Authors: Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2014 by Jean Kwok
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mambo in Chinatown / Jean Kwok.
1. Chinese American women—Fiction. 2. Chinese Americans—Fiction. 3. Ballroom dancers—Fiction. 4. Family secrets—Fiction. 5. Family life—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3611.W65M37 2014 2013043639
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Erwin, Stefan and Milan,
and to the memory of my mother,
Shuet King Kwok
y name is Charlie Wong and I’m the daughter of a dancer and a noodle-maker. My mother was once a star ballerina at the famed Beijing Dance Academy before she ran off to marry my father, the handsomest noodle-maker in Beijing—or at least that’s what she always called him before she died. Hand in hand, they escaped to America to start their family. Unfortunately, my mother’s genes seemed to miss me altogether. I took after Pa, minus the good-looking part. And minus the manual dexterity as well: he never managed to pass his considerable noodle-making skills on to me, much as he tried. So at twenty-two years old I was instead working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. Pa was their noodle master. Customers lined up at the back door to purchase packages of his uncooked noodles to take home.
Peering now through the window that connected the tiny dishwashing room to the kitchen, I could see Mrs. Lee standing by the back door. She’d put on extra lipstick for Pa, and she fixed her eyes on his tanned hands wrapped around the bamboo pole.
“Can you make them extra long for me?” she asked in Mandarin. She stood a bit stiffly, careful not to brush against the grease-covered doorframe.
Pa nodded as he hoisted the bamboo pole and lowered it once again onto the dough on the table. The end of the pole fit into a hole punched in the wall, just above the table surface. As he rolled the pole, the dough became thinner on every pass. It was hard work. I knew his hands were ridged with calluses. Then he sliced the dough into perfectly regular strands with his cleaver, and began pulling them by hand. He twirled them into a rope, then stretched them again and again. It was like magic.
He looked up to flash Mrs. Lee a smile. “Must be your birthday.”
She actually giggled, a woman of her age. “You are an intelligent man.”
I would have snorted, only the waiters pushed another plastic bus tub filled with stacks of bowls through the other window at that moment, the one connecting the dish room to the restaurant. Everybody knew it was good luck to have long noodles on your birthday since they symbolized long life, just as many of us in Chinatown remembered Mrs. Lee’s husband had passed on a number of years ago. I dumped the food off the dishes, then piled everything in another tub. I was used to women complimenting Pa—but if you’re trying to catch him for your own, good luck, lady. Pa hadn’t dated since Ma died and probably never would; he was still in love with her. I hefted the heavy tub with ease, then hauled it over to the washing sink. I’d been working this job for years, ever since leaving high school, and I had the biceps to prove it. I ducked my head to look through the window again and see what Mrs. Lee was up to. I caught a whiff of ginger and garlic that one of the cooks had just dropped into a wok.
Pa had given the ends of the dough to his assistant and they’d
stretched the noodles across the room while the other cook dodged them. Mrs. Lee beamed as Pa rolled up the finished noodles for her.
“You should join us. I promise the noodles will be tender,” she said.
Pa gave her an old-fashioned bow from the waist as he handed her package to her. “You are very kind but I am so busy taking care of my two daughters. You know how it is.”
“Of course,” she said. Her bright lips drooped at the corners. “Next time, then.”
“Yes, I wish you long life and happiness,” said Pa, turning back to his assistant. “Get me a sack of flour from the basement, will you?”
I should have been the one helping him. Pa had brought me to the restaurant to watch and train ever since I was a child. Hard as I tried, I still dropped everything. “You have to coax the dough,” Pa said, but I pummeled it instead. A noodle master has magic in his fingers. Mine were as clumsy as if I were always wearing gloves. Pa was tall and lean. His defined nose and cheekbones made for a strong face on a man, but those features were too sharp for a woman, according to my Aunt Monica and Uncle Henry. I was tanned like the rest of Pa’s family, and for a Chinese girl, I was homely. I had learned early on not to attract any attention. Most of the time, I succeeded.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead. It was the afternoon lull but my legs were already starting to ache from the hours I’d spent on my feet since the early morning. I poured in some detergent, then turned on only the hot faucet and let it fill the sink. At the beginning, I couldn’t bear to put my hands in the scalding water, even when I’d diluted it with some cold. I’d tried to use gloves until I realized the steaming water poured in over the tops of the gloves anyway when I submerged my arms. But if I was good for nothing but washing dishes, I’d resolved to be the best dishwasher I could.
