When Celina Su first met Nuan in 2001, the seven-year-old girl was living in northern Thailand, burning small bits of wood into charcoal to sell in the market, and learning how to speak Thai at a small, thatch-roofed school for Burmese refugees. Nuan is Shan, an ethnic group that has been tortured by the Burmese/Myanmar government since the 1980s. She and her 15-year-old sister Ying left the country after their mother died and their father disappeared. With nothing anchoring them in any particular place, the girls tacked onto a caravan of travelers looking to escape the military presence outside their front doors, and find respite from the escalating violence. Two years later, Ying had found steady work, an employment permit, and living quarters she shared with Nuan and a new husband.
At the time, Su had just co-founded the Burmese Refuge Project, an NGO that runs schools, health clinics, clean water programs, and legal aid services for the Shan, which had firmly planted roots in the region (over a half million now live in Thailand). Yet, the Thai government still withholds from the community official refugee status, in part because most Shan are Buddhist, the same religion of the Burmese junta, and are considered voluntary economic migrants—not religiously persecuted dissidents. “They live on the margins of refugehood,” says Su. “First, within Burma, they are caught in the crossfire of many political and economic groups and interests. And they are also stateless migrants elsewhere, yearning for the rights and responsibilities that come with a nationality.”
She’s now an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York, where she continues to research health and education policy in marginalized communities. Her fiction explores psychological liminal spaces, as well as geographic ones, particularly urban areas mired in rapid economic development and its resulting demographic shifts. Su wrote Missing Persons, a series of vignettes, based on oral histories she conducted in 2011 and 2012 with residents of Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and Flushing. Her subjects were a disparate group—teachers, healthcare workers, restaurant staff, and folks from a non-profit who work with underserved young people. But they all shared a feeling of invisibility on streets, at work, even when they looked in the mirror. “Meanwhile, they also felt hyper-visible,” she says, and therefore vulnerable to arrest and deportation.
These five vignettes are composites of her interviews. Su’s characters explore what it means to be (or not be) present in every sense of the word and aware of their own self-image within the context of urban, migrant life. Artist Wah-Ming Chang’s photographs, which she created in response to Su’s stories, show reflections, windows, people caught in the act of people-watching, she says, to capture “figures passing through one another, longing to make contact.”
Writing creatively gives Su the perspective that can often get lost in statistics. “I’m interested in the suppressed back stories, the kind you only tell yourselves, and then only in moments of deep reflection,” she says. “For me, fiction is a place to examine the unspoken and to consider how it can influence real-world policy and action.” — Sharmila Venkatasubban
1. She is not here: Henry Street and Market Street
Boys like him usually come all the way here because it’s cheaper. Because I’m cheaper. “Is this your first time?” I ask, in English. He shakes his head, quickly enough that I know it’s a lie.
In bed, he presses his hands against my back, but his elbows are stuck out in the air. “I’m cold,” I say, slipping underneath a blanket. It smells like old cigarettes, and I try to inhale quickly and exhale slowly. I want to touch something warm, so I burrow my shoulder blades into the bed. He pulls me closer and grips the back of my neck with both hands, and I see myself doing the same to him, almost covering his entire neck, overlapping a little at the nape. I can feel his pulse against my fingertips. He keeps blinking. His eyelids flutter like hummingbird wings. First I kiss them hard to keep them from flapping. Then I kiss him on the lips. I do it straight on, so that I never feel the contours of his lips or wrap mine around them. They are chapped and brittle. I sigh. He doesn’t say a word. I don’t see his stomach, but it feels like white frost. Above his belly are the faint outlines of his ribs. I pull up the blanket every time it falls below my chin. When I moan loudly, he stays silent, but grips my arms and doesn’t let go for a long time.
When he finishes, his right arm flails for a moment, and he scratches my left cheek. I trace the outlines of the scratch with my fingertips, a bit startled. The staccato scratch runs from the corner of my jaw, almost all the way to my eye. I imagine that it looks like Braille. There is no blood, unless I press hard—and then, just a single drop of it, only in one spot.
“Oh my god,” he says. “I’m so sorry. It was an accident. Are you okay?”
I sigh. How am I going to explain this scratch? Except that there’s no one I need to explain it to. Besides, I can tell he’s a good kid—by the way he now hurriedly gathers his belongings with flushed cheeks, yet ties his shoelaces in elaborate knots. By the way he gingerly puts his glasses on, then checks up on me out of the corner of his eye. I want to tell him that we’re the same age, even though I look much older than 15, and I’m not sure how old I feel. I had said I was 18 in order to get hired. Unlike the men at the day labor agencies a few doors down, next to the Buddhist temple, the women here didn’t ask for proof.
