Independence Day

I came home to Livingston the Independence Day weekend after sophomore year full of nerves.  Though my parents, who had driven up to New Haven as a surprise, tried to joke with me over the two-hour trip from Connecticut to New Jersey, I could only laugh halfheartedly, and eventually I closed my eyes and pretended I was asleep.  I felt like I was en route to a self-scheduled execution. It wasn’t that I was unsure; I had long since made up my mind, though it had taken me a year to gather the courage to admit that I already knew what I wanted. But I made a career of not disappointing my parents and for the first time in my life I was about to fail them.

Livingston was green with July and hot.  The cherry blossom tree in our front yard had turned out its branches in armfuls of glossy leaves.  I escaped my parents and holed up in my bedroom, jamming the door into its frame. I had been gone long enough that the room looked to me like a diorama of the past, familiar and unreal at the same time: the wall beside my desk papered with ancient sticky notes scrawled with story ideas, the shelves stuffed with novels and sketchbooks and children’s science encyclopedias, the basket of stuffed animals draped with Science Olympiad medals and ID badges from recent internships.  I had lived in this room since I was thirteen; in Livingston, in this house, since I was one. Even then the town’s public schools had had a reputation for quality. It was that quality that determined our demographics (“half Asian and half Jewish” we kids said), our college admissions record (four people my year had gotten into Harvard early action), the weight of the announcement I had planned. Tomorrow, after lunch, I would tell my parents that I no longer wanted to go into medicine.  Instead I wanted to major in English. I wanted to write. And I wanted to work in the arts.

*

Livingston is lived in, not livable.  No main street links its neighborhoods; the road that runs flush through is a snippet of a state highway temporarily rechristened “Mount Pleasant Avenue.”  Kids follow up the school day at the public library or on the basketball court or in the 7-Eleven by the high school. Residential neighborhoods flow breathlessly one into the next.  Their organization is architectural: pastel ranch houses give way to austere colonial revivals give way to owlish gray moderns. In the late aughts, in a surge of passion, a smattering of restaurants and stores about two blocks from my house were razed to make room for a “town center.”  Bookended by townhouses, the center was supposed to make Livingston more walkable, though most people can reach it only by car.

The adults did not care.  They hold jobs in New York and are out of the house from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.  They frequent chains in the strip-mall wasteland of nearby East Hanover instead of local businesses.  Livingston is a town of residential transience, selected for its school system rather than its quaintness; suffered for its high property taxes until the children graduate or transfer to nearby private schools like Pingry or Newark Academy.  Living here is not about living well but about manifesting a certain way of thinking about money: that more is safer, that bigger is better, that upward trajectories are worth pursuing without question or critique. If class consists of taste, Livingston consists of growing pains.  Over the past two decades, as the town’s reputation has improved and its property values have increased, I’ve watched friends move into larger and newer and uglier houses, shedding the cluttered white split-levels I remember from childhood playdates for tall plaster facades that hide towering ceilings and rooms with too little furniture.  A multi-function coffee maker glitters on my parents’ kitchen counter across from the drying rack where my dad still props old Ziploc bags he washes out for reuse. Every other weekend my parents drive an extra fifteen minutes for a cheaper gallon of gas and a few cents off a carton of eggs. Money isn’t tight and hasn’t been in a long time, but old habits die hard.

*

My parents met as graduate students on scholarships at Arizona State University.  A mutual friend introduced them by telling my dad that my mom wanted to learn how to drive.  He supervised her from the passenger seat as they circled empty parking lots in the cheap silver Toyota he used to deliver Chinese food.  With the extra income they bought buckets of fried chicken to share and movie tickets they used as an excuse to spend a whole day in the air-conditioned theater, sneaking from show to show.  My mom lived with her older sister, a master’s student in anthropology; my dad rented a room from an elderly white man whose adult children called him only when they needed more money. They married in a courthouse without fanfare.

