‘Bonita, that engineer from Spain who always worked late, must have gone home already. Yong looked down at his ironed shirt and felt disappointed—if he had done the third floor half an hour earlier he might have seen her.’
September 16, 2016
Yong Chen, a 32-year-old janitor, was vacuuming the flowery carpet in the hallway. It was 9:45 on a Wednesday evening and he had been working for three hours. Lightly-built and small-handed, he hummed a Chinese folk song, steering an orange vacuum cleaner in different directions as if dancing. He scrutinized the space where the wall and the carpet met—out of the vacuum cleaner’s reach. When he spotted dirt or small pieces of paper he bent down, reached out the tube connected to the cleaner and sucked it in as if it were his enemy. He was scrupulous, always.
“Meiyi,” he shut down the vacuum cleaner and shouted in Fujianese, “time to go to the third floor!”
“Just five more minutes,” Du Meiyi’s girlish voice echoed out from the women’s bathroom around the corner.
Yong regarded the vacuumed carpet, then the dimly-lit hallway that stretched to the other side of the building. Like a train, he thought. A train from his hometown, Changle, to Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province where his wife Liu Zheng and their five-year-old daughter Yaya lived. He hadn’t seen them for three years. Last week Zheng sent over some pictures of Yaya, which Yong placed under his pillow and would look at before he fell asleep every night. Yaya’s hair—thick, slightly curly and extremely dark—was his, while her big eyes and long eyelashes were Zheng’s.
They were a beautiful couple, everyone had said when Yong and Zheng got married.
A few moments later, Meiyi finally walked out, a long-stemmed broom in her right hand, a bottle of cleaner in her left. She was thirty-six, a little plump at the waist and the hips, and wore a pink jumpsuit. Her eyes were wide and thin, with a prominent dark circle underneath. Though Yong thought Meiyi was slow at work, he liked her and felt close to her. Their children (Meiyi had three) were both in Fuzhou, and she and her husband had found him this janitor job, higher hourly pay and less work than his previous restaurant jobs. Since he was mostly on the evening shift, he could keep his eight-to-three daytime job at the meat department in a Chinese supermarket, where his manager, a middle-aged man from Beijing, was kind and easy to talk to.
As Yong and Meiyi were drinking water in the kitchen on the third floor, two hippie-looking young men walked in holding Cokes. Without giving Yong and Meiyi as much as a glance, they began to chat by the sink. Like many other young people in the company, they wore faded jeans and the tee-shirts bearing the company logo. They spoke too fast for Yong to understand but he knew they were talking about stocks—Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, Yahoo!—big companies. Silicon Valley people surely knew about stocks, he thought, as he walked out the kitchen with Meiyi, feeling a hint of envy, wishing he were one of them.
After one year here as a janitor Yong knew by heart how many conference rooms, aisles and cubicles there were on each floor. He had seen the company expand from fewer than 100 to more than 400 employees. “It’s an Internet company, you know. It’s growing like a pig,” he would say proudly when asked about his job back home, as if he were a full-time employee with the company. At some point he even considered buying a few shares of this company’s stock, which had jumped from $2 to $42 in less than two months. A $40 gain a share! If only he had used his savings to buy the stock at $2, he would have grown his money from $1,600 to $33,600—enough to pay an immigration lawyer, and to buy Yaya all the Barbie dolls she had always wanted.
Meiyi soon left as she had to take care of her husband, who was sick today. Yong began to clean the conference room “Australia” at the end of the building. He liked how the company named its conference rooms after countries. It was like being on a global tour free of charge—actually, better, since he was paid to be on the tour. “China” was on the second floor near the kitchen, a big space three times the size of his apartment, with a computer, a whiteboard, and a purple-surfaced round table at which he sometimes sat to take a break. Other rooms were called “India,” “Germany,” “Brazil,” and many other countries, all but “United States.” At first, he was puzzled. Later it made perfect sense—why name a conference room the “United States” when the whole company and all of Silicon Valley were in the United States?
He shut off the vacuum cleaner when he reached the aisle directly facing the conference room “Indonesia.” There was the sound of typing, but not from the last cubicle on the right. So, Bonita, that engineer from Spain who always worked late, must have gone home already. Yong looked down at his ironed shirt and felt disappointed—if he had done the third floor half an hour earlier he might have seen her.
He steered the vacuum through the aisle. The first cubicle on the left was almost empty, only a computer, a chair, and a few books—each thicker than a brick—scattered over the desk. This person must be new, he thought. In the cubicle opposite, there were breadcrumbs and rice all over the floor; in the next, posters and charts plastered over the cubicle walls. They were composed of differently sized squares, circles, and triangles, each titled with terms unfamiliar to Yong, such as “browser cookies.” These shapes were connected with dozens of lines of varied colors and thicknesses. He carefully moved the chair and zigzagged the vacuum amongst the scatterings on the floor.
