By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Sometimes, a vacation is not all it’s cracked up to be. Other times, it can mean everything.
For Manny Wong, an immigrant from Hong Kong, in her mid-sixties, after a life of unendurable losses, she did everything possible just to have one.
With dyed red hair and eyes that shift around as she’s talking, it looks like she’s trying to push down the bad times with her eyeballs. Her story is one of perseverance that led to incredible steps—just for a few days of an ocean cruise with a friend.
A life of losses and resilience
Wong was born in a small village in Guangzhou, the eldest of seven siblings. She “had to do everything,” she said.
When she got the chance to travel to Hong Kong, she found work in a garment factory.
With dogged determination, she was soon elevated to become a trainer of other workers.
She married. Shortly thereafter, however, her husband found work in South America.
So when her firm opened a factory in Jamaica, she jumped at the chance to be closer to him.
Eventually, they reunited in Manhattan, where she worked in a garment factory for $100 a day.
“That was 35 years ago,” she said.
The couple had a daughter. Now they have a son.
But at birth, his skin was covered with bubbles. When they burst, they peeled off wads of skin.
The doctors said he had a rare blood disease.
They administered multiple rounds of antibiotics. But the boy stopped breathing twice.
After 10 days, they tried the strongest dose known. The boy recovered—or seemed to.
The couple took him home. But he soon relapsed.
At this point, Wong realized she was alone in a foreign country with no relatives and a husband who spoke little English.
“He couldn’t help me,” she said.
She decided to return to Hong Kong, where she had family.
Installing her son in a house owned by her father, Wong hired a relative to take care of him. She found a Chinese medicine doctor.
Following his instructions, she boiled herbs. After they cooled, she doused the boy with them. They soothed his skin condition.
All seemed well.
To pay for her son’s ongoing care, Wong next went to the Philippines to work in another garment factory—this time making jeans.
One day, on pay day, she was leaving the factory with a friend. She found there was a long line for local taxis. But more expensive taxis, private cars that were used to take people for hire, were waiting without any line.
She and her friend, an older factory worker who lived in her complex, who she called an “uncle,” got in one of the more expensive cabs.
She noticed the doors didn’t lock.
But the “uncle,” who lived in the Philippines, brushed aside her concerns.
“They’re all like that,” he said.
After a while, the taxi driver said he knew “a short cut.”
They said, “No problem.”
But when the taxi pulled into a small alley, it suddenly stopped. Three men approached the car from the rear and opened the doors. One of them grabbed Wong by the throat, thrusting a knife into her side, almost breaking her skin.
He said, “Money, money, give me money.”
“They knew it was payday,” Wong explained.
Wong, however, with her son in mind, first asked the man to take his hand from her throat. She then said in English that they were “visitors,” only having just arrived and didn’t have any money.
“We just went shopping to buy lunch for a friend,” she lied.
But her “uncle,” who was about to scream, started saying something in Tagalog, the local language.
She quickly told him in Chinese to stop talking.
But the gangsters were suspicious.
“How is it he can speak Tagalog?” one of them asked.
“We’ve been here a few days, and he’s picked some up,” she quickly said.
They then asked if she was Fukienese. They had a hatred for that ethnicity.
“No, no—Cantonese,” she said.
They let them go after taking the “uncle’s” wristwatch.
Back at her factory compound, Wong drank two glasses of ice water and finally gave into her nervousness.
“I knew that if I had screamed or not remained calm, they would have killed me,” she said.
In fact, the next day, the gangsters used the same ploy with a Fukienese woman. But in her case, she did scream. She was stabbed and was now in the hospital.
Wong, however, did not decide to leave the Philippines until later. She was in a massage parlor waiting for therapy for an injury. Rival gang members came in shooting at each other. She ducked under the table.
Also, by this time, her husband had found work in Panama. So she had more than one reason to go back.
At home, she found work again.
Her son was now almost 3 years old, and the same relative was still caring for him.