It was the mid-90s.  The Tiananmen Square Massacre had come and gone.  Though my dad had been a recent graduate when it happened, teaching mathematics in a university in the south of China, he had not supported the protesters.  Instead he had worried they would affect his passage west: his full ride to ASU’s PhD program would mean nothing if the country set an embargo on immigration.  It was with relief that he boarded the plane—relief and an individualism better primed for America than he probably realized himself. In China, the government set your salary.  My dad made the equivalent of 5 USD a month. On the weekends, he spent late nights out with his friends, drinking beer and frequenting the restaurants that only opened in the evening.  “Our lives were lax,” he told me recently, a hint of wistfulness creeping into his voice. “There was nowhere to climb, so there wasn’t much to work for.” But he was ready to work. In America he would work.  He would get his PhD and become a professor of mathematics. That was his dream.

It’s easy to aestheticize suffering, to make lists of all the things my dad didn’t know as his plane rumbled over the Pacific.  He didn’t know he’d see more food than he’d ever seen in his life the first time he walked into a supermarket. He didn’t know his English would prevent him from getting a teaching job or that he’d give up his dream of professorship for the dream of raising a family.  He didn’t know he’d move to New Jersey with a job in computers and a baby on his lap.

*

I hated growing up in Livingston and so did everyone I knew.  You couldn’t go anywhere if you couldn’t drive, and even if you could drive there was nowhere to go.  When there wasn’t orchestra rehearsal or Science Olympiad or Quiz Bowl or tennis or private music lessons to cram-practice for the way we crammed for tests in calculus or U.S. history or physics, my friend Jess and I would walk to Starbucks after school, buy sugar-clogged drinks with the money we earned tutoring, and spread out our homework over one of the small wooden tables to pick over as we gossiped and speculated about our futures.  The future was all there was to live for in Livingston. Everyone I knew had their sights set on the Ivy League, and after that, medical school, and after that—well, there was no need to imagine anything after that.  

But the first hurdle was the most pressing one.  The local physician, Dr. Luo, for whom my mom worked as a part-time receptionist, circulated a rumor courtesy of her college-age patients that college was nothing compared to our school system.  Each year the entire school waited with bated breath as seniors received the acceptance letters that either confirmed or denied their reputations as smart, valuable members of the Livingston High School community.  Certainly some parents were to blame for breeding the atmosphere of competition. But its maintenance was all ours. After all, the future you chose meant as much to your own honor as to your parents’ bragging rights.

So we hated Livingston and expressed our hatred by getting good grades and placing in state competitions and complaining about how awful our lives were.  How small our world was. Years later, reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, I saw our collective ennui in Merry Levov, the daughter of the novel’s hero, Seymour, whose move from the working-class neighborhoods of Newark to the wealthy hamlet of Old Rimrock seems, at least on the surface, to be nothing less than the perfect realization of the American Dream.  And yet it is that very perfection that produces Merry’s misery, her political radicalization, her inability to understand what is so miraculous about the life she leads, how difficult it was to achieve. That was the paradox of class ascension: when all you know is what it’s like to be at the top, it’s easy to dismiss how you came to be there.  Shakespeare: “I gave you all—” Lear cries, aghast at his daughters’ ingratitude, only to be interrupted by Regan’s condescending consolation: “And in good time you gave it.”  

*

We sat in the basement.  Or I sat next to my mom on the green couch my aunt gave us when she moved back to China and my dad stood, pacing.  There was much about this conversation that, as many times as I had run through it in my head, I had not anticipated.  I hadn’t imagined that when I said I wanted to discuss the classes I planned to take next year my dad would say, “Let me guess.  You don’t want to be a doctor anymore.” When I said I didn’t want to give up writing so I could be a doctor, I hadn’t imagined how bitterly he would laugh.  

“Okay,” he said, “we’ll support you,” but his expression was ironic and humorless.  “Just answer this. How will you make enough money to live?”

*

Late at night I have heard my dad crying in his sleep.  He worries when I take the MetroNorth between New Haven and New York by myself.  He texts me news articles about people kidnapped and murdered by Uber drivers to urge me not to use the app.  He wants me to call him when I reach my suite in Saybrook College, even if he has just watched me disappear through the York Street gate.  Life is dangerous and my dad has clawed his way to the gates of the heaven called suburbia. The only guarantee of safety is to have the best, and yet the world made possible by having the best should demand we give back more than our own safety.

