I met Qiuhai on a fall day in a harbor city—a manner fitting for her name, although I wouldn’t have said this out loud. Names were flexible and wishful like that. You could create a beautiful memory out of any name. For Qiuhai, I chose to preserve where we met and the conditions of it: how our small classroom was framed by a specific time in the year and, further away where we couldn’t notice it, the sea.
I see her looking up from her textbook first, cropped gray hair pushed away from the face. Then Zhengjie sits in the desk at her right side, smiling easily and arched toward the book where the answers are, his smile moving back and forth between the other two of us in the room. I knew them together only—one unit.
“Teacher, we are very happy to meet you at this time,” Qiuhai said in a low voice after I introduced myself in misshapen, childlike Mandarin Chinese and closed the classroom door on the first day. Her husband glanced at the window beside it to make sure no one else walked down the hall. “We’ve already been called for the test.” Her mouth was a short frown, and she pushed both sides of her hair away, two hands in the same quick gesture.
“Cit-zenship interview,” she sounded out in English.
Zhengjie wheeled his desk closer to mine. “Our friends”—he gestured with both hands toward the hallway—“told us it would take seven or eight months for the officials to send out the appointment notice. For those months we planned on coming here to prepare. But two months after we turned in the N-400, we already got the government notice. Her test,” he said, and at this point he whispered, palms upward on the table, “is at the end of October.” He glanced in her direction. “Then I’ll go two weeks after.”
“Teacher, you will help us, correct? We only have five weeks together.” Qiuhai’s hands were pressed together earnestly, one tangled in the other’s fingers.
I was a freshman in college teaching at a local community center in Chinatown for the first time. Immigrants, mostly elderly, came to learn English and prepare and practice for their naturalization exams. I wasn’t the only college student helping out: small groups of undergrads came from different schools around the area. We volunteered under an organization staffed by people who’d grown up in Chinatown, but most of us didn’t have connections to the neighborhood ourselves. Our parents were from the generations that had immigrated on student visas in the 80s and 90s, recently enough to be disconnected from the misfortunes of history.
Qiuhai was still watching, both hands clasped in her lap. I said that of course I’d help her, and I made the promise to myself too—if there was one thing I could do to remediate for any of my past lives, I would start here with this woman who was older than my own grandmother but scared and, for all I knew, kinder. “We’ll do the best we can.”
She smiled, and even her smile had the slightest shape of a frown. Then we ran through the citizenship exam for the first time. She struggled with English and made no effort to hide it, apologizing and pushing her hair out of her face. If she couldn’t understand the question I asked, she repeated it to herself under her breath with her mouth twisted slightly down, sounding out the same words, narrowing in on a segment or phrase, while staring a bit past my eyes. Sometimes the answer came out like that. Other times, she couldn’t hear the question I asked, and recited the answer to the one she thought she’d heard.
Zhengjie listened to the questions alongside her. When Qiuhai repeated questions to herself, I sometimes glanced his way—he looked up toward the ceiling to remember an answer and then checked the textbook with a smile. When he was confused, he put his hand against his head to think, flattening a patch of white hair.
“What is your spounse’s name,” he whispered slowly to Qiuhai when we reached the marriage section of the N-400, pointing his thumb at himself. “My name.”
Qiuhai nodded. “My spounse’s name is Zhengjie Wang.” Then she flipped her hand at him to stop. He looked my way and laughed, shrugging his arms. He had a genuinely happy smile, and when he laughed, his entire demeanor would shift from solemnity to warmth. What to do? he seemed to say. He needed to practice also. I was already getting nervous at this time. I imagined Qiuhai repeating the immigration officer’s questions to herself, her head moving in a faint rhythm as she waited for the words finally to connect.
At the end of class, Qiuhai and Zhengjie got up to put on their jackets and backpacks. “Look for us next time, we’ll look for you too,” they said, standing up together with backs straight. Zhengjie’s hands were in his pant pockets and it crossed my mind that this elderly man in two sweaters and slightly large pants had the easy, straight stance of an athlete. “Don’t take another student, wait until you see us. We’ll be here every week.”
