no hint of emotion.
Hoy and my father waited for us, and my mom spoke to them in a serious tone. They nodded. We continued down a series of long, endless corridors. The concrete floor, a shade darker than the walls, added to the sensation of marching in a dungeon.
At an intersection of hallways a man wearing overalls the color of mold sloshed soapy water along the concrete with a mop. No signs warned of a wet floor and people trudged through, creating a dirty, swishy trail of footprints.
I saw a set of restrooms. “Hang on a minute, Mom. I’m gonna use the bathroom.”
She relayed this and said to me, “You leave bag with them. I need use, too.”
She went to the door depicting a small figure wearing a triangle-shaped dress and I entered the one with a straight stick figure. The smell of industrial-strength ammonia didn’t disguise the odor of urine. I held my breath. The stone floor and walls without mirrors matched the exterior decor. Three sinks with rusty faucets extended from the far end of the restroom. Adjacent to them stood four enclosed stalls. I lifted a door’s corroded metal handle and opened it to discover a tiny, sunken concrete floor basin. No toilet or tank.
Maybe this was a urinal. I checked the adjoining stall and encountered the same thing. And so with the next. All of them were like that! A hole in the ground was fine if a guy wanted to take a leak, but what if he had more pressing business? Where to sit? I released the breath I had been holding and inhaled through my mouth. A hole. What in the world?
It reminded me of high school math when they gave you the schematic with forty-two broken-lined flaps, and you needed to fold them into a four-dimensional, obtuse, equilateral parahexagram.
I contemplated the basin a while longer and decided the problem was beyond my powers of analytical reasoning. I walked out of the stall and exited the bathroom. My mother already stood with Hoy and my father. I went to them and slung my travel bag on my shoulder. As we proceeded onward, I whispered to my mom, “Did everything go okay in there?”
“What you mean?”
“You know, in the bathroom?”
She looked at me as if I had been guzzling cheap bourbon straight from the bottle.
“Did anything seem kind of strange to you in there?”
Then recognition appeared in her eyes and she let out a laugh. She said, “Many bathrooms like that in China. Even in Hong Kong, some like that.” She chuckled again.
At least one of us could see the humor. “Well, how are you supposed to use a toilet with no seat?”
“Have to bend down.”
It didn’t create a pretty picture in my mind. “I didn’t see anywhere to hang up my pants.”
She couldn’t contain herself as fits of laughter spilled forth. She was going at it so good tears welled up in her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. She wiped her face. “You not take pants off. You put down by your leg and bend to use.”
The picture didn’t get any prettier. “That hole in the ground wasn’t very big. What if I miss?”
More laughter. “You try your best.”
Fabulous. I’d expected to experience new things on this trip, but potty training wasn’t one of them.
“You need go back?”
The image played in my head again. “No, I’ll wait.”
We strode down concrete stairs to an area that reminded me of the border between Tijuana and San Diego. A wide, tarred road, blotched with dirt and sand, stretched in front of us. No lane lines, but grungy cars, old platform trucks with wooden crate beds, and flimsy bicycles traveled on the right half of the street.
A squadron of red taxis formed lines in both directions in the middle of the road, making it necessary for pedestrians to brave the journey across to hail a cab. Clear to the other side of the strip—a good hundred feet wide—merchants sold goods at cluttered stands underneath faded canopies.
It was filthy here. Dust and grime caked the streets and sidewalks. Even the air smelled dirty.
And it was hot. The intense, unyielding late-afternoon sun blanketed the earth in an arid heat reminding me of the Mojave Desert.
No towering buildings loomed over us. Only naked dirt fields, dry grass, brush, and a few desolate trees dotting the horizon.
Sweat poured down my legs and I cursed myself for wearing jeans. The three of us waited at a curb littered with empty wrappers and cigarette cartons while my father waded into the street toward the taxis.
The bag on my shoulder felt as though it contained boulders. I dropped it at my feet.
