YILI was born in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. She immigrated to Hong Kong at the age of ten and moved to Paris after graduating from high school. She went to England the following year and moved to Boston in 1973. She studied English literature at the University of Massachusetts and creative writing at San Francisco State University. For many years, she worked in a Chinese community center and helped immigrants settle in a new country. Her writing career started with stories about these immigrants. She writes about their struggle for survival and the lasting clash between Eastern and Western cultures. She has published collections of short stories, novels, and collections of essays in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. She is a lifetime member of the Overseas Chinese Women Writers’ Association and an advisory board member of The Way Literary Association.


by Yili


The old man received a phone call from his daughter-in-law, Jasmine, who told him that she was on her way to America.


“Are you all right?” his wife asked after he hung up the phone. With her glasses on, she was knitting a sweater underneath the lamp.


His stomach was churning acid. His mouth felt dry. The old man mutely gazed at his wife’s graying temples. He thought her temples looked like roofs covered by morning frost.


His wife of fifty years went to the kitchen to bring him some tea. She dragged her slippers noisily on the floor. Her body was short and stout and her back was bent over from dull, familiar pain.


While his wife was in the kitchen, the old man’s eyes idly drifted to the desk lamp. The dim light took his memory back to the small village in southern China where he grew up. When he was young, the village didn’t even have electricity. At their night banquets, the villagers burned gas lamps, which would attract moths. One after another, moths emerged from the dark and charged towards the light without knowing they would be burned into dark corpses and swept away the next morning.


“I tried to stop her. She wouldn’t listen,” he mumbled, although he was sure that his wife must have heard every word he spoke to Jasmine. Their bachelor studio was very small. After putting in a queen-sized bed, a desk, and two chairs, they couldn’t avoid bumping into each other when they moved around.


A huge crashing sound came from a truck outside on the street. They lived in a basement in the Bronx, New York. Any noise from the street seemed to be amplified. The noise gave him a headache. His wife covered her ears with her hands, as if she could block herself from the world outside.

“It’s natural,” she sighed, “people at home always think that America is a paradise. Didn’t we think the same way?” Her words were almost mesmerizing.

Of course, he never forgot their own excitement when they first learned that they had received their visas so they could immigrate to America. His eldest sister in America applied for their immigrant visas ten years earlier. Just as he became desperate and thought he would never be able to live in America, their applications were granted. When the news spread in the village, their gate almost broke because people were swarming to congratulate them. His small courtyard was packed with extended family members, friends, and neighbors.

“Old pal, you’re so lucky! You’re heading for paradise.” Remarks such as that were repeated countless times that evening.

However, one of his old friends had a different opinion. “You are already seventy years old. It will be hard to start a new life!”

“We are doing this for our sons.” He looked indulgingly at his younger son, Little Xuan. He is twenty-eight years old now, and he has remained single because he wants his dad to get him out of the country. The old man thought.

“You are doing this for your sons and your grandsons,” a young female’s voice rose above the crowd. It was Jasmine, the wife of his elder son, Min Xuan. She had been busying herself with serving tea and snacks to the crowd. She put down a dish of sunflower seeds on the table beside him. She did this with a certain amount of force and successfully directed the old man’s attention to Min Xuan.

Min Xuan was three years older than Little Xuan. He married Jasmine seven years ago. The young couple’s lavish wedding banquet would probably go down in village history. The old man not only paid for the wedding, but also built a three-story house for them with granite countertops in the bathrooms and kitchen. He thought that he treated Jasmine well. Actually, the young couple’s life was pretty easy. Min Xuan farmed on their five-acre crop field, and Jasmine ran a grocery store on the ground floor of their house. They had two children, aged three and five.

“Well,” he said, “your income has been good. I’ll wire money back home...”

“But the dream of going to America has always been in my mind, Papa.” Jasmine interrupted him. “Look at the people who have returned from America,” she continued. “They all display an air of wealth and importance, don’t they? I want my sons to become big shots, too, Papa!”

“Right,” he said, “right.”

He understood Jasmine. He, too, wanted the best things in the world for his sons and grandsons. It was just that reality was so different from their fantasy.

A year ago, they landed in New York. At first, his relatives, including his three sisters, many cousins, nephews, and nieces, welcomed them with lavish banquets. Once it was over, all the relatives went back to their own busy lives. His eldest sister, who had spent ten years trying to get him to America, was now seventy-five years old. She still had to help out with taking care of her two grandchildren, cleaning, and cooking. The old man’s cousin helped the couple find and rent an apartment. He helped furnish their place with some second-hand furniture and then disappeared. The old man spent the rest of his money on a lawyer to help with Little Xuan’s immigration application.

During their second week in America, he and his wife started working six days a week at a sewing factory. They were born and reared as farmers, so they were not afraid of hard work. The problem was that they could not predict their future, nor could they predict the future for their sons and grandsons. Years ago, the old man thought willfully that their sacrifice could bring their descendants to the land of hope. But after several encounters with the young gangsters in the Chinese community and having witnessed younger generations drop out of school and carry out miserable lives like their fathers, he began to doubt his vision.

That’s the real reason why he had been stalling Jasmine’s repeated request to bring his grandsons to America. But, to his astonishment, the pushy, willful Jasmine lost her patience and decided to take matters into her own hands.

“Papa, the snakeheads agreed to smuggle me into the States without payment in advance. Please get thirty-five thousand dollars ready for me when I get to New York. Please, for the sake of your grandsons.” When Jasmine announced her plan over the phone, she had already left the village. The old man had no way to stop her. He could not verify her whereabouts.

“Where are we going to borrow thirty-five thousand dollars? It’s impossible!” He held the teacup that his wife handed to him. The cup was hot, but he didn’t feel any warmth. He was shivering.

“Our grandson is six and our granddaughter is four,” the old man’s wife said. “Jasmine shouldn’t have left them for Min Xuan to take care of. How will he be able to handle them both, take care of the field, and run the store?” His wife’s eyes were full of concern. “Well, I am going back to China. I am not used to living here, anyway. My health is deteriorating. My arthritis is worsening.”

“If you go home, I’ll go with you. Let’s count our change and buy the airplane tickets tomorrow,” he said in a slightly sarcastic tone.

His wife was quiet. They had saved three thousand two hundred and sixty-four dollars so far. If they spent the money on plane tickets and gifts for the villagers, it would mean that their life savings would return to zero.


They had no other choice but to endure more hardship for their descendants.


Check out The Strangers for the whole story.