SHOPPING WITH JOHN
by Amy Margaret Derr - January 2005
Peter’s Cousin and I walk out from the restaurant and into the crisp, sunny day. Side by side, we trek the six blocks up Broad Street toward our destination—the Western Union. My left hand clutches a white envelope containing forty 100 dollar bills, and my right hand holds my driver’s license—the unexpired, verifiable proof of my American residency. My pockets are empty and I’ve left my purse at the restaurant with John.
The hot late-August wind blows around us as we pass the Ukrop’s grocery store, a VCU parking deck, and the school’s bookstore. On display are hooded sweatshirts, textbooks and collegiate paraphernalia, all of which catch Peter’s Cousin’s eye. He looks at the gear and almost runs into a student carrying a shopping bag. I pull him by close to me. Draped in a hand-me-down Sears sweater, Dockers slacks and black working shoes, Peter’s Cousin is a middle-aged Chinese man who stands a couple inches shorter than my 5’4” frame. Against the young student scene, Peter’s Cousin almost seems misplaced, yet he’s welcomed by the bustling city tempo.
Together, we walk briskly down the sidewalk past parked bikes, huddled teenagers and cars at stop signs. Some people call him his last name, “Chen,” but I never do. I call him Peter’s Cousin, even when talking to Peter. Ever since I met Peter’s Cousin, ever since he moved here from China to replace another Chinese worker, Ji, that’s what I’ve called him. He’s Peter’s Cousin.
|Peter's Cousin at the restaurant|
“Green,” I say animatedly, pointing at a forty-five degree angle toward the green light. He follows my finger into the glaring afternoon sunlight—not anywhere near the traffic light—and nods.
“OK!” Peter’s Cousin says, his ever-occurring response to anything I say to him in English. I smile, give him a thumbs up, and nod my head absently, certain that he does not understand that I am trying to teach him green. It’s not my first attempt trying to teach Peter’s Cousin colors. We cross the street and head west up Broad.
Ever since Peter, the owner of the restaurant, went back to China to visit his family, I have assumed other responsibilities around the restaurant besides waiting tables. Sending the money abroad illegally, however, is my own choice, but Peter said I could earn extra cash by driving his pick-up truck every Monday with John to go shopping for the restaurant’s food.
Two blocks away from the restaurant, we pass a small group of college students carrying back-packs and talking about where they want to eat lunch. Should it be the Subway or The Village Café? Peter Cousin’s eyes dart down to my left hand and then to my eyes. He nods at the envelope, his envelope, and extends his hand. I promptly hand him his money, but not without an eye- roll.
“Fine, here, take it.” He eagerly grabs the envelope without taking his eyes off the group. “Those students don’t want to steal from us din-pa,” I say, emphasis on “din-pa.”
Head shakes, loud sighs and eye-rolls can’t replace harsh words, and Peter’s Cousin knows it too, for I constantly hear long streams of Fuzhounese with a “din-pow” purposely tacked to the end, followed by what seems to be a highly exaggerated laugh, directly in my face. Yes, I know, Peter’s Cousin, I’m a crazy girl.
He folds the envelope and puts the wad of cash deep into his left pants pocket. He glares back at the students, who seem to still be debating about where to eat lunch. A girl in black leggings and a pink headband finally resigns that it doesn’t matter where they eat and that The Village is fine. She’s just not that picky.
There are also the names he has given me: Amy Bue-go (Cousin Amy) or Amy Aiyi (auntie Amy), and Amy shu shu (uncle Amy).
“Amy mama dimpoe,” he says, inches away from my face, shaking his fist and laughing hysterically. I can smell him. An old man truly set in his Fuzhounese ways, he’s never taken a shower and has never washed his clothes in a washing machine. John, who lives with him in Peter’s small apartment on Gray Street, tells me all about Peter’s Cousin’s at-home oddities.
