Book of Lies | Harper's Magazine
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From Orphan Bachelors, which will be published this month by Grove Press.

Our father’s elder sister arrived with her husband in 1921. We called her Big Aunt. Big Uncle was a twin, but I don’t remember another uncle. My mother explained that in their village, the weaker twin was sacrificed at birth to prevent it from stealing the hei, the life force of the stronger twin.

Big Uncle was gentle and always deferred to Big Aunt. Surely, his family married him to a strong woman to counteract any imbalance. Big Aunt would buy the paper name needed for my father to enter the country. She found a man with American citizenship selling a slot for a paper son that matched my father’s age. Big Aunt paid $4,000 for the paper name so that her brother could circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was 1940. Today, that would be about $85,000.

I’ve seen the photos of the three sons of the paper family. The first and second sons have dark complexions with features that match the paper father’s; my father is pale with a narrow face.

A coaching book is sent to my father (the boy) in China. His paper father’s immigration interview—questions asked, and answers given—is to be memorized and then destroyed. My father (the boy) calls it his Book of Lies. Already defiant at sixteen, he doesn’t believe he should beg and lie in order to get into the Flowery Kingdom. But, obedient to his sister, he learns the genealogy of his paper family, memorizes the map of his paper village until he can blindly walk to the paper well, the paper grain barns, the paper schoolhouse, and the paper temple. He knows when the last typhoon hit, the woven pattern in the destroyed courtyard. Through rote memorization, he becomes another man’s son.

I was in junior high when my father showed me his Book of Lies. It was one of those long afternoons between sea voyages when he was bored with being on land and had probably fought with my mother and was chatty because they weren’t speaking.

I remember the traveling valise coming out from under their bed, how carefully he unwrapped the triple-folded bundle of rice paper, how each sheet was thinner than the tissue paper my mother used to cut patterns for her dresses. The Book of Lies opened to several maps: the many rooms of the family compound, the road to the market. Then came pages lined with questions asked by the immigration officials in San Francisco, along with the correct answers. He committed these lies to memory, but he never forgot the humiliation. From my father’s Book of Lies:

Q: When you went to Hong Kong en route to this country, how did you reach Hong Kong?

A: From my village, I took the walk to Ai Gong Market, then I took a bus to Gung Yick City, then took a boat for Macao, and from there I took another boat to Hong Kong.

Q: According to your alleged brothers, there has been more or less no association between their family and their mother’s family. How is it that you know so little about your mother’s people?

A: I have never been to my mother’s village. Or I may have gone when I was small.

Q: How is it that you came to the United States and left your mother with no other children of hers there?

A: My mother wanted me to come here.

Q: What ancestral tablets does your house contain?

A: Two. One for my great-grandfather and one for my grandfather.

This last question about ancestral tablets haunts me. Our Chinatown home had a tablet for Great-Grandfather, a long sheet of paper with his name written in the center. When I asked why we didn’t have a tablet for any of the other dead, Mom told me their tablets were in our ancestral home in China because their bones were interred there. Great-Grandfather’s bones were in America, so his ancestral tablet was here.

When I leaned in to get a closer look at my father’s Book of Lies, I smelled sandalwood. The rows and rows of characters were like intricate knots, and alongside the complex words was the occasional red circle like a floating balloon.

“Why the red balloons?” I wanted to know.

“Trick questions,” my father told me.

“If things are so bad here, what was it like in China?”

He said, “More bleak, more broken.”

I didn’t ask how he bore it, but he told me.

“Hopeless.”

As my father refolded the book and slipped it inside his breast pocket, I imagined him carrying his lie across seven thousand nautical miles, and I understood the cost of fitting himself into the country. He’d learned lies to become the lie. Those lies made my father fit; and those lies would make my becoming a writer my fit. I knew then that I would write those truths to make his life real.

“That’s proof,” I said. “You would have been deported.” His brow lifted, a dare. My father had will; he had golden nerve. Expose. Don’t explain. A writer can’t buy this kind of training.

When my father memorized a fake history in order to circumvent the 1882 law that excluded the Chinese, he forgot the mother who made him flat noodles, the brothers who taught him to swim. He forgot the family’s emporium of rare, fermented teas, the smell of his grandmother’s bound feet, the climates his roaming ancestors adapted to before settling in the Pearl River delta. He realigned loyalties and memorized his paper family’s livestock holdings and their gravesite locations.

