From the bestselling author of Girl in Translation, a novel about a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing.
Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York's Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie's entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works-miserably-as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie's natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed-something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds-Eastern and Western, old world and new-to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.
Release date: June 24, 2014
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Print pages: 384
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Mambo in Chinatown
Copyright © 2014 Jean Kwok
My name is Charlie Wong and I’m the daughter of a dancer and a noodle-maker. My mother was once a star ballerina at the famed Beijing Dance Academy before she ran off to marry my father, the handsomest noodle-maker in Beijing—or at least that’s what she always called him before she died. Hand in hand, they escaped to America to start their family. Unfortunately, my mother’s genes seemed to miss me altogether. I took after Pa, minus the good-looking part. And minus the manual dexterity as well: he never managed to pass his considerable noodle-making skills on to me, much as he tried. So at twenty-two years old I was instead working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. Pa was their noodle master. Customers lined up at the back door to purchase packages of his uncooked noodles to take home.
Peering now through the window that connected the tiny dishwashing room to the kitchen, I could see Mrs. Lee standing by the back door. She’d put on extra lipstick for Pa, and she fixed her eyes on his brown hands wrapped around the bamboo pole.
“Can you make them extra long for me?” she asked in Mandarin. She stood a bit stiffly, careful not to brush against the grease-covered doorframe.
Pa nodded as he hoisted the bamboo pole and lowered it once again onto the dough on the table. The end of the pole f it into a hole punched in the wall, just above the table surface. As he rolled the pole, the dough became thinner on every pass. It was hard work. I knew his hands were ridged with calluses. Then he sliced the dough into perfectly regular strands with his cleaver, and began pulling them by hand. He twirled them into a rope, then stretched them again and again. It was like magic.
He looked up to f lash Mrs. Lee a smile. “Must be your birthday.”
She actually giggled, a woman of her age. “You are an intelligent man.”
I would have snorted, only the waiters pushed another plastic bus tub filled with stacks of bowls through the other window at that moment, the one connecting the dish room to the restaurant. Everybody knew it was good luck to have long noodles on your birthday since they symbolized long life, just as most of us in Chinatown remembered Mrs. Lee’s husband had passed on a number of years ago. I dumped the food off the dishes, then piled everything in another tub. I was used to women complimenting Pa—but if you’re trying to catch him for your own, good luck, lady. Pa hadn’t dated since Ma died and probably never would; he was still in love with her. I hefted the heavy tub with ease, then hauled it over to the washing sink. I’d been working this job for years, ever since leaving high school, and I had the biceps to prove it. I ducked my head to look through the window again and see what Mrs. Lee was up to. I caught a whiff of ginger and garlic that one of the cooks had just dropped into a wok.
Pa had given the ends of the dough to his assistant and they’d stretched the noodles across the room while the other cook dodged them. Mrs. Lee beamed as Pa rolled up the finished noodles for her.
“You should join us. I promise the noodles will be tender,” she said.
Pa gave her an old-fashioned bow from the waist as he handed her package to her. “You are very kind but I am so busy taking care of my two daughters. You know how it is.”
“Of course,” she said. Her bright lips drooped at the corners. “Next time, then.”
“Yes, I wish you long life and happiness,” said Pa, turning back to his assistant. “Get me a sack of flour from the basement, will you?”
I should have been the one helping him. Pa had brought me to the restaurant to watch and train ever since I was a child. Hard as I tried, I still dropped everything. “You have to coax the dough,” Pa said, but I pummeled it instead. A noodle master has magic in his fingers. Mine were as clumsy as if I were always wearing gloves. Pa was tall and lean. His defined nose and cheekbones made for a strong face on a man, but those features were too sharp for a woman, according to my Aunt Monica and Uncle Henry. I was tanned like the rest of Pa’s family, and for a Chinese girl, I was homely. I had learned early on not to attract any attention. Most of the time, I succeeded.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead. It was the afternoon lull but my legs were already starting to ache from the hours I’d spent on my feet since the early morning. I poured in some detergent, then turned on only the hot faucet and let it f ill the sink. At the beginning, I couldn’t bear to put my hands in the scalding water, even when I’d diluted it with some cold. I’d tried to use gloves until I realized the steaming water poured in over the tops of the gloves anyway when I submerged my arms. But if I was good for nothing but washing dishes, I’d resolved to be the best dishwasher I could. I’d increased the heat day by day until my body adjusted. I didn’t mind the way my hands and arms became reddened and chapped. It was the cost of my labor.
