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.