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This piece was written with the purpose of bringing to life and then preserving a family’s immigration story, and it was written by a fourth grader. Sitting at a table in my fourth grade classroom, Jack worked quietly and independently on this story for several weeks in December of 2013. The whole class was given the task of investigating how their families came to California, which is a Palo Alto fourth grade tradition called the “California Passport Project.” Jack took the assignment very seriously, envisioning and revising his piece with patience and care that is exceptional for writers his age. After poring over his drafts, covering sheets of looseleaf in blue and then red ink, Jack sat at one of our classroom computers, continuing to examine and reflect, improve and perfect his work. The result was so beyond what other students wrote in its narrative quality that when I read it, I quickly called Jack over to express my admiration and amazement at what he had created. He took bare facts that most kids regurgitated sequentially and crafted a story that is lively, engaging, and descriptive. I believe this piece captures an important piece of American history, and it captures a powerful moment in the development of a fourth grade writer. I hope you enjoy and value this story as much as I did.
One Step Closer
By Jack G.
“Three windows, one door, five counters, two bedrooms, and one bathroom,” recited my great grandmother whose name was Chin Shee. She was married; they lived in their home country, China.
Chin Shee was memorizing facts about a family and a home that was said to be hers on paper. Although she was reluctant to go to America by herself, at age twenty-nine, she did want a better life.
Her husband had told her what it would be like on the ship. She would only bring a few things. She would miss a lot of objects and traditions that were in China. For example, she would miss her black lacquer pillow. She would also miss ancestral worship, where you drink tea from fancy cups and burn paper (which they say will send food and clothes to the ancestors). Another term for this is filial piety.
Chin Shee was on a boat headed for San Francisco. Among other important objects in her suitcase, she had her book with all the facts she needed to study. After she boarded, she walked to her room and started to unpack. She took out all of her belongings, except the book, and laid them on her bed. She heard the door open and quickly turned around. A jolly man with red chubby cheeks and a nice clean uniform was standing in the doorway. He wore a smile that spread from one ear to the other.
“Dinner,” he said cheerfully.
“I don’t want dinner,” Chin Shee said calmly.
“Okay,” he said, raising an eyebrow, probably thinking that all people should have dinner. The man left, but Chin Shee did not. Instead, she collapsed on her bed and fell asleep within five minutes.
The next day, Chin Shee had a breakfast of rice gruel and then went back to her room to practice reciting facts about the family she was studying. In her room, she took out her book and hid it in the inside pocket of her thin coat. Just then, she heard a noise. She quickly ran into the bathroom, slammed the door, and put a chair behind it (for it had no lock).
“I know you’re in there,” said a sassy arrogant voice. “I’m a paper girl too.”
“A-a paper girl, w-what’s that?” Chin Shee said, stammering over her words.
“Oh, come on, don’t you know who you are? What’s your name? You’d better know that,” came the same sassy voice.
“China Shen, interesting name.”
“Chin Shee!” screamed Chin Shee, hating the voice more with every second that passed.
“Oh, my name is Yi Yun. I am from the new port this wretched ship just landed at, and by the way, a paper girl is someone who acts like a relative of a Chinese family who already has a relative in America.”
“Okay,” Chin Shee said, sticking her tongue out at the door.
““Don’t stick your tongue out at the door; I’m in the shower, not behind the door.”
Chin Shee felt her cheeks growing red hot. She turned around to face the shower. The curtains were drawn, and there, standing in the wooden tub, was a young lady with black hair–but the worst was that she was, well…naked.
“Aghh,” screamed Chin Shee.
“What? I’m covered in lotion. Doesn’t that mean I’m covered?”
“Yes and no. You’re covered, but it’s invisible.” And with that, Chin Shee moved the chair, kicked the door open, and raced out.
It turned out that Yi Yun was not the sassy and arrogant person she was on the first day. She was actually a nice, kind person who practiced facts about her fake family with Chin Shee. On the twentieth day (the voyage was twenty-one days), Chin Shee had memorized all the facts about her fake Chinese family so well that she decided to throw her book into the long endless sea of water.
The next day, Chin Shee got off the boat. “One step closer,” she sighed as she finally set foot onto Angel Island. “One step closer.”
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