Fear & the scent of oranges: a story about detention

What does family look like in a militarized ICE state?

Today I attended an immigration event about sanctuary on college campus— an event run by a white man who (twice) said “illegal alien.” I feel guilty for leaving early, but white men talking about immigration exhaust me in the most abrasive, visceral way — like my bones are being scraped. Like my name is being carved out of my mouth.

My aunt Naqi ( 娜琪) was six months pregnant when she was detained. When we talk about her (rarely), we never mention this: what can we say about a child we never named? When my mother’s sister was detained, she stopped existing to me. I was told she had “gone home.” I was told I would see her later, later, later. She became a name we said in the dark, a photograph my mother took down from the collage on our pantry door.

Later, I found out that she had been moved to a detention center farther from home (while 7.5 months pregnant.) Two counties over. I remember she had once told me that being far from home felt like being far from God. Years ago, she had converted to Christianity along with my grandmother, much to my parent’s disapproval. But I was happy for her: I remember the look on her face when she was baptized, glistening. Like she had remembered something important about herself. Before her conversion, she was the loneliest person I knew. She lived in an apartment above a dry cleaner’s and a Lee’s Sandwiches (she worked at both.) On weekends, she would sit at her fold-out card table, her damp clothing hanging from the balcony railing. She would peel one orange for me, and one for herself. She would make me say grace before setting a bowl of cold date soup in front of me, which I would pretend to sip. (My brother, always more honest than I was, and also a typical boy, would spit it out at the table, so she stopped trying to feed it to him.)

It tasted like urine. But why is it that years later, that’s what I think about the most? That’s what I regret the most, the fact that I didn’t drink the soup? I’ll always remember the eerie yellow glow of it, the single date sunk at the bottom. Like an eye staring at me.

When I was 14 years old, Naqi moved out of her apartment and started living with us. The Lee’s Sandwiches had shut down long ago and she’d started working at a foot spa in the B******** Plaza. But before all that, she’d fallen in love with a coworker at the sandwich shop — he was Chinese-Vietnamese, lanky, bug-eyed in a boyish way. He wore a bright-purple argyle sweater that made us all laugh. It was the softest thing we’d ever felt. I remember the scandal when she got pregnant. By then, he’d been deported. His last name was Doan, which sounded like the Chinese word “duan,” which means short. It was the most duan of all relationships, but it changed Naqi the way God had. She told me that meeting him had felt like reunion.

Around the same time Naqi moved in, newly pregnant, Doan gone, I performed in my first major ballet recital: a solo in the Waltz of the Flowers. The week before, I rehearsed obsessively in our living room, and Naqi gave me a quarter every time I performed for her. “真可爱的美国姐姐,” she’d say, pressing the cold coin into my palm. I collected over a dozen by the time it was the night of my performance at the community theater downtown. Naqi never made it to the performance — her morning sickness was an all-day sickness, she joked.

After my brother saw my new stash of quarters, he started calling Naqi “Quarter Ayi” (Quarter Auntie) and chased her around the house until, exasperated, she’d throw him a handful of dimes. “But they’re not quarters,” he’d complain, and continue chasing her. Eventually, my mother would come home and yank his ear so hard it’d turn purple. “It’s no good for her!” she’d say. “She’s pregnant!”

That’s what my brother regrets the most (this he revealed while he was drunk) — the fact that all that chasing could’ve harmed her baby. I told him the arrest had probably harmed her baby. I told him an ICE officer’s nightstick could have harmed her baby. I told him it wasn’t his fault, but I knew what he was trying to say. I know that he still calls her Quarter Ayi because he can’t bear to say her name.

In high school, when my mother pushed me past tears and breakdowns, Naqi held my hand in our dank bathroom. On the days my mother left too early to see me off, Naqi let me sleep past first period and go to school late. I can’t tell you what happened the day she was taken away. I don’t remember whether I was late or what I learned that day in Geometry or if I’d fought with my friends.

I say “taken away,” but what I mean is that one day she was in our house, cutting white radishes to boil, rubbing her belly three times per hour (for good luck and the health of the baby.) And that afternoon, she was gone — worse than gone. We knew exactly where she was.

I didn’t write letters because I couldn’t write in Chinese, and besides, Naqi had never really learned to read or write — she knew enough to work, and she knew the characters of her name, but like her mother, she’d never gone to school. I had just started researching colleges with Naqi, now so pregnant my brother joked she’d topple over trying to go down the stairs — and I had to explain that I didn’t want to live at home anymore. I didn’t want to live anywhere near home, and Naqi just shook her head. “Family is everything,” she said. “You will miss us,” she said. By then, two of our cousins from Bandung, on tourist visas, were living in the master bedroom, and I was irritated by their constant arguing — about who would have the nicest car some day, about which community college was the most prestigious, about which Hong Kong gangster movie we’d watch on Halloween (a family tradition.) Needless to say, the idea of missing anyone in that house just didn’t seem possible.

What’s possible: that Naqi’s baby would have survived. That the baby would have been born. It’s possible that my A-gong would’ve have named it — a name to match my name and my brother’s because, as Naqi promised, we would be like siblings. It’s possible they didn’t hit her with their nightsticks. It’s possible the miscarriage was just out of stress, bad food, bad luck. It’s possible it was karma, like my mother said. It’s possible she knew it was going to happen, which is why she obsessively rubbed her belly, as if confirming there was something living inside her.

It’s possible, even, that I would’ve named the child. Naqi told me herself she didn’t like the ancestral tradition of men naming children. She once asked me what I would name my own child. 光明, I said. A dramatic name, but we both had that flair. She was the only person in our family who could sit through a whole televised opera — makes my ears beg to bleed, my mother said of them: Chinese opera is too tragic.

“You’ll miss us,” Naqi told me, again and again. Since her miscarriage in detention, there have been things to celebrate, at least according to my mother. For example, the fact that she may be moved to a detention center closer to home. For example, a new Lee’s Sandwiches may be opening soon. For example, though her child is dead, she is still young. That’s what my mother says.

Today, at the immigration meeting on sanctuary, I thought a lot about missing someone. I thought a lot about the letters I never wrote, the things I never admitted, and will never get to admit, to Naqi. “Missing” — both a verb and an adjective. As in, “I’m missing you.” As in, you’re missing, and I may never see you again.

The smell of oranges always makes me think of her. She had really liked the name 光明, the character 明 linking my brother and I to her. It was just a name, one that she couldn’t even read, but the sound of it made us both cry. When my brother went back to college, Naqi admitted that she couldn’t understand how calm my mother was. “I haven’t even had this child, and I already miss it,” she told me. I think I finally know what she means now. If I could write a letter to Naqi, still in detainment, I would say this:

Dear Naqi:

I have missed you, I miss you now, and I will miss you far into the future. I have missed you for a lifetime now.

I have many more undocumented family members, and I can tell you what that’s like. I can tell you what fear is: it’s missing someone before they’re even gone.