“But he was tiaopi—mischievous—and liked to run around all day,” she said. “One day, he fell and hit his head.”
She showed the back of her head, where her son had fallen.
By the time her relative found him, it was too late. He was dead.
“There was a long period of my life when I was really sad,” she said. “I cried every day. I couldn’t get out of it.”
Her husband, meanwhile, returning to Hong Kong, announced he had found a local woman in Panama. He demanded to take their daughter back with him.
To make matters worse, Wong’s father, hearing that his grandson was now dead, ordered Wong out of his house.
Wong mustered up her resolution.
“Sometimes you have to make a decision to do things for yourself. Otherwise, you let people rule over you,” she said.
Instead of buckling under to her husband, on the contrary, she said to him, “You have two choices.”
She held up two fingers.
“You can either get a divorce—and leave now. Or, if you decide to stay, you can buy us a house,” she said.
Apparently, she saw through her husband’s bluff. For what he really wanted was to use the daughter as leverage of some kind.
In the end, he was the one who buckled. He agreed to buy her a house.
“Well—he made the down payment,” said Wong. Later, with the help of her brother, and her own earnings, she was able to make the mortgage payments.
By the time her daughter was old enough for college, Wong had enough to think about sending her to the United States.
She revisited New York but found it “dirty, chaotic, and dangerous.”
Seattle was much nicer. Her daughter ended up in Bellevue College and eventually Washington State University.
So when Wong made a date with a friend to go on a cruise to the eastern Caribbean, earlier this year, it almost seemed like a celebration—something to cap off a life of turmoil.
Wong and her friend found a bargain basement price for the cruise—several hundred dollars. They then booked a red eye flight from Seattle to Miami.
Arriving in Miami without incident, they spent the day sightseeing. They bought Cuban pastries.
“The line was around the block,” said Wong, proudly.
But when they arrived at the cruise terminal, Wong had only her Hong Kong passport. She had forgotten her green card.
She hadn’t thought she would need it.
With the kind of disbelief provided by hindsight, she said, “I took it out of a basket and looked at it. I held it in my hands. Then I put it back.”
She called her daughter to tell her she might stay in Miami a while longer—or do something else.
But her daughter had something else in mind.
“Wait one hour. I’ll call you back,” her daughter said.
It turned out her daughter’s husband’s sister was planning a trip to Orlando in a few days.
“She can bring you the green card,” her daughter said.
But to do that, the daughter’s husband’s sister had to return to Renton from Vancouver, B.C., where she was visiting, drop off her dog, pick up the green card from Wong’s house, then catch a flight to Orlando.
For her part, Wong had to execute a series of strategic moves worthy of a secret agent in a country she was no longer familiar with.
She first asked the cruise company to call her a taxi.
“I remembered seeing a casino in Miami,” she said.
There, she spent the day, eating lunch and dinner and gambling just enough to allow her to remain on the premises.
At midnight, with limited English, she arranged for another taxi to take her to the Greyhound bus terminal. She rode all night to Orlando.
A hotel she found did not have early check in. But she paid extra. So they let her have a room. After a few days, her green card arrived.
She then found a way to book a flight directly from Orlando to Puerto Rico—calculating she could beat the cruise ship.
Once in Puerto Rico, she found she still had several days to kill. Again, she waited in a hotel.
Finally, the cruise ship arrived, with her friend on it. At last, she was allowed to board.
Now, however, there were only a few days left on the cruise.
“It didn’t matter. The food was excellent. The ship had four stories with a different restaurant on each one. Every night we ate at a different restaurant. There was Italian, Chinese—everything,” she said.
Thinking about it now, though, did she still think all those extra steps and all that extra hassle was worth it?
Snapping her fingers, she said, “After all I’ve been through? That was nothing.”
Nevertheless, there was still one question that remained unanswered. What ever happened to her husband? In the end, did he go back to Panama—to be with the other woman?
“Him?” She said, disdainfully. “He’s still back in Hong Kong—living in my house.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.