My mother and I lugged our carry-ons through the maze of Hong Kong Kai Tak International Airport to the line for visitors entering the city. So many Chinese people everywhere: the same dungeon-black hair, thin bodies, and statures considered short by American standards. In the line for residents coming back to Hong Kong, a pair of loud voices broke through the din. I turned to see two men in tailored suits. One, holding an embossed leather briefcase, gestured emphatically. His companion didn’t appear alarmed, so maybe that’s how Chinese people talked.
Behind them with her family, a high school–aged girl wore a Calvin Klein T-shirt and Guess jeans. Auburn streaks tinted her straight, shoulder-length hair, and heavy blue eye shadow and garish red lipstick disguised her face. She would’ve fit right in at San Diego malls. I felt the strap of my travel bag biting into my shoulder, so I let it drop to my feet and wished it would transform into one of those rolling suitcases everyone else seemed to be wheeling. After my mom went through the passport checkpoint, I strolled up to the glass cubicle with my visa, where a stiff-postured man on a stool behind the partition spoke to me in Cantonese.
Taken by surprise, I shrugged. “Uh . . . I speak English.”
He examined my passport, then me. “Arrival paper.”
“Oh. Yes.” I unzipped the travel pouch and handed him a slip.
He inspected it, regarded me again, and entered something into the computer. He studied the monitor and appeared to be gathering enough data to process an application for political asylum. Minutes passed. He punched in more information.
I shifted my feet, tugged on the strap of my pouch. My mom’s visa came from the same country, so why didn’t he ask for her arrival paper?
After hitting the keys for the third time and dissecting me with his gaze again, he stamped the tiny book and motioned me through.
I released my breath and walked toward my mother.
She said, “What take so long?”
“He asked me something in Chinese, and I answered in English. Maybe he didn’t like my voice.”
“Chee-se.” Her attempt at saying “Jesus.” She picked it up from my stepfather, who used it so much people must’ve thought he was in divinity school.
Bumping our way through a crush of elbows, shoulders, and luggage, we followed signs marked in both Chinese and English. Jammed with travelers, the airport, probably the size of San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, seemed small.
Hong Kong was one of the world’s busiest commercial centers, and lighted billboards and placards promoted everything from French perfume and Swiss watches to the latest pop singing sensation. Marketed toward the young, many boasted a Western flair. Couples in various stages of undress, in embraces seductive enough to earn an “R” rating, flaunted clothes with designer labels. American faces and bodies graced some of the ads, representing youth, vitality, and modern sex appeal. Funny, I couldn’t recall displays in San Diego’s airport depicting Asians.
At the baggage claim, I said to my mother, “Are you sure someone’s going to meet us here?” When she didn’t answer, I frowned.
After we retrieved the suitcases, I suggested we get a luggage cart.
“Prob-ly cost money,” she said.
“We’ve just spent fifteen hours like caged hamsters. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to drag a bunch of suitcases around looking for people who might not even be here.”
“If they not here, I call somebody else.”
I grabbed a cart and brought it back. “It’s free,” I said, and stacked our bags on it.
We circled the waiting area twice with no sign of our welcoming party. Tired, sore, and jet-lagged, I could only think about unfurling on a soft pillow.
Mom continued to search with a worried expression. “Maybe they here. You wait. I go look some more. If no can find, I call my friend.”
She started off, spun, and pointed at the baggage. “Make sure keep eye on. Very dangerous here.”
Leaning against the cart, I checked my watch, rolled the loose leather band around my wrist, and waited, waited for my mother. My heart beat faster. A memory, my stepfather’s agitated voice—the sour smell of alcohol and nicotine on his breath after a day out drinking—came back to me. “Jesus Christ. Why does it always take your mother so long to get ready?” He had planned for us to visit a friend—an old Navy beer buddy, now married with three stepdaughters—a family that didn’t nag him about his drinking. I looked at my watch, an ill-fitting Timex with a dangling, brown plastic strap Roger had just given me for my tenth birthday. When my mom finally came out from the bedroom, Roger headed toward the door. She went straight into the kitchen to towel off some dishes. We never made it to the car that night. I hid in my room, clutching a pillow to my chest in the dark as the sounds of two people in the living room, intent on destroying each other, went on and on.
Now, I rolled my watchband around my wrist a few times. I bent over, straightened, tried to knead the tension out of my neck. Another fifteen minutes passed. I surveyed the throng of people, afraid my mom had gotten lost when she broke through the mass with three men.
She spoke to a balding, middle-aged man wearing glasses. Everything about him was round, from the domed forehead caused by his receding hairline, to the puffed crescents of his smiling cheeks, to his paunch belly.
The second guy, maybe in his thirties, trailed slightly behind. About my height, he presented a thicker frame and darker complexion.
The third man, in a short-sleeved, button-down print shirt and brown slacks, appeared older than the others. Like the first man, his hair had receded. He strode in unison with the younger fellow.
They drew closer, and the one by my mother stopped talking. All three men came to a halt and studied me as if I were the last of my species in the Galapagos. They moved nearer, and my mom put her hand on the shoulder of the man she had been talking to. “Raymond, this your uncle, Chun-Kwok.”
I extended my hand and said, “Hi.”
He smiled, welcoming me with a warm grasp.
I said to my mother, “They don’t speak English?”
She shook her head and motioned toward the second guy. “This Hoy. He your big cousin.”
He gripped my hand and pumped it up and down twice. I said, “Good to meet you.”
He broke into a wide grin. How strange to encounter full-grown “relatives” for the first time. The term never meant much to me. Mom always told me stories about an aunt or uncle or nephew in San Francisco or Houston or somewhere, but I could never relate. Sure, we shared some surface kinship, but how was I supposed to care about people I didn’t know?
She pointed to the older man in the print shirt. “This your father.”
I stared at him. Slim, like me, but shorter by four or five inches. The dark eyes, the narrow face and chin, the slight, flattened nose and thin upper lip, even the glistening sheen of his skin, were mine.
He reached for my hand and held it in a light, tentative manner, as if he didn’t know how to touch me.
I realized I was staring and let go. He turned away.
The one introduced as my uncle took a suitcase from the cart. The cousin lifted another and my mother’s travel bag while I held mine.
My father offered to carry my bag. “It’s all right. I’ll take it,” I said.
He looked at me, then at the floor.
As we walked, I tried to take the suitcase from my uncle, who tightened his grip and said, “Dak, dak, dak.”
My mom said, “That mean he okay.”
I followed them out of the airport into Hong Kong.