Ba struggled to unfold the canvas chairs while Ma stood by with a stack of Chinese newspapers and a thermos of black tea. Lin frowned. Should she do it, or let her father figure it out? He could if he tried. Her mother could help. Ever since her parents arrived from China a month ago on their first visit to America, they had depended on Lin for everything, as if to show that they could not adapt. Her parents perched on the edge of the chairs, which tipped forward.
"Aiya!" Ma exclaimed as Ba threw out his arm to stop her from falling.
"Lean back," Lin said. "Lean back!"
They were camping in Big Sur, with brand-new equipment purchased by Lin and her husband, Sang, on an evening shopping spree at R.E.I. They were software engineers, and consequently respected good design: to every feature, a purpose. Money-back guarantee, Lin still marveled, though they had lived in California for close to four years. No wonder products made in China cost so much more here. They splurged, knowing they could return whatever they did not like. No purchase final: that was the American way.
They were learning how to use the gear. The Leatherman radiating its pliers, wire cutter, nail file, scissors, screw-driver and bottle opener. The green Coleman lantern. Four sleeping bags, soft as steamed buns. In China, camping was considered a Western eccentricity. People did not buy expensive gear to sleep on the ground. Why strive to be uncomfortable, when you had a bed that your ancestors could only dream of?
Although her parents had grumbled at the strange idea, Lin wanted to share this new experience with them so they could see what life here meant to her and Sang. Her parents wanted Lin to return to China. The economy was booming; even waiguoren, foreigners, were flooding into China to make their fortunes. After earning her master's degree in computer science, Lin had worked at one failing startup after another. Sang's company was struggling, with rumors of massive layoffs, maybe later this month. If he lost his job, he would have to find a new employer to sponsor his visa, or else be forced to leave. He had long wanted to return to China, but she convinced him to stay until they obtained green cards. Here, her bosses gave her credit for her hard work, instead of expecting her to serve tea and defer to senior staff. Someday, she could start her own company. She couldn't guess at what she might do with no limits.
None of them knew Lin lost her job not long before her parents arrived. Instead of going to work, she hid at the library, searching online for jobs and reading Chinese novels. She had been unable to find another company willing to sponsor her work visa—which meant that she was now here illegally. If she left, she would be unable to re-enter. She was supposed to return with her parents at the end of their visit to attend her cousin's wedding, but Lin had decided that she and Sang would stay, no matter what. She would work as a babysitter, a housecleaner, he could be a waiter, a handyman, anything until prosperity returned. This trip to the redwoods had to convince Sang as much as her parents that they would prosper in America.
Lin would always belong to dirty and cramped Beijing but here she could give herself away. If she returned to China, she could already picture the rest of her life. A baby, living in a high-rise apartment near her parents, she and Sang advancing toward middle management, growing old, and playing with her own grand-child someday. Comfortable but predictable. Here, there was discovery, uncertainty, and possibility.
Comfortable but predictable. Here, there was discovery, uncertainty, and possibility.
When Janey mentioned she practiced Buddhism, Aileen cringed. White people who were more Chinese than her made Aileen feel guilty.
She had a Chinese character tattooed on her bicep, which Aileen didn't know how to read but probably meant "peace," "courage," or "woman."
Everyone at the campsite in Big Sur had been drinking since sunset, downing micro-brews and plastic cups of Cape Cods and rum-and-Cokes. After dating Reed for about six months, Aileen was meeting his old friends for the first time, the ones he did not see often now but starred in his strongest, fondest memories. They were clean-cut and athletic in jeans, fleece pullovers, baseball hats, and designer running shoes. The kind of people, Aileen couldn't help but think, who went to parties she wasn't invited to in high school, to keggers where they played Steve Miller and Santana, and drove home drunk and crashed their SUVs into the garage door and received new cars the following week. Who rushed sororities and fraternities in college, majored in Poli Sci and Anthropology, and didn't grind away in pre-med or engineering. Their histories were jumbled in Aileen's mind, about what she was supposed to assume and what she could not let on that she knew. What if they shut her out? What if she could not stand them?
It turned out that she and Janey lived four blocks apart in the Mission District. Janey told her about a meditation class in the neighborhood.
"I'll have to try it sometime." Aileen stared into the fire, her cheeks flushed from heat and embarrassment. She almost didn't come on the trip. She and Reed had been arguing all week, their biggest fight yet, after she discovered a stash of porn on his hard drive, in a folder labeled "MiscPix." She had been snooping for photos of his ex-girlfriends and found naked leggy redheads, chesty blonds and smoky-eyed brunettes. No Asians. Why not anyone like her? She couldn't bring herself to ask.
"You disgust me," she had said, and stormed into the bathroom. Through the locked door, he promised he would delete the files, and he proposed going to the redwoods a day or two early before everyone else arrived. A getaway. She could hear him breathing and pictured him with his ear to the door. She let him in.
Reed had never dated anyone Asian before her. Never learned to say ni hao ma or ni piaoliang, never decorated his house with paper lanterns, and that appealed to her. He didn't have yellow fever. But were these women on his hard-drive what he desired most? Or maybe she had to admit she was moody because she suspected something worse. Her period was late by two weeks.
Aileen wasn't sure why she had agreed to go. Maybe it was easier to put off knowing for sure about the baby, or maybe it was a test. If they could survive the days-long intimacy, she could tell him. If not, she would know that it was over.
Vanessa Hua, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, the San Francisco Foundation's James D. Phelan Award for Fiction, and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing. Her novels are forthcoming from Ballantine. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and twin boys.
From the short story collection DECEIT AND OTHER POSSIBILITIES, copyright © 2016 by Vanessa Hua. Published by arrangement with Willow Books, an imprint of Aquarius Press.