Where are you America?
Always leaving home again after dinner for work, Papa left us in the house for the rest of the night. And I would watch Mama sitting in the corner of the cluttered house under the light and shadow of the oil lamp, brushing, shining and sometimes repairing the piles of shoes towering over her tiny body. Her wrinkled fingers were still able to move with such a wonderful clockwork precision, replacing the soles of the worn shoes with a single motion of dexterity, and her thin arms taking on a force I'd never seen before, hammering nails into broken parts, making sure all of the shoes were ready for the customers to pick up the next day.
There were too many shoes at some point, and Papa decided to rebuild the house, adding an extra storey a few summers ago. We would sleep upstairs, enough space only to contain a bunker bed, along with the boxes of shoes, brushes and every other arsenal of Mama's craft. Unlike that of the others in the neighborhood, our house was deprived of a compartmented rooms, not to mention chandeliers, upholstered sofas, and most furniture that you would expect to find in a house. Our house sustained us with only a squeaking chair and table where Mama worked incessantly, the bunker bed upstairs where I spent the longest nights waiting up for Papa’s return, and a clock on the wall, its hour hand spinning deliberately quicker at supper, robbing us of the only time spent together, and slower at night, expanding minutes into what seemed to be hours, forcing me to keep my eyes open, waiting for my late night reading with Papa that he never once failed to miss. The rest were just piles of shoes, aged double monk, leather derby, and brown wingtips occupying every corner of the house. But it was our home alright, small but compact, happy and warm, a home that belonged to us where I could tell Papa about everything in school over supper and watch Mama save the customers' favorite pair of shoes at night.
Sometimes, watching Mama working in the little corner of the house with the most beautiful shoes I'd ever seen, I thought of the worn pairs of sneakers we wore, wondering why we couldn't have shoes like Mama's customers; and later waiting up at night, I wondered what was Papa's job, always summoning him to be elsewhere but home. I had a lot of questions for Papa: Why don't we have nice shoes like them, Papa? Well, don't we have it all, Marcus, look at the boxes of shoes scattered around here. Are they like us, Papa, repairing shoes for each other? No, Marcus, no they're not. Soon they’ll be rich enough and buy new pairs, and they won't need us anymore. Why do you have to leave home after supper every night?" This is the question Papa never responded, answering it only with his gentle smile.
Every night, Papa brought home something from work apart from the documents in his briefcase, some kind of mountain, some kind of expression on his fatigued face, and the reek of cigarettes that even at a young age I understood meant heaviness. His back bent a little lower than what Mama had always warned me not to, as I watched him calculating his steps, walking towards the bunker bed exhaustedly as though he saw thousands of obstacles imperceptible to me. I thought maybe if I stared at Papa long enough, I could see whatever was troubling him so deeply, but all I could see was Papa's impenetrable gaze and furrowed brows. I wanted to ask Papa what's the matter, also to remind him to always stand straight like Mama had always told me to, but his face told me he couldn't answer any more of my questions for the night. So I stopped asking answering for once, and I waited with great anticipation, watching Papa digging our only treasure carefully buried amidst the heaps of shoes.
Mama didn't like us to read, yelling always from her tiny desk, calling Papa and I scoundrels for no good with nothing but books in hand. The Chinese officer who came every month to negotiate the rent of Mama's shoe shop hated it even more, promising to force Mama out of business should he see them around in the house again. Papa said they were not censored, but we had to hide it. The officers didn't like us to read that much, and certainly not this lot of books that we're reading. The late readings at night become our little secret; Papa would put his arms over my shoulder, reading quietly the prose of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, careful not to wake Mama from her sleep.
Papa would read until our eyes were no longer able to squint at the text under the dim light of the oil lamp. I looked at the lines of text written in alphabets instead of characters, a language entirely foreign to me but registered an impression unique not like other pastimes where my friends and I found joy. The faded brown page stained by things Papa told me was coffee and cigarettes contained a pattern though undecipherable was orderly, as though a vault was constructed for some treasure that will be rewarded at the end of the pages. Like a lullaby, the voice of Papa coaxed me to sleep, leaving the poems and prose echoing in my dreams. It was the best time of the day, sheltered in the comfort of words that made no sense, but beautiful even to my young mind.
