Blessings in Disguise

Photo by Dan Nelson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Photo by Dan Nelson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When the plane touched down, brakes squealing against the pavement, Chia Chiu bubbled with excitement. She didn’t mind that she spent half of her sixteenth birthday on an airplane because the wonders of gliding through the sky captured her attention. Her ears still tickled from the descent. Her older brothers, Chia Kang and Chia Ping, stared out the window quietly in awe. The September weather in New York was brisker than she was used to in Hangzhou. She packed just one suitcase for this vacation with her family. As the plane finally halted, she still didn’t believe where she was.

The week before the flight, her parents deflected her questions about where her grandparents lived. Every time Chia Chiu asked, her father and her mother would respond, “Far away from China. All you need to know is that they live far away.” Ah Ba would follow with his throaty, deep laugh and state, “It’s a surprise, my daughter.” And this would appease Chia Chiu. But, as her mind raced in the airport, she bounced ideas off with Chia Kang, her oldest brother.

“Maybe our grandparents live in India, selling only the freshest fruit in marketplaces!” he would say.

Chia Chiu would quip, “Maybe our grandparents are millionaires in Mongolia!”

Her other brother, Chia Ping, remained silent. Chia Chiu’s suspicions switched when she noticed foreign languages plastered on the flight material. She mused, “Perhaps some land in Europe then, like Italy or England?” These thoughts were hushed when the pilot radioed into the loudspeakers.

“Welcome aboard Air China. Destination: New York City, New York, United States of America. Beverages and snacks will begin shortly after takeoff. We do hope that you have a safe and pleasant flight.”

Chia Chiu was flabbergasted. It was no wonder her parents didn’t want to tell her. Every morning before her walk to classes, Chairman Mao spoke on the radio about how Americans shamed our world. In Chia Chiu’s mind, the United States were filled with corrupt, pretentious people who picked at the bones of the poor and funneled goods to the elite rich. A sour taste came to her mouth. Yet here they were, arriving at John F. Kennedy airport.

She was struck by the unfamiliar smells of the airports in America. Where was the smell of curdled beans? Steamed pork buns? It certainly wasn’t the smell of red bean sticky rice that she was used to in Chinese airports. Her family slowly treaded into the airport, their eyes searching for the ceiling, amazed at the vastness of it all. Chia Chiu rushed to the overlook above the luggage unloaders and saw people shuffling to their gates. There were blonde heads and red heads and brown heads. It was the first time that she saw so many foreigners, instead of an ocean of jet black hair. It was at this time that she realized that it was she who was the foreigner.

Chia Chiu had never met her grandparents before. She grew nervous, remembering the folklore about grandparents who made their grandchildren kneel for hours for disobedience. Her hands adjusted her sweater and tightened her two thick twines of pigtails. She was shaken out of her thoughts by a shout. Her father started running toward an older couple. Ah Ba was just like her and sometimes the excitement couldn’t be bottled in with inside voices, but could only be exclaimed with cries of joy and big hugs. Chia Chiu observed from a few meters away as Ah Ba was reunited with his parents after twenty years of separation. She noticed that her grandmother was small, barely over five feet, just like her. Her grandmother wiped tears from her eyes as she clutched Ah Ba’s palms. Her grandfather kept his distance, though he shared a warm smile too. Chia Chiu expected her Ah Gong to be a gnarled old man, but he was healthy and she never would have guessed that he was ninety-two. At this point, Ah Ma also joined the reunion and it was just Chia Chiu and her brothers waiting in the jostling sea of strangers. Her grandmother peeked at Chia Chiu over her father’s shoulders, and a wide smile spread across her face. It was surprising to Chia Chiu how soothing it was to see a smile, even on an unfamiliar face. It made the unwelcome land so much more welcoming. With a wrinkled hand, the grandmother patted each of her grandchildren on the head, welcoming them to this new land with lucky red envelopes filled with US dollars. At last she reached Chia Chiu, and touched her face as gently as she had held Ah Ba’s hand before.

“So, my sweet child, you are Chia Chiu.”

“Yes, yes I am… Ah Po,” she smiled at her grandmother.

Her grandmother’s smile widened when she was respectfully addressed and she pat Chia Chiu’s head lovingly once more.

The whole family returned to Ah Gong and Ah Po’s apartment in the east side of New York City. Ah Po was with Ah Ma in the kitchen preparing dinner, sharing overdue stories while stirring egg drop soup. Her brothers were entranced by the television, flipping through channel after channel, mesmerized at the pixelated flares of color. Chia Chiu admired all the statues carved from fine rock that were placed on the shelves. They were handmade works of art by Ah Gong. At dinner, a whole spread was fanned out in front of the family. It was a feast! There were some foods that Chia Chiu had never seen, like rotisserie chicken and burgers. Savory flavors lit firecrackers in her mouth. She chomped happily, enjoying her stay in the new land. America couldn’t be that bad if people can eat like this! She thought. Her grandfather got up to begin a toast.