Finally he reached Bonita’s cubicle. He scanned the cubicle and saw the same familiar items—a row of books arranged by size, a pot of small white roses to the right of the computer, and four framed pictures on the desk. As always, Bonita had scrupulously pushed her chair back under her desk, as a polite diner would after getting up from her meal. He walked to the desk and picked up the picture with only Bonita in it—it was in a silver frame, twice the size of the other three that were of family get-togethers. In the picture, Bonita was kayaking in a green lifejacket. She had wavy brown hair, deep-set blue eyes, and arching eyebrows. She was smiling, and two little dimples appeared on each glowing cheek.
Bonita was the first white person who had been friendly to him, and she even chatted with him. They had met on a Wednesday evening. Exactly two months ago. Bonita had joined the company that week. When Yong came to clean her cubicle, she said hello and told him that she had visited China when she was in high school. She even asked about his family. Then she said goodbye and goodnight in Mandarin to him. Since then, whenever Yong was at work, he tried to find Bonita. “Hi, Bonita, how are you?” He would walk over when he spotted her in her cubicle, in the kitchen, the hallway, the lobby or outside, and Bonita would always greet him in Mandarin with a smile. Several times, Bonita asked him to teach her the Mandarin words for colors, numbers, weather, food, or phrases like “Nice to meet you.” Next time, when she saw him, she spoke these words and phrases with obvious pride. During their little exchanges, Yong learned—he was surprised that he could understand so much—that Bonita was 24, grew up in a small village in Spain, was the youngest of five children, had gone to San Jose State University for her Masters in computer science and currently held an H-1B visa, which, she explained, was linked to her job with the Internet company. If the company did not support her employment, she would have to find another company within a month or she’d have to leave the United States.
“What’s your visa like?” Bonita had asked him.
“I have a green card,” Yong had answered, his heart suddenly jumping. He remembered the day a year ago when Big Mighty Sister Ping—that was how everyone called her—handed him an envelope with his green card, social security card and driver’s license inside. Of course they were fake, she said to him. But they should work. “Make sure you follow the rules when you drive so you don’t get pulled over by the cops,” Ping said before she left.
Thinking of Bonita filled Yong with happiness. Yong looked at his watch and started to vacuum her cubicle though there was no visible dirt on the carpet. He also wiped the desk, the shelves, the back of the chair, and the four framed pictures. There was no garbage in the trash bin but he took out the old plastic bag and put in a new one anyway. Before leaving he smelled the slightly fragrant mini-rose. He finished the rest of his work within an hour, then cleaned the men’s bathroom for Meiyi. When he got on his paint-chipped bicycle and headed home, it was a few minutes before midnight. But he was not the least bit tired; he was even energetic. He had no reason to complain about a twenty-minute ride on such a windless and moonlit night.
A few days later, on a rare day shift, he saw Bonita in the hallway of the third floor during lunch time. Holding her lunch bag over her chest, head lowered as if in deep thought, she was apparently heading back to her cubicle. She wore a white blouse and knee-length denim skirt, her long hair covering half her back.
“Ni hao, Bonita!” he said.
“Ni hao, Brave.” She stopped and raised her head. Her eyes seemed bloodshot. Ever since she had learned that “Yong” in Chinese means “Brave,” she had been addressing him by that.
“I’m good, I’m doing fine.”
“Too many work?”
“Not too bad. Just another work day. Have to go back to work now. Zai jian!”
She was sad and she missed her family, Yong thought, standing still as Bonita turned and headed to her aisle. Before she disappeared out of sight, he said, surprised by his courage: “Hey, Bonita!”
“Yes?” She turned.
“A big party…a friend’s house…first Saturday…next month.” He swallowed hard, hands clasped tightly over his chest. “You come?”
“Good food … people … dance, music and some white people there.”
“Sounds like fun,” Bonita said, smiling faintly.
“Sure. Have to go back to work now. Have a big deadline due today. Zai Jian!”
“Zai jian,” Yong said, unable to move his trembling legs. The first thing he’d do after work, he thought, was to tell his roommate Wu Daqiang that he’d invited a white girl to the party in his uncle’s house. Daqiang’s uncle and his wife had a nice house in Cupertino and hosted parties from time to time; their guests sometimes included several of their white neighbors.
