My mom usually picked me up from the bus stop every day with a smile on her face. It made me happy to know that she was always happy to see me. As us first graders filed neatly off the bus under the watchful eye of our supervisor, I waved to my mom. On this particular day, I noticed that her smile was laced with anxiety. I looked up at her expectantly, waiting to receive some form of tragic news. Instead, she reached for my backpack as usual and hoisted it over her small frame. We strolled along the quiet path toward home, away from the busy street.
“How was school?” she asked.
“Good. My teacher praised me for my beautiful handwriting in last night’s homework. See?” I took my backpack from her and reached for my composition book.
“Very good. The more you practice and the more you work, the better the results will be.”
It wasn’t until dinnertime when my parents broke the news to me. My family was gathered around our small dining table, overflowing with rice, chicken, and vegetables. As my mom put more bok choy into my bowl, my dad cleared his throat. He was tall for a Chinese man, and his presence towered over my mother and me.
“I have some news for you.” My dad paused for a brief second before he continued,
“We’re planning to move to America after the holidays.”
I stopped chewing my vegetables. “For how long?”
“To stay. My company has decided that we’re stable enough in Hong Kong and that it’s time to expand the branch to the United States.”
My mom and dad both glanced at me, waiting for my reaction. My mind was already filling up with questions to ask, but I pushed them to the back of my mind and finished my dinner quietly. As I walked down our narrow hall, I reached for my backpack and traced the nametag on the front pocket. Gloria Primary School, it read. Chin Sze Man, Grade 1. I tossed it aside. Pretty soon, I wouldn’t need this backpack anymore.
I glanced out the window and saw my reflection. As usual, the city noises whirled beneath us. Even though we lived thirty-two stories above ground, I could hear the roar of the busses and cars as they passed by on the highway. The fast pace of the city seemed to coincide with the panic that raced through my mind. Who was going to play with me at the park on Saturdays? What would the United States be like? How was I ever going to settle into a world of different customs?
I had been brought up based on the rule that my parents had the final say. There was nothing I could do to change the situation. I kept my thoughts to myself.
A month later, after an excruciating and rather nauseous flight to the United States, I turned anxiously to my dad.
“I’m hungry. What are we going to eat for dinner?”
“Whatever is the most convenient. We have a lot of things to take care of.”
“Do we have to eat hamburgers and pizza for the rest of our lives?” My eyes widened in naiveté.
“Yup. That’s all there is to eat here in America.” My dad turned ever so slightly toward me and winked.
At that moment, I felt a sense of relief. My dad’s familiar sense of humor comforted me in a place that was packed with strangers.
On the night before school was about to start, I felt an overwhelming sense of unhappiness. Outside, the rain pounded against the window, mirroring the thumping anticipation I had of school the following day. After an hour of tossing and turning in my bed, tears began to stream down my face.
“What’s wrong? Why are you crying? ” My mother came into the room.
“I don’t want to go to school. It’s the middle of the school year and everyone has friends already! I’m never going to catch up on work and I’ll be the stupidest one in the class.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ll make new friends. And you’re certainly not stupid. Remember what Daddy and I always say. You just have to keep working hard.” She sat down on my bed and smoothed my hair from my damp face.
Her words felt empty to me, but I took comfort in my mother’s presence. Exhausted from crying, I finally fell asleep.
The next morning, my dad walked me to my classroom. My teacher, Mrs. Gazaway, was a friendly old lady with short hair. She wore a bright purple dress with dangly earrings. I was shocked to see that a teacher wore such a bright article of clothing to school because I had been so accustomed to teachers and students wearing the same bland uniform. As Mrs. Gazaway beckoned for me to stand in front of the room, I waved goodbye to my dad.
My legs shook as I stumbled to the front of the classroom. The only times I had ever stood in front of the classroom was to recite ancient Chinese verses or to read a composition. Without a book in front of me, I was exposed not only to a new class, but to an unfamiliar world.
“Class, this is our new student, Debbie Chin. She just moved here from Hong Kong. Let’s make her feel welcome,” Mrs. Gazaway announced. I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with my fellow classmates. She turned to me and spoke more slowly, “Why don’t you sit over there, next to Sarah. She’ll be your buddy until you become more familiar with how we run things.”
The British government required that English must be taught in all Hong Kong schools. With three years of English classes under my belt, I understood the general idea behind her instructions.
I walked to my new desk and sat down quietly next to Sarah. She turned to me and smiled. “Hi, I’m Sarah. My parents are from Hong Kong too.” She looked at me as expectantly.
“Hi,” I replied in a soft tone, and sat down in my desk.
