Well into my adolescence, New York City began and ended with a single street. For a long time, it did not even seem important that I learn the name of the street; everyone simply called it the Street of the People of Tang. The Tang, of course, were the Chinese, and Americans, foreigners to the street, named it Chinatown.
Of course, strictly speaking, I was a foreigner too. Because my mother worked in a suburban Connecticut town, all colonnaded colonials and frosty-haired WASPs, and spoke halting English, we boarded the Metro-North only when desperation over the last can of aoki mushrooms made it imperative. Later, when I grew to speak better English than she, I became the navigator. “So when we take the downtown green line, where is it that we get off again?” my mother would ask, eyes squinting nervously over the teeming throngs we would soon join at the mouth of Grand Central. Canal, I answered, always the same answer. We get off at Canal Street.
During my first weeks in America, we had visited the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, but such postcard-photo landmarks had nothing to do with this street, swollen with raw-knuckled, leathery skinned Fujianese hawking dragon fruits and lychees from crates steadied beneath thick, filmy sheets. Someone, a Chinese friend from the Japanese restaurant where she worked, perhaps, must have told my mother about Canal, which my mother in turn began to call Can-No, never having mastered syllable stress placement in her new tongue. The rest of the city was irrelevant to us, much the way the gray shaded territory of a map, outside the country outlined in color, feels irrelevant. Can-No was the only country to which we ever wanted to go.
Certain things about a place become its memory: the sensation of hot air chasing your ankles the first time you emerge from underground; the smell of fresh red bean warmed in egg custard; raw glazed sun on a rain-dark patch of cement on the north corner of Lafayette. And then there is the memory of yourself, of a particular moment, in that place: I am twelve, moon-faced, hunchbacked, weighed down by a backpack emptied of its weekday books and stuffed instead with cloth, plastic, and waterproof bags, carefully organized in anticipation of our returning bounty. A bounty that made me feel rich.
Of course, we were not rich; possibly the least rich people I knew, not counting my mother’s co-workers, who, like her, regularly tended to the sushi orders of my classmates’ parents. Their tips, the fives, tens, and twenties, she now used on Can-No to purchase the grandest meal we would have had in months: duck tongue with basil; braised pig knuckle joints with bamboo shoots and leeks; steamed phoenix (which was actually chicken) feet, all served with chopstick holders and boiled tea and tiny complementary saucers of pickled pink and white daikon.
Can-No unleashed the spendthrift in my mother. Whereas we pinched pennies in every other facet of our lives, we feasted on the Street of the Tang and hauled home, unabashed, bags fat with produce we were unable to consume for months and months.
Which was why one Christmas, I received with considerable glee the news that we had tickets to a place called the Lincoln Center to watch a show called The Nutcracker. They were a gift from her employer, my mother said, anxious already about the prospect of the journey to an unknown. I was giddy not about the ballet—was it a ballet or a musical? I still wasn’t certain—but in anticipation of the dinner beforehand. After all, what was a trip to New York City—indeed, what was the city—without Can-No?
My mother had other plans: working a lunch shift, for one, and the idea that I had better spend my Saturday morning in the library. I obeyed the letter of her directive but not the spirit, burying myself in three months’ worth of Seventeen before spying her Ford Escort outside the glass pane window. In the car, she fretted over which purse to bring, laying before me the array of options—all recent acquisitions from the local Goodwill—like a saleswoman. “Will I look strange?” My mother had never had an occasion to carry anything smaller than a cereal box–sized shopping tote to New York. I pointed, disguising my impatience as efficiency, to the smallest of the group, a wicker white oblong with a broken clasp: “Come on, Mom, we have to go.”
It must have been late afternoon when we got on the train. Which, as it turned out was the wrong train, a trundling, sardine-packed local instead of the express, which cost us double the time and a corresponding uptick in my mother’s anxiety. By the time we disembarked, Grand Central was a sweaty Grand Bazaar neither of us had the patience to navigate. Our tickets were for eight and it was getting near on six, an hour which elicited from my stomach a steady groan of protest.
“The downtown six,” I exhorted, clammy in a black velvet dress that made me look both insane and Amish.
“But do we have time?” My mother was wearing her navy pea coat, the coat she wore to meet white people, and patent leather shoes that pinched her feet.
Time, though, didn’t turn out to be the problem. We had already muscled our way onto the train when she broke the news.
“Oh, Yangyang,” she said. “You are not going to like this.”
Across from us, a black woman cradled a small child in her arms. Next to her was a no-nonsense business woman with a leather work pad held protectively close to her chest, her other hand brushing the lap of her stiff grey pant suit. It was the sort of outfit my mother would have bought for parent-teacher conferences.
My mother sighed wearily, stretching wide the emptiness of her purse—the small white clutch I had chosen—as if the effort could somehow will something to materialize. “The wallet is still in the old bag. We have no cash.”
“Not even fifty dollars?”
She shook her head mournfully.
I knew the answer but felt intent on soliciting this admission, of making her feel its excruciating pain. Who else but my mother would forget to bring cash to New York City? Who else but my mother would ride the wrong train and subway? Who else but my mother would make herself this anxious about a trip that was all but a daily commute for the carload of strangers around us?
“We already spent four dollars on the subway and need another four dollars to ride back up. Besides,” she said quietly, a most timid attempt at a defense. “We don’t need money to see the abhor-ra.”
“We are not seeing the opera,” I snapped.
My mother didn’t say anything.
“Mom, did you hear me? The Nutcracker is not an opera.”
The leftover change was just enough to buy me a hot dog at an aluminum cart steps from the gleaming glass façade where we would later watch a ribbon-haired blonde, another twelve-year-old, waltz in a room full of Christmas presents. Because we were already late, I scarfed the frank down in three bites, while my mother darted ahead in a frenzy of fear that our tardiness would somehow annul our tickets.
It was my first American meal in the first American city I knew and I’d never felt hungrier. It would be some time before I returned again.
Jiayang Fan is a writer living in New York