I’d increased the heat day by day until my body adjusted. I didn’t mind the way my hands and arms became reddened and chapped. It was the cost of my labor.
The rising steam combined with the August heat was stifling. I dropped a stack of bowls into the water, then plunged in my hands and forearms to soap them. My skin had become so rough now I barely winced anymore. The hotter the water, the faster I could work. Although the restaurant had a dishwashing machine, it was so ancient I had to make the dishes as clean as possible before loading it anyway, rather than waste time cleaning out the debris from the machine traps. Otherwise, I would have to check the dishes when they came out of the machine to know they were clean. Especially during the mealtime rush, every second was precious or we’d run out of clean dishes and silverware.
I pulled out another stack of dirty bowls from the bus tub and found a large roach hanging from one of them. I froze. I didn’t want to drop everything into the soapy water and have to fish out the now-boiled roach. The bug took advantage of my confusion, racing up my hand and onto my arm.
I screeched. The dishes I’d been holding clattered onto the floor while I batted at the roach, trying to get it off my shirt before it reached my face. Suddenly, a white cooking cloth whipped the roach off of me. It landed upside down on the floor, thick legs waving, and a man’s foot smashed it.
“You are the clumsiest dishwasher we’ve ever had!” said Mr. Hu, the owner of the restaurant. His round cheeks seemed covered with a perpetual layer of grease. “Clean it up right away!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was—”
“I don’t want to hear it!”
Pa was standing in the doorway. “Mr. Hu, she works very hard.”
Mr. Hu softened when he saw my father. Without Pa, his
restaurant would lose most of its business. “I know. And she is strong too. Just get rid of this mess, okay? Dishes are expensive.”
I started sweeping up the broken crockery right away. When Mr. Hu was gone, I said, “Thanks, Pa.” Although I could understand Chinese, I couldn’t speak it very well. Pa and I usually communicated in English. Sometimes he spoke Chinese and I answered him in English.
“Anyone can drop a soapy dish. That man needs a vacation.” He gave me an affectionate pat on the shoulder, then went back to the noodle station.
If it weren’t for Pa, I didn’t know if the restaurant would have kept me on since there was no shortage of cheap labor. However, I did work hard and I knew the restaurant had gone through a number of dishwashers before I was hired. It was dirty work, even for Chinatown.
An hour later, I was sleeping across a row of chairs by the wall at the back of the restaurant. All of the staff took naps there during our breaks because our shifts could extend from early morning until late in the night, depending on business. If more customers showed up, the restaurant stayed open. Everyone ignored us as long as we kept our backs to the other tables, and if we didn’t snore too loudly.
Someone tapped me on the side of my head. I jerked awake and peeled my cheek off the vinyl of the chair, annoyed and disoriented. “What?” I saw the yellowing wallpaper, then turned to focus on my little sister Lisa’s heart-shaped face. “Don’t touch my hair.”
“Sorry,” she said but I could tell she’d done it on purpose. “You wouldn’t wake up otherwise.”
I pushed myself up on one elbow and frowned at her. “Did you try?”
“No. I know from experience.” When I rolled my eyes, she leaned in and whispered, “I found an ad for a new job for you.”
I didn’t find out what Lisa’s job possibility was until after my shift. I’d shooed her out of the restaurant after her announcement, before she got me into trouble with Mr. Hu again for dawdling on my break. I knew she’d be waiting for me at home. Even though it was late by the time Pa and I arrived at our apartment, Lisa always tried to stay up. If she fell asleep, she’d wake up again when she heard us come in because she wanted to make sure we got home safely.
“What could happen in Chinatown?” I asked her once.
“Petty theft, knife fights, muggings, gang wars,” she answered.
She had a point. She was only eleven but Lisa had always been precocious. Sometimes I watched her sleeping and wished I could keep her safe from the life I led. At the very least, I would have liked to keep her ignorant of how tired I was much of the time, but it was impossible to fool her. No matter how often I told her I was satisfied being a dishwasher, Lisa kept trying to find new opportunities for me.
