I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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I met Angel while stuffing my family’s restaurant menus under the front door of her apartment building. China Fresh was close to campus, and we delivered.
She clutched a map. “Do you speak Chinese?” she asked, her eyes wide and desperate.
This happened every so often, a Chinese man or woman urgently asking me, “Where is the nearest bathroom?” “Where is this street?” Their mounting panic turned to relief upon finding someone with a Chinese face to help them in this college town out on the prairie.
She was trying to get to an orientation event at the Student Union, and I offered to walk her there. She was an FOB — fresh-off-the-boat — but not the kind I grew up knowing, the strivers with their bad haircuts and thick glasses. The FOBs my parents had been. Angel’s skin glowed in the unreal way of starlets or vampires, and her eyelashes were as long and lush as a Disney heroine’s.
I took her past the towering sycamores and red-brick lecture halls and avoided the blocky concrete buildings that gave much of the campus the look of a minimum-security prison. The air was muggy and the sky hazy at the start of the school year. Pointing in awe at a storybook turret, she didn’t notice when her gold bracelet slipped off her wrist and fell to the walkway. I retrieved the bracelet, its weight lingering in my hand.
“I’m such a muddle-headed fool!” Angel exclaimed. She showed me her schedule, and I told her to drop Intro to Government and sign up for Musical Theater Appreciation. Both fulfilled the American-studies requirement, but Musical Theater ranked among the easiest and most popular classes on campus.
“So clever! I could tell you were kind by looking at you!” Her questions had only just begun, and I could help her. I signed her up as my first client for a business I invented on the spot: V.I.P. Tutoring.
I was a senior at the university, just ten minutes from the home I’d grown up in, and as soon as I graduated, I wanted to escape. A few years back the school had begun recruiting undergraduates from China. A plan sure to fail, I’d thought. Why wouldn’t the rich Chinese, with the entire country open to them, go somewhere cool like Los Angeles, Boston, or New York? Anyone with the least sense would get back on a plane after taking in the fields of corn and soybeans that stretched into infinity. But I was wrong, and the trickle of Chinese had quickly turned into a flood.
I came to understand that Angel couldn’t pass her classes. She wouldn’t have passed the third grade here. She must have hired a ringer to take her entrance exams in China and intended to cheat her way through school. I should have been furious at the university for accepting students so ill prepared that they cheapened my own degree — not that officials would have cared. The state had slashed funding, and everyone knew that the $31,000 annual tuition from these students — three times as much as locals — made up the shortfall. If the university was going to use the Chinese for its mercenary ends, why shouldn’t students like Angel use the university for theirs?
And why shouldn’t I?
For a term paper I demanded a Louis Vuitton purse. For a take-home midterm, a Tiffany bracelet. I soon had a dozen V.I.P. Tutoring clients, and I took whatever I wanted from their walk-in closets packed with clothes, shoes, and accessories new with tags. I sold my haul online.
After China Fresh’s gas stove and freezer died, I’d spent everything I’d earned to cover what my parents’ insurance didn’t. Since then I’d been pulling long days, answering the phone for to-go orders, making deliveries, and taking on new clients to pay my way to California, where my parents should have raised me and my younger sister, Grace. In California I’d find Chinese, Chinese everywhere — Chinese mayors, Chinese prom queens, Chinese founders at start-ups — so many of us that we weren’t considered weird and foreign.
My father had arrived in this town on a fellowship to study engineering, and my mother followed a year afterward to marry him. When he graduated and couldn’t find a job in his field, he began working at China Fresh as a waiter, and eventually he acquired a share in the business. After Grace and I were born, he bought out his partners. My parents had crossed oceans and continents to raise us in a town built along a murky brown river, in a state whose motto — “the Crossroads of America” — made it plain that its chief attraction was that you could go elsewhere.
I told them to fix up China Fresh and put in soft, flattering lighting, hang a scroll or two, and call the stir-fried green beans “Dragon Leaves” and the chicken chow mein “Phoenix Nest.” Then they could charge more money per dish.
“ ‘Dragon Leaves’?” my father asked. Rain drummed against the windows in what had been a never-ending spring. “You don’t need to lie if you offer good food at a good value.” He prized honesty above all else, even when a supplier’s mistake would have been in his favor or a customer overpaid. My father was as stoic as a general on a doomed mission, and I knew that, without my help, he and my mother would live above the restaurant with the scent of soy sauce and sesame oil seeping into their skin until they died.
Saturday night Angel texted, asking me to come over. She answered the door, her friends behind her, peering at me. I could tell they’d been drinking. Her eyes were bright but unfocused and her breath boozy. She was wearing a cocktail dress, and so were her two friends, Clarissa and Crystal. The names they had picked for their new American lives seemed straight out of a romance novel or a porn movie.
