Luck in the Land of Dreams

Photo by keso s/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Photo by keso s/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I always had little say over what happened in my household. As the family’s youngest female, I spent my days being the typical obedient Chinese daughter that was expected of me. But when my parents requested the impossible, I decided it was time to finally speak up and firmly stand by my decision.

I did not want to move to America.

“This is my home,” I said in Cantonese. “My whole life is here.”

My father tapped his cigarette against the ashtray. He replied, “Mei Mei, this is not your home. It is mine. I paid for it and I can take it away anytime I choose. I worked long, grueling hours to provide for you and as my daughter, you must do as I say.”

I looked down at my feet, taking in his harsh words. He told me that I should be happy that I had such a rare chance to leave this bad economy—that I should be grateful that he was doing this for me. His words quickly turned into a tone full of irritation. He was impatient and turned the tables on me, telling me I was being too emotional.

“Please listen to me for once in your life,” I pleaded. “America is a strange land. They will not welcome us there. We will have nothing.”

“Your aunt and uncle live there. How about your cousins? Did you forget about them too?”

“I cannot forget people that I do not know.”

“Stop being a crybaby,” he spat. “The decision is final. It is not only about you. Think about your mother and brother too.” He sucked on his cigarette and blew smoke into my face. My eyebrows furrowed as I looked on with disdain, watching him put his cigarette out on his overfilled ashtray and then light another one. It was an endless cycle. He would not listen to me. It was the same even when I begged him to quit his smoking addiction.

You may be wondering why I would be unhappy to move to America. After all, it was the land where everyone claimed dreams came true—a place of opportunity, but it was also a place that was completely foreign to me. It would be different if I had been born there; however, that was not the case. I had only known Hong Kong and I wanted it to stay that way. I was not ready to abandon my way of life just yet.

While I lay on my bed, I recalled the day my mother told me that we had finally been chosen to receive our green cards that would allow us to live in America. The process was something that spanned over many, many years, beginning way before I was even born. It was a lottery that we had determinedly won. That was the day I realized everything in my life, up to this point, was over.

My mother expected me to be happy, to smile, but all I could do was stare back at her in disbelief. I couldn’t tell if I was relieved that the wait was finally over, or if I was angry that my parents were bringing about this great change at a difficult time in my life. As a family, we had waited our whole lives to be selected and yet, I somehow felt wronged by being forced to leave the place I had always known as home. The move to America was supposed to be a chance for us to get out of poverty, to move up in the social ladder in ways that were impossible in China, but no matter what, I could not stop the fury that built up inside me. Why could this not have come before I planted my roots here in Hong Kong?

In my darkest times of depression, the only person who could console me was my brother. Whenever he was not at school or out working, he would put an arm around my shoulders and reassure me about the positives of the education I could receive in America. At times, it calmed my uneasiness about the cloudy future ahead of us. Other times, I still felt hopeless and defeated.

Eventually, I came to accept that I would be moving to the other side of the world. I reluctantly informed my teacher and classmates, and on my last day, I severed all ties with them. Many of my classmates were happy for me, wishing me luck in the land of dreams. The chairs screeched and clattered in the classroom as everyone got up to hug me goodbye. Once everyone was done, my teacher gave me a pat on the head, ruffling my short, dark hair. He told me to do my best in the States. When it was time to go, I left the school and shut the door behind me with tears in my eyes. I would never see these people again.

In Hong Kong, there were few days I could see the sun. The smog usually covered the sky, leaving just an outline of a circle. The day we left the sun was hidden. I wanted to see it one last time but the pollution in the city would not bend to my will. My family and I took a cheap taxi to Hong Kong International Airport where the driver dropped us off by one of the many entrances near the south gate. My father smoked his last cigarette in China and walked through the glass doors. After passing through multiple security checkpoints, we found ourselves at the baggage check-in.

The lady at the desk sent our luggage up a conveyor belt that weighed each suitcase. My mother leaned coolly against the counter as each one was sent up the belt and reversed back down to the ground to be tagged. She had weighed each suitcase last night, stuffing them to the maximum weight allowed, ensuring there was no space wasted. Since we were essentially moving our whole lives to America, we were bringing everything we possibly could with us. I wore multiple layers of clothing underneath my light jacket. They were shirts that did not fit in the luggage, yet I could not bear to throw away. Even in the cool air conditioned airport, I was sweating through everything I wore.