To be honest, I didn’t mind. I wished not for a new job or place but for a different life altogether, to change not the where but the how of things. Some people dreamed of going someplace else; I dreamed of being someone else. Someone who hadn’t always been in the bottom half of her class at school. Someone poised, elegant and beautiful—like Ma had been, like Lisa would be when she grew up. It was Lisa who took after Ma, from the slight flush beneath her skin to that gliding grace when she ran. Sometimes I would look at Lisa and Pa and silently ask the gods, “Could I please not be born into such a good-looking family in my next life?” It wasn’t easy being a cow among gazelles.
Every night, after saying good night to Pa as he retired to his tiny closet of a room, Lisa and I folded up the plastic table in the
living room and put it in the corner. My mattress, with the sheets hanging off it, always leaned by the wall. We squeezed that in between the sofa and the pile of three little televisions stacked against the other wall. Only the top one worked, but Pa could never bear to throw away any of the others. “They will be maybe handy someday,” he said. Then we pulled off the worn patchwork cloth covering the sofa, exposing the scorch mark I’d made when I left the iron on it once. We covered the sofa with a sheet, then piled on Lisa’s pillow and blanket, which I had painstakingly sewn together from scraps. She was growing almost too tall to fit on the short sofa and I wasn’t sure what we would do then.
Although I nagged Lisa to go to sleep before Pa and I got home, I secretly looked forward to those moments of peace at night: Lisa lying on the sofa and me on my mattress on the floor below her, when we chatted and read before going to sleep.
“How were Uncle Henry and Aunt Monica today?” I asked.
She made a face, then said, “Fine.”
“You shouldn’t be ungrateful,” I said, “we’re—”
She completed my sentence, “—lucky that they use me for free slave labor in Uncle Henry’s office under the guise of taking care of me. I know.” Uncle Henry was a well-known doctor of traditional Chinese medicine in Chinatown. Lisa helped out at his office with tasks like filing and cleaning after school until closing time, then she came home. Now that it was summer vacation, she was there full time.
I grinned before I could stop myself. “How did you become so obnoxious?”
“The same way you got so moralistic.”
We stuck our tongues out at each other, even though I knew I was much too mature for such a thing.
“And I thought you wanted to be a doctor,” I said.
“I know.” She sighed. “It’s good experience for me, even if he’s not a western doctor.”
“Come on, start reading,” I said, passing her the paperback book.
Every night, Lisa had been reading
aloud to me before we went to sleep. I’d actually started by trying to read to her but I had so much difficulty with it that she took over. In school the words “lack of motivation” had appeared repeatedly on my report cards, but my teachers never knew about the hours I struggled over my textbooks in the evenings. It was my tenth-grade English teacher who’d given us the list of Top 100 Classic Books and I was still determined to get through that list. I barely passed that teacher’s class and she didn’t notice me much, except to ask me a few times to try harder, but I worshipped her from afar, with her sharp wit and wild hair and gesturing hands. I never dared tell her how I fought at home to read her books, how after many hours I would only be halfway through the assignment. I could see the difference between Lisa and me from the moment she started to read, fluently and easily. Even though I was an “ABC,” American-born Chinese, reading was like a foreign language to me.
My teachers had always wanted to talk to Pa, but he never dared show up to meet them. He thought his English was too bad and I think he was intimidated by them. He felt his lack of education as a noodle-maker. His brother, our Uncle Henry, was the oldest son and had been rigorously trained in traditional Chinese medicine, although he didn’t have a medical degree. There’d been no money left for Pa. I’d once seen the father of another student at school, arguing with a teacher for his child. For a moment I’d allowed myself to think it was Pa and my heart had leapt. Once, Aunt Monica had come to the school in Pa’s stead. She spent her time telling my teachers that I needed to help out more at home, that it was shameful my father did most of the cooking. When I told Pa, he’d politely
refused her help from then on. This was why I made sure I myself went to all of Lisa’s teacher meetings now.
As Lisa flipped open
and started to read, I did my best to pay attention. My legs and arms felt heavy, my back ached from bending over the sinks. I was so glad to be off my feet. Before I knew it, Lisa was tapping me on the head again.
“Why are you doing that?” I protested, trying to pretend I’d been awake the whole time.
“I thought we were reading this to improve our minds,” Lisa said. “How can we do that when you’re asleep?”