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- Growing Up Bronx
My name is Yao, and I live in the small village of Dai Liung in the Guangdong Province of China. At this point, my life is still very simple. The stresses of the modern adult world haven’t found me just yet. They will eventually find me, but for now; I’m just a kid living in rural China. I turned ten years-old today, Happy birthday to me. Even though it is my birthday, the day hasn’t been very special, only another day in the village. I’m just finishing up my second trip between home and school. The morning walk to school is about 1.5 miles. Around noontime, we come home for lunch, and then we walk back to the school again. At the end of the day we take our final long walk home. Once we arrive at home, we help our parents take care of the livestock, we do our homework, and we tend to our other charges. I am busy, but my life is still quite simple. It’s just about time to feed our family pig, Missy. As I look at my beloved Missy, I slowly realize that she has now been under my vigilant care for about twenty months. Just four more months and it will be her time to go under the butcher’s knife. You see; one of my duties is caring for our family pig. I take care of Missy, and many others like her for about two years, and then it’s time to go to the butcher. Missy’s time with me is almost up, and I’m about to move on to raise my next pig. Missy is like one of my pets, except that I know that we will be selling her to the butcher for slaughtering after these two years are up. With some of the money that we made from selling Missy, our family had a marvelous feast! Ironically we ate some “char siu,” or as you call it in America, pork ribs! Next it’s time to herd and feed those pesky geese! Have you ever tried to work with geese? They are aggressive little buggers! Loudly, my mother shouts out from somewhere inside the little house, “Don’t forget to feed the rabbits, Yao!” Then comes the time to do my homework! Using the very same stool that I carry back and forth with me to school, I sit down and begin working on my assignments for the evening. It’s getting darker now so I have to use the kerosene lamp for light while I work. It is not uncommon to look out the window and literally see all the kerosene lamps lit in every house that has children. We are all doing our homework at this hour. We all follow a similar routine. My father was the village accountant. In America, being an accountant is a respected job. They make good money there, and they are regarded as professionals. Though his role was a necessary one, it was frowned upon by the other villagers. Why you ask? Well, because it wasn’t a job that required using your hands for physical labor in the same way the other jobs did. There is a saying in my Chinese village, it goes that “if you are not using your hands, you are not eating!” In fact, my dad not using his hands made it so that we were one of the few families that didn’t have a family buffalo. On the bright side, we didn’t have to feed and take care of a buffalo. That’s more food for Missy! She’ll get fatter and turn us a bigger profit at the butcher’s shop! On the downside, I didn’t get to ride the family buffalo like the other village kids did. Pros and cons to everything I suppose, but as a kid, wished we had a buffalo! Back in those days, many of the things we take for granted today, were unheard of to us. We didn’t have hot or cold running water like we do here. When you required water, you grabbed a bucket and humped it to the water well and retrieved it. Bath, cooking, whatever the reason, you had to hump it back and forth. There was no central air conditioning for the blistering summer heat. If it got too hot, well, find the shade sucker! Oh, oh, here comes the cold weather. Sorry pal, the heater doesn’t exist here. Light a fire or something, I don’t know what to tell you. Huh? What’s that? You need to use the bathroom, okay, grab a leaf and go find the hole in the ground!
I still remember when I first saw a television! It was a tiny black-and-white television. We would only see it when we went to the town square, perched up high, with everyone crowding around it. I recall looking at this magic box and wondering to myself “How do they get all those people to fit in there?” Bear in mind that back in those days, we didn’t even have electricity! A television, not matter how tiny was a major luxury that we could not afford, especially when we couldn’t even have a family buffalo of our own!
The other way that we saw the movies, was that periodically the large town’s people would set up a makeshift movie theater with a little projector. I believe it was once a month, and people from all the smaller neighboring villages would come to the larger town to watch the movie. It would get so crowded, but I will never forget that time. There is nothing like the excitement of youth, and seeing all these amazing things for the first time!
When I was turning about 12 years old or so, my family decided that we would move to the United States of America! Wow, I couldn’t believe we were going to the United States! Everything was going to change now! I didn’t know exactly how, but I knew that we were going into the big time! America, wow, the land of opportunity! I couldn’t wait!