When they both get to the apartment after work, Peter’s Cousin takes off his clothes and scrubs his underarms, face and genitals with a washrag. Although he isn’t old fashioned enough to use a washboard, he does actually clean his work clothes in the sink, even though John says he has offered to do his laundry in the washing machine for him.
|Peter's Cousin and me being a dimpoe|
We approach the Western Union on a dingy corner on Broad Street. Peter’s Cousin steps closer to me when we pass another group of young people sitting in the parking lot. I smell his distinct odor and try not to recoil when his arm grazes mine. As I open the glass door to step inside, I see that they’re only listening to the music from someone’s car radio and talking to each other, in English. Peter’s Cousin looks paranoid and holds his hand over his left pocket.
At the counter, I grab a form with the Western Union logo at the top. It’s white and yellow with empty spaces asking for my name, the amount of money and the money’s destination, an all too familiar routine for me. I pick up a black Bic pen on the counter, and as I begin to write out Amy Derr, four-thousand dollars and China, I look up at Peter’s Cousin. I pause, holding the pen above a blank space on the form, and stare at him. Why am I doing this? This is illegal. Why do I want to help John and Peter’s Cousin’s Chinese families so badly? This is illegal. Just how did I inherit this job? Sending for Ji wasn’t that bad, but now I’m sending for both John and Peter’s Cousin?
Their families need it. And I sign away.
The Indian worker warns me, for what I think is the fourth time, that sending money abroad could cause suspicion by the United States government.
“It’s OK,” I say, mostly to myself. “This is only my fifth time sending.”
Peter’s Cousin nods at the man and says, “OK,” probably repeating after me. Together we walk outside into the afternoon heat. I put my driver’s license in my back pocket, and we walk east down Broad Street, back toward the restaurant. Peter’s Cousin puts his arm around me and says, “Thank you!” He grabs my hand with his other arm and tries to pull me toward him. He wants to arm wrestle, and so I tug my arm back and try to twist his around. I should have known better than to accept this invitation to arm-wrestle. Like an insect that just can’t get out of a spider’s web, I thrust back and forth, while Peter’s Cousin maintains a tight hold. While I’m used to wrestling with my little brother, I know my strength no where compares to Peter’s Cousin’s, who supposedly used to slaughter sheep when he lived in China.
“No, din-pa!” I finally resign, pulling back my arm.
“Amy, sou sou, din-pow.”
“Peter’s Cousin, stop!” And he finally does.
We walk on, and I listen closely to the sounds our feet make as they hit the pavement. I glance at his feet and notice his short steps are quicker, while mine are wider. I glance up and, for whatever reason, he’s smiling—almost laughing—and looking at me admiringly, proudly. I could swear that I’ve seen the same look before from my dad or a close family member. And the other day at the restaurant, when I got sick with a bad cough, I could have sworn I saw from Peter’s Cousin the same attention and concern my dad, a nurse, gives me when he tries to nurse me back to health. Only, Peter’s Cousin served me boiled water in a small Chinese bowl, while my dad usually just calls the doctor.
As we approach the first traffic light again, my phone rings. “Hello!” Peter’s Cousin says (more like yells) to no one in particular. The phone is still ringing—my home—and I almost don’t answer it because I think that Peter’s Cousin will be left bored with no one to talk to and just English to listen to.
“Hi Kevin, how are you? How is school? Are you learning anything?” I ask my little brother. My Mom and Dad asked me what they needed to and say that it’s my turn to talk to my brother since I “don’t have time for him anymore.”
|Peter's Cousin at the restaurant|
As I talk to Kevin about his Sophomore year of high school, Peter’s Cousin continues trying to say “Hello” into my receiver. I fight him off me just as we get to the door of the restaurant.
“You know Kevin, I’m sure I was such a bitch to you when you were little,” I say apologetically. “And hey, tell Mom and Dad thanks for taking care of me.”
