Almost as a rite of passage, many Chinese immigrant teens are intimately plugged into their family business. For me, it was preparing ungodly amounts of vegetables at my dad’s restaurant during the Friday evening shift. Over the course of my high school years, this arrangement developed into a familiar routine. Even the commute across the NYC skyline became a passive response. Little did I know, one November night, this commute would inadvertently plunge me deep into the inner bellies of the Bronx, altering my outlook as a newly minted American.
I arrived at the bus stop that evening and spotted the usual crowd of restaurant workers, old ladies with bins on wheels, and large families of children fighting for their parents’ attention. Smart phones weren’t available yet so people watching was the preferred distraction. Off to the periphery, a nameless girl in a beige sweater was browsing through her book. Flipping through my mental rolodex, it immediately became apparent that she and I shared an ESL class. It’s worth mentioning here that I’ve also been harboring the biggest crush on her. As the bus rolled up to our stop, she hopped on and I followed. I was thinking to my awkward 15 year old self that this could be the serendipitous encounter to spark a lifelong romance.
She found a seat near the front and I was squeezed into the back, clinging onto the strap near the door. I spent the next 15 stops ruminating over all the different ways to salvage this situation. Should I casually move up next to her? How do I even describe what dicing through 50 pounds of garlic and onions smell like? What if she doesn’t recognize me at all? On the 16th stop, she got off and I just sat there dumbfounded. On the 17th stop, I realized something strange was happening. I couldn’t recognize any of the establishments we were passing. Evidently, I’ve gotten on the wrong bus. A sense of panic ensued.
The stories that circulate in a typical Chinese immigrant family are often incredibly personal and quietly exclusionary. My first encounter with inner city violence was the night our delivery man was sent to the hospital after being beaten at gunpoint. Mom said his injuries were so bad that he could barely open his eyes. These stories quickly morphed into blanket statements about entire communities of people which ultimately mapped onto our realities. Horrified that I might meet the same fate as our delivery guy, I ran up to the bus driver and asked eagerly for directions back to a familiar stop. He nonchalantly asked me to get behind the yellow line. Frustrated, I jumped out onto the sidewalk at the next stop, looking to regroup before I’m ushered further away from civilization.
For a city that never sleeps, the neighborhood appeared to have never been awaken. Shops were almost entirely closed off with graffitis smeared across each parcel. In the distance, you can hear the clamoring of the commuter rail as it roamed by this forgotten town. Sparks of dimly lit lamps guided me down the street. All of sudden, I felt a nakedness which can only be described by the absence of my bag. As if the universe was suddenly issuing a pop quiz on urban survival, I stood there kicking myself all while the bus disappeared into the night along with all my belongings.
With adrenaline now coursing through me, I chased the bus for the next few blocks for as long as I can until a man appeared. He walked briskly towards me. In that moment, all the horror stories of inner city murders, rape, and robberies flooded my reptilian brain. I imagined my face on a milk carton the next day and the Sunday headline reading, “Lost Immigrant Boy, Distracted by Girl, Slayed.”
Gasping for air, I instinctively blurted out, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money” and waved my hand at him. Before I had a chance to dodge away, he smiled and asked, “I’m Brother Ibrahim, are you lost?”
“Yes.” I responded. And as if for the first time someone is listening to me, I explained my predicament to him while keeping a healthy distance. In a moment of surprising altruism, he said he wants to help me get back home. As he walked with me down the corner, I was wondering to myself if this was just a ploy to usher me to a convenient spot with fewer eye-witnesses. But as we walked towards the main thoroughfare, I felt this sense of anxiety and fear soothing away. Even the streets have gotten brighter and more populated. Upon arrival, he handed me a map, instructed me on the train I have to take, circling the stop with his finger. I nodded in agreement. Then, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a transit token and dropped it in my hand. “Good luck and don’t get lost again.” He smiled before disappearing out the door.
We fall into autonomic responses because that’s how we make sense of the world. It’s much easier to just paint some people as all criminals or murderers. And sadly the Asian community hasn’t done enough to dispel these stories. In a perfectly meritocratic society you’d get what you deserve until you’re the one begging for help because you’re lost and penniless. Is it then fair to say that you’re lazy and maybe even inclined to commit crimes because you’ve failed to achieve the American dream?
I never had a chance to really thank Brother Ibrahim that night, but his simple act of kindness profoundly shaped my American experience. It taught me that we have far less control over our situations than we think we do, especially as immigrants. But even in moments of distress and heartache, there are always good people willing to help regardless of language, religion or creed. The least we could do is to aspire to do the same.