In the two weeks that passed, I was terribly unhappy in school. My classmates seemed to have known each other for ages. They ran around with no discipline, yelled to each other on the playground, and talked back to one another. Whenever my classmates spoke to me, it seemed like jumbled English whirled out of their mouths. I had trouble understanding casual greetings such as “What’s up?” and “Whatcha doin’?” Although I was surrounded by children my age, my inability to fit in made me feel like I was alone and stranded on an island.
The only part of school I enjoyed was the work itself. I threw myself into my studies, taking comfort in the one thing I could control. I began fantasizing with the fact that if I did well on my schoolwork, my parents would allow our family to move back to Hong Kong.
One Saturday afternoon, my family gathered around our table for lunch.
“Daddy, can we move back to Hong Kong?” I suddenly blurted out.
“What’s wrong? You don’t like it here?”
“No! I hate it!”
My dad signed. I could see the tension embedded in the wrinkles on his forehead.”We can’t go back to Hong Kong. You know that. It’s my job to stay here with the company. I know it’s been hard for you, but things will get better with time.”
“I don’t care!” I shouted. “I want to go back home!” I pushed back my chair and ran out of the dining room.
I couldn’t believe I had just yelled at my parents like that. There had been very few occasions, if any, that I can recall raising my voice to my parents. But I didn’t care. My anger was trapped inside, like magma waiting to erupt out of a volcano. I had made an extra effort to be obedient at home and studious at school, and I still didn’t receive the reward I thought I deserved. I slumped down into my bed and pulled the covers over my head in frustration.
Surprisingly, I had no trouble concentrating in school the next week. Mrs. Gazaway led our class in correcting math homework and decided to call on me. I read the answer off my assignment that I had painstakingly attended to during the previous afternoon.
“How did you get that answer?” Sarah asked. I showed her.
Later that week, I sat at the lunch table picking at the ham sandwich my mom had packed when Sarah and Elizabeth approached me.
“Why don’t you ever play with us?” asked Sarah, with her hands on her hip. She always spoke in a commanding tone, but there was a hint of friendliness in her voice. I was tired of feeling lonely and found comfort in their presence. I sat up.
“I don’t know. I don’t really have anyone to play with, I guess.”
“Do you want to play with us after we finish lunch?” Elizabeth smiled.
“What are you going to play?” I asked in a hopeful voice.
“Tag!” Sarah and Elizabeth replied in unison. My spirits lifted. I hadn’t played tag in two months. I had almost forgotten what it felt like to run.
“Sure.” A hint of a smile began to form on my lips.
I got up and started running around. At that moment, I felt an incredible sense of freedom that I had never experienced before. We ran as fast as we could on the field as birds circled over our heads. The noisy atmosphere was exhilarating. My teachers in Hong Kong constantly lectured us to stop running and opt for a quiet game of hopscotch instead. However, no one stopped us here. For the first time since I moved to the United States, I laughed like a normal seven year old. It had been a simple invitation to play tag, but the kind gesture was a ticket to a community that made me feel like I belonged.
I decided to make more of an effort in my school. I didn’t have the ability to change my environment, so I learned to adjust. As my familiarity with the English language increased, so did my enthusiasm for my new life.
Elizabeth, Sarah, and I became best friends who were attached at the hips. After lunch, we would run around on the playground, away from the boys. During class, we would choose each other for projects and group work. My parents noticed the change in me and were delighted that I was finally settling in to my new school. My happiness seemed to glow in every aspect.
On a frigid February afternoon, I was eating my after-school snack and pondering over the possibilities of the weekend when my mom surprised me.
“Why don’t you invite Elizabeth and Sarah over to play this afternoon?” my mom asked.
“Really? I can invite them over?” In Hong Kong, I was never allowed to have friends over. In fact, I hardly ever went to visit my friends at their homes either.
“Of course. We didn’t have enough space in our old house in Hong Kong, but we certainly do here.” My mom picked a napkin off the table and wiped the breadcrumbs around the corners of my mouth.
“Okay, I think I will.” I set down the remnants of my peanut butter sandwich and skipped to the telephone. I invited Sarah and Elizabeth over to play. As Sarah’s mom dropped them off, our moms greeted each other. They discovered that they shared the common language of Cantonese. The next night, our families went out for dinner at Canton Delight, a delicious restaurant we had become quite familiar with.
A couple of days later, my friends and I were mingling at the front of our school, waiting for our parents to pick us up. We were chatting about our plans to watch Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians when I saw my mom’s car pull around from the corner. I was so excited to tell my mom about my day in school that I scooped up my backpack from the ground and rushed toward her car.
“Hey!” Sarah called after me. “So where can we watch the movie?”
“At my home!” I replied, and skipped off.