A New Beginning
“Ma, we’re here.”
I look at my son’s face as the plane began its descend. The clouds outside the window seemed to be non-existent, in their place was the bright sunlight on the vast plains beneath us. The place gradually shifted to the left and I felt his hand around my own. My son was only nine but had developed a fear of flying. It was all thanks to Ethan, his father, who had the bright idea of bringing him to America during a monsoon season. I know, because I was on that flight as well. The plane on the return flight jerked up and down during a bout of turbulence, and I could see the fear in my son’s eyes.
I pointed at the window.
“Look.” I whispered into his ear.
The fields stretched all the way to the airport. If I looked closer I could see the people working on it. I imagined one of them looking up to see our plane flying across, a shining bird of metal.
“China.” I said. “The land of our ancestors.”
I had come here not to as tourists, but as migrants. Just like my ancestors who moved to Singapore generations ago. It made me feel sad, but at the same time giddy with excitement. Because it felt as if we were about to embark on a new adventure as a family. My only concerns were whether or not our son could fit in at his new school. Ying was a smart boy, but growing up in Singapore and around us in particular had made him more attuned when it came to speaking the English language. I too would need to brush up on my Mandarin if I were to survive. I should have studied that pocket guide on the language on the way here, but I was just so tired from the previous day’s activities to do so. Ethan was excited of course, his company needed him here and he had the whole thing planned out. Our son would study at the same school as the other children of his executive board members. We would live in a high-rise apartment above the smog. Finances were good and I had left my job as an accountant, so I would have all the time in the world to work on that book I’ve been meaning to write.
The only thing we would have to do was to get used to China.
Without leaving the airport you could smell the air. A smoky smell that prompted me to make Ying wear the N95 mask I brought along. He wore it obediently but Ethan wasn’t too happy.
“Don’t have him wear that yet. He needs to get used to it.”
“But his lungs!” I exclaimed. “These things build up over time you know? I don’t want our son on a respirator in a decade or two. He needs to use the mask, it’s good for him.”
Already things were off to a good start. Ethan relented when I cited a case whereby a man vacuumed the air around Beijing and made a brick from it. All the bad air solidified. Now imagine that in a lung. The mere thought was enough to make me shudder. Er Ying had his mask on all the way till the end of the departure procedures, where one of Ethan’s colleagues was waiting for us holding a signboard over his head. He helped us put our stuff inside the back of a car. Very nice guy but I soon forgot about him when Er Ying took off his mask after the drive began.
“Put your mask back on!” I commanded.
“Ma. Are you going to be like that during the time we are staying here?”
“It’s for your own good you know?”
He folded his arms and I tried a different tactic.
“Look, look. The skyscrapers are so big….”
Beijing was as I had expected after the weeks of research. Smoky skies, streets filled with cars and pedestrian sidewalks crowded. The drive to the hotel where we would be staying overnight was long, but it was enlightening to feel the whole situation set in. I felt the edges of the pocket guide in my jacket, but pushed it deeper in. Er Ying kept asking me questions about China, and the hotel we were staying at. I answered him the best I could, while Ethan was at the front next to his colleague conversing in Mandarin.
“Business. It’s all business.” Ethan concluded in English, as the car made a sharp turn around a bend.
“We will be at the hotel soon, get ready.” The colleague informed.
“Xie Xie.” I replied.
The hotel was a fine establishment that stretched to the sky, like it was trying to as tall as the buildings that surrounded it. After checking in there was even a porter who accompanied us to our room and a person who would press the elevator floors for us. The room was spacious and there was even a large jacuzzi tub of ivory white. Er Ying bathed in it and splashed about while Ethan and I unpacked the things for the night. The view from the windows showed the human activity that was going on down below. We were on the fifty fifth floor but I was certain that if I pressed my ear against the window I’d have heard the cacophony of horns blaring and people sneezing.
“Not all our things would be there when we arrive tomorrow.” Ethan explained. “Some of the bigger things like the t.v. were harder to transport.”
“Really? That shouldn’t be a problem, dear. If anything you should focus more on your work. Leave the house to me.”
