I have been married to Joanna Richards for three years, eleven months, and twenty-eight days. To people outside of the Happy China Restaurant, this may sound like we’re getting ready to celebrate our fourth anniversary. For the workers in this hell hole, they know it’s another mark on my prison wall.
My former boss, Lisa Liu arranged the marriage. She brought me over from Shanghai eight years ago. In exchange for working in her kitchen, she promised to provide a place for me to sleep in her basement, a small wage, and a Green Card.
I have been sending money to my wife, what Americans call a common-law wife. I gave her an American name, Betty. I wanted her to get used to it before she came here. Even after I marry her, it may be years before she can move to America. I hope our son gives her comfort until then.
Betty says she understands my situation but what woman believes that nothing is going on between Joanna and me? If she only knew what Joanna looks like, she would know for sure. Joanna is at least one hundred pounds heavier than I am. She wears a drab, gray uniform to work. It reminds me of the guards who used to beat me up while I was in the worker’s camp back home. I can’t speak to her until she changes out of her clothes.
Joanna didn’t marry me out of the goodness of her heart. Lisa gave her five thousand dollars and let her live rent-free in her house. All this was added to my debt to Lisa.
The only man at the restaurant other than the Mexican bus boys is Lisa’s son, Andy. Joanna bragged that they had sex once. It isn’t a compliment for either one of them. In my opinion, Andy isn’t sure if he wants to be a man or a woman. On Sunday mornings, he runs around the house with mud on his face. He says it’s for his skin. He shaves himself from face to toes. And the lotion. He is always slopping on some expensive cream.
“You can’t be lubricated enough, Benny,” he informs me, as he enters his room papered with boy band posters.
Lisa normally laughed at him and then ordered us to work outside on her landscaping. I met Lisa through my cousin, Ken Lee. He and Lisa’s ex-husband, Johnny, used to play poker together. Lisa asked Kenny to find a cook for her because Johnny’s gambling addiction increasingly became worse and he was often missing from the restaurant for days at a time.
The big card game down in Jonesboro got broken up by somebody’s angry wife about six months ago. Johnny lost a huge hand; some say over sixty thousand dollars. He had taken Lisa’s Lottery Club money. Then, he ran away leaving Lisa to bear the mantle of shame.
The Lottery Club was a fund that several chosen and trusted members of the Chinese community contribute to each month. The amount and length of time was agreed upon by the group. Since Lisa’s business was doing well, she was chosen to hold the money. Each member contributed five thousand dollars per month with Lisa. Every month, one member received fifty thousand dollars to improve their business. The goal of this exercise was to let each member have a large sum for things such as expansion or purchasing real estate. At the end of ten months, and after every member received their payout, they decided if they would participate again.
When Johnny stole the funds, Lisa had to come up with the money to cover the monthly payment. Worse, she lost face. In our community, pride is the most valued commodity, more than money, more than a spouse, more than a son.
Lisa’s friend, Jenny Tanaka, agreed to cover the stolen money in exchange for this restaurant. Lisa had brought her into the Lottery Club even though Jenny was Japanese. The other members balked but Lisa forced them into it. Lisa and Jenny hoped their two socially-awkward children would marry one day and grow their restaurant empire in the northern suburbs.
Lisa had been looking at Milton, which used to be part of Alpharetta. They wanted to be their own city then just like that, a new city is formed. America is great. Lisa said the tennis-playing housewives there act civilized, not like the screaming lunatics down here, only forty minutes away.
Grace, the new part-time waitress, tells us the rich people are moving to the new cities in north Fulton County. She attends Georgia State University. Her parents own a small dry cleaning store in Marietta, a city they chose to live in for its good schools. As a compliant Chinese daughter, Grace will become a doctor. She really wants to run a food truck. For ethnic parents, this is a step down.
“Sweating, scrimping, and hustling are for non-educated people,” they tell her.
Hearing about Milton makes Andy more nervous than usual. He normally flutters about the front of the restaurant, hands on hips, gesturing at everybody’s conversation. But lately, he’s quiet sitting behind the counter playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.
Joanna tells me Andy wants to be a painter. “He’s gifted,” she boasts. She has one of his paintings in her room. It’s pretty good, not museum good, but with training, he might be able to make a living doing it.
