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…”
You wouldn’t have had to leave if you had options.
Despite Deng Xiaoping’s announcements, despite his “four modernizations,” his economic reforms, and the “opening up” of China, your family finds itself in a difficult situation. Nobody’s jobs are enough. Your two older brothers—nicknamed “Mute” and “Sissy”—work backbreaking hours at a nearby construction site for what amounts to five US dollars a day. Your sisters (there are three of them) have been married off, and your youngest brother is tall but sickly: always shivering and seeing ghosts. Your father’s odd labor jobs bring in twenty dollars a month, minus the cost of lunch, and your mama tends to the fields. The pigs, the rabbits, the chickens, and all the vegetables growing like weeds in the yard are her domain.
As for you—you’re a factory worker at the pants factory, which used to be a glove factory, which used to be a plot of land where village boys came to play. For forty-eight hours a week, you earn a monthly wage of twenty-five dollars. And this isn’t an easy forty-eight hours. The factory you work in is hot, airless, dilapidated, and always noisy. Mothers without daycare options bring in their babies, and the children old enough to walk are tasked with cutting away loose threads. You watch them during lunch hours with something like envy in your eyes.
At seven, your parents hired you out as a cowboy to mind the neighbors’ bulls. It was in the mountains, and most nights you had to sleep in the pastures—sweating or shivering and always alone. You received less than a dollar a day for your troubles, but back then that was enough. Back then you could go to the store and buy noodles in a bag for pennies. If you wanted soup too, that was a dime, and if you wanted a montou—all you had to do was give the stern, fast-talking old lady a penny and a smile. Not like today, where all the family’s labor—combined—isn’t enough for the upkeep of the house. You save and you save, do math, work extra jobs, cry into the crook of your pillow.
And it’s still never enough.
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.”
“This one,” your father points to the letter I, “resembles an iron girder.”
“And that one,” your mother points at the lower- and uppercase E’s, “is utter nonsense.”
Explanations scribbled in simplified Chinese crowd the margins of the page. These are supposed to help you understand and pronounce the English letters, but your second-grade education holds you back. Your mama and father can’t help either—the former’s cataracts prevent her from seeing too well, and the latter is illiterate. He can’t even recognize his name, sometimes, and relies on Sissy to read all documents. As for him: Sissy’s only got a third-grade education, so he’s not much better than you. He does share, however, that the letter resembling an iron girder sounds like the Chinese word for love.
“I,” he says, practicing with you. “I, I, I.”
“Love, love, love,” you repeat back.
In the meantime, information about the journey ahead comes to you in snatches of village gossip. The families of people who’ve completed this journey describe trips in boats, on planes, in the backs of trucks, on horseback. A neighbor’s son had to trek through the jungles of Thailand before a cargo boat took him to New York. Another neighbor’s son got caught by border police at the Hong Kong International Airport. Yet another flew to Beijing, then South America, then Mexico, before the Snakeheads made him run across the border.
“I only have one piece of advice for you,” the family members of successful emigrants said. “Don’t get caught. Run if you have to, and be lucky. Remember also to pray to the gods…”
These are the items in your knapsack when you travel with five others across the Yunnan border:
Six pairs of underwear. Two shirts. A pair of socks, two pairs of pants. You took your boots out before leaving home, and this freed up space for a jacket and some food. Montou in plastic bags, pickles in a jar, a bowl to collect water. Your documents are wrapped inside the red cotton underwear, near the top of the knapsack, and your travel money has been woven into the legs of some polyester slacks. There are no photographs. Your family can’t afford them, and instead you keep a pouch—the kind given out by priests in temples—with soil from the village. It’s for good luck, and memories too. Just like the eggs your mama boiled for too long. You’ve eaten one already, and remember the greenish color of the yolk. The bland and chalky flavor. The other egg you’re saving for later, for when the journey becomes more difficult.
And it will, the others tell you. You’ll need all the luck you can get.
One in the morning, and you’re hiding in the woods with five others near a ditch. It’s dark and smelly and there are mosquitoes everywhere. The dark clothes you’ve worn as camouflage—your cap, knapsack, and boots—are sour with sweat-stench. You don’t notice it at this point, though, because there are more frightening things on your mind.
Like the trio of guards standing like bandits by the border. According to the Snakehead, these three will change shifts at some point in the early morning. Could be one a.m., could be two a.m., could be three.
“You’ll notice when it happens,” the Snakehead says, “and when it does, I’ll give a signal.”