“I like you very much,” Qiuhai said before she walked into the hall where her friends and other students had already come out of their respective classrooms.
I was not a very good tutor in those days. I didn’t know much about the naturalization test, truth be told. I didn’t know, for example, about the check-in procedure for the interview when you arrived at the government building, or how the real exam was structured. Why the immigration officer would ask you to promise not to lie, and when. Instead, I went through the thin, paperbound textbook that all students and volunteers received and used it to decide what to cover. U.S. history, reading, and the sentence dictation—Qiuhai was all set on those sections of the test. What she struggled with was understanding English for long stretches of time, being asked a question when she wasn’t expecting it, and sometimes even when she was.
I emailed tips and practice videos to Qiuhai and Zhengjie once per week. If Qiuhai practiced enough, maybe the questions would stick and the right answers would be there when asked for, and then she would become a citizen.
On Saturdays, the other college students and I mainly made the trip from campus in silence. We got off a subway and then walked a few blocks until we reached the building where oftentimes students would already be inside and eating lunch. In that building, the hallway garbage cans were lined with small spoons of leftover food from students’ lunches, the smell sometimes strong, pungent. It was one of the only things that made me miss being home. One of the volunteers tried to encourage community between us in the beginning, but I was too silent. Caught up in worry about my students’ tests, the fantasy that they would both pass. How proud and relieved I would be. I wanted that relief.
A few days after my first class with Qiuhai and Zhengjie, I called home. For the past week, my parents had wanted to know how I was liking college life. Classes were fine, my roommate was sweet, and the friends I was making, studious and sincere, were mostly more than fine—I told them. Life was typical. My parents wanted to hear it.
While my dad was in the bathroom, I asked my mom if she could help with a translation. She was more reliable when it came to Chinese anyway.
The line was silent for a moment, and then she asked who I was learning for. “You’re not taking a class,” she said. “Are you?”
I gave a run-down of the citizenship program and explained how I wanted to email extra help.
“Oh sure,” she said. “You can practice your speaking.”
My dad rejoined and we talked a while longer. My parents talked about the weather, which would change soon. How, on an autumn day, surely it would be beautiful to walk out to the harbor and think about all the history that had unfolded there. They liked the romance. They said they’d missed me since I’d left, but more than fondness, what I felt in this moment was an impatience to get away and rejoin the world. I pulled loose strings off my sweater.
“Mom, Dad, I have to do homework now,” I finally said.
“Okay, you go.”
“We’ll be here if you need us,” my dad added.
I wondered what my parents would think about my teaching, for I’d never been patient with them. Sometimes, when we were together in public, I’d wanted other people to know I understood more than they did. Once, as I stood sullen and unrepentant after chastising them under my breath in the grocery store, they asked what awful thing they had done to embarrass me so much. Of course I had no answer.
In that moment I decided to translate future emails alone. I guess I didn’t want my mom to wonder why this newfound patience had only rarely been afforded her.
The second or third week of class, Qiuhai and Zhengjie wore windbreakers and each carried an umbrella. In the classroom they shook water from their umbrellas onto the carpet and tied the collapsed metal arms back up.
“Did you have to walk far from the bus stop?” I had learned, from reviewing their N-400 forms, that they lived a good distance away. Not in Chinatown, but Quincy, in an apartment building where many elderly people lived. Their situation was not dissimilar from that of my grandparents on my dad’s side, who also lived in a senior apartment outside a large city. Perhaps, if my grandparents only lived closer to their city, they would’ve taken its train around and gone to weekly classes under their own volunteer teacher, leading a life that ran parallel to mine. Maybe their life did move that way—I couldn’t know.
“Not far,” Zhengjie said. “Just a few blocks.”
“I got here by bus,” Qiuhai said in English with a smile, recalling the question we often practiced at the start of each class.
During the ten-minute break in the middle of class, I found a program supervisor and asked why our students lived so far away.
“Everyone wants to live in Chinatown,” she said. “The waiting lists for all the subsidized apartments have been closed for a very long time. Some immigrants have been waiting for over a decade for a spot to open up. There’s just not enough space.”
“Times are changing I guess.”
