Jay initially refused to tell her story, and the reason was, “if I start, I will go on and on and on. I either not tell, or tell the whole.”
The following four hours proved that it was not a lie.
Jay is a hairdresser, running a “Cut and Curl” shop alone in the old neighborhood of Revere. “I had a good mind,” she said, “but too bad I was born in the wrong family.”
When the Japanese-Chinese War was spreading all over China in the early 1940s, her parents just got married, and she was not born yet. Her dad’s family wanted him to leave the country by boat, and her mom’s family urged her to go with her husband.
Because nobody could guarantee that, in the time of war, parted people could eventually reunite.
“I always ask my mom, ‘why don’t you stop in Vietnam, why don’t you stop in Thailand, why did you stop in Cambodia’. She said, ‘you cannot choo(se) what you want. Whatever you get in the boat, that boat stop whatever they want, you have to get off. That’s your luck, whatever it was.’”
When she speaks, she likes dropping the constant at the end of certain words.
As the second daughter out of seven children, Jay didn’t go to school and started working in a small incent workshop. She was always the first one to wait in front of her boss’ table for her wage, twice every month. The family needed it.
“I thought it was bad asking money like that, so I quitted and got another job at a big incent company, working with Cantonese. Three floors, hundreds of people working there. I was only eight.” The pride of an eight-year-old is still alive in her.
In 1975 The Communist army Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh and its leader, Pol Pot, initiated the Cambodian “Super Great Leap Forward”, which turned out to be a genocide. In that year, Jay was eighteen years old, with a one-year-old son and a ripening pregnancy. People were forced to leave their house. One either obeyed, or got killed. Life or death became so arbitrary and unpredictable, not to say business.
Finally, the family decided to walk to Vietnam.
She called their path “sidewalk”, but it was not meant for safe walking. At one point she fell, and a poisonous bomb shell scratched her leg. The second day, her leg was twice as big as before.
She continued walking with her swelling leg, until she saw some mango trees in “the countryside”. She went inside and started eating and gathering mangos, until she saw three communists with red crosses. “I thought they were catching me for stealing their mango, so I stood up and held some mango in my hand, ready to hit them.”
They saw her wound and offered to clean the cut. Otherwise, they told her, she would lose her leg forever. She could still remember how they stuffed medicine in with gauze, from the lower part of her tibia all the way up to her knee, and pulling it out. Three times totally. She was screaming and screaming, and screaming.
Finally her family settled in the jungle somewhere along the border. She learned to grow rice and there gave birth to her second child.
In 1979, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia and replaced the rule of Khmer Rouge. Jay had to start another journey, from the jungle back into the city, carrying her son and 30kg rice in a back basket.
During the 30-day trek, her son got very sick. Three Vietnamese soldiers spotted her and gave her food, Tylenol, and a mosquito bar to cover her son from rainfalls.
“Where is your husband?” The Vietnamese soldiers asked her.
“He died.” She said.
“You are lying. Maybe he became a communist.”
“No, I am not Cambodian. I am Chinese. My husband died 4 years ago, so did my father. This is my son.”
She went back to Phnom Penh and then to Thailand. There she got remarried with a Chinese man, and the couple decided to move to a “third country”.
They first arrived in Australia, but didn’t managed to stay because when the officers pointed at her oldest sons and asked her second husband, “are these your kids?” he hesitated, and the hesitation proved that he was telling a lie.
Eventually, she arrived in Boston in 1982.
The third character of Jay’s Chinese name is 凤, one of the most commonly used character in names among Chinese speakers, meaning a male phoenix. Parents expect it to bring happiness to their offspring, but they probably forget that this imaginary bird lives on by surviving fire and transcending death.
After she settled, Jay started to bring her sisters and her brother to the United States. She found a Cambodian lawyer and paid for $750 per family. “But the other immigration lawyers, they first lied to me,” she said proudly for this deal, “they first asked me for $3000 per person, same for young kids, $9000 for a family, oh my god! ”
Although she has been the one to take on most burdens and has been looking after everyone in the family, the family has never felt close to her. “My (older) sister, she never liked me. We don’t really talk anymore. ”
So is her own daughter.
Her daughter dropped out of high school for a boyfriend and got pregnant. It was an abnormal fetus. At that point, with so many things happening not only to her but also to her children and her grandchildren, Jay couldn’t understand her fate anymore: “What did I do?”
But she chose to carry on. Her daughter finally broke up with her boyfriend but still gave birth to the baby. Jay gave her a home again.
Doctors put the baby’s exposed intestine back into his body at the moment of his birth. This baby, her first grandson, is 14 years old now, way stronger and taller than her.
At a corner of her barber shop right above her lunch desk, she has a photo board filled up with pictures of her sons, daughters, and their children. There was only one photo of her, 10 years younger than now, smiling beautifully at her offspring.
“I still believe in Buddha.” Her eyes fell on the shrine on the floor next to the dispenser. At this time of New England, her offering was five apples.
“It will come,” she kept repeating, “as long as you ask for it.”