“Apartment.” He corrected.
That night as the three of us laid on our beds, I could not stop looking at the ceiling. I studied its blank surface in the dark, feeling like I was in a dream. Being in a foreign country always made me feel this way, like I was a stranger. But this time it felt different because I knew I would be living here for god knows how long. The thought of not being able to get used to all of it would take time, but it also formed a pit in my stomach. I thought of the Chinese nationals who lived in Singapore, or of the ones from my old line of work. They spoke with their accents, and I dared not picture my son doing the same as an adult. What if we went home to Singapore to visit his grandparents? Or what if my friends came over to visit? And they hear his voice and notice how different it was. An unfounded fear, but a legitimate one in my mind that night.
The next day we were at our new home. An apartment near the top of a high rise building. The reception desk was manned by an old woman who had her hair bundled, her head had white streaks all over. Er Ying would start school next month, so we had two weeks to kill. But of course Ethan and I were against going out. At least not for a week. We spent the whole day unpacking our things, and after which Ethan began filling up the relevant papers. Er Ying was jumping on his new bed, which was now a queen sized bed instead of a single. I told him he was a big boy now, and that he should refrain from breaking his new bed so soon. But after I closed the door on him I heard him jumping again.
Once he was done with the paperwork, Ethan arranged for one of his colleague’s helper, a middle aged man whose english name was Joe, to get food for us from outside. Joe was missing a front tooth and had this habit of scratching the side of his head.
“Just get whatever is nice around here.” He had said. It made me think we were in some kind of bunker, safe from whatever horrors awaited outside.
But that was how we lived during that week.
I would wake up and clean the house, while Ethan would send emails through his computer and finish whatever work he had. By 9am he was out to work. Er Ying would be on his own computer playing his video games and Joe would come by three times a day with bags of food. Sometimes it was noodles, sometimes pancakes while most of the time there would be rice. It wasn’t until the third night, when Er Ying broke his wooden chopsticks by accident while trying to separate them that Ethan and I discussed the possibility of us having a helper, like how we did so back in Singapore.
“I’m alright with that.” I said. “But can the helper be one that speaks english please?”
“Why don’t you learn Mandarin? Helpers who are able to speak English here cost more.”
“Ma doesn’t know Chinese?”
“Quiet, Boy. Finish your meal.”
Hiring a helper wasn’t an issue for us. We decided to pay Joe to be our helper for the time being. Ethan’s colleague did not seem to mind. Problem solved.
But everytime I think back to that night I would always associate it as being the start of it all the trouble.
After that night Ethan began conversing in Mandarin. He did not utter a word of English unless it was absolutely necessary and when I asked him he told me in Mandarin (Though I only figured it out much later on).
“It’s like in Singapore. If we keep using the language at home, we’ll get used to it.”
It made sense at the time, so I didn’t question him. I made Joe get ingredients for meals as well as two portions of vegetables and fruits. My reason being that too much outside food was not good in the long term. Joe was very understanding, and would always nod at me, the pockmarks on his tanned cheeks moved as he did so.
Er Ying took a liking to him and they began talking to each other a lot. He would ask him all sorts of questions about Beijing, and then ask me if I would allow him to go on a trip with Joe. My answer was an obvious no.
Once the logistics were settled I’d spend the day rehearsing how to speak simple sentences in Mandarin. At night I would be studying cookbooks to learn how to prepare meals for dinner. Easy to make things like porridge or fried rice. We all had an extra portion of food to eat in addition to our meals.
After the second week I told Joe not bring us meals from outside anymore. He was to only bring the ingredients. Ethan was not pleased.
“Why did you tell him to no longer bring meals?” He asked in Mandarin.
“Why cannot?” I shot back in English.
Er Ying had gone to bed and we were at the living room. I was putting some leftover ingredients into tupperware containers.
“Do you know how unhealthy it is to keep eating outside food? Think about the long term health consequences!”
“But still you can’t just make this call without informing ME!”
I pushed the last tupperware into the fridge compartment and walked over to him.