▫ ▫ ▫
I tell John that it’s time to go shopping when Peter’s Cousin and I get back to the restaurant. He’s in the kitchen cooking a General Tso’s chicken for our sole customer, a tall blond boy I’ve noticed before. I deliver my usual goodbye to Peter’s Cousin, today saying “Bush-aye” and waving, whereas yesterday it was, “Chum-bee!” Only to Peter’s Cousin and me do these departures have any meaning. John comes out of the kitchen, laughing at us, and then starts speaking Chinese with Peter’s Cousin. I ask John if they’re yelling at each other since they’re speaking so fast and forcefully. It’s a sort of joke I knew he wouldn’t understand.
And so I step outside to wait. The sunny day has turned cloudy, and it looks like it might rain. The truck sits behind a building across the street. I see John saying goodbye to Peter’s Cousin, the normal way, and he walks toward me with a cheerful grin on his face, a Marlboro Light hanging from his mouth. Am I ready to go shopping?
We stand eye-to-eye. He looks nice today. Wearing a plain black shirt and dark blue jeans, John is a younger Chinese immigrant who can speak and understand a lot of English, but cannot read it yet. His black hair is gelled back, making him look younger than he really is.
“In China, I twenty-eight, but here, I twenty-six,” he said to me one afternoon at a table in the restaurant. Not understanding, I asked him to explain. Are the years shorter in China? Am I twenty-two in China, even though I’m twenty here? He stumbled over words, attempting to tell me why people in China are always one or two years older than the rest of the world. I never really understood why. I just got that they are.
“But I want to understand,” I told him. I grabbed his electronic Chinese to English dictionary on a shelf in the restaurant.
“Here, do you understand?” he asked me, pointing to the screen at the word lunar. I sort of understood that their years are dictated by the cycles of the moon. He said the 2006 Chinese New Year was on January 29, the year of the dog, and he’s not sure when the 2007 New Year is.
He takes a drag from his Marlboro and hands me a folded up piece of paper. Everything is written in Chinese. What am I supposed to do with this? I can’t read Chinese. He tells me we need to go to Best Buy, Tan-A and “Dollar Family.”
“You mean Family Dollar? Okay, okay. Let’s go John!”
“We going to Wal-Mart today?” I ask him, purposely leaving out the verb “to be,” as he often does.
“No not today. We don’t need. We go to Best Buy?” He holds up his MP3 player. It’s small and silver, about the size of an egg. “Headphone broken.”
Best Buy is very good, John tells me, because there he can get anything he needs to buy for his Chinese family.
“My computer my wife.” I laugh. I like John’s sense of humor.
A few months ago, I took him to Belle Isle on his day off for a bike ride and swim. As we biked through the woods and swam that sunny day, he told me about his other jobs around the world. He said he worked in Turkey, Japan (his favorite) and a few places in Virginia. He told me he lives in America on an expired Visa but that he never wants to go back to China because of all the money he makes here.
|John at work on some General Tso's|
Sitting on rocks that day in the setting sun, Jon and I talked about nearly everything we could comparing his home country to my own. One thing he said which I will never forget is that he changed his name upon moving to America . It was easier that way he said, calling him John opposed to “Min Zhan.” It made perfect sense to me to Americanize his name. I could see John adhering to this name change, ever complacent and eager to fit in with Americans. Or maybe that’s just the way his English sounds to me, eager, sometimes hesitant. I listened to him speak his “simple English” about how he worked in Lynchburg before he moved to Richmond. Occasionally I would interrupt to correct a word or two. Every sentence seems to stick out in my mind, however, nothing like the verbose words and phrases of my friends from time to time.
I looked at John as he gazed into the “clean” James River. Kayakers rowed by, a girl squatted a few meters ahead of us taking pictures of the sunset with her Nikon. With John that day, I had felt in the moment and helpful.
“My name not John. It Min Zhan, but when I working at Lynchburg, someone say, ‘Hey, can I call you John?’ so I say, OK, OK.” How odd to have two names, two ages and two homes.