We were early for our flight. It was the one time we were really early for anything as a family. We were always known for being late to just about everything. While waiting for the announcement to board the plane, my father bought a carton of duty-free Chinese brand cigarettes. My mother scolded him for buying something when we could barely carry all their belongings with us. He retorted that he could not find his favorite brand over there in the States. And, if he did, it would not taste right.

I sighed and turned up the music on my blue mp3 player. The song “Dance, Dance” by Fall Out Boy pumped through my headphones and into my ears, drowning out my parents’ voices. The playlist was sent to me from my cousin in America. We had chatted online for the first time a week before my date of departure. She wanted me to begin experiencing some popular American music before I arrived. For the most part, I was happy to say those songs didn’t sound too bad. My English was too elementary to catch the lyrics of these fast paced verses, but the English I did learn in school was good enough to hold a conversation with any American.

When the announcement came on the intercom, the people in the terminal waiting area seemed to all move at once, as if we were a single giant organism. We gathered our carry-on luggage and joined the line for the ticket booth. I could tell that my brother was anxious as he tapped his foot impatiently. My father continued boasting about the brand of cigarettes, claiming that they were the best tasting of them all. He adjusted his glasses and read the description on the back of the box to us. As we got closer to the counter, my mother turned to me with a look of worry.

“Mei Mei,” she began in Cantonese, “It’s going to be okay, alright?”

“I know, Mommy. I know,” I replied calmly.

She probably said that more for herself than she did for me. Until this point, there was always the chance to stop and turn around—to stay in China. Now that we were about to board the plane, there was no going back. She was leaving the place she had lived in all her life and it was a one-way trip. I felt sorry for her. She lived there much longer than I had. She was going to be losing a lot more in the process. I held her hand as we moved forward onto the plane.

The flight took a little over fourteen hours, but it felt like eternity. It didn’t matter that I was no longer in China. I was just glad to finally have my feet planted on solid ground. It was a clear day in New York and the sun was shining brightly in the sky. Once we were outside, it was a bit brisk and my layers of clothing were no longer making me sweat. The air tasted different here. It was slightly sweet and lacked the humidity that left me sticky in China. We stood off to the side waiting for our pickup.

I brushed my bangs out of my eyes and looked around at all the foreign people. I had never seen so many White people at once, let alone Black people. In China, it was not a common sight. In fact, it was extremely rare to see Black people. On some occasions, they would be stopped by Chinese people for photos so that they could show their friends that they had encountered someone of color. I pulled my hood up. I felt exposed and out of place; I was a small oriental girl in a big city. Even as big group of Asian people came out of the airport doors, I could not help but feel alone.

“Mei Mei, they should be here soon,” my brother said.

I stayed silent, looking down at my dirty white shoes.

“Well, they should have been here already,” my father blurted out. “We told them exactly what time we would arrive and we have no way to contact them.”

My father might have been blunt, but he was right. We had no cell phones. Did we leave through the wrong terminal doors? But my worry was for nothing. Right on cue, a rather beat up van pulled up to the pickup lane and out popped my aunt and uncle. They greeted us with smiles and apologized about their lateness. They took a wrong turn and ended up at the wrong terminal.

Once we gathered up our luggage, two suitcases and one carry-on for each, we quickly realized there would not be enough space. Before we could say anything, another car pulled up behind us and out came my uncle’s brother. My parents would go in my second uncle’s car while my brother and I went in my uncle’s car. We split the suitcases between the two and went on our way in the tightly packed cars.

When we arrived at my aunt and uncle’s house, the first thing I noticed was how bright it was. They had just renovated the floor they lived on and everything was new. I thought of how different this was from my home in China, and for once, it left me excited to see my new home.

My face dropped when I saw what was to be my first home in America. I expected we would live in an apartment, but it wasn’t even an apartment. All we got was an old basement under someone’s house. The kitchen and living room were connected in one big open space. In our apartment in China, some tiles were cracked and parts of the walls were in need of repairs, but the place was not ugly. It was bright and full of life and colors. Here, the rooms were enclosed in drywall and the ceiling hung low. Everything was an off white and seemed dirty. There were no windows. I felt cramped and disappointed. The only thing that kept me going was knowing it was not permanent.

This basement was a downgrade from what we had before. I had not expected to live in such a dump. It was degrading to walk out of a small hole in the floor like some sort of goblin or troll under a bridge. But even then, I held my pride. I knew that one day I would have my own house—that I would have a place that was big and grand; one that was beautiful and far better than even my cousin’s house. This house was where my life would begin anew.

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