“He’s applied to Savannah College of Art and Design,” she continues. He has saved his tips since he was a boy. Lisa surely couldn’t pay for his tuition now, even if she wanted to.
Jenny asks the staff if they know other people who want to work here. She plans to live with her doctor daughter in Buckhead and raise her grandchildren while Andy and her younger daughter, Kaze, run the restaurants.
She has to be careful. INS is really cracking down on illegals. We saw a line-up near the farmer’s market last weekend. The Hispanics were standing in a line, strung together with plastic handcuffs. We slowly passed them, most of us lying down in the back of the van.
The police could storm the restaurant any time. Jenny says she will have to hire more Africans, as more of them are legal. Then, she won’t have to pay for them to get here. I question if they can cook our food but I don’t dare say a word.
If Grace gets the nerve to start a food truck business, I want to go with her. But I know unless Jenny has a cut, she won’t let me go. I owe her too much as my debt to Lisa was transferred to her. My mother needed an operation last year and Lisa paid for that, too. I feel like I’m drowning one teardrop at a time.
Joanna says she has enough money saved up from living at Lisa’s house to buy her own place. She needs to clear up some old debts and then the bank will loan her the rest of the money. I will have to go with her. If the INS officials do a home inspection, we must look like we live together. Clothes and personal effects need to be strewn together. Photos of our intertwined lives have to be placed carefully around our house.
“We should stay married past the minimum wait period so we don’t raise suspicion,” says Joanna. She is tall, even for an American woman and towers over me. I step back.
“Betty won’t wait much longer,” I explain to her. “What about my son?”
“We can bring him over here. I can adopt him.”
“Betty won’t allow such foolishness,” I scream.
“I think she will,” says Joanna.
“How will I explain the situation to my son?” I ask.
“Tell him we’re roommates or we were married before. I’m your ex. INS will come for one final interview then we can rearrange the house. Take down our photos.”
She makes things sound so simple. She’s a simple woman with simple thoughts, happy as a security guard at a halfway house. She tells me stories of how these women screwed up their lives. After a brief stay at the house, they are given their own apartments by a charity. The government will help them get back on their feet.
What a beautiful country! I hope they appreciate it. My family had to pay for my incarceration. In China, all things are harder.
Andy has arranged to move in with Joanna if he’s accepted into his art program. They have a campus here in Atlanta. Lisa’s living in Hong Kong now, and her house is currently on the market. We may all be on the street very shortly.
Joanna is happy to let him stay with her. She’s convinced she’ll marry Andy when we divorce. I don’t think he’ll ever move in with her or go to SCAD. The boy has had other dreams before – fashion designer, interior decorator, even chef. Lisa told him it didn’t make sense to go to cooking school when he could learn from us. Americans like what they like – almond chicken (chicken tenders with gravy), sweet and sour chicken (chicken nuggets with pineapple sauce), teriyaki wings (drenched in sticky sauce), and fried rice (soaked in soy sauce). Anything fancier would be out of the question.
“Not if it was on a food truck,” said Andy.
Lisa glared at him. If it wasn’t her idea, it wasn’t a good one. She shot down Andy’s ideas of beef sate, lettuce wraps, shrimp eggrolls, and orange-roasted chicken. “Cheap and fast is what customers want,” she roared.
How times change. Jenny is putting these items on the Milton menu.
Andy pretends it’s not happening. In six months, the restaurant will be ready. He’ll be chained to a new place, unable to escape.
I wonder where I’ll be forced to go. Ken offered to take me in. I’ve never been to Las Vegas. His wife, the Korean, doesn’t like me. I remind her of what Ken used to be, a poor farmer’s son. Luckily for him, he was smart and gained a scholarship to dental school. Catering to Chinese immigrants, a practice in Atlanta offered him a partnership and he came to America.
A few years ago, his dental group went to a convention in Las Vegas. He was hooked. They say Asians have problems with gambling, the addiction is too strong. It doesn’t take much. The social factors – drinking, eating, laughing – along with the thrill of betting grabs them.
Ken started driving to Biloxi to gamble as Vegas was too far to go to every weekend. There, he met Kim Lee, another gambler’s wife. She began a losing streak and her husband was all too happy to unload his biggest losing hand. She attached herself to Ken, at first borrowing money from him then demanding it. I’m not sure if they’re married although he calls her his wife. His mother doesn’t know about it so it could go either way.