I start Peter’s truck, grinding the gears. I shift to reverse. Stall. Restart. John laughs and says, “This car hard to drive?” I nod, turn the wheel and drive.
I flip on the radio. Chinese music hums out of the cassette player, and I immediately eject it, hoping John won’t protest. I twist the knob until I reach a classic rock station. ACDC chants, “All night long, yeah you shook me!”
“Yes, good. American music.” He bangs his head to the rhythm, as I imagine he’s often seen Americans do to rock music.
“About sex,” I say, injecting my middle finger into the hole of my index finger and thumb over the steering wheel.
He laughs at both the motion of my fingers and the repetitive “All night long, yeah you shook meee!” More silence, and we drive on.
“I don’t understand American girl and American boy. Why won’t you go back to your boyfriend?”
“It’s too hard to explain. It just wasn’t working out,” I quickly say, hoping he senses my aversion to the subject. I know where this is headed. John insists that American boys and girls are always changing boyfriends and girlfriends over problems that don’t exist and don’t matter. John’s relationship problems have revolved around not being able to provide financially for his girlfriends. Once, a few years ago when he lived in China with his family, long before he moved to America to work, he had a beautiful, young girlfriend who broke up with him because he could not buy her things. The girl’s father knew other men who could pay for her, literally pay for her, hand in marriage, and so she left John. His version of her departure is, “Fuck you! You have no money! I leaving you!” But I can’t imagine someone being so cruel over lacking money.
“No, it’s OK. He come back with flowers and say ‘Amy, I love you. I miss you,’ and you can say okay okay!”
|Our only two cooks at the restaurant, Peter's Cousin and John|
I pull the truck into Best Buy and are greeted by an eager employee at the entrance. Could we use his help today? John looks down, almost as though he does not hear the man. But I know he does. This is something John does when he’s around English-speaking people, to avoid saying, “I don’t understand,” and no matter how many times he asks, with some people, he never really understands. I’ve seen it numerous times at the restaurant. If I’m with him, he always looks to me to for help.
John goes straight to the cell phone section. A few weeks ago, he wanted to buy cell phones on eBay for his mother and sister in China, but he didn’t because I protested to the cost. “Too much, buy cheap, boring one.” He said he wanted nice ones for his family though. Maybe he’ll find one today, I think.
“Cell phone to buy?” he asks me, pointing to a high-tech pink one. “You have to buy plan?” he asks me. I look up and see an employee standing right beside us, trying to get in on the question. I tell John that it’s sixty dollars to start up the plan, and he says it’s too much.
After looking at more cell phones, Kelly Clarkson CDs (his favorite American musician), computers and everything else in the store, it seems, he finally picks up some headphones. I encourage the ten dollar Phillips brand, but he insists on Sony. Go figure. Just last week he bought another computer to send to China for his sister, and it couldn’t be the Compaq that I picked out. It had to be the Sony. “Sony is good. I don’t like American computer.”
We check out, with John leaving the cashier asking if he wants to sign up for their bonus card. He just looks down and gives no response.
We’re back in the car and the finale of “Layla” is playing. John flips through a Best Buy magazine, asking me if I’ve ever seen the products in there. Did I have an iPod? Was this a good computer?
“I don’t know, John. I don’t read those ads.” He continues flipping through. As much as I like to help John, I try to stay away from encouraging him to buy too many things. Maybe our luxuries are overwhelming for him, making him feel like he has to have the latest technology for himself and his family in China. He’s told me many times that his family in China is in trouble, but if he’s sending iPods and cell phones over, they couldn’t be in that much trouble, could they?
I ask John why he buys so many goods to send abroad. He closes his catalog and gives me a long and hard-to-understand explanation. He basically tells me that in China, the goods are much cheaper and more prone to falling apart. American goods are durable and long-lasting. He tells me that even though China’s emerging economy is growing and modernizing through its labor intensive industries as well as technological fields, the United States is still richer. The labor market is paid lower in China, with many jobs outsourced from both the United States and Japan.