“They have never stayed the same,” she said. She looked at me for a moment before turning to the other volunteer who had asked a more relevant question.
In the classroom, Qiuhai brushed her hair back while we waited for Zhengjie to return from the bathroom. I noticed she positioned everything in relation to her center: pulled sweater zippers up or the flaps of her cardigan to cross before her chest, crossed her hands over her lap if she could, and tucked her hair away on both sides.
“What is your height?” I asked Qiuhai when we were settled down again. Zhengjie was back on her right side with the thin textbook folded over its spine, the margins lined with pencil that had been written over with blue and black pen.
Qiuhai stared at me. “Please repeat,” she said after a moment.
I repeated the question, enunciating, but she still didn’t respond.
“How tall are you?”
“Fifteen foot,” she said at last.
Zhengjie met my eye and smiled widely before turning to his wife. “Five foot,” he said while nudging her arm. “You said fifteen, but it’s five.” Usually, after Zhengjie corrected her, Qiuhai chuckled over her mistake before repeating the correct answer a few times. But today she turned toward him and hit her palm against the desk.
“Don’t help me,” she said. Then she turned back around. “Teacher—this is what happens at home. You said I haven’t been improving, didn’t you? You did. This is why. I’ll read the book to myself, and he’ll tell me what I’m doing is wrong. Then I can just feel him right there, in the same room that I am.” She shook her head and pressed her hands down the closed textbook that was on her desk. “He makes me so angry that all I see is darkness. I won’t be able to study for many days, because I’ll get too upset if I try to. Can you imagine trying to learn like that?”
Zhengjie was shaking his head and smiling his full smile that never ceased to look happy. “She doesn’t mean that,” he said while pulling on her arm. “I only try to help.” He shook his head toward her and switched to a quieter tone. “It’s not to share.”
At the end of class, they gave me two Cadbury Creme eggs. Qiuhai held her palm over mine until I promised I would not tell the other tutors about them.
I unwrapped one on the subway ride after class and ate it, and the cream center was sweet and wet, the chocolate not at all stale. Not what I’d expected for candy they might’ve had since late March.
I didn’t hide my volunteer work from anyone, although I told only one person about Qiuhai and Zhengjie at the time. He was two years older than me and I wanted his approval. He wanted to know if they would become citizens.
“But their lives won’t change if they don’t,” he said in an even tone. “They don’t need citizenship to support a family. Their kids can help with money, so it doesn’t mean much.” He shrugged. “And if they aren’t doing the work to prepare for their test, when it’s important, you don’t need to try so hard to help them either.”
I wanted to tell him he was wrong, he didn’t have a clue. I wanted to say many things. But I didn’t. He asked the question again.
I couldn’t say for sure whether or not they would pass at the time that he asked, although my suspicions later turned out to be correct. A few weeks later, when the semester ended, I was able to say how things turned out: Qiuhai didn’t pass her exam and would never try again. Zhengjie became a citizen during his naturalization oath ceremony, less than a month after Qiuhai failed.
But at that point it wasn’t obvious yet what would happen. It was only the outline of a shape we hoped to avoid.
“I’m so nervous that I can’t sleep,” Qiuhai said the fourth week of class, the second-to-last opportunity we had together to practice. She pointed to her husband. “He knows. He can confirm that I haven’t been able to sleep for many days. It’s like there is something reminding me of the test every day. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
“Please don’t worry,” I told her. She had light indents of skin beneath her eyes but I couldn’t tell if they were new. She had never looked particularly happy in all this time. Her husband peered at me from his desk with his hands folded and head cocked. “It’s no problem,” I continued, but when I reached for more to say I realized I didn’t have the language for anything else. “It’s no problem, really no problem, please don’t worry,” I repeated in the same stilted Chinese. I made large gestures with my hands to substitute for the sincerity I could not express.
She laughed, and her short hair slipped in front of her face. “Do you know what I worry about the most? I’m worried that the officer will say something too fast or too weirdly and I won’t understand it. Or suddenly the word won’t make sense. Then I’ll panic, and then I really won’t be able to think straight, I’ll forget everything, even the things I did practice. The end. That’s the end.”