The rising steam combined with the August heat was stifling. I dropped a stack of bowls into the water, then plunged in my hands and forearms to soap them. My skin had become so rough now I barely winced anymore. The hotter the water, the faster I could work. Although the restaurant had a dishwashing machine, it was so ancient I had to make the dishes as clean as possible before loading it anyway, rather than waste time cleaning out the debris from the machine traps. Otherwise, I would have to check the dishes when they came out of the machine to know they were clean. Especially during the mealtime rush, every second was precious or we’d run out of clean dishes and silverware.
I pulled out another stack of dirty bowls from the bus tub and found a large roach hanging from one of them. I froze. I didn’t want to drop everything into the soapy water and have to fish out the now-boiled roach. The bug took advantage of my confusion, racing up my hand and onto my arm.
I screeched. The dishes I’d been holding clattered onto the floor while I batted at the roach, trying to get it off my shirt before it reached my face. Suddenly, a white cooking cloth whipped the roach off of me. It landed upside down on the floor, thick legs waving, and a man’s foot smashed it.
“You are the clumsiest dishwasher we’ve ever had!” said Mr. Hu, the owner of the restaurant. His round cheeks seemed covered with a perpetual layer of grease. “Clean it up right away!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was—”
“I don’t want to hear it!”
Pa was standing in the doorway. “Mr. Hu, she works very hard.”
Mr. Hu softened when he saw my father. Without Pa, his restaurant would lose most of its business. “I know. And she is strong too. Just get rid of this mess, okay? Dishes are expensive.”
I started sweeping up the broken crockery right away. When Mr. Hu was gone, I said, “Thanks, Pa.” Although I could understand Chinese, I couldn’t speak it very well. Pa and I usually communicated in English. Sometimes he spoke Chinese and I answered him in English.
“Anyone can drop a soapy dish. That man needs a vacation.” He gave me an affectionate pat on the shoulder, then went back to the noodle station.
If it weren’t for Pa, I didn’t know if the restaurant would have kept me on since there was no shortage of cheap labor. However, I did work hard and I knew the restaurant had gone through a number of dishwashers before I was hired. It was dirty work, even for Chinatown.
An hour later, I was sleeping across a row of chairs by the wall at the back of the restaurant. All of the staff took naps there during our breaks because our shifts could extend from early morning until late in the night, depending on business. If more customers showed up, the restaurant stayed open. Everyone ignored us as long as we kept our backs to the other tables, and if we didn’t snore too loudly.
Someone tapped me on the side of my head. I jerked awake and peeled my cheek off the vinyl of the chair, annoyed and disoriented. “What?” I saw the yellowing wallpaper, then turned to focus on my little sister Lisa’s heart-shaped face. “Don’t touch my hair.”
“Sorry,” she said but I could tell she’d done it on purpose. “You wouldn’t wake up otherwise.”
I pushed myself up on one elbow and frowned at her. “Did you try?”
“No. I know from experience.” When I rolled my eyes, she leaned in and whispered, “I found an ad for a new job for you.”
I didn’t find out what Lisa’s job possibility was until after my shift. I’d shooed her out of the restaurant after her announcement, before she got me into trouble with Mr. Hu again for dawdling on my break. I knew she’d be waiting for me at home. Even though it was late by the time Pa and I arrived at our apartment, Lisa always tried to stay up. If she fell asleep, she’d wake up again when she heard us come in because she wanted to make sure we got home safely.