That still didn’t answer one question: What kind of trouble is the family in?
“China family in trouble,” is all he ever says.
“Why?” He says he doesn’t know. He only knows that his mother calls him and says that the family is in trouble and to send more money. You don’t know why you’re sending thousands of dollars to your family? You don’t know what the trouble is at home? Do you even understand my questions?
Frustrated with our progress, I stop pursuing the question and sit in silence. My mind brings me back to the conversation I had with my brother only one hour ago. Even though Kevin and I are much older now, and I don’t pick on him as much, seeing Peter’s Cousin send money to his Chinese family and watching John buy his sister and mother a cell phone really made me want to be a better big sister. There were so many instances when I treated him badly when I could have shared with him.
The night of the same day we went to Burger King for free fries. Meredith and I played Super Mario World in my bedroom with my door closed. Kevin barged into my bedroom and asked to play on my Super Nintendo with us. I refused Larry Davis and pushed him out the door.
“M-m-m-mom says it’s mine too. L-l-l-let me play!” he begged, banging on the door.
“I’ll punch you in the jewels if you come in here again,” Meredith shouted. I laughed and listened to my brother’s light footsteps going down the stairs.
John scans the busy road and businesses that surround us as we drive down Broad Street. “Super King Buffet, haha. You ever eat there?”
“No, John. I’ve never even noticed it before.” We whiz by stores on both sides of the road.
“Ford cars. I want to drive one day. Maybe I get my green card I can drive. You been to Fords? So many cars.”
“No, John. They’re just cars. Look they’re everywhere. Too much,” I say, imitating his favorite phrase.
More buildings zoom by, none of which affect me, but John’s eyes are peeled.
On the left we pass a Hair Cuttery. On the sign is an outline of hair with scissors pointed at the tips.
“Oh Amy. You hair color real? You go there and get it color?” he says, fingering the ends of my pony tails. I twist the knob on the radio, turning up the last bit of Eric Clapton.
“You know, when I working in Japan, I had red hair,” he says with a chuckle. “You have nice hair. You, Emily with brown, Amanda with red. So nice. My hair black, not nice. Your hair blonde, red, brown and pink.”
“Pink? There’s no pink in my hair.” I nudge his shoulder playfully. “It’s just plain brown to me. You had red hair in Japan?”
“Yes, down to here,” he points at his shoulders. And, yes, he tells me, I do have a little pink in my hair.
“Very good life back then when I lived in Japan, but now, my life so different. Too much working in America. Every day I tired, but shit, China family in trouble.”
|John and Peter's Cousin at the restaurant|
I glance over at John. He’s looking out the window focusing on the moving traffic and the advertisements, stores and restaurants. He seems to absorb everything on the road. He stares East. Toward China, toward home. Does he miss his family?
We pull into Tan-A Supermarket, an Asian store stocked with goods from most any Eastern country. We go inside where there are stacks of colorful boxes, raw fish, fresh produce and enough rice to feed all of Richmond for a year. There seems to be no particular order to anything either. Boxes are labeled Product of Taiwan, Product of China, Product of Vietnam, and so on. A woman sings Chinese from the speakers.
The aisles are filled with products I’ve never even heard of. I pick up boxes of shredded squid, fish sauce, pickled radish, roasted green peas and sesame cookies. The supply is so abundant for such uncommon foods, but John tells me that the store owners make tons of money. “No other Asian store in Richmond. They sell things too much. Too expensive,” he says, picking up a package of pork and Chinese spinach dumplings. He tosses other necessities for the restaurant into the cart: tofu, edamame, fish sauce, udon noodles, eggplant, brown rice and tomatoes.
I pick up a dessert called “Moon Cake” and motion at John.
“Oh, this?” He nods at the box. “For Chinese holiday next month, you understand?”