I said it would not be the end, because she could ask for a repeat of the question, or even to stop for a break before continuing the test. It was okay to get things wrong, even to stop, as long as you continued after.
She shook her head still more vigorously, and beat her clasped fists in sync against her chest. “My heart is speeding up just thinking about it. You don’t understand how it is for old people. We can’t just keep going like you college students. We mess up and our minds get scrambled. It happens when you get old.” Zhengjie nodded beside her, watching without a smile.
“How could you like teaching bad students?” she added in low voice later that day. “You know,” she said, brushing her hair behind her ear, “when we told our son we needed help with some information to fill out this form, he didn’t understand why we’d bother taking the test. He said it’s a waste of time to learn all of this. But it’s helpful. Even if we don’t pass, we want to be able to talk with the other people in our apartment. But now my son will say he was right. He didn’t even help us with our forms. He didn’t have the time. He’s too busy with work, and then he says he doesn’t understand why we do things.”
I could remember Qiuhai telling me how soon their tests were with a half-worried, half-hopeful look on her face—that first day—and all of a sudden it was here.
The last week of class before Qiuhai’s test went smoothly and quietly. We went through the test the way I thought it would happen. Then, after Qiuhai stumbled over a few questions, we switched back to the textbook so that she could read answers out loud and practice getting everything right. Zhengjie continued listening to my questions with his textbook placed in front of him, closed.
I wished Qiuhai the best of luck, and she thanked me over and over before she left. “It will not matter if I pass or don’t pass,” she said. “It’s good enough to be in America already. Like you said.” But earlier she’d told me how nervous she was and how much she wished to pass.
I didn’t hear from them all week. When I walked into the building that Saturday, Zhengjie rushed me into the classroom where Qiuhai had already settled into a desk and was waiting. He closed the door and gestured for us to whisper. Qiuhai got up and joined us in standing, each of us a little hunched as if waiting for something.
She told me how that the officer was a very large man, so large that she was nervous before the interview even started. No—she was nervous before the interview even started because she and Zhengjie had gotten to the building early, as told, but then the workers at the counter never called Qiuhai’s name. Other people came and were called, and walked in through the interview doors and then out again, but still Qiuhai wasn’t called. Only after she and Zhengjie went up to the counter did she get assigned an officer – this large, serious man who hadn’t even smiled or made small talk before he started hurrying through with form verification questions.
Qiuhai’s voice got louder before me. After she stumbled through but passed the U.S. history, reading, and writing sections, the officer told her to raise her right hand. He repeated it a few more times, and when she didn’t respond, he told her to leave. Not until she left the room did the words finally connect.
Zhengjie brought up a folded sheet of paper from his backpack and opened it for me quickly. It said they would contact her in a few weeks for her second interview attempt.
“It’s nothing. Don’t look at it. Don’t worry,” she said as they closed the paper up.
“We’ll practice again after your husband’s test,” I told Qiuhai, but after that her view of the test changed.
When Zhengjie struggled with a question that day, Qiuhai scoffed and corrected him.
“Even I know this,” she said. She laughed loudly and pointed at her textbook several times, the perpetual frown hanging even in her mirth. “You don’t know the answer? Even someone as dumb as me knows.”
I thought about Qiuhai’s test for many days after. In classes, at lunch, in the library with friends, I imagined her staying up late repeating the same phrase in her head—“I will never forget that sentence now,” she had told me—growing angry and sad, sleepless in that inexpressible misery. She’d come so close. But it was the natural outcome, I reminded myself. We had all seen it coming. Yet I couldn’t remember if I had told Qiuhai to check in with the front counter after she entered the building. I thought I’d said to arrive early and check in, but I couldn’t be sure.
Zhengjie passed his test. He called me during the week with Qiuhai on the line—the first and only time we talked on the phone—and thanked me over and over while I stood in a dorm hallway, outside a room where other people carried on with whatever they were doing.
“Congratulations, congratulations,” I wanted to tell him as he thanked me again for teaching him a phrase that turned out to be very important during the test. But all I could say in Chinese was “that’s very good, too good, really too good.” Qiuhai came up to the phone to wish me well and send thanks—there was no trace of bitterness in her voice.