“What could happen in Chinatown?” I asked her once.
“Petty theft, knife fights, muggings, gang wars,” she answered. She had a point. She was only eleven but Lisa had always been precocious. Sometimes I watched her sleeping and wished I could keep her safe from the life I led. At the very least, I would have liked to keep her ignorant of how tired I was much of the time, but it was impossible to fool her. No matter how often I told her I was satisfied being a dishwasher, Lisa kept trying to find new opportunities for me.
To be honest, I didn’t mind. I wished not for a new job or place but for a different life altogether, to change not the where but the how of things. Some people dreamed of going someplace else; I dreamed of being someone else. Someone who hadn’t always been in the bottom half of her class at school. Someone poised, elegant and beautiful—like Ma had been, like Lisa would be when she grew up. It was Lisa who took after Ma, from the slight f lush beneath her skin to that gliding grace when she ran. Sometimes I would look at Lisa and Pa and silently ask the gods, “Could I please not be born into such a good-looking family in my next life?” It wasn’t easy being a cow among gazelles.
Every night, after saying goodnight to Pa as he retired to his tiny closet of a room, Lisa and I folded up the plastic table in the living room and put it in the corner. My mattress, with the sheets hanging off it, always leaned by the wall. We squeezed that in between the sofa and the pile of three little televisions stacked against the other wall. Only the top one worked, but Pa could never bear to throw away any of the others since they’d cost so much. “They will be maybe handy someday,” he said. Then we pulled off the worn patchwork cloth covering the sofa, exposing the scorch mark I’d made when I left the iron on it once. We covered the sofa with a sheet, then piled on Lisa’s pillow and blanket, which I had painstakingly sewn together from scraps. She was growing almost too tall to f it on the short sofa and I wasn’t sure what we would do then.
Although I nagged Lisa to go to sleep before Pa and I got home, I secretly looked forward to those moments of peace at night: Lisa lying on the sofa and me on my mattress on the floor below her, when we chatted and read before going to sleep.
“How were Uncle Henry and Aunt Monica today?” I asked.
She made a face, then said, “Fine.”
“You shouldn’t be ungrateful,” I said, “we’re—”
She completed my sentence, “—lucky that they use me for free slave labor in Uncle Henry’s office under the guise of taking care of me. I know.” Uncle Henry was a well-known doctor in traditional Chinese medicine in Chinatown. Lisa helped out at his office with tasks like filing and cleaning after school until closing time, then she came home. Now that it was summer vacation, she was there full time.
I grinned before I could stop myself. “How did you become so obnoxious?”
“The same way you got so moralistic.”
We stuck our tongues out at each other, even though I knew I was much too mature for such a thing.
“And I thought you wanted to be a doctor,” I said.
“I know.” She sighed. “It’s good experience for me, even if he’s not a western doctor.”
“Come on, start reading,” I said, passing her the paperback book.
Every night, Lisa had been reading Pilgrim’s Progress aloud to me before we went to sleep. I’d actually started by trying to read to her but I had so much difficulty with it that she took over. In school the words “lack of motivation” had appeared repeatedly on my report cards, but my teachers never knew about the hours I struggled over my textbooks in the evenings. It was my tenth grade English teacher who’d given us the list of Top 100 Classic Books and I was still determined to get through that list. I barely passed that teacher’s class and she didn’t notice me much, except to ask me a few times to try harder, but I worshipped her from afar, with her sharp wit and wild hair and gesturing hands. I never dared tell her how I fought at home to read her books, how after many hours I would only be halfway through the assignment. I could see the difference between Lisa and me from the moment she started to read, fluently and easily. Even though I was an “ABC,” American-born Chinese, reading was like a foreign language to me.