He’s not a dentist anymore, which his mother doesn’t know either. When weekend games ran into Mondays, he didn’t make it back to see his patients. Everyone knows a player doesn’t leave the table when he’s on a streak. He started losing his patients and sold his portion of the business back to the investors.
Grace says it will cost over one hundred thousand dollars to start the business. I wonder where I’ll get even a small amount of that money. After Jenny inspects us and leaves, Grace and I plan our menus. She says everyone is doing fusion now. Our working name is Chi-Mex, which stands for Chinese and Mexican.
She says there is a food truck park off Howell Mill Road in Atlanta. If we can’t get in there, we can go to the smaller, non-permanent locations. The smaller cities like Kennesaw and Marietta are hosting food truck days. We’d have to travel around but that will be the hardest part.
“Nothing is as hard as living in China,” I inform her.
“I’ve had that drilled into my head,” she says. There’s plenty of guilt there and she doesn’t have room for any of my sad stories. Her father was an engineer and her mother was a teacher in the old country. They gave up their status and moved here for their children’s future.
“Sorry.” I put my hands in my pockets and look away from her. It feels strange apologizing to a girl who could technically be my daughter. Such conversation between generations doesn’t happen often in our community. I know I’m in America now so I have to adapt.
“It’s cool,” she says. She flips her hair. The young get over things so quickly.
”We can apply for an SBA loan,” she tells me.
“What is this?” I ask.
“Small Business Administration. Here, I downloaded it. It loans money to small businesses” She pulls out a folder. “I used the food truck scenario as a project for marketing class. I got an A.”
“Congratulations,” I say.
“Everyone in class, including the professor, said it’s a good idea.”
“I can’t leave this place. I owe Lisa, I mean Jenny, so much money.”
“She’s not going to fight you. What she’s doing is illegal. You can threaten to expose her and her sacred daughter. She’d lose her medical license.”
“No, I can’t do that,” I say.
“What if we cut her in on it?” she asks.
“Cut?” I ask.
“Include her as a partner. She’s a witch but a good business woman. She can’t deny it’s going to work.”
“You’ve thought a lot about this,” I say.
“I don’t want to be a doctor. With all the malpractice insurance I’d have to pay, how much would I really be making?”
I think about Ken. He wasted all that education. It was a gift he threw away for the thrill of gambling. His mother chose not to send her other children to school, hoping Ken would help the others. They’re still waiting. Ming, the second son, works in a hotel as a cook. Shu, the sister, works as a maid for a wealthy family.
Grace suggests I ask Ken for my portion of the money.
“No, his wife wouldn’t allow it,” I tell her. Kim won’t let Ken send money to his own family. That would cut into her betting money.
In truth, I imagine some drunk approaching us one day saying he won us in a bet. I’d rather ask Joanna even though she and Grace don’t get along. Although Grace is as skinny as a twig, I wouldn’t count her out in a fight. Never underestimate an angry Asian woman.
Jenny arrives in the Mercedes her daughter bought for her. She shows the Milton floor plans to Andy. He scrolls through his phone, ignoring her.
“Stupid,” she yells and hits him with the tube the plans came in. “Your mother left you with me so you have no choice.”
“Why are you going so far north? You know some people don’t like us way up there.”
“Rednecks? Who cares? When we came here twenty years ago, we weren’t welcome on Buford Highway. Times change. They may call us names behind our backs but they’ll eat our food.”
“When I went to the Apple Fest in Ellijay last year, one of the orchards had a dummy hanging from a post. They call that lynching.” Andy’s eyes widen.
“Why are you such a sissy? If you’re too scared, you stay here and pay off your father’s mistakes.”
“I’m thinking about going to school,” he says.
“You’re twenty-eight years old. It’s too late for school. You see these kids go to college and can’t find jobs. Mr. Park, the man who owns the gas station over here, is so upset. His son went to Emory University, spent one hundred twenty thousand dollars in tuition, and can’t find a job. The son is working behind the counter now.”
“I want to be an artist,” Andy blurts out.
Jenny laughs. “Why do you question your life now?”
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” says Andy.
She laughs again. “You’re born, you find a way to support yourself, and then you die.”
“What about happiness?” he asks.