“Da Jie!” she cried. Big Sister. The title was supposed to be a sign of respect and affection, even though we both knew I was the hired help. By paying me in gifts, she could pretend our relationship wasn’t transactional. She was my most steady customer, and she and her friends listened to my counsel with attention and respect, treating me as indispensable.
Angel led me inside. “You’ve arrived in time for the party!”
Party? I was dressed in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, and I’d knotted my greasy hair into a ponytail. A pimple pulsed above my lip. An hour earlier I’d delivered pans of fried rice and chow mein to a fraternity that had the look of a plantation house. I knew the guy who paid, Tyler, from an Operations Management class. His kind dominated the university, which had not one but three agricultural fraternities and a swine-genetics program among the best in the world. He used to peek at the answers on my quizzes, and I never stopped him. I was glad he didn’t recognize me.
Angel now tugged on my arm, trying to draw me deeper into her apartment. “Da Jie, the party is for you!” Her voice had gone helium high-pitched, a tone she and her friends seemed to think sounded cute.
Aside from looking through her closet, I’d never spent much time in this spacious corner suite with a view of the stubby campus clock tower. It smelled like the bath store at the mall, sweet and girlish, and her carpets were pristine and white. Although I should have taken off my shoes, I didn’t because my socks were mismatched, and my big toe poked through a hole. I was being rude, but I didn’t plan to stay for long.
“I’m not dressed for a party.”
“We know how hard you’ve been working!” Angel said. “We want to thank you!”
“We’re giving you a makeover.” Clarissa had been going to school in the U.S. since she was thirteen, but she still lived in a Chinese bubble of food, pop culture, and language, and she seemed perpetually on China local time, staying up all night and sleeping most of the day. The more she’d been excluded by her classmates, the more she’d clung to her own kind. Or it might have been the other way around, and nothing much about Americans held her interest.
“I don’t need a makeover.”
“We’re so bored!” Crystal said. “Please!”
Each presented me with a size-00 outfit, little black dresses as narrow as the tailor-made qi pao my mother brought from Taiwan and kept packed in mothballs. I waved off the dresses. Raised on meat and milk, I was twice their size.
“You don’t like them?” Angel asked. “We can find another.”
“I — I don’t fit.”
“But these are the sizes that you always take.” Angel wasn’t aware that I sold her clothes online, but Clarissa seemed to know, and she covered for me. “American Chinese, different style, needs color,” she said. She reached back into the closet and pulled out a loose cotton dress, a beach cover-up, one size fits all. I didn’t expect this kindness from her.
Wavering, I decided to try it on. I locked myself in the bathroom, shed my clothes, and examined myself in a three-way mirror. Despite the flattering lighting that turned my skin smooth and poreless, the mirror couldn’t hide my flat chest and my lumpy belly, every imperfection reflected and repeated. I slipped the dress on, and it floated over me, soft as a breeze.
I’d learned why so many Chinese were coming to this prairie university. According to Angel, after carjackers gunned down two Chinese students in Los Angeles, many parents had considered the big cities too dangerous and sent their children here. But we had our own menaces: Clarissa’s Range Rover had been vandalized, her hood spray-painted GO AWAY in blood-red letters. A man in a supermarket parking lot had yelled at Angel, “Go back to China.” And I’d overheard other students grumbling about cheating; the Chinese had gotten that reputation. No wonder Angel and her friends left on shopping sprees to Chicago and New York whenever they could.
After I let them into the bathroom, they stripped, sanded, and moisturized me. Angel sprayed on foundation with a special mister that made my skin dewy. I flinched when Clarissa flipped up my eyelid to apply liner. Crystal stroked on blush and lipstick, the three of them conferring over different shades. The ease between them made my chest ache, and as Angel brushed out my hair, my eyes grew wet.
Clarissa dabbed at me with a tissue. “Did something get in your eyes?”
“Am I pulling too hard?” Angel asked.
“It’s nothing. Allergies.” I was rough on myself, using my fingernails to squeeze out blackheads or pulling my hair into tight ponytails. No one had touched me like this in years, with such care. My mother had stopped long ago. Starting in the first grade, I’d had to get myself and my sister ready for the day. Grace would sit in my lap as I pulled on her socks. How complete I’d felt with her in my arms.
But how different she turned out to be from me. In the intervening years between our births, my parents had eased up. She didn’t remember that I’d been the one who made sure she didn’t show up to school dressed like an FOB, and she would never understand how effortless her life seemed compared to mine.
Not long ago, when an old family friend had stopped by China Fresh, I overheard Grace greeting him.
“You’ve lost a lot of weight,” he told her in that blunt Chinese way.
“You are thinking of my other daughter,” my father said, just as blunt.
