They came to America at eighteen years old, fresh out of high school with starry eyes too big for their own good. Exhilarated little children in the biggest airport they had ever seen, they were laughing when they landed, laughing with the lights like fireworks hanging from the high ceiling above and their feet floating over the ground. It was in that moment at eighteen years old, when everything was magical. They were rolling their suitcases down the hallway when Ai Lan suddenly stopped in her tracks and grabbed Lu Min’s arm. “Listen,” she whispered urgently, tilting her head to the side. “Do you hear that?” Quiet, Lu Min stayed absolutely still as he strained to hear the muffled melody playing over the speakers. It took a while, but suddenly, all at once, he understood. His eyes lit up as a grin grew across his face. “It’s the song!” It wasn’t just the song though, and if he had known at the time, he would have corrected himself. No, it was the anthem, their anthem now that they’ve finally landed. And even though neither of them knew the words, they sang along anyways, as if they had it memorized since the very beginning. In the land of the free… ... and the home of the brave. At eighteen, they had no idea what they were getting into. It was just a game of tag, a thrilling escape from the country they were forced to call home for their entire lives. A country that was finally all the way across the world, and in their eyes, nonexistent. For now, they had America, and here, they were free at last. *** They settled into a one-room apartment over what had to be the loudest street in the country. It was in Chinatown, of all places, and although Lu Min had been furiously against it -- we’re in America -- it was still the cheapest place they could find. Ai Lan had convinced him, and secretly, it was also maybe because somewhere hidden inside her, she still missed the freshly fried smell of youtiao in the morning, the familiar chatter of the old men as they sat bent over a mahjong game. Although the excitement of escaping was still pulsing through her veins, she was running from ghosts. Their new home was cramped, with one bed squeezed in next to the stove and a tiny bathroom crunched in on the side. At night, they would always be kept awake until dawn by the loud honks of the city life below. They didn’t mind though. As they laid there, side by side on the hard mattress, silent, Ai Lan would study the lights in Lu Min’s eyes, would brush her fingers against his. Always, she would ignore the dark, tired bags draped under his lower lash line, the way his hands were cramped up from the hard labor of lugging trash bags for hours upon end. And always, he would ignore those things about her too. It’s not like they didn’t care. They just couldn’t see. Eyes so big, so bright, so blind. Still free. *** When Lu Min quit the job of carrying trash, it was because he had found a new one. He was now the delivery boy at the takeout restaurant underneath their apartment. The owners needed someone fresh and he, ripe at eighteen and barely understanding a word ofEnglish, was perfect for them. He got paid ten dollars a day. A fortune, for him, because he was still a child and didn’t know any better. Minimum wage and illegal weren’t part of his vocabulary. He just wanted to work, to earn money like an American did, and the routine quickly became branded into his skin. He enjoyed it too, but what delighted him most was that he got to keep half of the tips. The first day, he came home with twelve dollars. When she saw the money, Ai Lan’s eyes went wide, like a little girl seeing fireworks for the first time. She cradled the bills in her hands, caressed the folds, marveled at each little crease, at how real it all became. Every last cent of it went toward the rent of course, but the next day, when Lu Min came back with thirteen dollars, the extra dollar bought them a celebration. A pretzel for the two of them, from one of the street stands on the outskirts of Chinatown. It was exciting, exhilarating. And steadily, after a while, it was routine. *** Ai Lan soon found a job too. It was at a nail salon across town, and she had to pay a hundred dollars for the job, a starting fee the owner claimed to charge all the new employees. No questions were asked though and soon, her days became filled with people’s fingers and toes, with machines she had never seen before and bright, artificial colors she had never known existed. Fuchsia, electric blue, neon yellow; they were all so foreign to her. Foreign, and although they made her feel dizzy and a little sick, she still loved them. She even had a name tag. Pinned to her uniform, in official print, was the name ‘Ella.’ Ai Lan liked being Ella. It was so… American. And although she was tired all the time now, it was still exhilarating. What Ai Lan liked more though, was Lu Min’s praise. “You’ve been working hard,” he would say in broken English on the nights she came home early, at ten. She, stumbling a little, her hand sore from twelve hours of work, would reply with an accented, “You too.” Those nights, he was always perched stiffly on the bed as he massaged his leg that was throbbing after a particularly long delivery. At her words though, he would stop massaging. “But I don’t mind.” “And I don’t either.” That would be the most of what they would say to each other those days. After pedaling all those miles, after painting all those nails, they were too tired to talk. The first few months were the hardest. For a reason she couldn’t understand when the boss explained, Ai Lan wasn’t being paid yet, and so some days, they didn’t even have enough money to spare for food. Hollow stomach and numb fingers, she would fall asleep as soon as she stumbled into the room. Lu Min would have to carry her limp body onto the bed, and sometimes, he would have to leave her on the ground, a blanket draped over her, as his legs weren’t even strong enough to carry his own weight. *** An entire year passed before Ai Lan finally got her first pay. Thirty dollars placed into her shaking hands, but she expected to feel happier as she glanced the bills over. Instead, just like her fingers, she was only a little numb. The excitement from the first day at the airport was starting to slip away, and her hands were too cramped to hold on anymore. While Lu Min was still at work, she slipped half of the money into the rent jar they made out of an instant noodle cup and sneakily, pocketed the rest. The reason was simple, dangerous; it was Chinese New Year’s Eve. That evening, she cooked them a feast -- cabbage and pork-filled dumplings, broiled fish, sticky rice cake -- all traditional celebration foods. For the first time in a long while, she was excited. Wearing an old qipao that she had shoved into the crumbling suitcase a year ago, Ai Lan waited patiently in front of the food she had carefully placed on the fold-out table in front of their bed. Three hours of waiting later, Lu Min finally came home. He stumbled into the room, wincing a little from his bad leg. It had been throbbing more than usual recently, probably since the number of deliveries he had to make was steadily increasing. One of the delivery boys had been deemed too old so Lu Min was made to take over his work too, but the extra hours didn’t lead to extra money like he had hoped. He was now working twelve hours a day, biking miles upon miles for the same pay, and even he was starting to realize that it wasn’t right. That was probably why, when he came home half-dead to see his ghosts awaiting him, he couldn’t take it anymore and took it out on her. “What’s this?” From her seat in front of the table, Ai Lan flinched. She wasn’t used to hearing Lu Min’s voice to be so cold. But then again, she wasn’t used to hearing Lu Min’s voice at all lately. “It’s… a New Year’s Eve dinner,” she said quietly, not daring to meet his eyes. He stood unmoving by the door. “New Year’s Eve was more than a month ago.” “Chinese New Year’s Eve.” Ai Lan quickly corrected herself. Her voice was meek in comparison next to his. Clammy and icy, her sore hands twisted into each other underneath the table, and she stared at the space in front of her, unable to meet his eyes. The food, which she had been bent over all day, had gotten cold. Lu Min stayed silent for a long time as the air stiffened around them. Finally, right before everything reached the breaking point, he asked, “And why would you do something special for that?” “I --” Without waiting for her response, he rushed in and snapped, “Ai Lan, we are American. And Americans do not celebrate Chinese New Year.” She nodded, her hands twisting even more furiously into each other. Lu Min wasn’t done. Staring coldly at the food, he said, “Repeat it.” “Repeat it?” “Yeah. That we are American.” After a short hesitation, Ai Lan mumbled, “We are American.” “And Americans do not celebrate Chinese New Year.” A muffled sound of protest. Then, lowered eyes, defeat, and -- “Americans do not celebrate Chinese New Year.” Lu Min nodded approvingly. “Good,” he said, still coldly, but his voice was starting to smooth out. “Now get rid of that,” he added, jabbing a finger at the food, “and cook some real dinner.” He was hungry that night -- starving actually, since all he ate that day was a hard-boiled egg in the morning. But when Ai Lan looked back at him while she stood over the water she had started to boil, she saw that, thin and pale on the bed, he had already fallen dead asleep. *** Ella was the prettiest one. That’s why she was hired. After all, the boss could always do with a pretty manicurist who barely spoke English, a tiny China doll for the customers to coo over. All she was was a clueless tool to bring in more profit, and he knew she could never become anything more. So, that was why, when she came into work that morning one hour late with her hair a cloudy mess and shadows draped under her eyes, he was far from satisfied. He snatched her by her name tag, the two ‘l’s in ‘Ella’ bending into each other under his strong grip. “What do you think you’re doing?” He asked in a raspy voice, the loudest he could scream with without alarming the customers in the other room. “Do you even know what time it is?” Trembling, Ai Lan’s eyes flickered over to look at the clock on the wall. Tick tock. “Nine… thirty,” she mumbled hesitatingly. Eyes flashed. “And what time were you supposed to be here?” “... Eight.” A knowing smirk, and the boss let go of the name tag, thrusting her away from him. She stumbled like she was made of rags. “I suppose you have some elaborate excuse waiting for me?” E-la-bor-ate. She had no idea what that meant. But she did know the word ‘excuse’, heard it enough times when the boss was scolding the other girls. She just never thought that she would end up in the back room too, terrified out of her mind of the loud American in front of her. “Yesterday was…” But she stopped the words in their tracks, Chinese New Year’s