What am I trying to say?  This is not an essay about immigrant suffering.  It is an essay about immigrant ambition. My dad has ambitions for me, but they are the ambitions of stability and comfort:  to take up a career that pays well, to keep my head down, to stay alive. Not to become president of the United States or to cure cancer or to write the next great American novel, but to have job security, to make enough money, to never know what it’s like to leave a place like Livingston.  Livingston: a pitstop at the crossroads of obedience and potential. Gratitude is hardly enough, but an elite education is wasted on us if all it’s worth is to maintain the status quo. (Lear again, realizing in the midst of a storm how little a lifetime of pampering had taught him about helping the kingdom’s poor: “Take physic, pomp; / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, / That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, / And show the heavens more just.”)  But what can you do? Education is just another kind of protection.

I am not trying to be cynical.  Imagine you are a man who arrives in the American desert with a suitcase full of books and ends up in an American greenscape with a child in your arms and a job in New York.  Imagine how beautiful it must look, how unreal, how like a mirage that might dissipate if you come too close: your own house, your own furniture, your own yard cloaked in the petals of a cherry blossom tree.  How could you feel otherwise?

*

Childhood ends when we realize the place where we grew up is not as universal as we once thought it was.  Livingston these days seems smaller than ever. Nearly all of my friends have left: several for cheaper Jersey suburbs; one for California; one for China; one, soon, for Massachusetts.  My parents are already talking about selling the house they’ve lived in for more than twenty years and moving elsewhere, too. Florida, maybe. Ohio. Connecticut.

Now that this phase of my life is nearly over, I can finally recognize it as an unbelievably happy one.  I loved the tiny playground a block from my house where my mom and I trapped fireflies in the hazy July twilight.  I loved driving home after piano lessons and catching glimpses of people’s homes through their lighted front windows.  I loved talking late into the night at the local diner, the Ritz, as the chrome plating on the walls multiplied the faces of my friends.

*

We drove back to New Haven on the Fourth in silence.  The New Jersey landscape passing outside the windows was yellow and dusty.  Crimped sheets of clouds hovered low in the sky. In the rearview mirror an unhappy smile twitched at the corners of my dad’s mouth.  I looked out the window and observed the sunset quietly. When the colors were gone, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.  

I woke up in the dark.  My dad was humming along to the playlist he had compiled for these drives between New Jersey and Connecticut:  a hodgepodge of songs in English and Chinese, everything from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to a translated version of The Phantom of the Opera, the vowels stretched beyond comprehension.  It was nearly 9 p.m. All over the East Coast people were preparing for fireworks that neither my dad nor I would get to see.  I thought of the last time we saw them in Livingston, years ago now, gathering in the green space between the high school and the library, watching people unfold lawn chairs and snap glow sticks and spray mosquito repellant onto their limbs.  One year it rained and we watched them in the car, reclining the seats as far back as they could go. The rituals we developed to make life bearable for ourselves!  

I lapsed into fantasy.  If this were a movie, we would see flares leaping over the trees just ahead, released by the towns along the highway.  My dad would pull over to the side of the road and let the car idle, and from the windows we would watch the fireworks blooming noiselessly from the silhouetted branches, partaking secretly in someone else’s celebration.  More cars would stop behind us. We’d find ourselves at the lead of a string of headlights: a migrant colony organized by beauty.  

We drove over a bridge.  In the distance, through half-closed lids, I saw sparks.  “Niuniu, wake up,” my dad said, not realizing I was already awake.  He sounded fine again, happy, no longer angry at me, if he had ever been.  “Over there, look! Wake up!”

I opened my eyes and looked.  But in my head I was already thinking about how one day I would write this down.

 

Oriana may not know what she’s doing with her life, but she does know New Jersey is the best state and north Jersey is its best half. Fight her at oriana.niu.tang@gmail.com.

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