You examine the guards, search their bodies for weapons. Your gaze is tongue-like as you eliminate the possibility of guns, rifles, and swords. Not batons though—a length of metal sits in the crook of one of the border guards’ arms. Like the others, he’s nothing but a pair of fists. The kind that’ll knock you dead if you’re not careful. Your father’s talked about men like this before. His brother, the Second Uncle you never met, was killed by one during the famine years. “All over some oil and a bag of flour the size of my palm,” your father said. This was the night before you left, before your mama helped you pack, and he spread open his hand to demonstrate. All you saw, though, were the scars on his fingers.
“Are you ready,” the Snakehead says.
“What,” you ask. You raise your head and see movement at the border, movement you can’t register because all of a sudden, the Snakehead points his finger and yells, “Go!”
There’s no time for regrets or memories or second thoughts. Not when they’re chasing after you: two men brandishing batons and a third with his pistol pointed skyward. You hear gunshots and escape like a rat in the fields. Even when your chest starts to ache, and your legs begin to burn, there’s nothing to do but run. You run until you feel like you can’t anymore. You run until you’re a bullet flying through the air. At that point you turn toward the five others around you, see nothing but breathless bodies and panting faces. It’s a strange sight: six men in black clothes flying through the darkness, across a border you one day will realize is full of Snakehead plants. The night shift border guards have all been bribed—the chasing, shouting, and shooting is just for appearances. Same with the eventual capture of the youngest in your group, a village boy with rotting teeth and a crooked smile. You watch them push him down, you watch him get kicked. But it’s okay, the Snakehead says. The youngster was paid to be a scapegoat.
There are none. Now that you’re out of China, there’s nothing to do but press forward.
At night, you and the others talk about home. About cooking and your families and the people you’ve left behind. This man’s parents are farmers. That man’s mother sells fish balls at the wet market. Yet another man has a sister who sings better than any celebrity on the radio. She’s a laborer, he says, and can’t decide between Christianity and Buddhism. On wedding days, banquets, and funerals, people from his village hire her to sing songs about love. The man describes a youthful face that’s piggish and a little ugly. He talks about how she puts make-up on eyes that resist it, and how she forces her too-short hair into rollers. He laughs while speaking, but when you glance at him—through the darkness of a Snakehead-run hostel in Thailand—you notice tears in his eyes.
There are tears in other men’s eyes too. They listen and fight back sobs and wait until it’s their turn to speak, their turn to add to this tapestry of a life that’s no longer theirs. In the eyes of the state, they (and you) are criminals now. Illegal, because what country cares about the who, what, when, where, and why’s of men on the run? If—and may the gods forbid it—you get caught, the first place you’ll go is prison. The first thing the police will do is bruise your face with bored fists and search your body for drugs. This last part is no exaggeration—it happened to a man from your village, a laborer with the surname Bo.
He told you about his experiences before you left, and tried to warn you about the hardest parts. The running, the hunger, the sleeplessness, the fear. He was caught in Hong Kong, sentenced to six months in prison, and returned to the mainland with money hidden in his ass. “That’s the only way to hide it from Chinese border officials,” Bo said, and he taught you how to do it with a plastic bag and your own spit as lube. You listened to him then, and thought you understood emigration as a journey defined by physical exertion. Can I run fast enough, can I survive long enough on an empty stomach.
But what’s really most difficult, you discover, is the homesickness.
Every night, before the US-bound cargo boat arrives, you close your eyes and remember an image from the past. Sometimes it’s mundane: the itch of a mosquito net brushing against your foot, the shadows of small black fish in a pond. You remember the day your mama put too much sugar in her tomato-and-eggs, and the day your father showed you how to catch tadpoles in a water bottle. You aren’t close to him—you never were—but when you look in the hostel’s bathroom mirror, you see him in your face. An old man with monolids, a thick nose, and sun-dried cheeks.
The boat is small, smaller than you expect. Upon entering, the Snakeheads lead you like pigs to the hold, where you and thirty-seven other emigrants remain for a month. It’s dark and airless down here. Moldy too, and crowded with the stench of sweat and ocean foam and, after a while, excrement. There are no beds. No sinks either, or toilets, and the only light source comes from a few dangling light bulbs. Some are broken and some will get broken as you creep around in the darkness, searching for buckets to shit-piss-vomit in. There are six buckets and many of you, and some nights you panic from thinking about the men laying like ghosts around your body.
Are they dead? Some smell like it.
Are they dying? They mutter when you poke or speak to them, and continue to lap up the food served by the Snakeheads: dried montou and grains cooked into gruel. The seasoning is always pickles, because it keeps for longer and doesn’t mess with your bowels, and the water you’re given always has a tinny taste—like licking a penny. Twice a day you’re given your meals, and twice a day you’re rejected when you ask for a trip to the deck. Not just for bathing (you hear there’s a working sink and toilet up there) and exercise, but because you want to see light. You want to feel wind on your arms and stare at something besides darkness and the lying forms of seasick men. Air has a taste, you realize, and you miss it, dream of it.