“I am you wife, not your subordinate. Don’t you dare take that tone with me!”
For the first time, Ethan pursed his lips and glared at me. The intensity in his eyes was hard to ignore but I kept standing my ground. After our talk he left to do some leftover ‘work’ he forgot at the office. I slept alone on our bed crying into the pillow.
The next month came and Er Ying began schooling. I walked with him to the entrance of his new school, which according to Joe had a grand history and produced some of the brightest scholars Beijing had to offer. It sounded rehearsed but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Er Ying was happy when he entered the school, but when he got home later than evening he was crying.
“They kept……teasing me!” He said in english and in between sobs. “One of them….even….stole my water bottle.”
“Did you get it back?”
When Ethan came home we told him what happened, but he shrugged and gave our son a pat on the head before heading off for a shower. Er Ying cried so much that night. He trashed about in his sleep and yelled that he wanted to go home.
“We can’t.” I told him, removing the wet tissues from his side. “This is our home now. Not Singapore.”
To this day I did not know what Ethan’s work entailed, but it was changing him. At times he would come home in alcohol and give our son a hug. And at one time he was in the living room talking to someone on the phone. He had thought I was asleep and not listening, but I heard him call the person ‘baby’.
A month later Er Ying got in trouble in school. He found the boy who stole his water bottle, and together with the sons of Ethan’s colleagues they bashed him up and broke the poor boy’s nose in two places. I did not want to believe that my son would be capable of such a thing, but the way the principal talked about it over the phone in english made it so vivid in my mind. Even the victim’s mother was weeping and yelling that she would be filing charges.
We were all there except the victim. The boys, my son included, hung their heads low. Ethan and his colleagues, all men of different ages, segregated themselves to one corner. I imagined them thinking of how they were going to punish their sons, who were as far as they were considered counted as international students. Not like the students who were born and raised on China’s soil. I was with the other mothers, who were more fluent in Mandarin than me and spoke so fast that I barely got to talk a sentence or two. Then there was the victim’s mother, who sat across us in the hallway sobbing and yelling in between. She tried to throw her slipper at us but one of the school’s security guards stopped her. The hallway itself was warm, and there was the smell of cigarettes that wafted in from the outside. That and the sound of carhorns blaring in a traffic jam.
When we got home we sat as a family around the dining room table.
“Do you know how much trouble you’ve caused us?” Ethan began in english. The words sounded heavy as he spoke.
Er Ying kept quiet and I got up to get nearer, my intention was to hug him. But Ethan shot me an icy stare.
“The principal says that you were the ringleader. I know that that boy stole your water bottle, but sending him to the hospital is not the right thing to do!”
And with that, my husband slammed his hand down in front of our son. The glasses of water shifted and creaked.
“Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.” Er Ying muttered, mucus dripping down his nose.
“I will NOT tolerate this kind of behaviour from you. Am I understood?”
Ethan got up and went out the door. That night he did not come home and I fell asleep with my chin on Er Ying’s bed. My son cried himself to sleep and I kept comforting him. Still unable to believe that our family was changing.
Perhaps coming here had changed us. Or maybe it had always been there. But those first few months would stick out in my mind as some of the most turbulent times we had. My husband changed after getting his promotion a few months later. He had white streaks of hair brought on by the stress of his work, a world I would never be able to understand. He is now the company CFO and I barely talk to him outside of special occasions like his birthday. But even then his face always look like there was a weight on his shoulders.
Er Ying is entering his teenage years now. He wants to become an artist but Ethan forbids him from doing it. Calling ‘that line of work’ a miserable way to earn an income. Though I find the drawing paper, pencils along with some half finished sketch in his drawer. I let my son know that I fully support him no matter what career he chooses. My only fear being the inevitable next confrontation I would have with Ethan. I know it will happen one day. Could be years, months or weeks but it will happen.
As for myself I had mellowed out and have gotten used to doing the housework. My Mandarin is much better now to. But as I look up to the skies from our apartment window, I can’t help but remember those first few weeks. Those first thoughts when I got off the plane on the first day. A new beginning that happened a long time ago.