“Hey new girl,” a boy’s voice boomed large out of nowhere. “Are you Asian? Are you from China?”
Emily’s face felt scorched. She knew it was turning the deepest shade of sunburn right now because she was dying of embarrassment. She slid further down in her seat, halfway under her desk. In her first week at her new school, this was the last thing Emily Chang wanted—to call attention to herself in this way. But she couldn’t help it. It wasn’t her fault.
“I’m American, just like you,” she found her courage. Talking over the din of whispers in the room, she added in a small, barely audible voice, “Chinese-American,” stressing the American part.
Emily quickly jumped up from her seat as the bell rang, signaling the end of her math class which had been her favorite class, that is—up until now.
Oh why did we have to move from San Francisco to Boston? she asked herself, but she already knew the answer to that tired and futile question. Dad had lost his job as a sous-chef at one of San Francisco’s leading hotel restaurants and Yeh-Yeh (which means father’s father in Cantonese), had offered him a job back home in his restaurant, the Golden Dragon, in the heart of Boston’s Chinatown. Dad said they were “lucky that they had somewhere to go.”
Yeah, right, she thought. She could feel her anger and disappointment surging again inside her, as she pictured liquid mercury rising in a thermometer stuck in a bubbling bath of boiling water. She couldn’t squelch it this time. This time, the mercury was sure to win out and the thermometer would snap. She was at her breaking point. San Francisco was the only home she had ever known. She was born at San Francisco General. Although she had only been in her new home barely a month, she already missed the sprawling picnics her family celebrated in Golden Gate Park, their sauntering walks through the Palace of Fine Arts on sunlit spring days, dim sum each Sunday morning with Gung-Gung and Paw-Paw, her grandparents on her mother’s side, but most of all she would miss her charter school and all it meant to her. At her old school, which was ninety-five percent Chinese-American, she didn’t have to explain herself. Everyone there used chopsticks at lunch, knew how to write their name in both English and Chinese and didn’t question why Chinese New Year was the biggest holiday of the year. Now in this new school she was assigned to, she was the only Asian-American student in most of her classes. She felt like a guest at her own birthday party. When Mom said it would take some getting used to, she wasn’t kidding.
Emily hopped on the long mac-and-cheese-colored school bus and stole a seat in the back. She felt her head throbbing from the day’s latest disaster and was happy when she started seeing telltale signs her stop was coming up. She eagerly awaited passing under the cherry-colored arch, the gateway to the city’s Chinatown, to signal she was home. To her, it resembled an oversized Chinese character scrolled in the finest calligraphy. She smiled at the curbside phone booths fashioned in the shape of tiny pagodas, now relics with the advent of cell phones but quaint nonetheless. From her bus window, she could see a carefully arranged string of golden roast ducks hanging in the window of her favorite bakery. Some lucky family tonight would have a scrumptious meal of crunchy roast duck with soft plump bread pillows, the kind that melted in your mouth. Her stomach grumbled. She jumped off at her stop in front of Yee’s enticing silk shop and rounded the corner, heading for her grandfather’s restaurant. Her family of four, which included her mom, dad and little sister, Sabrina, had moved into the cramped apartment in Chinatown above the restaurant while Yin-Yin and Yeh-Yeh, her dad’s parents, had moved to a roomier home in the nearby suburbs. She didn’t mind their cramped quarters, so Dad could be close to his work. She loved being in the middle of all the excitement downtown. From her bedroom window she marveled at all the fascinating sights and delighted in the familiar sounds. Neon dragons and great walls turned on at dusk, illuminating the community’s pride in their culture. She loved the glittering storefronts with all their shiny silks and hand-painted porcelains, and all the signs in Chinese characters she had no difficulty reading made her feel right at home.
Emily stood for a minute outside the jewelry shop and peered in. She admired the sparkling collection of jade pendants and rings. There were so many different shades and hues of the translucent gemstone. She knew that the deep emerald color was valued the most and she couldn’t wait till her thirteenth birthday when Mom told her she could pick out her own jade pendant. She knew exactly which one she would pick. “Every girl needs lucky jade,” she was overjoyed to hear her mother say.
Her excitement bubbled over, looking at the gold picture frames which hung in the window. These were the kind shopkeepers bought to congratulate one another when they had gained enough capital and courage to open their own shops. Thick gold characters, carefully framed, hung on a ruby velvet background, spelling out congratulatory wishes, such as, “Wishing you good luck and prosperity in this new venture,” and other things. Someday, she hoped she might even follow in her dad’s and granddad’s footsteps and open her own restaurant or gift shop. Then she might have her own lucky sayings.
Looking down at her watch, she knew she had a date to keep. She had promised to rendezvous with her family in the restaurant for an early supper before going upstairs to complete her homework, and before the customers would start coming into the restaurant, in droves!
One last stop, she thought. She was tempted by the incense-like scent wafting from the tea shop next door with some of the fanciest green and black teas from Hong Kong. They called out to her to explore, however that adventure would have to wait for another afternoon. But she couldn’t keep herself from what was happening inside the expansive window of Calvin Chen’s Kung Fu Academy. Pressing her face against the spotless glass, she saw the students of all sizes with long bamboo sticks, facing off against each other, ready to spar. Swiftly and decidedly they moved back and forth to a rhythm repeated thousands of years since ancient times at Shaolin’s Temple. She couldn’t wait for the colorful lion dancers from the same academy to win over the hearts of every visitor lining the streets come New Year’s next week, as they had won hers watching them practice. Emily sped up and soon found herself in front of the Golden Dragon. She looked up to admire the deftly dancing dragon over the entryway. He wore a fierce expression, announcing to all he was someone to reckon with.
