Styled after old JRPGs, Jiaming Tang’s “Fight, Bag, Option, Run” is an essay following the author’s father’s immigration to the United States from China. Follow along, guided by the Snakeheads through the woods, carrying only your knapsnack.
The people named Snakehead tell you there’s a way out of this country. All you have to do is give them a down payment, an IOU, and (most difficult of all) wait. The rest will be taken care of by the Snakeheads—slowly. As the weeks go by, bits and pieces of information come in. Documents (all of them impressively real) show up in envelopes at your doorstep, as do home-bound booklets of easy English. You stare at these with your family, giggling at the symbols like chicken-scratch on the page. Your eldest brother, Sissy, starts a game where he compares the alphabet to common objects around the village. “J looks like a fish hook,” he says, “and Y looks like a tree.”
- Fight, Bag,
You pack with your mama while your father pretends to sleep. He’s nervous—just as nervous as you—and his anxiety manifests as thumping footsteps in your home’s only bedroom. You hear him while shoving all twenty years of your life into a knapsack. There’s the shirt you bought with your first factory paycheck. The pants that match the shirt. A pair of socks, cheap rubber boots, six pairs of underwear. Meanwhile your mama hovers around in the darkness, insisting that everything you’ve done is wrong. She wants to stuff your travel money in the toe cap of the boots. Your rolled-up socks will go in after that, up to the boot shins, and your underwear can follow soon thereafter. “You’ll have more space this way,” she tells you, and proceeds to show how best to hide your papers.
They’re not real papers. The face on the passport isn’t yours, neither is the birth date or the nationality or even the name. Your parents named you Chun Lin—meaning “Spring Forest”—but the name on these papers translates to “Hidden Forest.” It’s just as well though, your mama says. Your new name will keep you safe by hiding you from police and border guards, not to mention jealous spirits. And by the time you make it to America, to that unthinkable land where ten dollars can easily transform into twenty, you’ll have adjusted to your new name. It’s better, anyway, than your two village nicknames: Stupid Chun (given by elders because you failed the second grade two times) and One-Meter-Fifty-Five (because of your height).
Compared to those, “Hidden Forest” isn’t bad at all. Plus, your new birth date—four years earlier, in August instead of February—makes you feel mature. Brave and adventurous and not like a kid at all.
“I think that’s everything,” you tell your mama. The knapsack is stuffed and bulging a little.
“No, no, no. You forgot your food. Your buns and your pickles and your two boiled eggs for good luck…”