“No, not really, actually. All your Chinese holidays and moon cycles only confuse me.” Sometimes I give quick responses that I know he won’t understand, just to break the monotony of not being able to say what I really want to.
I pick up some Chinese candy, pay for it and share some with John back in the car after he’s paid. In a colorful wrapper filled with Chinese or Japanese symbols, it’s green and chewy and tastes like any sugary American candy. “Alone” by Heart plays on the radio. John thumbs through another catalog.
“I like this music,” John says, pointing at the radio. He’s smiling and smoking another Marlboro Light. The highway darkens under the passing clouds. I’m anxious to get back home so I can continue my normal activities of homework, lounging and playing Frisbee.
When I first started working at the restaurant, I discovered it was unlike any place I’ve ever worked before or will ever work. Paperwork and W5s are non-existent. There is no way to clock out to end your day’s pay.
“Write down your wages on a piece of paper and tack it to the register,” the owner told me. Not a hint of insecurity lay in his voice. Just take the money out of the register. There is nothing to worry about.
Everyone who works at the restaurant is paid under the table. This amazes me. I don’t know how the owner gets by doing this.
John survives off the food at the restaurant, which serves only vegan food, a wide variety of mock meat, and he sometimes treats himself to a five-dollar “Hot-N-Ready” pizza from Little Caesars. And, of course, his carton of Marlboro Lights. Did I want one? No thanks.
He slips in the Chinese tape and exhales slowly, eyes fixed East.
“You know, Amy. I know I tell you my life very different in America. All I know is working. In China, I used to disco every night, so much fun, now too much working. My family in trouble.”
“Disco?” I laugh. An image of John with an afro comes into my mind. “I can see you in bell bottoms like John Travolta,” I say, not even minding that he won’t know a thing I’m saying.
“What? You don’t know disco?” he asks me, as he inserts a Chinese cassette.
“Yeah, I get it. You went to clubs.” I change the subject.
“What do these lyrics say?” I rephrase, realizing he probably doesn’t know the word ‘lyric.’ I point at the radio and say, “What it say?”
“It say,” he pauses, trying to find just the right words with his limited English vocabulary. “This sun, this day, this night. I’ll miss you. I’ll cry.”
“No, I don’t know how to transfer,” he says, meaning to say the word ‘translate.”
“It’s good. Do you miss China? You go back to China one day?”
|John and me in the kitchen. Sorry, no pictures of Ji. Just memories.|
No, I’m not. I have a job, a car and help my parents out. I get my work done. But I don’t respond. I’ll never experience what he does. I panic if I work more than four days a week, feeling anxiety, stress, sleep deprivation. Whenever we’re together and someone speaks English to him and he looks at me with his confused eyes, a slight surge of sisterly affection always passes through me. I’m glad to help him send money to China. Sending money to his troubled family is what he works seven days a week for. The sun begins to fall behind the gray sky, and rain starts to dot on the windshield. I turn the headlights on and ease out of the parking lot, careful not to stall on reverse.
At Family Dollar we purchase sixty, indeed sixty, 2-liter bottles of Coke, filling two shopping carts. We clunk the bottles into the truck and head back to the restaurant. We’ve been out for about two hours, which is only ten dollars pay for me. He continues singing the Chinese song. I stare out the window at the traffic ahead and think about what John will be doing tomorrow and the day after that and so on. Working to support his Chinese family. I look over at him, and he’s fidgeting with his new headphones. What a treat. Twelve hours a day six days a week, and he buys some headphones, all the while worrying about colored cell phones to buy his family. There has to be something I can do.
“You know Super Mario?” I ask John, turning into the parking lot.
“Oh, Super Mario? I haven’t played since I was a little boy! You have?”
“Yeah, you should come over, on your day off, and play with me.” I’ll share it with you since I never shared it with my little brother.
“I don’t think so. Too much working.”