After the boy leaves, I clean up. I take a shower. I do this quickly, so that I can stop by the temple for a few minutes, pray for my mother. When I kneel, I can feel her in the room, a few feet in front of me. She’s let her hair grow out a bit, down to her shoulders. Her outfit is new, a knee-length crepe sheath that flatters her figure. She looks good for her age, though I’m a bit shocked by the goldenrod color. She never used to wear such bright colors. When I stand up to take a step forward, she disappears. I pray that she will send a letter telling me to come back, that she can’t believe how much I’ve grown, that I’ve sent enough money home. Last week, I asked the deities if she would do so. The kau cim sticks gave me the number 54, but when I looked for the accompanying fortune in cubbyhole 54, I saw nothing.
2. Bearing witness, for a flashback is not a remembrance: Eldridge Street and Canal Street, Manhattan
The big, tall girl almost runs over me on the sidewalk, between the Pu Zhao temple and the Jewish one, but I step aside in time. “Hey, watch it!” I yell. “Your cigarette almost burned my hand!”
She looks startled and spins around to look back at me, so that her purse swings and hits her stomach with a thud. I see her snicker. I want to respond, but there’s something about this girl—maybe the way she tucked the cigarette stub between her fingers, then put it away inside her palm, even as she gave me a dirty look—that makes me just stare dumbly. I almost nod “good-bye” to her, but she turns quickly to go wherever she’s going, rushing away.
Most of the time, they float by and I pay them no mind. Especially on my way to work each afternoon, while they look like zombies going home. Every once in a while, one of them surprises me by going out of his way to help me out in the middle of a winter storm, for example. In those most moments, I almost think that they are like us, or that I am like them. But for the most part, I can tell the ambivalence is mutual. When I’m carrying something on my shoulder down the street, I often see one walk straight through me, then duck his head to avoid the cardboard box. It’s as if we walk straight through one another.
My wife’s invalid boss, for example, can’t live without her help. Yet she barely recognizes her. What does it mean to be recognized, anyway? Maybe it’s better to be left alone. But my son is only seven years old, and he’s already so different from us. He thinks he can mingle with them, that he can play tag with them. That they will chase him, and they will fall down together giggling. If he keeps getting carried away like this, he’ll dream of one day marrying one.
Last night—or more precisely, this morning at 5:30 a.m.—I was coming home from my shift, covered in white rice flour from the noodle shop. A delivery worker was unloading crates of olive oil tins. The street vendor next to him was setting up a table of silk scarves, hats, and watches. But he had turned away from the curb, and his head was mostly buried inside one of several large plastic bags. He must have been curating his wares for the day.
I squinted to make sure. Yes, it was true. The delivery worker swiped an item—a scarf, a watch—off the vendor’s table each time he walked to the truck, readjusting his jacket along the way. I paused, a block away, and leaned against the nearest building.
The delivery worker caught sight of me. He was mouthing something, but I had no idea what he was saying. I think he was asking me a question. Then he moved toward the truck, got in, and drove past me without ever coming to a full stop at the stop sign.
In a flash, his eyes implored me to stand still, to be quiet. He threw something out the truck window, an apparition. I told myself that I didn’t see it. I ran through the streets to hurry home. A homeless man standing by the subway entrance stared at me, as if he had just seen a ghost. For a brief moment, I looked down at the white powder on my skin, on my clothes, falling off my hair in delicate clouds.
3. For this temporary state, an impermanent scar: From 83rd Street and 21st Avenue, Brooklyn to 164th Street and 84th Road, Queens
Each morning, my husband arrives just as I am leaving. A kiss, barely a minute of his hand touching mine, cradling my hip. That’s it. I take our son to school; he picks him up. In a way, we are lucky to have found jobs in this city, so that we aren’t gone like the other parents, members of the “missing generation”—the ones relying on their own parents to care for the children most of the time. The ones coming home once a year, only for the holidays. They brace themselves to be shocked by how their children have grown, how they’ve changed.
I think about this almost every day when I say good-bye to my son. “See you,” I say, waving. I wave at the back of his chubby hand, always the right one raised above his head, as he rushes to join his friends at school. Then I take one bus, transfer to the subway in Kensington, change lines in Manhattan, and take another bus to my job in Jamaica. I work as a home health aide in my boss’s apartment, near the airport. The space is grand, or at least it used to be, with wooden floors that have started to warp, a chandelier of clouded glass, and multiple bedrooms filled with books, storage boxes, plates inscribed with dates and the names of parks and waterfalls.
My boss. Sometimes she sees me, and sometimes she passes right through me, zooming in her electric wheelchair, pressing the forward button with surprising strength. It depends on her mood. Sometimes I don’t notice her in time to make myself invisible, and then I have bruises all over the tops of my thighs, above my knees. When I do notice her in time, I make myself disappear. At those moments, it’s the glint in her eyes—the pleasure she takes in removing my capacity to take up space in this world, her glee in my erasure—that knocks me to the ground.