My teachers had always wanted to talk to Pa, but he never dared show up to meet them. He thought his English was too bad and I think he was intimidated by them. He felt his lack of education as a noodle-maker. His brother, our Uncle Henry, was the oldest son and had been rigorously trained in traditional Chinese medicine, although he didn’t have a medical degree. There’d been no money left for Pa. I’d once seen the father of another student at school, arguing with a teacher for his child. For a moment I’d allowed myself to think it was Pa and my heart had leapt. Once, Aunt Monica had come to the school in Pa’s stead. She spent her time telling my teachers that I needed to help out more at home, that it was shameful my father did most of the cooking. When I told Pa, he’d politely refused her help from then on. This was why I made sure I myself went to all of Lisa’s teacher meetings now.
As Lisa f lipped open Pilgrim’s Progress and started to read, I did my best to pay attention. My legs and arms felt heavy, my back ached from bending over the sinks. I was so glad to be off my feet. Before I knew it, Lisa was tapping me on the head again.
“Why are you doing that?” I protested, trying to pretend I’d been awake the whole time.
“I thought we were reading this to improve our minds,” Lisa said. “How can we do that when you’re asleep?”
“I’m not sleeping.” I paused. “Anymore. And we’re improving your mind at least.”
“Before you conk out again, can I tell you about your new job possibility?”
I groaned. “Will you stop being such an optimistic little beaver? You know I almost never get hired. And when I do, I just get fired again.”
“That’s only because you haven’t found the right job yet. Take a look at this.” Lisa passed me a scrap she’d torn out of an English newspaper, probably from her school library. Pa only bought Chinese newspapers, which neither Lisa nor I could read.
I glanced at the clipping, then sat up. I read the ad out loud, “Wanted: Receptionist for Ballroom Dance Studio.”
Lisa said softly, “A dance studio.”
“They’ll never take me,” I said. “I’m a terrible receptionist, remember?” I had tried to work outside of Chinatown a few times but all the phones I was supposed to answer had so many buttons. The computer was a mystery to me since we didn’t have one at home and I’d only had a few hours of practice at school. But the worst was when I had to write down appointments. That was when things most often went wrong.
The last time, I’d only been a receptionist at the accounting firm for a few days. The company was small and cheap, and when they needed an important package delivered to Midtown, they’d sent me instead of hiring a courier. Big mistake. As always, I got lost looking for the right bus. When I finally found it, I realized I’d left my wallet back at the office. Determined not to fail, I walked all the way to my destination. But when I finally arrived, I looked down at the thick manila envelope I was supposed to deliver and it was a stained and crumpled mess. I’d been kneading it as I worried my way there. And I was fired again.
“You may have changed by now. It’s been a while.” Lisa bobbed her head up and down, to show how sure she was of this possibility.
“I doubt it.” But despite myself, I glanced up at Ma’s photos. A dance studio was a magical place; it represented Ma’s passion and talents. She’d died when Lisa was only three, but we both grew up poring over her photos. Ma, incredibly young at seventeen, in a dress of embroidered silk, poised on one leg with her body turned to the camera, a white fan f licked open above her head. An old Chinese newspaper clipping of a line of star dancers from the Beijing Dance Academy at a diplomatic event. Ma in the foreground, dressed in a dramatic costume from the Beijing Opera, curtseying to the white man in a suit.
Lisa didn’t remember Ma at all, but I did. Ma had never danced again in public after coming to the U.S. with Pa. She couldn’t speak English, didn’t know anyone in the dance world, hadn’t understood how the system here worked, and soon, her life had been swallowed by hard labor. But she’d trained me. There was only a few feet of space available to us, but Ma was determined. During the week, she worked long hours as a waitress at the noodle restaurant with Pa. As soon as she had a day off, she would push all of the apartment’s furniture aside and teach me while Pa stood in the doorway.
I suppose it wasn’t so much dancing as exercises she taught me. Stretches, handstands, push-ups, pirouettes, anything we could do in the limited space. I’m sure I wasn’t very good but I felt strong and limber with Ma’s hands correcting me, gentle but firm, pushing my hips, my arms, my neck into place. It was one of the few times I didn’t feel like a failure at everything. Ma became someone else when we trained, someone fierce and merciless.