After the late lessons with Papa, school was only to see Audrey, the first love of my life in English class. We first talked in recess when I was standing watching my classmates playing football, listening to their yelling and cheering. Audrey came over and asked why I didn't go join them. I didn't tell her about that visit when Papa took me to see the doctor after my head was aching too painfully, causing me to miss a few suppers and late night readings. But I was in a jolly mood alright, excited by the school days that I would skip, only slightly scared by the white robes everyone wore and the maze of white hallway outside of the doctor's office. What's the matter with me, Papa? It's nothing Marcus, the doctor gave you some medicine, and we'll be able to start our late night session again soon, but you can't play football for now. I didn't mind at all, I could easily give up everything in the world for the nights I spent with Papa. So I smiled only at Audrey's question, believing that Papa's magical charm could explain everything better than what words could do.
“You’re weird,” Audrey said, “but I like you.”
Then we spent weeks, watching our classmates playing football in recess and exploring the neighborhood after school, discovering the candy store a few blocks away with the old hag who stared at us malevolently every time we went inside for sweets. That didn't last long however. Audrey asked me over one day, and I watched as she lifted the brass knuckle and knocked three times, unable to understand why a maid dressed in an apron instead of Audrey’s mother came to open the door. I observed her house in amazement, finding the chandeliers, the upholstered sofas, and the huge bookshelves lining every corner of the house. I gently touched the stacks of books neatly aligned, feeling their spines full of different letters until I lost of how many books I'd stroke, thinking only that my childhood dream had finally come true.
Audrey said she asked me over to tell me she had to go far away. I said I could always go find her. I told Audrey it would just be like when she and I strolled together in the neighborhood, only this time an adventure. Audrey giggled at first but quickly became sad.
"No Marcus, it's not like that, my family and I are going to America," Audrey said.
"America, where's that? If it's a few blocks away, I'll walk; if it's another neighborhood, I can take the bus!"
"No Marcus, it's America, it's far. Everyone was fleeing, uncertain of what those high up in China would do to us."
I didn't understand what it meant, and I didn't think Audrey do either. But I promised I'll find her alright. After Audrey left, I walked everyday a few blocks further after school. The streets became stranger and the shops seemed different; the familiar faces in the market were replaced by big, grumpy men who stared at me, the kindness in their eyes clouded by something I couldn't quite figure.
I went home one night, asking Papa where's America. He said that's where everyone's going before the British Government handed us over back to China. I had no idea what that meant, but I suspected that must have something to do with Audrey's sudden departure. They must have hidden her, and I must find her at all cost. After supper that night, Mama straightened Papa's grey mackintosh, the only coat in Papa's wardrobe that he wore when it's cloudy, rainy and sunny. Mama looked at it for a second too long, and I thought something must be wrong. She held up each sleeve and Papa slipped into it without a word, his face grim but fearless, exuding the same heavy expression he brought back every night I knew better to ask about.
"This is it, Rosa," Papa whispered.
" I asked you not to apply for Party membership. See what you’ve got yourself into now, scoundrel?" Mama said angrily, her voice quivered and broke into tears.
Papa and Mama argued like they always did as though, for a moment, I had temporarily vanished from their lives. And I often wondered if that would make things easier, if Papa could be at home every night with Mama, if they could live happily fixing shoes together. Then there's nothing, not even Papa's silence when he would just listen to Mama's rants until she'd finished expressing her anger in every way she could possibly think of. I didn't know what to name this, but I could taste it in the air; it's bitter and suffocating. I asked Papa where was he going and for a split second, I couldn't recognize this man, his face shrouded with an expression I'd never seen before. But it quickly faded, replaced by Papa's warm, gentle smile, the same expression he always wore when he tried his best to smile, kindling without fail a warmth in the house when the three of us sat down for supper and shared the only hour in the day together.