“But it’s your day off. Phil can cook,” I say, pushing in the emergency brake with my left foot. Should I leave it in neutral?
“I don’t know, Amy. Me and Peter’s Cousin, we worried about business. Will you help me send money to China next week? I need to work, you understand?”
“Yes.” But no. We walk towards the restaurant and say goodbye to each other. He goes inside to work, and I push off my bike toward my home.
▫ ▫ ▫
It’s a hot day for May--my first day on the job. Sunshine through the front window, filling the room and exposing infinite particles of dust. Just as I notice my face and armpits are sweaty, my eyes meet a glaring sign on the air conditioner: Do not turn on until end of June.
I turn and see Ji for the first time, holding a plate of food proudly in front of my face. He says what I learn later as “You want zuumthing?”
“What, no, thanks.” I close my magazine.
His eyebrows turn inward, and I realize he probably has no idea what I had just said. Of course Peter doesn’t hire Americans. We’re all paid illegally. This place is probably funded by the Chinese mob.
I notice the sweat beads surfacing on his forehead and above his lips. Holding the plate in my face, he looks me up and down. I smell garlic and vegetables. Steam pours out like smoke stacks, forming a cloud between our faces. I feel obligated to take his friendly gesture.
I look around the restaurant. No one. Ji’s dark brown eyes glare into mine. Even though he is an older male, I sense he once possessed an athletic figure. The sight of him even wearing it makes me laugh. I want to express this to him, but I can’t.
I want to say, “Oh how cute. He is wearing a shirt he can neither read nor say. How would he pronounce it?” It was cute, in a way, and since his eyes are focused on my confused face, he notices me staring at it.
And then he does something unexpected, and he says it—the name of the restaurant. My laugh takes me by surprise, and all at once we both start laughing.
“Good,” I say and nudge him on the shoulder. He smiles graciously.
I break eye contact with him and flip back open my magazine. Suddenly—a brilliant idea.
In the magazine I find exactly what I’m looking for: advertisements filled with colors and people and objects, or basically—a textbook for teaching English.
“Girl,” I say. I first point to myself and then to a brunette Target model. I flip the page and continue pointing and saying “girl.” I point to myself again –“girl.” Girl, Girl, Girl, Boy, Boy, Boy.
I will never forget the girl in the pink sweater Ji next points to. “Uh…Girl,” I say again, assuming he already forgot the one syllable word. He points again, and I think, maybe he wants to know the name for shirt, so I tell him that. Then he points at my actual breast. I laugh nervously and respond “boob.”
He pokes it again. Then a light squeeze. Okay, really, that’s enough.
I push him backward and slap him lightly across the face.
For the next few months, sitting down with Ji and going through the pre-school notebook became our routine. It was a slow summer at the restaurant with most of our student crowd at home. Those sluggish days were spent with Richard Scarry teaching him the numbers 1-10, the colors green, red, blue and yellow, and I even taught him a few useful verbs for around the restaurant, such as sweep, mop and cook. I even started making him homework assignments such as writing down words starting with each letter of the alphabet.
The day, the first day, I ever sent money through the Western Union, was two days before I celebrated my twentieth birthday on July 4. That day we worked on colors. Richard Scarry taught him that pumpkins are orange, that grass is green, and that the sky is blue. As we walked to the Western Union in Kroger together, Ji pointed to the sky and said, “blue.”
“Very good,” I said enthusiastically. I looked up and saw that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We walked on a sidewalk beside a building with a lawn. I pointed at the grass and said, “Which color?”
I waited as he thought really hard but could not find the answer. I answered for him, picking a blade of grass and repeating “green” over and over.
We practiced all the way to the Western Union. I was unsure and scared about what I was doing, but John told me I would be okay since I’m an American citizen. So we sent the money and went back to the restaurant to practice more English.