The following two weeks Yong had to work in a different company due to a special arrangement with his cleaning company. One day before work, Yong called his parents and, after learning they were doing fine, he called Zheng. Yong had wanted to talk longer, to hear more of his wife’s gentle voice, but he had to hang up after talking to her for barely three minutes—it was expensive to call China. Before their call ended, Zheng reminded him that Yaya’s birthday was less than a month away.
That night, when Yong went home, he looked through a few months’ worth of his bank statements. After two years of working twelve or thirteen hours a day, seven days a week in several Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, he had finally paid off his debt. He had paid thirty thousand dollars plus interest to Big Mighty Sister Ping, who had smuggled him into the United States in a rusty boat auspiciously named Chenggong, “success.” The memory of those fifty-two days of his life, stuck in the overcrowded and suffocating boat, still sometimes woke him in the middle of his sleep. Then he would stare at the darkness for hours, his face damp with perspiration.
That was history and from now on everything would be fine, he would console himself whenever the past caught up with him. Really, he hadn’t had a choice. American dollars were worth a lot more than Chinese RMBs, and he had needed money—his factory job had paid little; Zheng dreamed of having her own hair salon; his parents’ farmhouse needed a major renovation; and Yaya deserved a better education and a better life. When a man he knew from childhood, who had recently returned from San Francisco for a short stay, came to tell him how easy it was to make money in the U.S. and how colleges were free and open to anyone with a green card, he believed him and signed the contract the man presented to him despite Zheng’s objection. “It won’t take long,” he had comforted her, caressing her hair and cheeks. “You also want Yaya to attend an American university someday, don’t you?”
Yong now remembered that Yaya once said that her biggest wish was to visit Disneyland. Of course, it wouldn’t be possible for her to come to Los Angeles right now but perhaps he could surprise her with a trip to Hong Kong’s Disneyland. He would send Zheng $500. Zheng had always wanted to visit Hong Kong, to ride the tram to The Peak, and she, too, fancied going to Disneyland, being a fan of Disney movies. This idea excited him. Though he and Zheng had agreed before he left China that he didn’t need to send money home, so he could save to hire an immigration lawyer to get a green card, a real one, he felt he had to get Yaya a special birthday gift this time, not just a Barbie or a laced dress. And he wanted to make Zheng happy. $500 was not enough, he knew.
The next day Yong bought thirty-five shares of the company’s stock. It was a hassle but Long Neck, also from Fujian Province, helped him set up an account on the Internet. Long Neck had bought stocks before. He had come to the U.S ten years ago through Panama and made a fortune in the construction business. He recently married a white woman, his third wife, and they bought a five-bedroom house in Santa Clara, where they had a lush garden, a swimming pool, and a home theater with three rows of reclining leather seats.
A week later Yong received a stack of colorful brochures and a trade confirmation from the brokerage company—35 shares at $43.17 per share. Yong locked the brochures and the trade confirmation in the bottom drawer of his desk. As he biked to work that day he hummed all the way.
When Yong was sent back to work at his original company it was only five days away from the Saturday party. The night before, he did laundry, got a haircut, ironed his favorite shirt, and bought a pair of deeply discounted khaki pants from Wal-Mart.
As soon as Yong started to work he noticed something weird. It was only 6:30 PM but the whole building, except for him, Meiyi, and another janitor, was as empty as a haunted house. Where were those fast-paced, arrogant-looking young people? Had everyone gone home on time today? After vacuuming the stairs and the hallway, he walked into an aisle to collect garbage. Of the eight cubicles in the aisle, five were empty—the computers and chairs were there, but there was no garbage in the bin or any trace of other personal belongings. He stopped collecting the garbage and ran through the stairs to the third floor, to Bonita’s cubicle. The books, framed pictures, rose, and chair remained the way he had seen them last. In fact, all the cubicles in Bonita’s aisle were occupied the same way. He released a long exhale and went to find Meiyi on the first floor. Meiyi told him that there had been a layoff a week earlier.
A layoff? No jobs? Didn’t the company just buy land? Yong shook his head and went back to work. At this point, he was sure that all the people who had been let go were lazy or had performed poorly. No doubt all the empty cubicles would be filled within a week and a new building would rise across the street in a few months. Then the stock would hit 50, 60……
Two days later, when Yong came to the company to clean, there were even more empty cubicles. Holding an enveloped invitation card in his hand, which he had purchased at Hallmark Cards, he headed to Bonita’s cube. If Bonita happened to be in the office, he would deliver it in person. Otherwise, he would just leave it on her desk.
Bonita’s cubicle was empty. Nothing but the computer and the chair remained. The books were gone. The rose was gone. The framed pictures were gone.