“Who said you have a right to be happy?” she asks. “Ask Benny.”
“Benny, don’t you want to be happy?” asks Andy, fishing for my support.
“Everyone wants to be happy.” I wait for Jenny’s angry eye.
“Not everyone can afford to be happy,” she says. She has us both by the wallet. That’s much deeper and stronger than by your testicles.
Jenny stops yelling when Joanna walks in the restaurant. I check my watch and it’s only three in the afternoon.
“Sorry, the immigration officer wants to have the last meeting tonight. You have to leave now.”
Jenny shakes her head. “Go; you’ll be free soon.”
“I’m grateful to you, Jenny,” I choke out.
“You still owe me ten thousand dollars,” she says.
“I’m aware,” I say. I’m grateful Joanna is there. Her girth is of some comfort to me although she is still in her uniform. She stares at Andy but he doesn’t acknowledge her.
“Come back right after, we’re short-handed,” says Jenny.
The immigration officer arrives promptly at five. He tells us he is second-generation American. His German parents came here to study at Georgia Tech. He is broad-shouldered and slightly taller than Joanna. I quickly offer him a seat because my legs are shaky.
He asks us about our future plans while Joanna and I hold hands. Years of practice make us look like a couple.
“Good luck to you both,” he says after over an hour of questioning. I walk him to the door and shake his hand.
I close the door and lean up against it. “It’s over,” I whisper.
“I’m going to look for houses tomorrow. Do you want to come?”
“Jenny is not going to let me off on a Saturday.” I walk away but she keeps questioning me.
“How will I know what you want?” she asks.
I turn and stare at her. Her pale eyes fill with tears. She is hopeful she won’t be alone in the new house.
“I’m not going with you,” I say.
“Where will you go?” she asks.
“I need to get a place ready for Betty and my son,” I tell her. Joanna is silent as if someone has punched her in the throat. It looks as though a small gasp of air escapes her. She bolts out of the room.
I try to call Betty to ask her to marry me but her phone number is no longer working. I’ve asked Ken’s brother, Ming, to check on her. He says no one is home.
I place an extra offering to Buddha. I pray my son is alright.
The kitchen staff, Grace, and Andy throw a divorce party for me. Even Joanna attends. She studies Andy, hoping, praying he’ll look at her.
Joanna tells me her loan has been approved. She will buy the fixer-upper in East Atlanta. She wants to plant flowers around her white, picket fence. She says it’s her dream.
“Thank you for what you have done for me and my family,” I tell her. She smiles and nods her head. I want to say more but I hear Jenny yelling at Andy.
“Are you crazy?” she screams.
“I’m leaving for school in a couple of weeks,” he says.
“Who’s going to run the restaurant?” she asks.
“Kaze,” he says.
“She is quitting, too,” she says. Jenny throws the plans on the floor and walks out.
Andy asks to speak to me outside. He hands me a check.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“Grace’s parents have agreed to let her try the food truck for a year. I’ve always wanted to try the fusion thing but my mother couldn’t grasp the concept. I’ve been saving money since I was a kid. I’ll need money for school so I expect a monthly return on my investment. Over time, you’ll own a piece of it. I’m not like my mother. You won’t be my slave. We’re both free now.”
“Thank you.” My face falls and I can’t look at him. I regret lumping Andy in with Lisa.
“Let’s go look at food trucks,” he says. “Oh, here is a letter that came in the mail today.”
Betty has finally written back. It won’t be much longer until I’m reunited with my family. I rip open the envelope.
I couldn’t wait any longer. A man I met at the factory wants to marry me. He’s a good man. He says he will raise our son as his own. If you wish to send for the boy, I will send him to you. I want him to achieve the American dream as you have.
As I lean against the side of the restaurant, I wonder what my son’s American dream will be.
Yong Takahashi won the Chattahoochee Valley Writers National Short Story Contest and the Writer’s Digest’s Write It Your Way Contest. She also was a finalist in The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, and runner up in both the Gemini Magazine Short Story Contest and Georgia Writers Association Flash Fiction Contest. Some of her works appear in Cactus Heart, Crab Fat Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gemini Magazine, Hamilton Stone Review, Meat For Tea, River & South Review, Rusty Nail Magazine, Spilt Infinitive, and Twisted Vines.