Cheeks burning, I carried in a pot of tea from the kitchen, pretending I hadn’t heard. Grace, who had returned to folding napkins in the back of the dining room, smiled at me but didn’t acknowledge his comment either, not then, not ever.
Now, as Angel and her friends debated whether to braid or curl my hair, I closed my eyes and dozed off. When Angel shook me awake, she was beaming. She spun me around, proud of their handiwork. I was smiling, too. Not because I’d been transformed — I looked like one of Cinderella’s stepsisters at the ball — but because I now knew how to solve my present dilemma. Their hands on me, working together at the same time, had inspired me. Just as they’d outsourced their writing assignments to me, I’d outsource them to other people. They could all work at the same time, and my productivity would multiply. But first I’d need reliable professionals who spoke excellent English, had PhDs, and were pining for low-paid jobs — and I knew just where to find them.
At home I went online and found a reputable outsourcing website. I posted a free listing: “Top dollar for top papers!” I’d finally figured out what my parents hadn’t: the toil of your own hands only went so far. You rose higher in life the farther away you got from the sweat of your own brow. Hearing a knock on my door, I minimized the window on my computer.
“You’re working too hard,” my mother said from the doorway. “The light from the computer’s not good for you. You’ll go blind.”
She came up beside me, standing next to the bed where I’d tossed the dress that Angel had insisted I take, along with the purse, strappy sandals, and chunky onyx necklace. I usually hid my treasures underneath the bed, but I’d run out of room. My mother fondled the purse. I thought of her wedding photo, how she’d seemed like a child bride, her skin pale from too much face powder, her poufy dress so big it wore her. She’d had such a candlelit glow before the years wore her down.
“I wanted to ask if you wanted one of my dresses from Taiwan for graduation,” she said. “But Daddy said it was old-fashioned, not your style.”
Her silk and rayon qi pao were more elegant than anything I could have bought in a two-hundred-mile radius. She’d never had the occasion to wear them here.
“I don’t have a style.” I turned back to the computer. The sooner I set my plan into motion, the sooner I’d get us all what we deserved. “I have to finish.”
“Not too late,” my mother said and left.
With the money I would send from California, she and my father could hire more help at the restaurant and buy a car that didn’t break down constantly. They could even go on a vacation.
The next morning I had more than a hundred applications from the Philippines, South Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan, and India. Some were incomprehensible, as if the applicants had fed their words to a website that translated without regard to syntax. Even the best ones used English that was riddled with formal diction or antiquated phrases.
New applicants kept submitting, and my head throbbed as I tried to keep track of the different time zones. Shouldn’t they be asleep? Their desperation made me squirm, but I couldn’t worry about everyone who applied. I picked the top five: Valentina from Manila, Raj from Bangalore, Sweetie from Lagos, Sabina from Islamabad, and Tessie from Cebu. If this took off, I could hire more.
They must have been dozing with their phones in their hands or tucked beside their pillows, because they answered my e-mails within minutes. In the weeks that followed, my team remained just as eager. I didn’t feel guilty about paying them less — the dollar must go further in their countries, and I marveled at how they always filed their assignments ahead of time and asked for more. After I had enough to rent a room in the Bay Area, I started saving for my plane ticket.
“You’re still up?” Tessie from Cebu wrote to me when I was pulling an all-nighter. Her concern seemed almost sisterly, as if from the big sister I’d never had. “Get some sleep!”
I was working the cash register at China Fresh when my mother emerged from the back office and tugged a scratchy cardigan over my shoulders. “You’ll catch cold.”
Close on her heels, my father handed me a wad of fives and ones — tips from customers. When I went to open the till, he told me to keep it.
“I don’t need it,” I said.
“For clothes. For graduation.”
I slid it into the pocket of my jeans.
“Put it in your wallet,” my father said. He was always chiding and anxious, a part of him still the starving grad student who turned down the heat, wore parkas inside the house, and never passed up a free sample at the grocery store. I slid the money into the pocket of my jeans, feeling like an ingrate. My mother’s tracksuit was faded and frayed, and I couldn’t remember the last time she’d bought new clothes. For a moment I missed my family intensely even though I hadn’t yet left them.
I drove my parents’ battered sedan while Angel and her friends passed around a bottle of vodka. The prospect of leaving made me fearless, and the parties on campus beckoned. We walked toward a fraternity house, where the speakers were blasting “China Girl.”
People on the front porch were wearing cone-shaped hats. They swayed under garlands of Chinese take-out boxes, like the ones we had at China Fresh. Some students were wearing plastic buckteeth and silky kimonos, their eyes slanty with makeup. The disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting” started playing: “Those kicks were fast as lightning!”
Someone wrapped me in a bear hug, sloshing beer all over me — my sister. Grace wore our mother’s pink floral qi pao over skinny jeans, and she had thrust chopsticks in her hair. For her the outfit was no different than putting on a cowboy hat or riding a witch’s broom for Halloween.