I saw Qiuhai and Zhengjie once more after that—the last day of class. It was mid-November then. Nights fell fast, were cold and long. Classes that day started later than usual and ended with a light potluck dinner. Students brought food that they had cooked from home. Some had carried their dishes from their apartments almost an hour away—dumplings, tofu, fried noodles, soup noodles, marinated eggs, chicken cooked with tea leaves. They set the platters down with soft, veined hands, and then found friends to chat with happily.
Qiuhai and Zhengjie found me talking to another volunteer and brought me to their side.
Qiuhai gestured at my arms. “It’s getting cold, teacher,” she said. “Are you keeping warm?”
“My jacket is over there. It’s very warm.”
“And your pants? Do you wear two layers?”
I laughed. “I don’t.”
“Starting now you need to wear two layers of pants to keep warm,” she insisted. “He does it too—he’s seventy-four, and his knees have never hurt. Not even in the winter.”
Zhengjie nodded. “Americans get their knees replaced. Some of the other people in our apartment have knees in great pain. It shouldn’t happen as long as you protect them.” Zhengjie bent forward a bit and patted his knees. When he straightened back up, his sweater shifted. I noticed the top of his pants were unzipped, then, but the top button kept them fastened tightly in place. If you were a person looking for something, anything behind that zipper, you wouldn’t have seen a thing.
“I’ve always wanted to learn to play the erhu,” Qiuhai said quietly to me after Zhengjie walked a few feet to talk to someone else. “When I was young, I always, always wanted to learn how to play it, but of course we didn’t have money to buy one.” Her hands were clasped together and she bumped them against her collarbone a few times before untangling. “I got an erhu a year ago and a music book. I didn’t have time to practice. Maybe now I can practice it—there’s the bright side of being done.”
“You should. I would love to hear you play someday.”
She shook her head and laughed. “I like the sound very much.”
Just then a man in a windbreaker and a plain, worn cap appeared. He nudged Zhengjie in the arm and spoke in a slow voice. “What are you still doing here?” He chuckled. “I heard that you passed your exam. You shouldn’t take a teacher to yourself. The rest of us need help for our tests still.”
Zhengjie laughed and opened his mouth, but Qiuhai cut in first.
“You think I could pass?” she said fiercely. “With my level, my intelligence—I didn’t have a chance with the test. I still need help. He’s only here with me.”
Earlier that day Qiuhai and I had practiced again in anticipation of her second test attempt, but I knew her heart wasn’t in it. She’d told me that she couldn’t go through the fear and humiliation again, trying to force out so many foreign words in front of a bored stranger who thought she was stupid. The words had drained her. I couldn’t calm her down for a while even with Zhengjie’s help.
I stayed late with the other tutors to clean up cups, plates, and leftover dessert. We emptied the overflowing trash cans into even larger bags. We felt both sad and happy—surely something in our lives had changed over the past few weeks. Surely we understood more about our families and backgrounds, maybe with a greater sense of purpose and gratitude. But all I could think about was Qiuhai learning to read music on her own, trying to recreate the sounds she loved. And when I thought about Qiuhai and Zhengjie both, walking back to the bus in their two pairs of pants each—I remembered the pajama pants my parents and grandparents had all picked out for me when I was young: the prettiest patterns, polka dots and cartoon dogs in colorful clothes, so that I could wear them as an inside layer under sweats or jeans.
The storefront next to our building had also been busy for some reason that afternoon, and, not so inexplicably, by the time our volunteers took out the trash, several large black trash bags were already outside our building at the bottom of the entrance steps. We added two more trash bags to the pile, their red elastic closures pulled tight.
Although I wasn’t the last to leave the building, the street and night were already dark. Soft wind skipped through the area of the city. I was looking at the street ahead and not looking down the steps, but then at the bottom I saw movement.
A woman in a red cap crouched beside the large black trash bags, cowering on the steps. In that angle of streetlight she was all shadow. Her fingers shook in front of her face. I was on my way down the steps already and couldn’t stop, especially now that I was in her view. I stepped forward boldly and stared at her in case she needed help.
