Authors: Jean Kwok
Then Ma had surprised us all by saying, “Maybe I go with her.”
We all stared. Ma never went anywhere. She was afraid to burn herself with cold water. Even when I tried to take them out to dinner, she protested about the expense, the trouble, the unsafe world outside of our apartment. What the farmer did not know, she would not eat. Go nowhere, do nothing, then you’ll be safe.
Pa turned to her, angered, rearing on his back paws. “What?”
Ma looked down, blinked away tears: I spotted a ship with sour apples on the way. She said in a choked voice, “She is my mother.” Guilt engulfed me like a cloud of hot steam and I could hardly breathe for a moment. How could I have overlooked this? Always only concerned with myself. Grandma would be filled with joy to see Ma again.
“No,” Pa said, his face hard and stern. Sometimes I hated him. “Amy need you here.”
At this, Amy’s jaw slackened. “Are you crazy? She doesn’t need to change my diaper.”
“I can pay for the tickets,” I said, even though in my head, I watched the figures dwindle in my savings account.
But Ma was already shaking her head, always the peacemaker, her own needs buried under a mountain of obligation. “No, I must work. You go, Sylvie.”
“She has the right to see her mother,” I said, facing Pa. I was not afraid of him, not like Ma and Amy. My own guilt at neglecting Ma’s feelings built up in me like hot air, egging me on. Pa was so unfair, so old-fashioned and sexist. My voice rose. “Why are you stopping her?”
A dark streak of red raced up his rigid neck, the strained tendons prominent. “You have no respect,” he ground out.
“No, stop,” Ma said, stepping between us with fluttering hands. She spoke so quickly, I could barely make out the words. “No matter, no matter. I not go. I not want to. Sylvie, please stop. Please.” She was almost in tears, a pale pink flush drowning her eyes.
I watched her with sharp and painful pity and sighed, my anger deflating like a pricked balloon. How could I ever convince Pa if Ma insisted on fighting against herself? I turned to Amy. “Do you want to come?”
Amy, so much like Ma, had eaten from frightened hare meat. Her eyes enormous behind her thick lenses, she said, “A foreign country? Thanks, but I haven’t even been anywhere else in the U.S.—unless you count Hoboken. Strange language, weird food, terrorists . . . I’ll stay right here.”
“You need to expand your horizons.”
“I like my boundaries just where they are, thank you very much,” Amy said, and that was the end of our discussion. Secretly, I was relieved. I would be able to return alone.
The flight attendant’s voice came on through the intercom, telling us to get ready for departure, first in English, then in Dutch. I felt her words sink into my bones. The engines roared and we took off.
Wednesday, May 4
spend the entire flight counting the number of rows to the emergency exit in case we crash, not only due to fear but out of loyalty to Sylvie. The plane is too hot. The huge, heavy man next to me keeps claiming the armrest with his plump elbow and I decide to cede him this battle, scrunching myself as small as possible in my seat. I’m thankful I have the window. I’m so worried about Sylvie that I don’t have much anxiety left to wonder if we’ll crash. Any terrorists can wait until after I find out what happened to my sister. I’m too nervous to sleep, even when they turn off the lights. There’s a wide selection of movies available in the screen built into the back of the seat in front of me, but they all seem to revolve around murder or sex. Finally, I plug my headphones in and tune in to the music station, trying to relax. The constant hum and vibration of the engines makes me feel nauseous, and that giant man looms beside me. It’s like there’s no way out. I don’t have enough air. But I can’t panic. Sylvie needs me. I breathe shallowly for hours in the dark.
After what feels like an eternity, the lights come back on and the flight attendants hand out cardboard boxes filled with our prepackaged breakfasts: a flat container of blueberry yogurt, a little closed cup of orange juice, plastic utensils so we can’t attack anyone, and a cold turkey and cheese sandwich on hard bread, plus coffee or tea. I ask for tea. I’m already vibrating with tension, lack of sleep, and fear; I don’t need much caffeine. The man next to me has slept soundly with his special neck pillow and now stretches. Since he’s awake, I slide open the window shade and a shaft of the bright morning sunlight slices into the dark cabin like a knife.