Eve tottering at the tip of her tongue. Sharply, she remembered yesterday. Americans do not celebrate Chinese New Year. Lu Min’s angry face flashed before her eyes, and she remained quiet. The boss seemed triumphant. “Ella, dear,” he said, lowering his voice but enunciating every word exaggeratedly, “in America, if you show up late, you’re fired. Do you know that word? Fired?” Like one of the souvenir bobble-heads, Ai Lan furiously nodded. The boss gave her a look over. After a long, tense moment of silence, he finally said, “You’re lucky I’m feeling nice today.” Ai Lan wanted to cry in relief. She left the room a few minutes later, with only a suspended salary and numbed, rubbery legs. Trying hard not to fall, she headed for her table, preparing herself for another twelve-hour shift of nails, paint, and being at rock bottom again. Fuchsia, electric blue, neon yellow. Ai Lan, Ai Lan, Ella. *** The bar was small, dingy. Its windows had grime tucked in at the corners and the lettering plastered on the glass was faded, but as Lu Min stood at the entrance, he breathed a sigh of relief for the first time. He chose this place because it was far from Chinatown. Recently, he just couldn’t stand being in the apartment anymore; it was too stifling, draining, seeing Ai Lan half-dead all the time… well, he probably didn’t look any better himself. The miles at work were stacking up, and his legs were sore all the time now. Lu Min glanced into the bar, trying to distract himself from the burn in his legs. Inside, it was mostly empty, save two men seated at the peeling stools, Budweisers in hand, staring intently at the TV screen across from them. Lu Min pushed the door open and walked in. His entrance caused a bell to ring, but the men didn’t acknowledge him. They were too busy watching the rerun of a football game, commenting to each other but not listening to what the other was saying. At a stool next to the one wearing a Giants jersey, Lu Min sat down and ordered a Budweiser too. He strained to hear what they were talking about but, in the end, when all he could hear were strange words like “touchdown” and “penalty,” he gave up. While they chattered on about the Super Bowl the next day, whatever that even was, Lu Min stared at the beer in front of him instead. He wished he could join them but knew he couldn’t, knew they would just blink at him blankly -- and if only he wasn’t Chinese! If only his eyes weren’t so slanted and boring, and his skin didn’t have this disgusting yellow tint to it… but he knew his place. He was Chinese, they were American, and in America, that was the end to that. He remembered, during a day of his first year in America, he was seated around a table in the back of the restaurant with the other restaurant workers. They were all talking, curious about the new boy who had just came from China. “Why did you come?” One of the older delivery boys had asked Lu Min, curiously leaning forward in his seat. At this question, Lu Min’s eyes had lit up. “I want to go to college here,” he admitted proudly, a secret he had only ever told Ai Lan. “Once I get enough money from this job, I’m going to become a surgeon.” A moment of silence, blinks, and then suddenly, a burst of laughter. As everyone laughed, Lu Min stared, waiting for some sort of explanation. Finally, after settling down, the delivery boy patted Lu Min’s shoulder firmly. “Kid, don’t you understand yet?” he asked. “The Americans don’t need you to be a surgeon. They have their surgeons. What they need though, is someone to deliver them takeout instead.” At that, everyone started laughing again, all except for him. He just didn’t get it. Only three years later, in a dirty bar far from home, did Lu Min finally understand. *** The next day, the day of the Super Bowl, was a day in which all of America was celebrating. In every household, on every television screen, the football game played and the entire country leaned closer to watch. Only, to Lu Min and Ai Lan, was it just another day. They were at their respective jobs, Lu Min bent over a bicycle and Ai Lan bent over another woman’s feet when the song came on again. It was then when, just like four years ago, both stopped, and although they were across the city from each other, their reactions were the same -- brows furrowed, eyes narrowed, hands paused, though only momentarily. The song, albeit familiar, had been forgotten. It’s probably not that important anyways, was what they thought as they bent over their work again, Lu Min to pedal another hundred blocks, Ai Lan to paint another hundred nails. Far away from them, the anthem continued to play. If only they had remembered… well, it’s probably best they didn’t. For how cruel would it be, how ruthless, to remind them now of the little blind children they were before! Quick, before they hear, turn off the television, the radio, the ghosts -- before they remember what it was like when they were eighteen and full of dreams, dancing in the home of the brave and the land of the free!
-- Sabina Jia is a high school student who just has a lot of stories she wishes to share with the world. Anthems is her first published work, and like many of her other stories, it is influenced by the (extra)ordinary people and places she sees all around her. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys taking long walks in the city, immersing herself in other cultures, and just trying to live as much as she can (in the strange way that teenagers do).