“I could learn something from you,” Emily whispered to the wise-looking mythical creature. Inside, the music made by the clanging plates from the wait staff mingling with the air fragrant with soy and ginger made her feel more relaxed and welcomed. She slid into the familiar worn leather booth next to her nine-year-old sister, Sabrina, who was chattering nonstop. Sabrina wore her thick black shiny hair in a ponytail, which bobbed up and down as she told Yin-Yin all the events of her day. Soon Yeh-Yeh came out from behind the swinging silver doors which led from the kitchen, balancing two rounded bowls of perfectly cooked white rice and a plate piled high with Shanghai crispy noodles soaked in a savory beef sauce. The noodles were sure to keep Sabrina busy long enough so Emily could get some questions answered. Maybe she could ask Yeh-Yeh before Mom and Dad came out. She wouldn’t want them to worry about her. She knew Mom would be hurriedly carving pink-and-white lotus flowers from radishes to adorn some of Dad’s most delectable dishes, while he topped off sizzling signature dishes like Peking duck and firecracker shrimp.
“Yeh-Yeh, why did you come to America?” Emily began in a shaky voice, trying to steady it but wondering whether life back in China would be better than needing to explain yourself everywhere you went outside the limits of the city’s Chinatown.
“Life in China can be very hard,” replied Yeh-Yeh truthfully. He began his familiar story which Emily never grew tired of hearing. “China has been through many famines. I became a street vendor, selling little trinkets just to survive, and that’s where I met your Yin-Yin. She had a street cart and made the most superb, freshest noodles you ever tasted. Every day, I would eat at her cart, sitting atop a barrel, and together we talked about our hopes and dreams for a better future. I fell in love with your Yin-Yin and together she and I knew we needed to immigrate to America for a better opportunity for our family. Now, I have two gift shops and a good restaurant that your father will take over for me.”
“But, do you ever miss China, Yeh-Yeh?” Emily asked impatiently, not getting the answer she was seeking.
“Sometimes, but I have all that I need right here with me. When I miss China, all I need to do is look at your grandmother. She is far more beautiful than the rarest jade. The sound of her voice is more brilliant than the timbre of the most brilliant gong, announcing evening meal. Her spirit is stronger than the most upright bamboo and she is more flexible than… than… even these noodles in her ability to take on new challenges,” he added, laughing at his latest simile. “I look at you and I see her,” he added affectionately. “You have all the same traits as your grandmother.” His thoughts were interrupted by the winter sky, lit up with scarlet streamers filtering in through the windows.
“Look there, outside the window. The dragon has begun to chase the sinking ball of fire and will continue to chase the ball of fire across the sky all the way to China,” he murmured intently.
“Oh Yeh-Yeh, you can’t possibly believe that. You know the earth spins on its axis and we are facing away from the sun now,” Emily softly chided.
“Oh yes, I know that is the scientific explanation, but my heart tells me to believe what my ancestors believed. See, when I think of them and where I have come from, I am not so alone. I stand tall with pride and remember those who sacrificed before me, so that I could lead a better life,” he resumed patiently. Emily blinked away a tear. Suddenly, listening to Grandfather’s consistent and reassuring voice, she was not so afraid. She wondered if this is how Magdalena felt when she came to her old school wearing her striped fiesta skirt that her abuela had brought her from Mexico City to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, reflecting the same pride and colors as the Mexican flag.
Her grandfather’s pride and his sentiments resonated that evening in her bedtime thoughts before she drifted off to sleep.
“As beautiful as the rarest jade, as brilliant as the gong, as strong as the bamboo, as flexible as the noodle,” she repeated, smiling to herself. Yes, she could be as flexible as Grandma had to be moving to a new country and get used to her new school, even if it meant overcoming all the obstacles in her way.
* * *
“Hey American girl,” she heard bellowing across the room at her the next day at the end of math class. “Can I be your friend?” It was that menace Eric again, the boy who had taunted her only yesterday. Suddenly he didn’t seem to bother her any more. She was proud of who she was and her family, all of them she had dreamed about going back many generations. She was from a proud people, rich in culture and beliefs. She wouldn’t hesitate again to own up to her Chinese roots.
“I’m not good at making friends. I have a lot to learn. I’m sorry that I said something to offend you, especially it being your first week and all.” It was Eric now walking next to her out of class, trying to apologize.
“Why do you want to be my friend?” Emily asked.
“Because you’re the smartest kid in math class and you seem really nice. I’d like to get to know you better.”
“Well, it takes a big person to admit his mistakes,” she replied. “I guess we can be friends.”
“I’d really like that, Emily,” he added with a smile.
“Emily? You know my name? What, no ‘Asian girl’ today?” she kidded amidst an easy laugh. Now it was his turn to blush to a deep crimson shade, the color of hong bao, lucky money envelopes given out every Chinese New Year to children or anyone lucky enough to receive them. Emily giggled. “I guess we all still have a lot to learn, and Boston is as good a place as any. I think I’m gonna like it here.” Her heart sang. Somewhere she knew the dragon was also smiling. His heart sang too as he chased his golden ball of fire across the sky all the way back from China.