THE MAN FROM GUANGDONG
read by Lili Taylor at PEN America, October 16, 2006)
Before hosing down the fluorescent-flickering dish
room and kitchen floors and half dozen grease grills at Johnny Wongs
Chinese Buffet, the man from Guangdong and I sit out back on overturned
five-gallon tofu buckets, trading silences. It is an unusually cool
night for mid-summer in Pueblo, Colorado. The Taiwanese management
and Mexican cooks gone home. All the broken dishes swept into piles,
the small metal dressing cups and silverware hand-dug out of the
Marlboros and Vantages crackle minutely between
Like this, he tells me of his tiny village on the
southern coast of China. How on some rare evenings just as the sun
is setting, a bright green haze radiates from a crack in the oceans
horizon. A meteorological phenomenon. How in summer when this happens,
superstition claims youll pull in a good haul of crab and
seabass the next morning. The evening he snuck out of his country
in a rusty hull, he thought he heard the fishermen up on deck celebrating
the mysterious light. Then again, he may have only dreamt it.
The next ship the smugglers stowed him away in was a freighter for
Weve been working together for two and a half
months in the tiny kitchen at Johnny Wongs on the north side
of Pueblo, located on an otherwise dark block across the street
from a Popeyes Chicken and corner Amoco the neighborhood kids
call Murder Station. I drop heaping black bus tubs full of greasy
plates before him in the dish room, catch my breath and watch his
spray gun, blasting the fake china like Godzillas fire breath
in old black and white movies.
Or, more often, he just waits in the corner by the stacked glass
ashtrays, wiping sweat from his eyes with a sinewy forearm, half-listening
to the FM classic rock station that was probably set a decade ago
and never gets turned completely off.
Ive left home a few months before, just barely
graduating from high school. Packed my half-smashed soup can on
wheels and headed in the opposite direction of everything I know,
because there is no one around me I want to be in the years to come.
Not the success story of Henry Ford my Korean father once cut out
from Life Magazine and taped to his bedroom mirrora pale,
brittled article of faith to lift him up and out of his auto mechanic
pit. Not Mr. Choi who teaches Tae Kwon Do and once a year at a sparsely-filled
Civic Auditorium allows a three-wheeler to pass over a bed of nails
hes lying under. And definitely not my older brother returned
from the Gulf, who thinks his veins are contaminated, and plays
keno and blackjack every night at the Indian casino.
Im 17 and driving as fast as I can because
soon it will be late autumn, and then winter with its blue evening
crush and pull toward warm fear and comfort, and I cant end
up selling water filters like my best friend Flick, or climb telephone
poles and repair lines clumped with burnt flesh and feathers, or
air conditioners, or miles of highway roads like Jonzy, or, maybe,
in a few short years, tend a sticky bar downtown and distribute
pull tabs to factory workers who cough plexiglass mucus into bare
Quiet Asian kid scrawling rhymes on the insides of matchbooks. I
may be ignorant, but my heart is a bat caught in broad daylight,
so I follow it out of there. I leave, gas up, head South, then West.
Im not exactly sure. Anywhere out of the Midwest. My aunt
in El Cerrito, the crazy one who married a white truck driver, says
shell take me in. Hook me up in her store selling beepers.
My other option an Alaskan cannery. Maybe Ill find what Im
looking for in the eyes of a million fish.
The man from Guangdong laughs and tells me how he
and seventy other men and dozen women had to lie foot to cheek in
the ships hold for four weeks. No one had more than a pair
of pants, two shirts, a pair of flip-flops. One rocky night, half-way
across the sea, someone pissed on his leg instead of in a tin can.
For another two weeks he dreamed on and off of dragons swimming
through blood and old leaves and sometimes the world up above was
America wasnt a place he ever thought hed visit, let
alone live. He wanted to fish, or work in the shoe factory in the
capital, like his father and uncles. But he was the oldest son.
And then the Communists shut the factory down. No pensions. No nothing.
So his family pooled all their savings and borrowed and begged and
paid twenty grand to the illegal snakeheads who promised to smuggle
him out. 9,000 miles, from Guangdong Province, across the sea to
Guatemala, up through Mexico, then Houston, LA. The FBI busted a
man hed befriended on the three month journey, and deported
him. Two other men he knew died. Suffocated between cola and avocados
in the back of a refrigerated semi just outside Dallas.