“Wrong cubicle?” Yong said to himself and began to check the other ones nearby. The first one he had assumed to be occupied by a newcomer was also empty, but the rest of them, including the messy cubicle with complex charts on the walls, remained untouched.
He stood in the middle of the aisle and didn’t know what to do. Bonita must have moved. As soon as the idea hit him, he ran out of the aisle and into the next aisle, and then next……
Bonita was gone.
The next morning Yong called Long Neck and asked him to check the current price of the company. Long Neck called back in the evening and told him the closing price was $3.53. $3.53? Yong yelled into the phone and felt like punching Long Neck and tearing him to pieces. “Man, I told you buying stocks is risky. Just wait. It’ll come back—” “Fuck stocks…” A woman’s piercing voice interrupted on the other end, and then the sound of someone trying to grab the phone, then either Long Neck or his wife hung up the phone abruptly.
Yong didn’t go to work for the next few days—he was quite sick, with a fever and a severe headache. Every night he had fragmented dreams where he saw gun-pointing policemen, a sinking boat, several sodden and bloated bodies, smiling Zheng and Yaya, his now worthless bank account, and Bonita. “Where did she go?” His roommates Wu Daqiang and Yuan Wei heard him murmuring before they headed out to work and decided not to tell him the news—Liu Zheng had called the day before on the phone they shared to say that she had met a man six months earlier. She told Daqiang that she’d waited long enough, was extremely sorry and didn’t have the heart to break the news to Yong herself, but she just found out that she was pregnant with that man’s child. She also said, sobbing, that the man had proposed to her and she had said yes and that they would move to Shanghai, where the man had a restaurant, as soon as her divorce with Yong was finalized.
On Sunday morning Yong finally gets out of bed. The moment he sits up he has a splitting headache. He sits still until the headache goes away. When his feet touch the floor he feels like a newborn baby without much sense of the past. His roommates have gone to work but the TV in the living room is on, where the straight-haired anchor with heavy makeup is announcing the news in English, her voice deep and solemn. He walks to the TV and squats down—the screen has switched to a chart with the headlines. “The job market……” Yong reads in a small voice, then he stops as he doesn’t know the next word. A bespectacled white man now appears on the screen, interviewed by a journalist. Though Yong cannot fully grasp their conversation he knows what it is about.
Yong stands up slowly. For a few seconds he thinks of Bonita and his now nearly worthless stock but they seem strangely irrelevant, like a blurred memory of a childhood mischief. He cannot even recall what Bonita looks like, except her blue eyes. And her cubicle… yes, the white rose with a little fragrance. Nothing else comes to his mind. Has his sickness changed him somehow, or is he just too tired to remember things? But what’s the use of thinking about these things? What does Bonita have anything to do with him? He knows so little about her. Yes, she was friendly to him but she isn’t his friend. Not at all. She was an illusion, a stupid illusion of his, Yong realizes suddenly. How wrong he was, thinking that they shared the same predicament of all immigrants in this country. Really, their differences could not be more vast. She’s legal and he’s illegal. She is white, speaks good English, has a good education and will do well no matter where she is. If she cannot find a job within a month she can surely find an American man to marry. Maybe she’s gotten an American boyfriend already.
He coughs dryly. How ridiculous he was to think that if he had a white friend, he would be one step closer to calling America home! The truth is that Bonita isn’t even an American.
As for his severely reduced balance at the bank… Yong is too weak to ponder it. As soon as he’s better, he says to himself, he’ll work harder, much harder, and he’ll save more money. He is going to bring Zheng and Yaya to the U.S. someday, and he’ll buy a house with a garden like Long Neck’s, where he can build a playground and a red treehouse for Yaya, where Zheng can cook her favorite dishes in a kitchen with white cabinets and granite countertops.
He feels terribly hungry. He walks to the kitchen to fix himself a sandwich. Through the half-opened window and the chain-linked fence, he can see his Mexican neighbor and his two kids playing soccer in their tiny backyard where red bougainvillea occupies a corner. The sky is a little overcast but there is plenty of sunshine from between the clouds. And the music, from a stereo somewhere he cannot see in their backyard, sung by a mariachi band from Guadalajara, is loud and festive, a mix of guitar, violin, and trumpet.
Maybe they’re legal, maybe they’re not: Yong doesn’t know. But he suspects that they’re happier than he is regardless of their immigration status. He dives into the sandwich with vigor, and accidentally bites his tongue. It hurts terribly but he ignores the pain and the tears that have suddenly appeared in his eyes, and continues to consume the food like one possessed by a starved and wandering ghost.