Amanda, my co-worker, told me that Ji was fired one summer evening. I was walking home from the library, carrying a Chinese language kit from the school’s library, when she called to me from across the street. I had already seen her—her curly, red locks are hard to miss, and so I was about to cross the street toward her apartment anyway. I waved and held up my language kit, complete with an introductory Chinese textbook and CD-ROM, showing her I was well on my way to helping Ji. When I approached her, instead of saying “hi,” she said, “Ji’s fired.”
“What happened?” I asked her, lowering my head to the ground. Her feet were bare, exposing pink toenail polish and a Newport hung between her fingers.
“I don’t know, Peter just came back from China with his Cousin, and, well, fired Ji for his family to take his place, I guess.”
“Did Ji know about this?”
“I don’t know, maybe. You know how they are.”
I thought I knew what she meant. She meant, even though John, Peter and Ji were our co-workers, there were bits and pieces of information that they felt had to be kept from us other American co-workers. There were rules they didn’t have to go by. I had always gotten that vibe, especially from John, when I would ask things like, “Why are we paid under the table?” He never knew.
We sat down on her front steps, and I eased the Newport from her fingers and took a long drag. It seemed appropriate. How could he just leave? How could he not say bye?
“I wanted to tell you first because, well, I know how close you were to him,” she said. She glanced at me and then at the passing traffic. “The only reason I know is because I stopped by this afternoon to look at the schedule.” There was silence. “Hey, you okay?”
The next day work was slow. Ji was gone. I roamed the restaurant—shocked and distant. Ji was gone and I didn’t want to help John introduce Peter’s Cousin to the restaurant. Jiw as here before and could manage things just fine.
Meeting Peter’s Cousin—with a forced half nod—was uncomfortable. I didn’t like the looks of him. Something was off. While Ji maintained a kind unwavering smile, Peter’s Cousin…well, he just seemed to scowl and to grunt a lot. What now? There would be no teaching, no learning Mandarin, nothing to look forward to when coming to work! As John later told me, Peter’s cousin couldn’t even speak Mandarin and had never gone to school. Besides, he had already given me strange looks.
Instead of showing Peter’s Cousin the back room where we keep the to-go boxes, I walked around the restaurant, looking at the Chinese artwork on the walls. There was a picture of The Great Wall of China, palaces, caves and other sites. Ji and I had looked at these pictures together a few times on slow days. When I reached the final picture, a calm lake surrounded by luscious trees in inland China, I remembered that this was where I taught him the word “beautiful.” A customer came into the restaurant, and I rang him up for lo mein noodles without once making eye contact.
I started walking toward the storage room to stock more soy sauce when I noticed John was away from the kitchen and Peter’s cousin. He was smoking and on his new headset phone—the kind they make so you don’t have to hold the receiver up to your ear. Did I want to talk to Ji?
Could we really have a phone conversation?
This is the way it went:
Ji: Hello, how are you?
Good. New York?
Yes. Ji go to New York. I miss you.
Wo xiang ni
Wo ai knee
I love you too, Ji! Beautiful?
New York beautiful. China beautiful.
--30 second silence---
Go back to China?
Yes, I go back to China.
--1 minute silence—
After hanging up, I sat very still with the receiver still pressed against my ear, a dramatic gesture I don’t hesitate to admit. The receiver was no longer a receiver, it was merely some strange object that had spoken out to me as if it were my long lost friend. Jon looked at me, his eyes scrunched together almost as though he could sense something was wrong. After what seemed like 30 seconds, I walked toward a table in the front of the restaurant, but I first turned to the bookshelf, to see if I could see what I thought I had. It wasn’t there. I did a double take. My Richard Scarry book wasn’t there, which was normally propped beside my World Almanac and Chinese to English Dictionary. He had taken it to New York with him.
I sat at the table, letting all the customers’ voices fade out around me. I thought about who would take my place and teach Ji from the book like I had. Would he work in Chinatown with another American waitress? Would he learn English? Go back to China? Continue sending money abroad?