“Happy times are here now that my heart is as warm as my home. Many seasons have passed since I have lived without my son and his family, and I am glad that I never have to see another day without them. Welcome to America! Your new home! Ganbei!”

Chia Chiu choked on a piece of crab meat. Bewildered, she looked around at her family. New home? Wasn’t this just a vacation?

“Ah Ba? Ah Ma? Does that mean we are staying here… forever?”

Ah Ba nodded. “Yes. Children, we are immigrating to America to take care of your grandparents. It is our duty and honor.” 

The M15 bus arrived fifteen minutes late. Since it was the first day at school, Ah Gong accompanied her and Chia Ping. Chia Chiu adored learning and knew that she shouldn’t be nervous. She was her class president at her local school… back when they were still in China. Yet, her palms sweated. Is it different in America? Can I fit in? She and her grandfather sat side by side in the crowded morning bus. Her brother stood, clutching the handlebar above their heads. Chia Chiu was not a leg thumper, nor a nail biter, but she sucked on a piece of hard candy, letting it run on the backs of each of her teeth and then back again to the other side.

“Child, be not nervous. You know, school will change your life,” her grandfather began.

She nodded, though she remained silent.

“In America, all the children go to school. You are going to be as good as them. You will be just like them. Successful. Look at me. I speak bad English. Not much business comes in the store because I speak bad English. Let me look at your hands.”

He placed his large hands side-by-side with her hand and began his reading.

“Do you see the lines I have here? It’s the line of education. Prosperity. If I went to school, gold coins would constantly flow into my hands. But do you see? You have these lines, just like me.”

With a wrinkled finger, he traced a curve spanning across her entire palm.

“You are not in China anymore, child. These hands don’t have to be chained at home washing dishes. They should be flipping the pages of many, many books. I see a brightness in you, just like I saw a brightness in your Ah Ba. You must work hard at school so that you shine.” 

They held hands for the rest of the trip, and she no longer trembled. Chia Ping looked out the windows, hiding a smile. The three of them hopped off the bus at the Chinatown stop in front of the bilingual school.

A teacher was waiting at the front of school, tapping his foot. His arms were crossed and he extinguished his cigarette when he saw Chia Chiu and Chia Ping approach. He spoke English, but to the dismay of the pair, much too quickly for them to even attempt to run through their minimal vocabulary. After a few attempts at communicating, he threw his hands in the air. Both could read that that was not a good sign. He gestured for the two to follow and sit in the classroom. She felt relief when she noticed another Oriental boy enter the classroom. He was probably around the age of her oldest brother, but unlike her brother, he still had a boyish roundness to his face. The man commanded the boy to translate to the Chia Chiu and Chia Ping who were filled with confusion. The boy spoke Cantonese, a dialect that was different than the Mandarin that Chia Chiu was fluent in, but struggling to understand Cantonese was easier than learning the ins and outs of an entirely new language. The teacher barked something. Does English always sound this harsh?

“He says that you must do the test now,” the boy stated.

“What is this? This is an exam? Why are there letters down in a row?” Chia Chiu asked.

“American tests are like this. Very easy. Just pick the letter you like.”

Chia Chiu raised her thinly plucked eyebrows. “Pick the one I like? So any letter?”

“Yes, pick any letter you like. I must go back to class, but you understand? Any letter you like.” And the boy turned on his heels and walked out of the classroom.

Chia Chiu thought to herself, these Americans do math strange and proceeded to circle any letter that she wanted. Her pencil scribbled around the ‘C’, for she had 2 in her name after they translated it to English. She was finished with the exam within 10 minutes.

The teacher pursed his lips. His mustache furrowed. He looked her up and down and sighed in exasperation. Even with the language differences, she could catch the mocking in his eyes, and she tightened her jaw.

“Problem?” she asked.

He spoke too quickly and she couldn’t catch up to what he was saying. In the hallway, he caught a glimpse of another Chinese girl and summoned her. She looked to be about the same age as Chia Chiu, but she kept her black hair in one long braid in the back. The girl and the teacher exchanged words in English.

Chia Chiu began in Chinese, “The boy translated and said that you circle any answer that you want.”

The girl giggled. “No, no. You circle the answer you think is correct. For the math, you must show your work, not skip it.”

“I knew Americans were strange, but not that strange! Oh yes, thank you so much. I have trouble understanding English and it so hard coming to America.”