But the woman was only another trash bag with the top elastic undone, its red mouth fluttering. And I didn’t exchange words with anyone else until after I made the trip back to campus.
When I went home after that semester for the winter, I saw my family again. My grandparents were staying with us in the house where, for the first time, my parents had lived a few months alone. My dad picked up my grandparents from their senior apartment, which was really only an hour way from our house. They were already inside when I got back. I removed my shoes in front of our garage door, dragging a suitcase behind me, and for a moment I wanted to laugh because the bright, clean house almost felt like a stranger’s embrace. But of course I quickly got used to everything again.
“Have you eaten enough?” my grandparents asked. Then my grandmother tried to feed both my dad and me. She whisked up dishes and begged us to try them and eat more against my dad’s increasingly agitated complaints.
“Please, we can decide for ourselves what we want to eat.” He moved his bowl out of her arm’s reach when she tried to add another spoonful of food into it.
It was hard for me to talk to my grandparents. When I was smaller, they’d tried their best to please me. I had compressed memories of those years now. They made me toys out of household materials and cooked the dishes that I liked. When I got older I didn’t understand how they could still direct so much affection in my direction when there was so much they didn’t know. And I recognized new discontents, too: their frenzied murmurs and the way my grandmother’s sighs punctuated both conversation and silence. Her sighs cut through any noise. The house was always tense when they were around. My dad’s temper rose quickly.
“There’s a lot you don’t know,” he said when I once questioned the necessity of an argument. “You don’t know the past.”
That winter, a few days after the New Year, I received an email from Qiuhai and Zhengjie. The email was sent to the same thread which contained all their questions about the test; all the advice and resources I’d sent them while they were practicing for their exams. Of course, Zhengjie was already an official citizen by then.
We are grateful we got to learn from you, the email read. We only knew you for a short while, but we will cherish those memories. The world is bright, our home country is rising, and the world belongs to the young generation.
I felt very happy. I replied to them after translating what I wanted to say, and in the weeks after I read their email over and over again when the memory of it crossed my mind. Then, I told myself that I would wish them well the next year.
The following year, I meant to remember my promise right on time for the New Year. But whenever the thought appeared in my mind, I didn’t want to mess up. I couldn’t summon the energy to write something. Finally, in the middle-end of January I sent them an email, wishing the best and health and happiness. Perhaps I wanted assurance that they were well, for they never returned to classes and I never saw them in Chinatown again either. I was hopeful for a short while that they would write back, but they never replied.
Time has moved on since those years. I stayed in the same city after graduation and volunteered with the same organization I’d taught at throughout college. Then I joined similar organizations in the different cities I later moved to. I’ve had many students over the years. However kind or jealous, talkative or suspicious they were, all of them deserved the world. I worked with a woman who immigrated decades after she saw her mother’s U.S. passport as a child, a man who was one of the most prepared students I’d ever had but somehow didn’t pass his citizenship exam.
My first year out of college, a woman flew into a loud, half-hour story about how she’d never gone to school, she’d never learned to read, she’d only learned English last year specifically for this citizenship test—that’s why her letters looked so much uglier than mine, because her friend had taught her the alphabet with children’s workbooks only a year before. You don’t need to prove anything to me, I wanted to say as she got louder and louder and louder, you don’t need to hold onto any pride—but I couldn’t push the correct Chinese translations out from my memory and into the middle of hers.
And I was used to the story already. I was waiting for her to stop talking so that we could get back to the lesson. At least then there would be a way for it all to be worth it. I remember wanting to care, and to care badly, and I wanted her to feel complete and secure in this strange country that she’d made her home. The feeling of needing her to pass against all odds—and her odds weren’t so bad—flared back up.
But it was not the same. I’d learned life could go on anyway.
After my grandparents both died—my grandfather first, and then my grandmother a few months later—I took a short break from my job to visit my parents and help them tidy up the house. Our cleaning had multiple purposes. My parents had gathered up my grandparents’ belongings from their apartment and were sorting through what remained of old photographs, letters, and numerous useless trinkets—much to sift through, file away, and put to rest. And now that they had no more need to be close to my dad’s parents, they were planning to move somewhere else and downsize. They would start the sales process soon.