Her daughter died more than 30 years ago in a drug overdose in the apartment we are sitting in, the one she is dying in. It happened when my boss was around the age I am now. My daughter died two days after she failed her college entrance exam, one day after my husband punched the wall next to our shoes by the front door and kicked her out of the house. The schoolteacher found her hanging from the gymnasium rafters behind the school cafeteria. Two months after that, we left our prestigious university jobs, and the country. Five days after we arrived in this city, I started working in this apartment, six days a week. Sometimes I come here even on my day off.
Every day I tell her the usual stories about my baby, my most beloved—her slender fingers (so unusual in our family), the drawings she made me every year on my birthday (always in her two favorite crayon colors, blue and green, so that she accumulated unused crayons in all the other hues), the songs we sang (usually pop songs on the radio, with words she’d make up). My boss isn’t about to tell anyone about my daughter, about how she haunts my days, why I hardly have any time for my son. And every once in a while, maybe once or twice a year, there are a few minutes of recognition—when we both know, when we are both bathing in our respective losses, our respective daughters. In those brief moments, we are solid, so heavy, so leaden, we stare at the opaqueness of each other’s bodies, hair, clothes, and we marvel that the floors don’t buckle beneath our weight, that this apartment building doesn’t swallow us, that it doesn’t render us the entrails of those who have left us, of those we have left behind.
Today, she eats what I make her, a spicy lamb stew, with tomatoes and red poblano peppers that become difficult to tell apart. I would like to swear that if she could still talk, she would say, “Thank you. It’s delicious. I know that I’m a lousy patient sometimes, such an ingrate, but I know you do good work, and I’ve grown to love your cooking, your fortitude.” But this effusive gratitude, I know, is just me projecting, wishfully speaking for her. In any case, it doesn’t matter. Out loud, neither of us makes a sound.
I’m putting the dishes away when I feel a tightening in my chest again. I’ve been like this, for a few minutes every couple of days, for weeks now. But today this squeeze is worse than usual—I shut my eyes tight; I open my mouth wide, a silent scream. My head whips around, I almost fall backward, but the kitchen table breaks my fall. It is as if an all-enveloping darkness has come to vacuum the air out of my lungs, to make them shrivel into raisin-like sacks, all the while jackhammering my heart. The darkness holds me for what feels like hours, though I know that it must have been seconds. I open my eyes, regain my balance, and glance at my boss. She is still staring blankly at her hands, as she has been for almost half an hour.
4. We are told we are fine, for now: Canal Street and Centre Street, Manhattan
As soon as my shift is over a few hours later, I head to the community health clinic downtown. On the subway ride there, the man standing next to me asks, “Lady, why are you acting like that?” Why am I acting like this? I thought acting was what happened in the movies. Maybe I’m misunderstanding him.
“My heart hurts,” I answer. He looks at me with what I think at first is pity. But he slowly lifts his fingers, then his hand, grazing my elbow, past my shoulder, up towards my cheek, finally grabbing on to the subway strap. Then he, too, pretends to look at the beer ads above our heads.
At the clinic, it doesn’t take long before I get to see the doctor, a young woman with straight black, shoulder-length hair, a thin gold necklace. She listens to my heart, takes my blood pressure, and tells me that my heart appears fine for now, but that she will order an MRI to be sure. I’m relieved, but part of me wonders whether she’s taking me seriously enough. I think about dropping hints about my past profession, about inserting medical vocabulary words into our conversation. She suggests that I eat less spicy food, in case it’s acid reflux, that I exercise more and take an aspirin every day, and most importantly, that I “have less stress.” I nod politely. How do I do that?
We are walking back out into the waiting room when a young woman, a girl, stumbles in from the elevator, crying in hiccup-like gasps that she tries to contain. She’s clutching a clear plastic bag half filled with the free condoms they give out downstairs.
“Doctor, please, I need to see you,” the girl says, coming towards us.
The doctor turns to say “good-bye” to me, and before she says anything, I start heading towards the elevator. The girl’s already in front of me and the doctor, trying to pass us to make her way down the hall, so that she almost falls into my arms, so that I almost hold her.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m such a klutz,” she mumbles. I want to pull her closer, to take her home, to make her a proper stew, but she continues mumbling, clutching her stomach, stumbling past.
When I come out of the clinic, I stand next to the street vendor’s clementines and avocadoes. I should go home, take over caring for my son, so that my husband can go to his noodle-shop job. But I don’t. I loiter about. Around 15 minutes later, I see her—the woman who bumped into me inside the clinic—step out. She looks more collected, not crying, but still a bit red-eyed, tired. Her skin is the color of brown sugar. I step up to her and ask, “Young lady, where are you going?”
