Not long after the end of the Second World War, a young man named Shiu-kee gathered up a few things and set out to walk from a small village in the Guangdong province of southeastern China. The young man possessed almost nothing in the world, and he hoped to make a better life in Hong Kong. He was not the first young man in his family to make this journey. His elder brother had been vouchsafed the family's scant capital and was sent across the border, where he established himself in business. But the brother broke his promise to return his stake to the family so that others could follow. Shiu-kee thus set out with empty pockets, hoping for the best.
He was a married man with a baby son. Through a matchmaker, he had been paired with a village girl named Yuk- king, whose mother saw Shiu-kee as a hard-working, if poor, young man. The bride and groom met for the first time on their wedding day.
After a few years in Hong Kong, Shiu-kee managed to start a small business, a workshop that made heavy cotton blankets. His prospects looked promising, so he sent for his wife and son to join him in Hong Kong. Middle-class life seemed within their grasp. But then the workshop burned down. The family had no insurance and received no help from the elder brother, and, of course, they were too proud to beg. Thus it was that, in 1961, a baby named Kam-ho was born in a government resettlement building: a warehouse for the dispossessed in a country that does not believe in safety nets.
Kam-ho and his six brothers and sisters and his mother and father–nine of them–lived in one small room, the walls bare concrete, the floor also bare concrete. There was no kitchen or bathroom, no plumbing or central heating. Light was provided by an overhead bulb. They used toilets down the hall and fetched water in pails and cooked over a brazier outside on the mezzanine. They slept over and under one another, sometimes in shifts. In this place Kam-ho spent his early and middle childhood, until his parents, little by little, established themselves as small dealers in the jade business. Finally, they were able to move the family into a small but gloriously middle-class apartment.
Education being paramount in that part of the world, Kam-ho worked devotedly in school and went on to earn a diploma from Hong Kong Polytechnic. He got a job in the tour business and traveled a good deal, and in Tibet he met an American woman. They were both in their 20s and believed they were in love. They got married and lived in Hong Kong for a while, but she hankered for home. In 1990, she brought him to America.
Kam-ho's parents were not pleased that he had married a foreigner, and who would blame them? In the space of only a generation, the family had gone from the world of oxen and arranged marriages to the world of cell phones and multicultural love matches. Still, they were glad that their son had settled down, and they took some pride in his American success. In America, he became known by the English name given him by a teacher in grade school. Kam-ho became Michael.
He became a travel agent, and his wife did this and that, and they lived in a condominium in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. But the marriage did not go well. They tried to nurse it along, but the task was hopeless, and in 1993 they split, painfully.
Eventually it became clearer why their partnership had not worked out. Michael's ex-wife wound up, some years later, living in St. Louis with a girlfriend. As for Michael, he was given a book by a gay co-worker, who had noticed that Michael couldn't keep his eyes off the gardener. The book was a guide for people coming to terms with their sexuality. Michael began another journey.
In 1910, on the other side of the world from Guangdong, a 17-year-old girl named Sara and called Sadie set out from a small town in what was then Austria-Hungary (now it is in Poland) for the port in Hamburg, where she boarded the S.S. Pennsylvania, bound for New York. According to the ship's manifest, Sara carried $20 with her. She intended to join her sister in New York City and work, the manifest said, as a "parlor maid."
Her life, like Michael's parents' lives, would not be easy. The sister died in a fire, leaving Sara on her own, with not much by way of education or skill. She married an Austrian man and had four children, but he was a bigamist and had another family. His visits grew rare, and eventually he abandoned Sara altogether. She worked patchily until President Roosevelt's Aid to Dependent Children program was established in 1935 (the program later became Aid to Families with Dependent Children). After that, Sara got by on welfare and charity. The indigent single mother is not, after all, such a new creature in American life, nor is the "deadbeat dad." Sara's third child, a boy nicknamed Sol, never knew his father.
The boy Sol grew up poor. He played stickball in the streets and went to school with his hair full of stinky kerosene to kill lice. But his grades got him into New York's City College, which was still, in those days, a notable institution. He married a vivacious girl and, with the help of the G.I. Bill (he had done an army stint in Korea), entered and graduated from Yale Law School.By the time Sol began practicing law, he had become Oscar, the name on his birth certificate. In his mid-30s, he and his wife lived in a sprawling house they had built on an acre in a fine Sun Belt suburb. Like Kam-ho, Sol had transformed himself in the space of a generation. Actually, in both cases, not even a generation: in the time, rather, that it takes a young man to set off on his own.
Oscar's three children grew up knowing nothing of stickball in the streets or kerosene in the hair. They knew only green playing fields and fragrant shampoo. They might have been removed from their grandmother Sara by two aeons instead of two generations; she remained crabby and Old World, with a heavy accent, till the end. They all attended Ivy League universities. One of them, in time, moved to Washington, D.C. There, in time, he met Kam-ho, who had become Michael.
Today, over a breakfast of orange juice and cereal, the two of them sit on Michael's back patio in the summer and listen to the cicadas sing. Michael's house is not a suburban McMansion, but it has a dishwater, disposal, central air, and two bathrooms (mirabile dictu–plumbing!). Michael owns it and makes a good living running a travel agency. Even so, he is not finished reinventing himself. He has been going to school at night, learning about computer networks. That, he figures, is where the future lies, and he is still young, and this is America.
His parents from Guangdong and Hong Kong, being traditional Chinese who are well advanced in years, believe him to be single and unattached. They ask, often and anxiously, when he will find someone and settle down. They do not know the truth, which is that he has found someone and settled down, because in their world to have a child living as he does is unthinkable, even incomprehensible. Oscar, for his part, knows all about his son. But he was born in America. His mother, Sara, probably would not have understood, and probably would never have been told.
If Michael had stayed in Hong Kong, he might today be unhappily married to a woman. He might be longing in his heart for–for something. Or perhaps he would be single and furtive. What he could not have been is simply himself, living, among his friends and neighbors, as he desires to live.
If Sara had stayed in Poland, she and her children would probably have been killed and her grandchildren never born. By leaving Europe in 1910, she fled, unknowingly, the gas and the fire that consumed the Jews, and she chose, unknowingly, to live. She chose life for her grandson Jon, who chose, and was chosen by, Michael.
America is not what America is because of its venturesome entrepreneurs or its efficient retail sector or its family values or its Judeo-Christian heritage or its rule of law or its constitutional government or its idealistic (sometimes) foreign policy or its melting-pot tradition. Such things are no doubt important. They are American things. But they are not what makes America a dream rather than just a place.
America is a dream because it is a country where you become someone new. In merely the time it takes you to grow up or to watch your children grow up, you can traverse a greater distance than the Hebrews and Egyptians and Greeks and Romans traversed over the course of a civilization's rise and decline. America is a place that remakes you, and that in so doing remakes itself. It is a place where two men, from worlds far away and far apart, sit together on the back patio in the summer, listening to the cicadas sing.