I came across a folder of my grandfather’s old English-learning materials in the same box as a defunct electronic dictionary. For a brief couple years, when I was in elementary school, my grandparents had gone to English classes at a nearby Sunday school. When they asked for help with English, I brushed them off and complained that they were annoying. It was a very small, very common story—told often by other students when I was a young volunteer.
My mom came into the room. She touched the few books placed at the foot of the closet and read their names out for me in Chinese. “Do you know them?”
She started telling me about them in a bright, clear voice. “Very interesting,” she finished. “I enjoyed them when I was your age. I doubt your grandparents still read them—too long, no point. But maybe sentimentality.” I nodded. “But I came to talk to you about something else.”
“Your dad and I are very proud of you.” She was speaking in English now. When I was young, my English reading and speaking comprehension quickly outstripped hers and left her behind, but in the years and years since, she had caught back up, and it made me both proud and sad. I could barely hear an accent in her voice. “We are proud of you, but you are also not who we thought you would be.” She wasn’t speaking to hurt me. Her words were very level—on one side flippant, and on the other, fond. Old grievances and misunderstandings had long been let go.
“You’ve always shown the world a different face than what you showed us. We thought that you would have trouble later on, since you couldn’t even respect your mom and dad. But we shouldn’t have worried.”
She paused. “Your grandparents were hurt by your dad when he yelled at them, and it hurt him too even if they forgave him.” She looked at me. “I hope that now you will be gentle to your dad in his grief. He is very sad even if he doesn’t show it.”
“You have no heart like a person,” my mom continued, drawing on that idea she’d taught me since childhood. By this time, I had long learned to translate what she said as person to real person. A real person, which was my trouble all along. Someone who didn’t switch from indifference to forced feeling. Who didn’t pretend.
“But,” she said, “if you let it, I still believe your heart can be even better.” And because she was very sad, because her words in this second should not have been given much weight, I held back the sudden urge to laugh.
During freshman year of college, there was one moment with Qiuhai and Zhengjie that I’d only told a boy I talked to at the time. I’d wanted that boy—I’d wanted everyone—to see me without the overcast of my family. Then I came to understand how you could hide yourself but call it freedom in the moment, and the two of us stopped talking. After that, no one knew the moment had happened except Qiuhai, Zhengjie, and me.
It was still an early week of class. Qiuhai was practicing for her exam and Zhengjie was following along.
“What is your height?” I asked in English.
“Fifteen foot,” Qiuhai said.
I asked Qiuhai if she could repeat what she said, but she shook her head to indicate she did not understand. I asked the question again, and then rephrased it when she still said nothing. I remember seeing Zhengjie’s face from the side of my eye. It was not his usual placid expression; there was no merriment and his lips were slightly parted, immobile. His glance moved slowly between his wife and me. When Qiuhai finally said her height—or was it how many times she had been married? Or for how long?—I told her that her answer was incorrect, and gave the correct one instead. I had started talking louder and louder. I asked if she understood what I was saying, if she had been practicing for her test that was so soon, and then at one point—in chopped-up, grammatically butchered Chinese—I told her with a feeling of exasperation akin to triumph that the officer would have great difficulty understanding what she said.
Time, of course, has confused my exact memories of that day. I forgot what the outburst was like and if they had even noticed my frustration after all. Perhaps it was only perceptible to myself. Perhaps the misplaced details had created a strange new configuration in the years since.
My mom had left the room by this time and I was alone.
It was very inappropriate. I was standing in the large closet in my parents’ house that was reserved specifically for old things, for those pieces and memories that tied our family back to an earlier time of our own thousand small hardships and triumphs.
I should have been thinking about something else, about the people who had carried me through life. Not two students who I had come across out of luck and circumstance.
But I could not get them out of my mind. The puckered and hesitant smile, her close-cropped hair, the way his face lit up with his smile, the sometimes not-fully-zipped pants he wore with, despite the broken zipper, nothing—not even a colored line of the extra layer of pants he wore below—showing.