5. Once upon a time, we must be moving on: Elizabeth Street and Bayard Street, Manhattan
“Home,” I say. She had asked me in English, which surprised me. I turn and start walking east, but she stays next to me, keeping up with my quick steps. I can feel her peering at the scratch on my cheek, which I now try to cover with my hand. I wish I weren’t wearing gloves, so that I could feel the scab, so that I can make sure I’m positioning my hand properly. I almost wish for the sting of the scratch again, just so that I can tell where it is, exactly. Stop glaring at it, I beg her, silently. I put my chin down, so that my hair falls over my face a bit more.
“I’m eating a snack at this bakery. Do you want anything?”
Now it’s my turn to look hard at her. Why is this stranger talking to me? I try to see past her, but I can’t. I don’t say anything, and she goes on.
“Is your … stomach better?”
I can’t tell whether she hesitated because of her faltering English, or because she doesn’t want to call out my ailment. “Oh, my stomach. It’s fine; I just need to eat better.” Instinctively, I answer, reassuring her, telling white lies. And then, to my surprise, I hear myself adding, “Sure, I’ll have a tea.”
After we go inside, we sit down at a booth. She asks me how old I am, switching over to Mandarin now. “Eighteen,” I answer, in English. “Well, almost.” She smiles. I smile, too, my usual lie softened by another lie.
She doesn’t ask me about school, whether I attend one. She doesn’t ask where my family is. She doesn’t ask me where I come from—I’m guessing she comes from the north, with her pale skin and flushed cheeks, her round eyes, her thin lips. Instead, she tells me about her husband, her old lady boss, her son. I try to imagine her caring for each of these people, but I imagine her as too weak—a gaunt little woman with black crepe pants and black ribbed turtleneck, with impractical shoes. I’m not sure why I sit here, humoring this random, middle-aged woman.
“What’s your favorite movie?”
“I don’t know.” It’s true; I’m not trying to be difficult. And now, I’m speaking in Mandarin as well, though mine is missing the fancy rolling R’s peppering hers. “I don’t go to the movies that often,” I tell her, “and I mostly watch videos online.”
“Oh, I used to go to the movies all the time, and stay in on Sundays, watching movies on TV. When I was a little girl, I loved this one movie about a young dancer. She went on an adventure to Bali, Indonesia, and her arms twirled and bent in unsuspecting ways, like this.” As she shows me, she barely raises her arms, but her wrists are bent backwards further than I could have imagined. Her palms face me, and her bent fingers make a motion that, in a very different scene, would serve as a beckoning call, a gesture of “come hither.”
“Were you a dancer?” I ask.
“No, no,” she insists. She quickly puts her arms down, straightens her back. “Not really, anyway. I always wanted to go to Bali, though. But that was not … realistic. We dream of doing so many impractical things when we are younger … ” She trails off.
“When I was young, my favorite books were of running away—to live in nearby cities, to live in museums, to live inside trees. I always wanted to escape, I planned food supply rations and elaborate luggage smuggling schemes that all seem so silly in retrospect. But I never dreamt I would run as far away as another country,” I tell her.
“You ran away?” she asked, her pale skin turning a half shade paler.
I don’t answer out loud for, as always, I can see that she doesn’t really want me to answer, to find out where, or what, or whom, I ran away from. It is too big a jump after chit-chat about movies, fairy-tale books. Once I utter anything about myself, it is too much.
We sit silently, awkwardly for a few moments, and as I expected, she does not probe further. “I apologize,” she says, “but I should get going. My husband needs me to get home and take care of our son, so that he can go to work.” She turns around and almost picks up her pristine wool coat, an elegant camel-colored one. It’s folded neatly on the back of her chair, not rumpled up around her butt like my black, puffy polyester jacket.
I want to prolong the conversation. I want to ask her whether she likes this city, what prompted her to walk up to me outside the clinic. But I don’t. “Yes, you must be tired,” I mumble, getting up. “Thank you for the tea.” She nods, but she doesn’t move.
“Young lady,” she murmurs. “Emily.”
“It was so nice to talk to you. You remind me of myself when I was your age, you know.”
This comment, right after she cut me off—with her presumptions about what I am like, as if she knows me—makes me bristle. Besides, I don’t believe her. I look down at my dark hands and blue nails, my skinny jeans encasing my fat thighs, my studded fake leather bag. I cannot see any resemblance between us, and it’s not because of our age difference.
“Here is my phone number,” she continues. “I come to this neighborhood often; I’m here on weekday afternoons. Maybe I’ll buy you tea again?” She neatly scores a piece of paper from the notepad she just used, tears it, and gives it to me. She switches back to English: “Will you call me?”
I smile politely, backing out the door, holding it open with my right foot, letting the cold in. I already have a mother. “I will,” I say, in our adopted language. Neither of us blinks, for we both know better.