Home > Good Fortune

Good Fortune
Author: C.K. Chau




Presenting the Chens of Essex Street—of Chinatown, of Manhattan, of the city so nice they named it twice, of gold mountain, of the italicized, of the hyphenated, of mei gwok, of zung gwok, of the center of the world to the center of the world. Call it America. Call it the neighborhood. Call it around the turn of the millennium, give or take a few years. They came by way of two parents, Jade and Vincent—not their natural names, but the useful ones—in the usual fashion and the standard cadence. They came with similar teasing, small eyes, raffish black hair, and pert mouths; they came with red faces and squalling voices; they came easily, laboriously, frantically, lazily, and in the middle of the night, and landed in New York Presbyterian. There were five of them and what bad luck, all of them girls—Jane, the loveliest, the sweetest, the Goat (the Ram, the Sheep); then Elizabeth, sharpminded and sharper tongued (the Monkey); Mary (the Ox); Kitty (the Rabbit); and Lydia (the Dragon)—who became, collectively and in short, the Chen girls.

Their parents survived as many in the neighborhood did—hand to mouth and on odd jobs, by the skin of their teeth. Relief seamstress here, overnight janitor there, you get the picture, until they stepped into their current roles as the operators of Lulu’s, a takeout joint specializing in cheap lunches for the time-starved office worker. Sesame beef and chow mein, MSG and egg drop soup, dripping grease and satisfaction. Vincent aspired to small business ownership and daughters who wouldn’t have to work with their hands; Jade set out to win the lottery. Neither achieved success. So Jade pursued a realty license, Vincent ran somebody else’s restaurant, and they called it an American dream.

They came for a better life, for opportunity, for the e pluribus unum of potential earnings. They ended up with seven in a two-bedroom in a fourth-floor walk-up with leaking pipes, flaking paint, inconsistent heat, quarrelsome neighbors, and a landlord who remembered them only when the rent was due. Better than many, they admitted, and better than before, but not quite what they imagined. Seven hundred square feet among seven people—little to go around. Little space, little privacy, and little peace. What they had, they shared; what they shared, they resented. Jade and Vincent in one bedroom, and four girls in the other, split across two sets of bunk beds, with a rotating fifth on the sofa—trying to imagine anything else besides bills and student loans and the rent due, and the fruit of their dreams yet to bear.

And what burdens those dreams were! Money, success, happiness, and Chinese husbands, to name a few, doctorates and devoted daughterhood, but most of all, the ends justifying the journey. But as the aunties might warn you, there’s no counting on these American girls, these bamboo daughters. For despite their most promising start, the girls remained ungracious, unrefined, ungrateful, and, most unfortunate of all, unemployed and living at home.

Long story short, those aunties considered them unremarkable girls from an unremarkable family, decidedly of the neighborhood. Their achievements were fair, but nothing of distinction. Their Chinese, with its juvenile vocabulary, American inflections, and poor grammar, was worse, if still comprehensible—and please note the Chinese here is, alas, Cantonese, which may be a meaningful distinction in many other places around the country and around the world, if not in downtown Manhattan. Just please don’t call it a dialect.

Their lives came with a persistent low-balance warning.

Lately, their troubles took the shape of a once-beloved, currently down-on-its-luck, or what the myopic might call derelict, community space on Forsyth and Canal. In 1993, it proudly launched itself as The Greater Chinatown Neighborhood Youth Recreational Center. The decade since hadn’t been kind. Now, fading away under graffiti tags, tax liens, aggressive mold, and years of skipped maintenance, the building listed itself as ripe with potential, if desperate for the attentions of a Jade Chen type to rescue it from certain condemnation. Lucky, then, for the neighborhood that there was a Jade Chen, who muscled her way to brokering any property no other agent would touch and received little for her efforts but ingratitude, indigestion, chronic migraines, asthma, heart palpitations, and acid reflux. Had the owner heeded Jade’s many kind, if unsolicited, warnings and hints as to how to get it into selling shape? No. Had he taken her up on any of her generous offers to oversee the listing for a steal of a fee at 5.5 percent? Of course not. Some people couldn’t ever see the forest for the trees—or, in this case, the entrepreneurial genius in stirrup pants—just because of some paperwork. But no longer. After years of neglect and weeks of Jade’s psychological disintegration, prosperity loomed on the horizon. Realtor license or not, nothing changed minds faster than hearing all cash.

“Girls,” she cried, shouldering her way past the front door of their apartment, groceries in hand. “You won’t believe it! You won’t believe what your mama did!”

Four girls, in various collapsing postures and states of undress, blinked at her from across the room.

At five foot three and undisclosed weight, with gossamer inches layered on by the perm of her hair, Jade Chen resembled many of the unassuming grandmothers around the block, at least until she opened her mouth. Nothing could be said, if not said loudly; nothing could be done without fanfare or frustration; and nothing ever happened without her first hearing about it. Two days’ worth of groceries swung wide from her clenched fists.

Kitty leaned back on the sofa while Lydia flipped through TV channels with a yawn. “Did what, Mother?”

Elizabeth took the groceries from her mother’s hands and unpacked damp bags of gai lan and radish onto the counter. “Destroy Chinatown.”

“LB aaaa,” Jade whined, clicking her tongue. “Neih gong matyeh, aaaaa?”

Don’t be alarmed—this is no clerical error or wail of sudden calamity, no wrathful god striking Jade suddenly unable to speak. An aa can be worth thousands of words. Whining or flat, long or short, rising or falling, it’s a punch of seasoning on a complaint or a question, a musical interjection, and an all-season accessory to highlight how you might really feel.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Mou je aa,” she conceded.

Of course, no one speaks italics, and if they did, they wouldn’t speak it at home. That’s for you. All the better to dodge the thorny consonants and yowling vowels of Chinese, the jagged edges of its rises and falls, the traps of vocabulary. Show a little gratitude. What they spoke might be called Chinese, though their parents would dispute that classification, threaded with English, but it was in all other ways the usual bullshit—sibling rivalries and spending money, test scores and expectations, ressentiments of daughterhood.

When the girls were young, Jade and Vincent often fretted about their daughters and their tongues, anxious for them to escape the cruelty of scrutiny. They had long avoided English in public unless absolutely necessary, and in the event of emergency, called a daughter. Jane and Elizabeth preferably, Kitty and Lydia in a pinch, Mary as last resort. They left their daughters to grow into their hollowed Chinese, plugging English into whatever sprang a leak, stumbling on the wrong sounds, chasing intelligibility—but as Jade insisted, at least their English was beyond reproach. No trace of an accent, no problem. A hallmark of their success. A hallmark of their loss.

What the girls couldn’t have told their parents was how much they longed to choose for themselves. Each time they opened their mouths, they felt compromised by their parents’ decision, marking them for one culture over the other, for this life over that one, standing apart rather than with their parents and grandparents. They wanted both. Instead, they found themselves half in and half out in a pidgin of their own making. So let’s kill the italics and do as Jane and Elizabeth did at their joint elementary school parent-teacher conference—translate poorly. Follow along or make the most of it.

Hot Books
» House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City #1)
» A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire
» From Blood and Ash (Blood And Ash #1)
» A Million Kisses in Your Lifetime
» Deviant King (Royal Elite #1)
» Den of Vipers
» House of Sky and Breath (Crescent City #2)
» The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air #
» Sweet Temptation
» The Sweetest Oblivion (Made #1)
» Chasing Cassandra (The Ravenels #6)
» Wreck & Ruin
» Steel Princess (Royal Elite #2)
» Twisted Hate (Twisted #3)
» The Play (Briar U Book 3)