Well, that thought changed relatively quickly, back in those days, Chinatown sucked! It was filthy, dangerous, and definitely not the place you’d want to be. When we first came here, we stayed at my grandma’s place. Grandpa had passed before we came. There were seven of us staying in one of the bedrooms in the railroad style apartment. This is not to be mistaken with us staying in a one-bedroom apartment, no; we were staying in one bedroom, within my grandma’s apartment. Can you imagine how insane it was to have seven people living in one bedroom? However, we are in America. Things always improve here. Right?
It was nearly two years later. My mother spent countless hours working in a sweatshop, and my father; the accountant by trade spent hour upon hour sweating as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. Finally, through their hard work and efforts, my parents scraped up enough cash for us to get a small place of our own in Chinatown. We still shared rooms, but it was so much more comfortable. We were still very poor, make no mistake about that! All of our furniture was made up of items that my father found discarded on the street. Looking back on those days, I give my father and my mother tons of credit! It was hard, but they made things work for the family. I can still remember how my dad managed to make bunk beds for us out of these wooden boards which to this day, I have no idea where he got them from. My dad has always been the type of man who just made things work.
We lived in peace at our new humble home for a while. As I got older, I started working a job to help the family and save some money. Like most of us, old-school Chinese people do; I managed to save a bit of money. It was well hidden within the house. We were never big fans of banks. Especially back then when we only had very little property to our names.
Things were going great, then out of nowhere, with the speed of lighting; disaster struck! One of our neighbors allegedly started a huge fire in the building. I say allegedly because you never know which fires were real. Some were set off on purpose as part of insurance scams. You know how back in those days the buildings would light up like matches! Does the term “the Bronx is burning” mean anything to you? Well, this night, Chinatown was burning. It was terrible! I had to wake everyone up in the family and get them out of the house.
Thankfully, I could get everyone out safely, but now it was about time I left, and I couldn’t even see my hands in front of my face. The smoke filling the hallway was black, thick, and nearly swallowed me whole. Will I survive this, or is this the end of my American dream? God knows I almost didn’t make it, Missy; I was coming to see you this night. Somehow I managed to crawl my way out of the building before it was entirely consumed by the flames. We were all very lucky to make it out of there alive.
Aside from the mortal danger that this fire created for my family, it totally consumed the few items that we owned. Everything that we had was destroyed in the fire that night. Remember that I mentioned keeping the money I had saved up at home? Well, I had managed to save a few thousand dollars, which for a young man, back in those earlier days, was a fortune. It was all gone, just like that, all gone. We were all devastated, everything we worked for was gone.
We ended up living in the shelters for sometime while the government helped us find a new place to reside. Back then those shelters seemed absolutely amazing. We had plenty of space; we even had more than one bathroom! Even some of my childhood friends from school and the old block used to come over to hang out because of how much space we had there. Looking back in hindsight though, I now realize that the place was completely drug infested, occupied by hookers, and just downright nasty.
Eventually, the authorities could find us a place. We ended up living in the Chinatown projects. The projects, believe it or not were actually a step up from our first place and those wretched shelters. Of course growing up in the LES (Lower East Side) back in the 80s was not the same as it is today. Not by a long shot! Back then there were so many gangs, drugs, hookers, and just plain or criminals everywhere in the area. You really had to know how to navigate those streets, otherwise you could end up in some serious trouble. Though I had encounters here and there with the Chinatown gangsters, overall I managed to steer clear of any grave trouble.
I focused my energies on getting an education, and worked very hard so that the next generation in my family would never have to suffer the hardships that we did growing up. For years, I studied, and eventually after graduating, I landed a great job. I continued to live at home with my family until the day that me and my long-time girlfriend were married. Once married we bought a house together, and as the story goes, we lived happily ever after.
This was how it all began; this was all I knew my young life. Today, my children are the same age that I was when this journey into my Chinese American dream began. They carry hand-held devices that are far more powerful and advanced than any television projector the town’s people had. The technological leaps and advances that we have made since then are mind blowing and amazing. It just fascinates me to think that only a few decades later, we are where we are today.
I’m happy to report that my children, wife, and family are all doing well. As I said in the beginning, things have to be better, right? This has been, my Chinese American dream.
Growing Up Bronx