Chinaman’s Chance

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I am on a steamboat, eating some dried orange peel and whatever will keep during this exodus back to the vineyards and pear orchards. I’ve brought some seeds of the Japanese persimmon, it doesn’t give you cottonmouth. The Lewellings will be pleased. I wrote a letter to Master Seth two months ago, telling him I have found some South Sea pearls his lady wanted. Before I had left Oregon, the cherries and grapes had been producing magnificently in the orchards. Master Seth had instructed me to do a graft of the Black Republican cherry and produce something hardier, milder and easier to harvest.

My three sons in China, they are all grown up–they still honor me deeply even though I have left them for thirty-five years. They are tall and strong, and I tell them to become scholars, to make me proud. They have studied English while I have been away, and practise fervently with me, to warm my heart. I am a grandfather now and they tell me I no longer have to send money back to the village. In fact, they are going to build a beautiful house for me to prepare for my old age, should I desire to return to live in the Pearl River Delta. They are such good children, I do not deserve them.

I tell them about America, the Lewellings, about my second wife and two daughters–they have their mother’s dark blond hair and my light brown Manchurian eyes. I recant the stories of the work I do as foreman of the estate in Oregon. I tell them China is no longer my home, I am a torn man, one who escaped the conditions of China to make some income for my family, and now whose heart is firmly planted in the soil of the Americas.

Things have changed so much by 1889: Empress Ci Xi has surrendered her power to her son; the Manchu Qing Dynasty is being shaken by Tian An Men; I met some American missionaries and we discussed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and what it would do for the Chinese of America. They tell me they would try to help me re-enter but it was a chance in hell.

Neverthless, I get on the boat, only to get to port months later greeted by red-faced fist-waving shouts for the long tailed, cloven-hoofed creatures to turn around and go back to the infernal regions. I translate for everyone who is demanding to know. Some men pick up knives and shear their pigtails off, on their knees and crying to the heavens. It is mass chaos and I sit very still protecting the South Sea pearls Master Seth entrusted me to buy with his money and the persimmon seeds I know would delight him. I try to tune out the women crying, holding out their babies, asking for someone to adopt them.

After two weeks stuck on the boat, the Lewllings send word. They have been sending word to every boat, trying to find me. I hear them, but they cannot hear me.

“Ah Bing, who is Ah Bing? Of the Lewelling household. We bring news.” Everybody who understands English clamors to be me, but I step up and shout above the crowd, “Yes, I am Ah Bing, of Master Seth Lewelling’s orchards.” I proceed to name every single member of the family. The man in charge looks at me slightly charitably, highly annoyed by the people tugging at him, and extremely relieved.

“I’ve finally found you, my man.” He quickly passes me a sack, “There’s plenty of food, water, and money in there.” I silently give him the pearls and persimmon seeds. He knows what to do.

“They’ve gone to all sorts of trouble to find you and get you home, but now it’s gone far too public and I’m afraid your boat is turning home. Your wife says she misses you and your daughters have written you.” He presses crushed envelopes into my hands.

“And Master Lewelling says, he has named his cherries after you.” His young assistant gives me a sack of cherries, now printed BING CHERRIES on the outside.

I never see America again.

I die in 1942 from grief.

© Alicia Khoo

March 2013

Notes:

The Anti-Chinese Slogans of The Chinese Exclusion Act:

“The Chinese must go!”

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WE WANT NO SLAVES OR ARISTOCRATS

THE COOLIE LABOR SYSTEM LEAVES US NO ALTERNATIVE ­

STARVATION OR DISGRACE

MARK THE MAN WHO WOULD CRUSH US TO THE LEVEL OF THE MONGOLIAN SLAVE ­ WE ALL VOTE

WOMEN’S RIGHTS AND NO MORE CHINESE CHAMBERMAIDS (Daniels, 38)

Johari’s Hierarchy of Needs

You cannot be angry at being robbed of something you never knew existed.

Like time, space, and the right to exist.

Privacy. Joy. Consciousness.

The freedom to express that consciousness.

Logic. Dignity. Minimum Wage.

The bounty of the earth.

And to be able to stand on any patch of soil on this planet

without being called an illegal alien

when you actually are home.

So why are we angry?

© Alicia Khoo

In the aftermath of the Worker’s Party winning the by-election,

Singapore, January 2013.