I wanted to grab her by the shoulders. Didn’t she understand? They were making fun of us. Past and present, over treaties or over beers, this is how Americans regarded the Chinese.
“Do Mom and Dad know you’re here?” I asked and immediately felt ridiculous. Of course they didn’t.
She put a finger to her lips — “Shhhh!” — and giggled.
Two freckled blondes came up, grabbed Grace by the elbows, and swept her away. “I love this song!” Grace shouted over her shoulder.
Angel and her friends were laughing, too. How funny, how strange! They didn’t know they were the butt of a joke either. Someday, over cocktails in a glittering tower far, far away, they would recount stories about these odd Americans and their drinking and mating rituals: bumping and grinding in outlandish costumes, screaming like madmen. But someday was a long time from now, and so we pushed inside the house and danced on a floor sticky with spilled drinks, the music vibrating through us.
After we left the party and got in the car, Clarissa blasted frothy Mandopop from her phone. Not ready to go home and more than a little drunk, I drove away from campus, past the water tower and down roads winding past fields. The breeze through our open windows carried the scent of turned earth and the tang of fertilizer.
Clarissa handed the bottle of vodka to me. I took a deep swig, letting the warmth seep into me.
“Da Jie, I don’t understand.” Angel passed her phone to me.
Glancing at the screen, I skimmed an e-mail from the school’s academic council. The language was veiled, but the accusation clear: Angel had plagiarized her paper in her American-history seminar. The paper she’d bought from me. The one that I’d bought from Tessie from Cebu. I’d corrected Tessie’s grammar and spelling, but I’d never thought to check if she’d copied it from somewhere else.
Headlights blinded us, and an oncoming pickup driver leaned on the horn. Blood roared in my ears. Seconds, centuries passed. I veered onto the shoulder of the road, the tires skidding in the gravel. The driver honked again, and in the rearview mirror I watched his brake lights flash red, as though he might stop and come back to berate me. Instead he gunned his engine and sped away.
The pop song played on, horribly upbeat, until Clarissa turned it off.
“Why did you give her the vodka?” Crystal whined.
Angel reached over the headrest. “My phone — give me back my phone.”
I gave it back to her, and with fumbling fingers I searched on my own phone for the title of the paper that Tessie from Cebu had submitted to me. As Clarissa got out of the car, followed by the others, I discovered the paper for sale in a massive database. It was priced far less than what I’d paid Tessie, and that’s where she must have gotten it. The paper was so widely available that the university had detected plagiarism.
Crystal and Clarissa were studying their phones now, their heads bowed in unison, their faces lit blue. Tessie had also completed assignments for their classes. They showed their screens to Angel, their alarm apparent. The university must have caught them, too.
Angel teetered toward me and started reading the e-mail, stumbling over the words. “At your Student Conduct Conference, you will have the opportunity to respond to what has been reported and review evidence that is the basis of my concern. I have placed a hold on your record until the meeting occurs. You may have an advisor or other counsel present during the conduct conference. . . .”
“ ‘Evidence’?” Clarissa asked.
“ ‘Counsel’? A lawyer?” Crystal asked.
“That notice? It’s nothing,” I said. Although I couldn’t fend off the truth for long, I needed time to figure out what to do. “You’re all supposed to meet with counselors to discuss the majors you’re declaring.”
“Da Jie?” Angel asked. Big Sister.
“Have I ever led you wrong?” I asked. “Out of everyone you’ve met here, could you trust anyone more?” I had betrayed her. I had betrayed all of them.
They wandered off again to confer, huddling together and gazing up at the sky, which was thick with stars.
I could claim I’d urged them to model their work after these papers, persuade Angel to say she’d cut-and-pasted notes and forgotten to take them out. Clarissa could say she’d suffered a mental breakdown, and Crystal could explain she’d misunderstood the rules. Maybe I had a way out.
No. As soon as they opened their mouths to defend themselves in their broken English, the Office of Academic Integrity would know the truth. Angel and her friends would turn me in. They had no reason to protect me, a hired hand who’d taken advantage of them.
Maybe the university would take pity on me, too, if I pleaded my family’s financial hardship, if I did community service to make amends, and if I pledged I’d never stray again. But I doubted it. I’d considered myself a good girl, but now my true self had emerged: cheater. Your character was your fate.
My parents. Their sacrifice had been for nothing. Expelled, with a tainted transcript, I couldn’t transfer to another school. Without a degree I’d never get the jobs my parents wanted for me. I’d never be able to give them a different future or make them proud. It wouldn’t matter to my parents that I’d tried to be enterprising. After I told them what I’d done, my mother would collapse and my father would turn to stone. I could guess what they’d say: Tell the truth.