“We must do this now, while you’re still young,” she said. “This flexibility, this strength, will always belong to you.”
I remember wondering why Pa always stayed to watch us while his face was so sad.
Underneath Ma’s photos stood a large jar labeled “Broadway Money” in Lisa’s rounded handwriting. We’d pasted ads for different shows all around the sides. It was partially filled with bills and loose change. Lisa and I had been saving for years to go to a Broadway show with Pa. Seeing the dancers would bring Ma back to Pa, if only for an hour or two, we thought. Since we weren’t sure when we’d have enough for tickets for all three of us, we hadn’t decided on the show yet. I’d counted it recently and we had just enough for a ticket for one person.
I again looked at the employment ad. Imagine working in a dance studio. I’d be able to watch the dancers every day.
Lisa’s voice broke into my thoughts. “They’re interviewing on Monday. What do you have to lose?”
I woke to the slight sounds of Pa moving around in our kitchenette. It was Sunday and Pa and I had the day off. There was no door, only an archway in between the living room, where we slept, and the tiny kitchen, which contained the altars to Ma and our ancestors. Pa always made breakfast for Ma’s spirit, even though it’d been eight years since she’d passed away. In fact, we never ate anything at home before putting it in front of Ma’s altar and offering it to her first. On the altar was a close-up framed photo of her young face. Pa was lighting incense now and murmuring, “Here’s your tea, dear one.”
By the time Lisa and I had put away my mattress and all of the bedding, Pa had finished making egg drop soup and put our bowls on a small table in front of Ma’s altar. Lisa and I went into the kitchen to bow to Ma and light incense for the gods. After Ma’s spirit had eaten, we took the bowls into the living room and sat down at the plastic table to have our own breakfast.
As the oldest female in the house, I should have been doing most of the housework, but from the time I was a small girl I’d shown myself to be incapable of learning any domestic task Ma had tried to teach me. I burned myself whenever I tried to cook, and even after I’d swept the floor as well as I could, Ma had to do it again. Luckily, Pa was a great cook and we sometimes brought home leftovers from the restaurant. He didn’t seem to mind the way I was, although Uncle Henry and Aunt Monica often reprimanded him for spoiling me.
As the three of us sat around the fold-up table, I stirred my soup to cool it, first clockwise, then counter.
Pa shook his head. “Some say for good luck, you need to stir clockwise. Some say counterclockwise. But doing both at random is definitely wrong.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I just had something on my mind. Pa, do you think someone could fill in for me tomorrow afternoon?”
He looked up, concerned. “Why? Are you sick?”
“Job interview.” I knew we needed every cent the two of us could bring in together. A wave of guilt washed over me at the thought of losing good money for this interview, when I wouldn’t be hired anyway. I started shaking my head. “I don’t need to—”
“No, no,” Pa said. “That’s good, very good. You deserve a better life. What is the company?”
Lisa and I exchanged glances. “Computers,” she said.
“They’re very well known,” I added. We both knew that Pa would worry if he knew it was a dance studio. Were they doing indecent forms of dance? Would men there want to corrupt his daughter? And so on.
“Ah, good,” Pa said. “I will go to restaurant and tell Mr. Hu today.”
An hour later, Pa left to do the shopping and chat with his friends in Gossip Park, our nickname for the large park in Chinatown. Lisa and I used the time to try to find something I could wear to the interview. We searched through all of the closets, and I thought it was a good thing Pa never threw anything away. In the end, buried in a garbage bag filled with clothing that had been given to us, we found a red dress. It was so long on me that I had to belt it around my hips to make it reach midcalf instead of my ankles.
My hair was not in the best shape. I’d recently allowed Mrs. Tam, who owned the beauty salon on our street, to have her way with it.
“I give you a big discount because we are neighbors,” she said. “I know how to make girls beautiful. Trust me.”
