The American Dream

By Jonathan Lam on 06/05/18

Tagged: essay

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"The American Dream": Journaling Pseudo-Memoir Chapter 4

On September 16th, 1994, the staff of Brookdale Hospital saw a Chinese man in his mid-twenties, dressed in a clean white shirt, enter the emergency section. His right eye was swollen under his rounded spectacles. The attendees went up to him to assess the level of injury and decide if he needed urgent help, but he denied the help.

He tried to introduce himself as lam-zheng-wong, or Chunwang Lam. The nurses ignored his introduction, worrying instead about the injury. He said he was here to work, but they said they didn’t know him. He repeated that it was his first day as a medical student, not a patient. It took a few minutes for the hospital workers to accept that he was, indeed, working for his first day as part of clerkship for his third year of medical school. Over twenty years later, he would tell this story to his children, and laugh about it. “My face was banged up so bad it took them some time to figure out I wasn’t actually a patient,” he liked to say.

Wang was a twenty-four year-old medical student who worked in the family-owned Chinese restaurant on E. Gun Hill Rd. in the Bronx. His parents cooked, and he and his brothers John and Frank served food and cleaned up. The restaurant made marginal profit, but it supported the family of five in their cramped apartment, and paid off Wang and Frank’s tuition to the City College of New York. What made it manageable was that they were all in it together: three young brothers, recently legal citizens, struggling in the English-dominated landscape, wanting to raise families in comfort and get out of the slums of New York City.

Sometimes, biking from house to house for deliveries, one of the orders would turn out to be a robbery at gunpoint. There was no choice but to relent if the person who ordered the meal had a gun, and to report the incident later. But the police often didn’t care much for small thefts like this, because there was no way to prove anything and no physical harm was done. All that could be done is to lock all the large bills away after every trip to minimize the losses.

Other times, the guns or knives would flash in the restaurant when customers refused to pay for their meal, and the family had to quickly hide or get behind the bulletproof glass. To them, the small amounts of money (ten, twenty, thirty dollars) weren’t worth harm.

Sometimes the fights weren’t even over money. One time, Wang was jumped on a street corner by three African American kids on his way to the restaurant from school, just because he was an easy target: a skinny minority youngster. The cops were called afterwards, but the other kids couldn’t be found.

A week later, another young Asian male was murdered on that same street corner, reportedly by African American kids as well. The suspects weren’t caught, but Wang speculated that the same people were involved, and that if he had been there again, it likely would have been him.

A lot of the time, Wang ended up studying for high school and college behind the counter on slow times in the restaurant. For him, the restaurant was a temporary inconvenience— his parents paved the way to America because they wanted him and his brothers to get a better education than they could have in China, taking years to be able to pay for the move. There was no time to waste. So after school, beginning from the move to New York when he was fifteen to his twenties, work came after school, and didn’t end until late in the night. No exceptions. He envied Frank, who often went on long excursions to other restaurants to fix broken refrigerators and other appliances and spent extra time flirting with the girls there, and he envied John, who was the smartest of the three and could get by without trouble in school.

In the end, John didn’t attend college until he was fifty-two years old, at Kingsborough Community College. While he was the best suited for school, he was the oldest and it was his responsibility to take care of his brothers. So Frank and Wang went off to the City College while John worked even longer hours.

The day before he began working at the hospital for the clerkship, the Lam family was working at the restaurant in the late afternoon. A group of five teenagers were loitering outside, smoking cigarettes and chatting for a few hours. The problem was that they kept coming into the restaurant to use the bathroom and leaving it disorderly and unclean. Wang and his brothers had to clean the bathroom, so they told them not to keep coming in. While they agreed, they came back in again to use the bathroom in clear defiance, so Wang hit him. This started a brawl between the group of teenagers and the family, which ended until Wang’s mom grabbed one of the girls by her hair and began dragging her out until part of her hair came out. Wang came out with some bruises on his face, but no serious injuries.

A few days later, walking down to the restaurant, Wang saw two of the teenagers again. He quickly turned onto another street, but not before one of them noticed him. The teenager shouted “wait!” and approached Wang. He said that his friends were just being stupid and didn’t really want to do any harm. He said they wouldn’t do it again.

Seven years later, shortly after the bombings of September 11th, 2001, Wang, his wife, and his young children (only one and two years old) moved to a larger apartment in Stamford, Connecticut, a large city, but much smaller than the Big Apple. Two years later, they would move again to their first house in Trumbull, a more suburban setting, next to the Pequonnock River Trail. Another five years would pass until they moved to rural Easton, to a larger house. In Easton, there was no such thing as street violence.

He would tell the stories of his younger life. He would say that the kids on the street corner, like the rowdy teenages, were simply bored and had nothing better to do with their lives— it wasn’t their fault that they were raised so that they couldn’t find a nonviolent output. His children would listen— partially in awe, partially in disbelief. And he would watch as they grew up in the quiet countryside, sixty miles away from the ghetto where he fought for his life, thousands of miles away from the fight that his parents fought when they moved to America.


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There's no way I was born to just pay bills and die.