Below me, I spot flat, inscrutable postage-stamped parcels in various shades of green, pieced together like a puzzle, lit up here and there by geometric slashes of brilliant orange, white, and yellow: the famous tulip fields. No hills, no skyscrapers, no forests. This alien landscape seems bizarrely orderly and unreal. I, an urban introvert, am disconcerted by all of this verdant openness.
The flight attendant announces that we’re about to land, in both English and Dutch. I wish she’d stop doing that. I know we’re going to a foreign country, but the constant Dutch on the flight hammers the point home. What am I doing? Of all people, I’m completely unprepared for this. What can I do for Sylvie anyway? Sylvie is extraordinary.
Sylvie was named a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, and graduated in the top five percent of her class. When I was flailing around after college, I asked her how she’d done it. She had just started her management consulting job and, like old times, we were following Ma around the temple in Chinatown after Chinese New Year.
“A lot of it is keeping your head clear, Amy,” she said, holding the tip of her bundle of three incense sticks into the flame of the oil lamp until they caught fire. “Princeton, MIT, Harvard, it’s the same pressure. Everyone’s just razor sharp. At Harvard, this one woman was so fast with numbers, it was like she’d swallowed a calculator. People would open their mouths and words like ‘IMF austerity measures’ and ‘trilemma of free-capital flows’ would pop out. I was very intimidated at first. Sometimes people think it’s about competing with each other because they divide you into sections and everyone inside a section is graded on a bell curve. That kind of thinking makes you insane. I never considered anyone else. I only made sure I competed against myself.”
I fanned my incense sticks and hers to put out the flames. Thick plumes of smoke spiraled upward. “Umm, so positive thinking saved you?”
She flushed a bit, the dimple in her cheek appearing. She carefully wedged her incense into the sand-filled urn in front of the enormous golden statue of Kuan Yin, goddess of compassion, and bowed low a few times, her posture perfect. Then she turned to face me. “That and I figured out how every syllabus was structured and only spent time on the important issues. I had no choice—I had the receptionist job at the construction company in the afternoon and waitressed until late at night. I only had the morning to get my work done. I had to be really efficient. I’d let the others take the easy questions in class and wait to answer the hardest ones. I’m Asian and a woman, which shouldn’t matter but did anyway. It was clear sometimes that no matter how hard I worked, I didn’t qualify to be a member of the in club. But the worst was the money.” She sighed and rubbed her eyebrow. “Everything cost hundreds of dollars. I didn’t know that an unspoken part of the Harvard MBA was the social aspect—all those invitations to events and galas where you could rub elbows with powerful people. There was no way I could keep up, so I didn’t try. I’m no good at making people like me, anyway.”
I had finished my bows and knocked her with my shoulder. We’d had this conversation before. “That’s ridiculous, Sylvie.”
She hugged me then, enveloping me in her scent of smoke and oranges. “That’s your superpower, Amy, not mine.”
My throat chokes up. Why haven’t I heard from her? Like I said, Sylvie is extraordinary. Remove the
and that’s me: ordinary. I’ve just wasted so much money buying this expensive plane ticket to the Netherlands, where I won’t be any use at all. I am sick to my stomach. What will happen to me and my loans now that Sylvie’s—I stop myself before even thinking the word. How could I be so selfish?
I’m overwhelmed the moment I step inside Schiphol Airport, a name I can’t even begin to pronounce. It’s futuristic and spotlessly clean, a spaceship complete with a disembodied female voice reminding me to “Mind your step” at the end of every automatic walkway. The people seem to be uniformly tall, their heads hovering far above mine. I am lost in a forest of trunks. The babble of incomprehensible words around me forms a stream of sound that I wade through, ignorant and alone. I long for home, and Ma and Pa. How can the signs be in so many different languages?
I walk to one of the huge bathrooms. The stall doors run all the way to the floor. I have a hard time figuring out how to flush the toilet. I try to check myself in the mirror but the mirrors are hung so high that I can only see the top of my head and a bit of my glasses. Beside me, a tall woman washes her hands efficiently, then strides toward the exit without a glance at the mirrors, which are exactly the right height for her. In fact, no one puts on lipstick or powder. I smell no perfume either.