My father (the boy) boarded the vessel to America with a valise of thick cardboard that held a change of clothes, herbs, medicinal teas, and some seeds. Third-class travel cost ninety American dollars. The food was Chinese and tolerable. He chose the top bed of the three-tier bunk. Onboard, the older passengers called him Lucky Boy. They told him that he had it easy, that this wasn’t 1820, when Peruvian ships caught young boys off the Canton harbor and stuffed them into bamboo baskets threaded with wire, weighed and auctioned them off like piglets, and shipped them to work the guano caves in Lima. They tormented him with the stories of one hundred and twenty vile days. How many starved to death, how many slit their own throats, how many tried to mutiny, how many walked the plank.

When the ocean liner passed under the Golden Gate Bridge and steerage passengers were allowed up on deck, each man rushed to the handrails and threw their coaching books into the sea.

My father (no longer the boy) didn’t step forward; he stepped back. He refused to relinquish his Book of Lies.

Only the Chinese disembarked when the vessel docked at Angel Island. Chosen for its isolation in the bay, Angel Island, which opened in 1910, contained a detention center to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act. The year 1940 was Angel Island’s last; my father was one of the youngest detainees. Mook Ok was his name for it. Wooden House.

When Island, a collection of poems and histories written by Angel Island detainees, was published in 1980, I showed it to my father and he remembered many of the poems, which had been carved on the barrack walls. We went through the photographs together: a sea of hats on the deck of the ship, the triple-decked bunkers, men in loose pants playing volleyball.

I wanted to know if that was fun.

My father shrugged. “It helped to pass the day.”

Another photograph: thirty bare-chested Chinese men waiting for a medical examination. The doctor, a hunching man with a scraping stare, sits at a small desk, his elbows and thick hands over a black book. At his side, a guard in knee-high boots measures a boy’s forehead. Arranged by height, baby-eyed boys stand stoop-shouldered on the outer edge. The men, at least a head taller, stand toward the center of the room, staring at the examiner. My father poked a finger at a near-naked boy close to the front and said, “That’s me.”

Those eyes scared me. Bold, angry, and revengeful. Eyes that would make you pay. Humiliation with a vengeance.

My father waited over a month for his interrogation. He had learned his lies and given all the correct answers but somehow, from the mouth of his paper father to the hand of the scribe, between the interrogator and through the translator, the answers got twisted and deemed incorrect. Entry denied.

My father was furious, then belligerent, then locked up. The window of his cell was as wide as his face—ear to ear—giving him a view of the hills. The distant pines reminded him of home, and like an ancient warrior, he vowed to the majestic pine that he would gain his freedom and return home.

Deer roamed the hills of Angel Island. An old-timer had told him that deer sightings bode well and so my father watched and waited, hoping for luck and chance. On the day a doe passed under his window, her wide and furtive eyes reaching inside the cell to train on him, he felt his luck changing.

Cooks and waiters traveled from the Wooden House to Chinatown every day and carried SOS messages from the detainees to relatives in the city. No doubt this was how my father got a message to his sister. She dispatched a lawyer to sort out his entry papers.

On my father’s last night in the Wooden House he was awakened by a weight at the edge of his bed.

“Friend,” my father said. “This isn’t your bed.”

The spirit didn’t move, didn’t answer, so my father reached over to tap the man’s shoulder. But his palm passed through nothingness, and so he knew this was a bereaved spirit, unable to travel to the netherworld.

For the first time in that long-journeying afternoon, my father smiled, and I understood he was telling me a true story. “I offered to be his envoy, to deliver his message to his kin.”

Finally ashore, my father (the paper son) began his American life as You Thin Toy. This paper name became his true name. I always thought the immigration officer who transliterated his name was having fun as a writer, making a sentence out of a name. One of my first acts of translation was to realize what the name meant: To Have Trust. It fit. My father never coveted gold, the element of America; he wanted hope. The name my father left in China was Ng Gim Yim. Gim is written with the radical for gold; its root means cloth and describes brocade threaded with gold. Yim is made of two fire ideograms, fire atop fire. He was a boy born into gilt and flaming gold.


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