Kei-Lee Arrives in California
Kei-Lee, Larry, and I were shopping in the grocery store. I was looking at the green beans on display. Kei-Lee was standing nearby. She asked me if I liked vegetables. “Sure,” I said. “Who doesn’t?”
Kei-Lee nodded her head. “My favorite vegetables are these,” she said, extending her left arm and picking up a zucchini. She showed me a squash in her other hand.
Kei-Lee turned toward a separate case displaying various fruits when Larry, her husband, walked up and placed a hand on her back. He was looking at me.
“I hope you like steak and potatoes with your vegetables,” Larry said. “That’s what we’re having for dinner.”
Kei-Lee frowned, but she kissed her new husband on the cheek. “You and your American friend can eat the steak and potatoes,” she said, softly. “I will eat the vegetables and some fruits.”
A Dream Realized
Kei-Lee had made it to the United States, after almost 10 years of building a long-distance relationship with Larry. “There are more kinds of fruit here than there are in China,” she said, leaning forward and picking up a large carton of strawberries. Larry took the carton from her and placed it inside the basket she had over her arm. Then he took the basket from her.
“Kei-Lee eats only fruits and vegetables,” Larry said to me.
It was a cold, overcast day in San Jose, California, and we were wearing our heavy coats. It had rained all week.
Kei-Lee looked around her. “You can’t find many of these fruits in China,” she said, picking up a small carton of blueberries and placing it in the basket on Larry’s arm. “When you can, they are expensive.” She paused as another shopper, a middle-aged woman who was Hispanic, approached with some bananas. It was Sunday. People were buying food for the week ahead.
Only two weeks before, Kei-Lee, 36, had arrived in the U.S. from Guangdong, a province in southeastern China on the Pearl River, not far from Hong Kong. She looked forward to a new life for herself and her son, Tai-Ji, 12.
Love and Separation
Returning from the grocery store, I followed Kei-Lee and Larry through the garage into the kitchen of his mother’s house. It was single-story but spacious and close to the entrance of the gated community.
Kei-Lee walked toward the sink as Larry stopped at the island in the middle of the kitchen. She turned on the faucet and began washing her hands. He placed the bags from the grocery on the island and began removing the meat and vegetables. I sat on a stool on one side of the island next to Larry’s mother, Rosalind, 81, who sipped wine from a rose-colored glass. Both of us watched Kei-Lee and Larry as they worked.
While Kei-Lee washed the zucchini and green beans, Larry pounded the chunks of steak to make them ready for the grill. Then Larry stopped, took four glasses out of a cabinet, and picked up a bottle of Champagne. Kei-Lee wore a somber look on her face as her husband proposed a toast to celebrate their marriage only one week before.
“But I have to go back to China in a couple of weeks,” Kei-Lee said, looking at her older partner.
Larry, 49, grimaced, as if she had ruined the mood. But, then, he laughed, deciding it wasn’t important after all. He knew that, because Kei-Lee had entered the country on a tourist visa and gotten married during her visit, she would have to leave the country while he applied for a spousal visa. “Yes, the process will take eight months,” he said. “It could take longer. With the new U.S. president, who knows? But I’ll be able to visit you in China. We’ll be together soon.”
Larry was a vice president for a manufacturer of electronic components with customers across China and the U.S., logging thousands of miles between the two countries every year. Even when he wasn’t working he traveled often, using the miles he accumulated on the job to fly around the world pursuing his passion for Formula 1 racing.
Kei-Lee commented, “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
After dinner, Larry’s mother excused herself and went to her bedroom. Larry, Kei-Lee, and I went into the living room. Larry sat on one end of a long leather sofa and, with a remote control, turned on a large television set. Kei-Lee curled up on the sofa next to him but didn’t look in the direction of the program on TV. She stared at the ceiling.
Kei-Lee was anxious. She was worried not only about herself, but also about her son. “Tai-Ji can’t even go outside to play in China,” she said of the 12-year-old boy.
“Why not?” I asked from the other end of the sofa.
“It’s not safe,” said Kei-Lee.
With her mother and son, Kei-Lee lived on the outskirts of Guangzhou, about 60 miles east of Hong Kong. The huge city was growing rapidly. Legions of workers with bulldozers, cranes, and other heavy equipment worked around the clock. They were racing to replace the sagging, grey structures of an old city with ultra-modern apartments and glass and steel high-rise offices.
Next to a four-lane highway under construction and crowded into a small, two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a ten-floor building erected in 1967, Kei-Lee, her son, and her mother made a home for themselves amidst the dirt, dust, and debris of a massive construction site nearby.
“I don’t let Tai-Ji go outside,” said Kei-Lee. Her gaze remained fixed on the ceiling of the living room. “There is too much machinery on the street, there is too much pollution in the air.”
I glanced at the screen of the large TV. Larry was watching a car race. I realized what a new life in the U.S. meant to Kei-Lee as she described her old life in China.
“My son comes straight home from school,” said Kei-Lee, after describing the process of her mother walking the boy to school and then home again every day. “As soon as he comes through the front door, he goes and sits in front of the TV.” Kei-Lee paused. “He plays video games nonstop.”
Larry didn’t shift his gaze from the new, 65-inch screen of the television set he had purchased at Costco the previous week. “Your son is a nerd,” he said, taking a sip of whiskey from a small glass. “I hope he will find some friends when he comes here.” Larry took another sip of whiskey.
Kei-Lee didn’t respond. It was possible that she didn’t hear what Larry said. Or that she didn’t care. But, most likely, that she didn’t understand.
Kei-Lee’s journey to the U.S. had not ended; it had just begun.