At the center of the road my father talked to a cab driver who dangled a cigarette from the corner of his mouth. After a discussion my father went to another taxi. Seeing this, Hoy put down his bags and jogged over to help.
Three drivers later, the pair returned. My father conveyed something to my mom and she said to me in a tone of unconcealed indifference, “We follow them.”
We gathered our bags and headed in the other direction. I climbed the stairs and felt the sweat on my legs seep down to my socks. The boulders in my travel bag were getting larger by the minute.
On the steps an asphalt strip running through the middle allowed pedestrians to roll their luggage on the stairs. I rued the fact that none of our bags had wheels.
At the top I caught my breath and said to my mother, “Why are we going back?”
“He say the taxis not want to take us. Where we go too close for them.”
Exasperated, I asked, “You mean they won’t accept our money because they’re waiting for people who need to go farther?”
She shrugged. “That what he say.”
“That’s ridiculous. How can they refuse a fare? They could just take us and come back.”
“Maybe they lose place in line for more money.”
“I thought this was a Communist government. Money’s not supposed to be that important.”
“You tell them.”
We retraced our route through the dungeon’s maze of corridors to the bathrooms.
As we approached them my mom said, “You need use? I not know how long before you have another chance.”
“No,” I said crossly.
Beyond the restrooms we came to another set of stairs. They led down to a huge parking garage that trapped the heat like a coal-burning engine room. A dozen people waited at a curb as an arc of red taxis circled down a ramp to pick them up.
We got in line behind an elderly woman wearing an old-style, loose-fitting, gray tunic top and pants. My father signaled for me to drop my bag and I unloaded it on the dirty concrete. Only when my father spoke to him did Hoy relinquish the bag from his strong shoulders. He must’ve been Hong Kong’s version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. At least the moistness at his brow indicated he wasn’t a machine.
A cab with squealing brakes pulled up to a guy in a business suit. With sweat drenching my polo shirt and jeans I couldn’t fathom wearing a coat and tie. We dragged our bags along in the line.
My mother said, “See that in the taxi? More dangerous here than Hong Kong.”
Two steel mesh screens closeted the driver from passengers.
I placed a hand on my travel pouch and bent down to get my bag.
“Are these taxis different from the ones outside?”
One after another they edged up to the curb and drivers negotiated with customers at the head of the line.
A cab inched forward and the woman ahead of us wheeled her bags on a small steel basket to the passenger door. A brief discussion ensued and the driver waved her in.
She lifted the door handle, but it wouldn’t open. Hoy went to help yank on the latch. It didn’t budge. Horns blared as he shook the handle and banged on the door. The driver got out and approached them. He tried with the same results and the whole place sounded like a New York City traffic jam.
The man tugged on the handle as irate drivers shouted and honked at him. The noise echoed throughout the parking structure.
Finally, the driver entered his taxi and moved it out of the way. The woman took another cab and my father spoke to the driver of the one behind her. I was relieved when my father called for us.
Hoy loaded our luggage in the trunk and climbed into the front seat. I sat in the rear between my mother and father. We started forward and I caught a glimpse of the other driver working on his passenger door with a screwdriver.
As we exited the station Hoy spoke to the driver. I turned to my mom. “Where are we?”
“This Shenzhen. We in China, but close by Hong Kong.”
“This is where my father’s family is?”
She shrugged. “All I know is hot here.”
Either the taxi didn’t have air conditioning or the driver didn’t want to use it, because the windows were down. Hot wind whipped against us as we entered the city. ■
Raymond M. Wong (“Foreign,” p. 14) earned the Eloise Klein Healy Scholarship and an MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. His stories have appeared in four Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, USA Today, U-T San Diego, and San Diego Family magazine. He is an assistant editor at Lunch Ticket, Antioch’s online literary journal. “Foreign” will appear in his memoir, I’m Not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence, which will be published by Apprentice House in late 2014.