“Yes, I completely understand. I came to America just two years ago.” With a smile, she asked, “What is your name?”

“Chia Chiu. And yours?”

“Wei Ven.”

Chia Chiu had to resume her exam and Wei Ven went on to her class down the hall. After Chia Ping and Chia Chiu finished the exam, the teacher began his lesson. Not much was accomplished. Every few moments, he would say a word. The same word. And the siblings remained silent, their faces blank. Eventually in annoyance, he reached over and grabbed an English-to-Chinese dictionary from an office and pointed to a word. 诵. Re·peat. “Repeat!” he shouted. Chia Ping nudged and parroted, “Ree-pit.” The teacher smirked, finally cracking them.

To Chia Chiu’s relief, that teacher was just a substitute teacher and the official bilingual teacher returned to teach the next classes. She was a white woman with blonde hair and soft features, probably around Ah Ma’s age. Each time Chia Chiu or Chia Ping stumbled on a word, or had a puzzled look on their face about something, the teacher would rush over to a dictionary, and point to the word so that they could understand. She took the time to recite things slowly in English, enunciating each syllable. A few months after the first day, she quizzed them on the new vocabulary they learned the week prior.

“Where do you eat dinner?”

“Kitchen!” “Dining Room!”

The teacher looked confused, and then laughed out loud.

“How is it possible that the two of you, who share a home, eat dinner in different places as a family?”

Chia Ping stated, “The answer you taught us last week was dining room table.”

Chia Chiu explained, “Yes, answer is we eat dinner at kitchen table. We do not have dining room. Small apartment.”

“I see! Well, if that is the case, full credit to the both of you!” And the teacher gave checkmarks to both of their sheets.

Ah Gong couldn’t pick them up from school like he usually did that day. He was busy finishing up at the store, working more hours so that the family could make ends meet. Ah Ba came instead. He was sitting on a bench outside of the school, and Chia Chiu noticed how much older he looked since they arrived in New York. It was hard for her father to find work. In China, he was a civil engineer. Though he understood all of the mechanics behind the New York City skyscrapers that surrounded them, he couldn’t speak about it to the people around him. Ah Gong had explained it simply on the first day of school: no English, no job. After much searching, the only job he managed to find was washing dishes in a restaurant close to Ah Gong’s small shop. Ah Ba’s head was in his hands; his hands were red and raw compared to the skin on his face. She had never seen him in this position before. He was always smiling at home. Seeing her father worried about money made her run up to him and hug him. He embraced her tight, and she was transported to the summer days in their backyard in China, when they played tag and he caught her every time. They were laughing and laughing and laughing.

The next day after classes were finishing up, Chia Chiu ran into Wei Ven by the lockers. The two chatted, friendship blooming easily between the two.

“Where are you going now?” Chia Chiu asked.

“I am headed to the clothing factory. I work there after school and I sew,” Wei Ven replied.

“Clothing factory? Do you make money there?”

“Yes. I make money and give it to my parents to help support my four younger sisters.”

“Would you mind asking if they are looking for people to work? I’m interested in looking for a job, but I don’t know much about this area here. I also want to help my family.”

“I would be happy to ask! Oh, it would be so fun working together!”

Within two weeks, Chia Chiu was able to start working at the clothing factory. After finishing school at around two in the afternoon, she would walk straight to the clothing factory. Her manager was from Taiwan, and slowly taught her everything from seams to stitches. Whenever she tapped the flounce pedal, the rusty sewing machine would rattle wildly. She tamed the beast by working with quick fingers and harnessed the power to create intricate and colorful designs. Chia Chiu felt a surge of pride having the power to come home with a few bills in her pocket that could go toward rent and other expenses. From her dedication, Chia Chiu was able to climb the ranks and made about $200-300 a month from her after-school hours.

Chia Chiu would frequently doze off on the bus ride home, her fingers still tingling from the sewing machine’s vibrations. But, before walking through the front door, she would always inhale, and smile. Smiling, she would clean up dinner and then begin her homework. Her teacher instructed her and Chia Ping to practice, practice, practice. The two would have silly conversations with each other, and Chia Kang chimed in when he was home and wasn’t subbing out for their father.

One day during a practice conversation about time, she realized that she would be turning nineteen soon and that she would start college in a few months. In her reflection, she thought that the beginning days were hard. Undeniably hard. But, Chia Chiu began to learn what it was like to succeed as an immigrant. Success required discipline and hard work, perhaps more work than she ever would have needed to invest in China. But, she had her own job here, and she was able to build herself from the opportunities that she was provided. Often at the ends of the days, Chia Chiu would look out from her new home in Brooklyn and think, “Maybe coming to America was really a blessing in disguise. Maybe I have finally found where I belong.

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