Our landlady called Ma Lei last night to ask if we could possibly do her a big favor and pay our next three months' rent (about $1500) a few weeks early. As it happens, I had the money available to me, so I was able to hand it over now instead of at the end of the month.
She stated the reason for needing the money early as: her son is going to study overseas, and she has to make some sort of payment post-haste. That seemed a little odd, because she surely would've known the deadlines in advance and, as a Chinese parent hyper-concerned about her child's education, saved for it assiduously. I kind of figured she was fibbing, but I didn't expect ever to find out the real truth.
To my surprise, after Ma Lei had given the landlady my money, the woman decided to tell her the real story. It's anybody's guess why the landlady felt like telling her, or what subtext she intended to convey to my wife about the evils and treachery of America.
The landlady's brother went three years ago, without a visa, to live in the States, Los Angeles, as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. A couple of days ago, the brother was killed in a robbery. The brother is in the States illegally, so the government won't do a thing about his body. Apparently it's the family's responsibility back here to foot the bill to ship him home for proper cremation. That's why she experienced the sudden need for my cash.
At the exact same time as this conversation was taking place, I was working with a lovely young student whose family has been paying me to tutor her in preparation for prep school in the States. She's a bright and bubbly eighth-grader, currently being homeschooled for the rest of this academic year. She's been accepted by a number of top-end prep schools, including one in the Chicago-area oligoburb Lake Forest.
Yesterday, she showed me with great delight the pink, shoulder-less dress her mother bought her for some imagined high school ball, a topic to which she makes an animated return almost every day in class. "Who will invite me? What if I'm not pretty enough to be invited? Will there be dance lessons before the ball? I don't know how to dance." It's as though, freed from the dreaded Chinese gaokao exam, she's now replaced it in her mind with the exalted prom.
As I learned today, she's already been to America for a two-week summer camp at — of all places — Citrus College, where my ex-girlfriend used to work. In the mornings she attended classes at the Junior College; in the afternoons, she was shuttled to places like Disneyland and Malibu Beach. At night, she stayed with a local family. Her aunt lives with a green card in California somewhere, married to a Chinese guy she met at a fancy party in the States. They have a very cute young son.
Here you have the two Americas, in stark contrast, presented to my eyes in a single day. One is built of illegal immigration, low-wage jobs, and senseless deadly crimes. In the other, green cards come up in the spring like daffodils, "It's a Small World, After All," and the biggest cause for stress is whether or not a handsome Lake Forestran prince will ask the exuberant Chinese princess to the formal ball.
We hear much about the two Chinas, the one occupied by the astronomically rich and the other occupied by everybody else, but we don't hear very much about the two very different Americas seen by these two classes of Chinese.