But the Snakeheads often tell you no.
They’re paranoid, the sons-of-bitches, and don’t want to draw attention to this boat carrying illegal cargo. A crowd of men on the deck would garner suspicion, though sometimes they let one or two of you up there—pinching their noses the entire time.
You remember bathing with seawater and watching the scum fall off your body like candle wax. You remember thirst and an open sea, and wondering how much weight you’ve lost. You remember seeing flying fish and imagining the taste of them—grilled, pan-fried, steamed. Then, when you’re forced back into the hold, you remember wondering if your mama knew that such creatures exist. Your father, your brothers, your sisters. Unable to shake off the thought of them, you cling to your knapsack, to your little bag of village soil. Aside from that and your clothes (which you’ve taken out to use as a pillow), nothing remains. Your water bottle was lost at the Yunnan border, your boots were tearing in Thailand and you threw them away. And even the dirt is leaking from the little bag. Your frequent handling of it with uncut nails has created puncture wounds on the thin, transparent plastic.
Not that you mind, though. A faint, earthy scent is emitted from the leaking dirt, and this distracts you from the itch that consumes your body like burning.
It’s the seawater. You bathed too rigorously with it, and now your body is covered in sores.
Years later, you describe your journey to your son in a cramped basement apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. It’s ten pm, close to eleven, and you’re hitting your left arm with a rolling pin dipped in ointment. Village doctors say this is good for arthritis, and you strike the afflicted area until your hand loosens, becomes limber. Bruises flower along your wrist but you hit and continue hitting. Even when the tears come, when you have to breathe deeply, you hit and hit and hit.
“Does it hurt?” your son asks, wincing.
“Like pressure on a broken bone,” you say.
But pain’s how you know it works. You’ve lived your life this way for sixty years (sixty-four, according to your American documents), and you watched your father, mama, brothers, and friends live this way too. There used to be a saying in your village, a rhyming ditty that translates to if you’re hungry then you’re still alive. Your father, who lost everything but his home during the famine, said this when you complained about food as a child. He told you about how the “truly starving” people—the ones closest to death—felt fullness in their bellies before leaving the earth. Similarly, the laborers who don’t feel any pain in their hands are the first to stop working. You’ve seen it happen. One minute a man fries rice in a wok, the next, he drops everything—all while his eyes carry on as though nothing has happened.
“There were two kinds of emigrants on the cargo boat to America,” you tell your son. “First, there were the complainers. People like me, who cried and missed home and made a fuss the entire way. And then”—you stop hitting your arm to hold two fingers up—“there were the people who became silent. Who fell into a depression and stopped talking, stopped eating. They soiled themselves like old men and when you spoke to them it was like to a wall.”
“What happened to them?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t keep in touch with anybody. But I saw that some of the men had to be dragged off the boat. And I heard that one man lost his mind.”
Your son jots this detail in a notebook while you continue hitting your arm.
The boat ride was long and arduous: four, close to five weeks on rough seas to get from Thailand to New York. You lost eighteen pounds along the way and looked like a prisoner to the relatives who greeted, housed, and fed you. These were all cousins to your mama, and—living with them—you searched for an image of the China you left behind. A memory, perhaps, or a snatch of village dialect. Afterwards: a likeness that might’ve conjured up an image of Sissy, Mute, Big or Eldest Sister, anyone. You stared at people’s eyes, at the fold of skin under an uncle’s chin. You compared expressions with the expressions in your memory and cried at night when you realized you couldn’t remember your parents’ faces. Despite what your papers said, despite the amount of cutting-folding-cooking you had to do at the restaurant, you were still only twenty-years-old. You were still a boy who stared in the mirror to remember his father’s face.
“Do you regret emigrating?” your son asks.
“What was the other option? I would’ve worked myself to death in the village. And besides,” you inspect the bruises on your hand, open and close it, “that first paycheck made up for everything. It was more than I would’ve made in a year in the old country. Two years! And after a while, you get used to restaurant work. You get used to the kitchen and the wok and you have to remember that factory labor is much worse than this. Much, much worse…”
Looking down, you see that your wrist is bulging, the color of a violet in bloom.
Jiaming Tang is the son of immigrants. His work appears or is forthcoming in: AGNI, Joyland, Lit Hub, Salt Hill, and Epiphany Lit Mag. He was runner-up in Cosmonauts Avenue’s 2019 Fiction Contest, and is currently at work on a novel about gay men in rural China.