Did Sylvie really live here for much of her childhood? The one she had before I existed. She doesn’t often speak about her life in the Netherlands, but when she does, her skin flushes, her eyes soften. I know she loved it and longed to return. How could Ma and Pa have sent my own sister here? Had they planned to give me away too? Ma, who holds and pets me, but whose eyes follow Sylvie with so much yearning—Sylvie wriggling away whenever Ma had tried to wrap her arms around her until Ma stopped trying; Sylvie leaning against me every time we watched TV together; Sylvie holding my hand in the street. Even now, we always walk arm in arm. When Sylvie went away to college, I sobbed myself to sleep, counted the days until the too-short breaks when she came home again. That had always been Sylvie’s role, to go forth and have adventures. My job was to wait for her to return home safely. Now the country mouse has been forced into the great devouring world.
In a daze, I stand on one of the automatic walkways and let the scenery pass me by. I am herded in the only possible direction by the planeload of passengers. We stand neatly in line at passport control, where the young military guy behind the counter glances through my passport before saying in crisp English, “Welcome to the Netherlands.”
I can’t believe I’m in Europe when I’ve never really left New York. The enormous baggage hall is brightly lit with more than twenty different belts and I wait at the wrong one until I realize that I’m supposed to be in another section altogether. I half panic, rush to the right place. When I finally manage to collect my bags, which have all miraculously arrived, I wheel my things out the door below the green
NOTHING TO DECLARE
sign. I look so nervous that one of the customs officers asks, “Are you feeling all right?” before letting me through.
I exit to find a wall of faces—a lot of white people in the Netherlands. I feel short and puny as the lanky Dutch hurry past me to embrace one another. I move forward, and suddenly spot three dark heads: two men and one woman. Must be my cousins Helena and Willem and their son, Lukas, none of whom I’ve ever met. They’re clad in black, which sends fear stabbing into my heart until I realize that they’re in mourning for Grandma, not Sylvie. The woman’s clothing seems fluttery and filled with lace.
I step tentatively toward them. They are the only Chinese here but I am still unsure. The presence of the large, shaggy dude especially worries me—probably Lukas? He’s in his early thirties, unshaven, with long black hair that looks like he hacked it off himself. His eyes—brown, with a touch of cinnamon—are slightly swollen, like he’s been crying or beaten up by someone, and his clothes seem worn and sanded down, as if he’s been crawling through a desert. A permanent scowl appears etched into his spidery eyebrows and forehead. This is Sylvie’s childhood playmate? I heard he’s a photojournalist, and indeed he looks like he’s just ventured out of a war zone.
The other man is older, probably in his fifties, long-limbed and sophisticated in his suit and tie, which even I can see is well-made—likely Lukas’s father, Willem. He’s clean-shaven, smooth, with aristocratic features, still a very handsome man. I wonder if Lukas would look like this if you cleaned him up. There’s something about the way Willem stares at me, as if he’s not quite right in the head. Meanwhile, the woman, most likely his wife, Helena, has a face that’s too smooth, lipstick a smidgen too bright. Black hair tamed into one slick wave falls neatly against the pressed collar of her lacy shirt.
Then her face splits into a smile. She lifts a hand, says something to me in rapid Chinese. I am too overwhelmed by all the strangeness around me to understand her.
I blink, unmoving, and Lukas steps toward me. He says something in rapid Dutch to his mother, then turns to me and says in English, “Are you Amy?”
Relieved to hear the words in my own language, I say, “Y-yes.”
Helena peers around him to say, “I am your cousin.”
She reaches out her arms to me but when I try to hug her, she holds me firmly by the shoulders and kisses me on the cheeks, alternating three times. After each kiss, I try to pull away only to realize she hasn’t finished yet. I hang on and try not to screw up the side-to-side cheek rhythm. I am afraid I’ll wind up kissing her on her sticky lips.