He wonders how long his luck will hold out. The
owner of Johnny Wongs is a distant cousin, and pays him $2.80
an hour under the table. Of this cash, he wires 2/5 back to his
village, and lives on the rest. Sometimes he listens to English
conversation tapes on his only possession, a walkman, while he runs
the dishwasher, sounding out the hellos and how are yous with his
thick purple lips, half dead from smoking so much. I dont
always understand what he says, but his hands are articulate, nimble.
I watch them, scarred by a lifetime of fishing line and hooks and
saw-like teeth marks.
The Taiwanese Chinese in the kitchen dont speak his dialect.
Hes nothing to them anyway. A ghostly throwback to the Third
World. One night they ask me to go drinking, someone has an old
ID. They dont ask him. I follow and end up with a couple of
others in a massage parlor at 4 a.m., throwing up beside a toilet
with fuckheads pounding the door into a bruisy-hued dawn.
The next night, we close the restaurant alone, the
man from Guangdong and I. Ive rented a $75 per week motel
room on the edge of town, sick of stuffing myself into a sleeping
bag at the rear of my fold-down hatchback. He lives in a boarding
house owned by Johnny Wong on the opposite end of town. Its
a particularly cold September night. The wind like barrels of ice
water thrown in your face. He must be freezing in his ripped tee-shirt
so I ask him in the parking lot after close if he needs a ride home.
He declines, insists he doesnt like anything smaller than
"Well flip for it," I say.
Its not clear whos got the luck tonight.
He hasnt shaved for days and has been losing weight. I see
him back there behind all the steam and stainless steel a hundred
times a night, dumping tub after tub, and dont know what to
feel. Terror. Pity. Shame.
On the drive to his place, he asks me if I know of any ways to make
two thousand dollars quick.
"Ever play cards?" I half joke.
he thinks, then shakes his head. "Never the gambling."
In the same measured voice he always uses, he tells me the snakeheads
are now charging double. Its finally clear almost half of
the men in his group didnt make it through, and the ones like
him have to cover the loss. Theres nothing he can do. Theyll
sever ears and lips, noses and eyes from his family if he doesnt
start wiring the snakeheads $130 more a week.
I ask him what hes gonna do. He shrugs and says thats
the way the world works. A cop turns on his cherries behind us.
He freezes, puts his hand on the door handle at forty miles per
The cop passes, accelerates into the night.
We laugh, and he tells me hes so afraid here. He cant
even buy liquor without an ID. He pays the other waiters to get
him cartons of cigarettes, because though hes 33 years old,
all the pimply convenience store attendants between home and work
Around the corner from his boarding house, I stop and pick up a
six-pack and bottle of Beam with my new fake ID that looks more
like Jackie Chan than me.
In long stretches of silence, the man from Guangdong
and I drink Mickeys on his cold front steps. The trees that arent
dead all look anemic. He tells me one day hed like to marry
a strong Chinese woman. Not an Americanized or city girl, who will
cry when shes sad. But a woman with oceanic lungs who can
blow life into the spirit hes lost.
A cop shines a spotlight on us then passes.
He asks me what kind of girl Im looking for. And I want to
saysomeone with an old soul, to hold in place my flimsy own.
Someone whose eyes can cure. Instead, I tell him: someone pretty
with nice skin, wholl sometimes ask me what Im thinking.
He tells me there was a young woman in one of the
freighters with him, a new soul who smelled of the pine needles
she fingered away at in her pocket for good luck. They spoke the
same dialect and spent three weeks side by side, confined with the
two dozen other Southern Chinese in the rusty hold of the ship,
24 hours a day, except once a week to bathe in icy sea water up
on deck. To pass time on their backs in the dark they talked about
what theyd do in America; the businesses theyd each
open. She was destined for Flushing where she had a great aunt.
He himself hadnt thought much further than to work as a farmer
or kitchen hand to pay off the debt of his passage.
One night a snakehead, slurring Cambodian speech, came down into
the hold. Clinking a rifle against the pipes. A former Khmer Rouge
assassin turned people-smuggler. She went up with the man on deck
without a fight. When she came back a few hours later, the girl
didnt speak. For three days. And then, in darkness, she crawled
to an opposite corner of the hold, over bodies too sick and tired
to groan. And a couple of days later, the same clinking returned.
"Life no good for some," he says.
And I imagine my mother and father, the first time
they must have kissed. Two war refugees, starving for love. And
I see the man wishes he would have said something, to make the woman
less numb. Even if only in the form of his hand, possessing nothing
in the universe but warmth. But maybe even that would have been
Karaoke People (New Rivers Press)