It was the first of July, 1997. It was also my tenth birthday. Mama and I stepped out of the house with Papa, and in turns we hugged him as though we would never see him again. We watched as the black car Papa stepped into dwindled into the sparks of the firework in the horizon, gleaming in red, orange and blue celebrating this key historical change, which for some reasons took Papa away as well. We stood for a little longer and listened to the faint traces of sound from our neighbor's telly announcing the handover ceremony of Hong Kong. And then Mama cried again, the second time in the same day. I cried too, trying to relieve Mama's sadness. She took out an old book titled The Great Gatsby wrapped in a red ribbon.
"That's the best we could do, Marcus, Happy Birthday."
"Thank you, Mama, thank you."
That night I lit the oil lamp thrice, but Papa didn't come back. So I read Mrs. Dalloway alone, remembering that Papa had told me Joyce and Wo wrote in streams of consciousness. Whereas many writers looked at the outside world, they looked inside in their mind. And there lay the treasure of writing, of a constant process of self-discovery, and of an accelerated process of growth and maturity. I didn't think I understand a single word of what Papa said, but I started writing that day. I wanted to ask Papa again what did that mean, but Papa didn't come back again.
In school, my friends were gone one by one; some to America I supposed, and some others vanished like Papa. After school everyday, I continued my quest for Audrey, expanding the perimeter a few blocks every time. But still, whenever I asked where's America, the new faces on the street smirked as usual, saying we'd all end up there someday. My legs were exhausted from the long trek, and I suspected some invisible rocks must be depositing and growing in them. I was alone alright but not lonely, looking for Audrey in day, and writing and reading at night.
At first, I could still see Papa and listen to his gentle but reassuring voice echoing the words of Joyce and Woolf in my mind when I slept. But watching Mama grew weaker yet working harder even repairing as many pairs of shoes as possible a day, I was overwhelmed with fatigue and worry. Every night, I stayed up longer until Mama finally fell asleep in her workstation drained from the day's work. And I covered Mama in a blanket and gently whispered to her that I hoped she could find Papa in her dreams too.
On the day of my fifteen birthday, I learnt from Mama that Papa went and work for the communists in the People's Republic of China, and met another woman there, so he would only remit money regularly but never be back in person. Mama told me all of this in a matter-of-fact tone, as though it was all part of the way that things should happen. I protested at first and took up Mama's usual position and ranted, angrily at first, but almost purposelessly later, as though to fill the dreadful silence with words. She took out a large brown enveloped stuffed with money from all these years of hard work with a single ticket in it departing to America.
I lived in Chinatown on Lafayette Street in New York City, peopled by strange faces eyeing me suspiciously everyday. Immigrants swamped the streets, and though we all spoke the same language, an irrevocable distance separated us. My landlady provided me three meals a day but not the love from back home. There were only a few shoes in the house, and though it was almost as small as the one back home, the empty spaces seemed horrifying, as though it was ready to engulf me in any second.
Walking to school everyday, men dressed in all kind of shoes I'd never seen before, not even in Mama's shop, strode past me. Their gait was so urgent and their steps so quick, always drowning me amidst the pace of city life. Terrified, I suddenly realized the impossibility of seeing Audrey again in this city that was constantly in flux. I was finally here in the heart of the American Dream, but only disbelieving how much it encouraged separation. No this wasn't America, it couldn't be.
One day, when waiting for my train in the platform, I saw Papa, Audrey and a few perfectly groomed men in black suits walking towards me. But before I could even think of how to start a conversation, they walked past me and Papa brushed against my shoulders. Again, I saw the same expression the night he left, a man like all others in the city who I dreaded. I looked at the strangers, whose mouth opened and closed, at the constant presence of a crow rushing into every direction, and also at the headlights of the arriving train. The subway suddenly seemed like a perfect unity, muting the droning train and the alienation of its passengers. The silence was finally perfect. I let my knee grew weak and my body wavered. Then I fell down to the tracks, alone in New York City, thinking of Papa, Mama, Audrey and home.