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  • Life on Mars
  • May-lee Chai (bio)

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In the morning, there were jade-colored fields of corn stretching as far as the eye could see. It had been dark the entire drive from the airport; Zhang Xiao Yu hadn’t seen anything but the black road and the taillights of the cars and trucks around Uncle’s car. From the window of his new bedroom, however, he could see for miles, all the way to the horizon, the emptiness of the sky like an inverted rice bowl over the endless green fields. [End Page 19]

It was both exactly like and nothing like the America of the movies he’d seen.

His aunt was not living with his uncle anymore. That would have surprised his parents. Xiao Yu didn’t say anything when his uncle explained in the kitchen that morning, “She’s with her sister,” as though that explained everything. His uncle handed him a small box of dry cereal, which Xiao Yu ate straight from the box. It had a picture of a cartoon tiger on the box and too much sugar. But Xiao Yu didn’t complain. He was hungry, and his parents had said not to make a fuss. He was lucky to be in America. He must do well in school, they’d said, obey Uncle and Auntie, get accepted into an American college in two years. They had not said it, but he feared that they also expected him at that point to find an American girl to marry. Then, when they could, they would join him. Until then, he had to find a way to adapt. They were counting on him.

________

“Hey, kid, you just gonna sit there?” His uncle’s boss stood in front of Xiao Yu. Unlike his uncle, he wore a clean white shirt with no stains and a complicated watch. He had a fat belly that hung over his belt. He’d been in America for a long time. Out of politeness Xiao Yu didn’t stare at the man’s face. He stared at the watch instead.

“No, Uncle,” he said politely, even though this man was not his real uncle. His real uncle stood in silence at the stove next to a large Mexican man with tattoos of dragons on his biceps. “I can work, too.”

“Work?” The boss laughed. The men in the kitchen laughed. Xiao Yu couldn’t tell if his uncle was laughing with them. His eyes were on the boss’s watch. It had three faces and six second hands. Xiao Yu had seen watches like this online. One that he’d liked remained waterproof even at the bottom of the sea.

The boss put his hand on top of Xiao Yu’s head. He could feel the sweat of the man’s palms dripping through his hair to his scalp. “And what can you do, Little Emperor?”

Xiao Yu cringed at the nickname, but what could he say?

“I can do anything,” he lied. He’d been a student his entire life. He’d never worked. It was his parents’ wish that he continue to study. He’d done his best at school, but his best wasn’t as good as the students whose parents could afford private schools and private tutors.

“I can sweep the floor,” he said, thinking of things he’d seen workers doing. “I can wash the dishes.” [End Page 20]

“Whoa, whoa, listen to this! The Little Emperor really does want to work!” The boss laughed. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his crisp white shirt and tapped one out for himself. “Fine, fine. Glad to hear you can be useful,” the boss said. “A kid who’s willing to work.” He tapped the Mexican man between the shoulder blades. “Juan,” he said in English, “show the kid where the mop is.”

Xiao Yu wouldn’t tell his parents. They’d be worried; they’d want him to study, but he could imagine how money of his own might be useful.

So Xiao Yu learned to mop floors and wash the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 18-31
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-20
Open Access
No
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