So despite the expense, I’d let Mrs. Tam do my hair instead of having Lisa chop it off the way she usually did. Mrs. Tam layered my hair in hopes of “bringing out its natural curl.” With my thick, coarse hair, I wound up with a big ball of frizz on my head, chunks sticking up all over the place. At that point, Mrs. Tam wanted to perm my hair to make it look better, but thankfully, I didn’t have the money for that.
“I found it!” Lisa pulled a long piece of red cloth out of an old suitcase. She came over to me and wound it all the way around my head, hiding most of the haircut.
Together, we looked at me in the mirror. “Does the scarf match the dress?” I asked.
Lisa squinted. “Almost.”
“I guess it’s close enough.” The big, sacklike red dress covered my entire body and it seemed as if I was wearing a red turban on my head, with the ends of the scarf trailing down behind me like a tail. “Do you think it’s too much red?”
“No,” said Lisa loyally, “you look like a gypsy, Charlie.”
I gave her a quick hug. Then we stared down at my shoes. I was wearing my sturdy dishwasher shoes.
“They’ll be fine,” I said.
“I think you have to wear high heels,” she said. “Isn’t that what they dance in? It might make a better impression. And you have such pretty feet.”
“Smarty-pants,” I muttered as I got down on my hands and knees to search in the back of the closet again. Lisa knew my weaknesses. My feet, narrow and arched, were the one thing I’d inherited from Ma. Lisa used to call them “Cinderella feet” before I started wearing the sturdy shoes I needed at the restaurant.
I finally dug out the only pair of pumps I owned. The heels were scuffed and the black vinyl surface was peeling off at the toes to reveal light gray patches underneath.
“Wait.” Lisa rummaged through the kitchen drawer until she pulled out a black permanent marker.
I used a pair of scissors to cut off the bits that were sticking out. Then I started drawing on the shoes with the black marker, coloring in all of the gray and scuffed parts. When I was done, the shoes still looked awful if you looked closely. The colored-in areas had a completely different texture from the rest of the material, but from a distance I thought they looked all right.
“They’re great now,” Lisa said.
“You’re just worried I’m going to chicken out,” I said.
I glanced at the photo of Ma, posed in her one-legged stance, then I looked at the redness that was me in the mirror. “I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
I could already tell in the elevator that I was out of my league. The building was on the Upper East Side, a world away from downtown Chinatown. I squeezed myself into the corner, trying to avoid my blurred reflection on the metal walls. The man standing across from me had streaks of gray in his hair and the shiniest black shoes I’d ever seen. His pants had been perfectly pressed. I was dripping with sweat, but he seemed collected and fresh in his crisp shirt. I took a deep breath as the doors slid open. We stepped out of the elevator together and he allowed me to precede him down the carpeted hallway to the gilded double doors. Another blast of air-conditioning hit me as he held one open for me. Some sort of fast classical music was playing.
“Oh my dear, Nina,” he said to the young woman sitting behind the reception desk. He had a hint of a Southern drawl. “Are they still torturing you like this?”
She looked up, one hand clutching her long brown hair, and blew out a sigh. “Hi, Keith, I can’t take this anymore. I just disconnected someone by accident again. Go on in, Simone’s already in the ballroom.”
The man named Keith laughed, then glanced at me. “Maybe she’ll rescue you.”
Nina looked at me as Keith stepped through another set of doors. Her features flowed into each other so smoothly that she seemed to have been carved from marble. “Are you here for the position?”
“Yes. I’m Charlie Wong.” How did they both know I wasn’t a dance student? I shifted my weight from foot to foot, trying not to look as nervous as I felt.
“I thought you’d be a guy.” She looked down to check her list. I couldn’t help staring at her a little when she couldn’t see. She was probably one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen and she was doing the job I wanted. Nina found my name, then gave me a quick genuine grin. “Glad you’re a girl, though. Just go through those doors into the ballroom, hang a left and the manager’s office is tucked in the corner,” she said, pointing. “And watch out, they’re doing quickstep.”
I had no idea what she was talking about but as soon as I stepped through the next set of glass doors, I shra
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