I’m thinking of Cheng right now. He was a skinny, small kid with huge black glasses who always wore a plaid shirt and big tie shoes, a student of mine long ago when I first moved to Minneapolis and took a job teaching Mandarin at a big urban high school. Cheng sat in the front of the class. His voice cracked frequently. He was full of a nervous energy and he had a nervous laugh to go with it. He had one friend, a near-silent boy with dark, dark eyes. Cheng’s parents had a tiny Asian restaurant and they worked nearly around the clock in it. Cheng’s time outside school was spent on homework and washing dishes at the restaurant.
Chinese was an elective, meaning that no one was forced to take it, which translated into a classroom full of students from all walks of life. Some were focused on futures which included college, others on vocational schools, others on high school graduation.
Many were first-generation immigrant students who, as a result of the Secret War in southeast Asia (which preceded the official Vietnam war), had grown up in refugee camps in Thailand. Their families were originally from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia. Most of them spoke English with a strong accent and unconventional grammar, and they studied Chinese because it was an Asian language, closer to their own than German or French or Spanish.
At parent-teacher conferences, if the parents of my immigrant students came, their children came with them to translate. Many of their parents, who had lived powerful lives in their native countries and had been forced to flee because of direct threats to their lives, were either unable to find work in this country or worked intensely hard shifts at minimum wage, barely able to support their families. My students constantly navigated a delicate balance between dutiful child and not-quite-adult interpreter of all things American for their parents.
I used to have a potluck party at my house every June, to celebrate the end of the year. We set up badminton on my tiny city front lawn and set out food on the dining table inside. All my students were invited.
Cheng was more nervous than usual in the weeks preceding the party.
“When is it?” he would ask. “Where is your house again? What should I bring? What time does it start? Is everyone invited?”
On the day of the party, I was outside welcoming students and directing them where to put their potluck offerings. A big, old, rattly car pulled up to the curb. It was stuffed full of adults and children, Cheng among them. They all poked their heads out the window, chattering in a language I couldn’t understand. Cheng emerged, clutching a big brown take-out bag. He ran up the walk toward me, then turned around and ran back to the car, which was belching exhaust at the curb. The people inside urged him on and he came back to where I was waiting on the steps.
“Mai Laoshi (my teacher name), here you go!”
He pushed the heavy bag into my hands and crouched down to untie those big lace shoes. He placed them carefully on the steps (it’s customary in Asia to remove your shoes before entering a home) and made his way into the house.
I looked in the bag. Six heavy take-out containers full of stir-fried shrimp. No rice, just shrimp. Jumbo prawns. I knew that all that shrimp had come from his family’s restaurant. How much had it cost them? I looked down the walk at that big family car, still lingering at the curb, dark heads still poking out the window, watching me. I smiled and waved, and so did they. Eventually they pulled away from the curb, still looking back at me. Cheng’s mother put her hands together and bowed her head.
When I went into the house, Cheng was leaning up against the kitchen counter. He looked so unsure of himself. His plaid shirt was tucked into his black pants. His sock-clad feet looked even bigger than usual.
“Cheng, stir-fried prawns are my favorite dish,” I said. “Thank you so much for bringing all these shrimp.”
He looked up. He was about to cry.
“Mai Laoshi,” he said. “This is my first party. I don’t know what to do.”
* * *
My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.
Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable?
There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?
At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.