Ah Ni stepped off the airplane and immediately sensed she was in a new place as the odors of fried food and coffee assaulted her senses. Excitement and fear intermingled as she settled her backpack more securely on her shoulders and followed the crowd through the airport.
She glanced around at the signs in English. Some were easy to read and others more confusing. She particularly wondered about a sign that said Imagine with a freckle-faced boy looking up. She couldn’t fathom what it could mean. The crowd was thinning out, so she was relieved to see a sign with an arrow pointing toward the baggage claim.
As she watched the suitcases go around in a circle, her mind wandered back to her mother’s parting words when she left Beijing 18 long hours ago. “Ah Ni, promise me you will marry a Chinese man.”
“Of course I will, Mother. I’ll be back after these two years of graduate school and then I’ll think of such things.”
Her mother looked sad beyond words. She hung her head and said, so quietly that Ah Ni had to lean near her to hear, “You won’t come back.”
Ah Ni playfully threw her arm around her mother’s thin shoulders. “Don’t be silly. I could never stay away from you longer than two years.” To her delight, it worked. Her mother smiled and brushed Ah Ni’s hair from her face as she used to do when she was a child. But when she turned to wave a last goodbye, she noticed the sober look was back. She knew her quiet, unemotional mother was feeling great sorrow because she truly believed Ah Ni would stay in America.
At this moment, she would gladly return to her mother’s arms. Feeling alone and bewildered, she wondered what she could possibly have been thinking to travel such a long way from home.
Her reverie was interrupted as the bright red suitcase caught her eye. All her worldly possessions were in that bag. With unreasonable fear, she grabbed it as if it might be snatched from her hands at any moment. As she hoisted it off the conveyer belt, she wished she’d left a few more books at home. It was far too heavy for her small frame.
After going through customs and having her bag x-rayed and searched, she finally walked into the terminal. She was pleased that it looked a lot like the one in Beijing. She was already hungry to see something familiar. In customs, she’d been treated suspiciously from the start, as if she were a spy or a terrorist. The personnel had been rude, speaking in heavily accented English. Ah Ni hadn’t meant to disregard anything they’d said, but she had trouble understanding them.
She spotted an official-looking woman in uniform. “Would you tell me where I can get a train to Redbud Corner?”
The woman looked her over and said, “Oh, Honey! There’re no trains here. You’ll have to get to the train station.”
“How can I do that?”
“Cabs are right out there.” She pointed to double doors that led out into a street area.
Ah Ni found a cab right away, to her relief. When she asked the driver to take her to the nearest train station, he took off with a nod. She was pleased that he drove carefully. There were so many more cars on the road than at home. The traffic was frightening and she tried not to watch as the cabbie wove in and out of the different lanes.
“Here you are, Missy. That’ll be $18.95.”
Ah Ni was shocked. She’d ridden all over Beijing for just a couple of dollars. She must have heard him wrong. He too had a strange accent. “How much?” she asked, waiting to hear the correct amount.
This time he pointed to the numbers on the panel to show her: “$18.95.” She couldn’t believe it. With trembling hands she gave him a precious 20 dollar bill that she’d just exchanged at the airport. She only had 24 more of those, and then her money would be gone. She needed to get a job quickly when she got to the university.
After leaving the cab, she made her way to the ticket counter of the train station. When she asked for a train to Redbud Corner, the teller said, “No train to Redbud. The train line don’t go that far.”
Ah Ni tried to ignore the teller’s poor English but felt a great sinking in her heart. “How can I get there, then?”
“Go as far as Cramer then take a bus or a cab.” Another cab, Ah Ni thought with horror. But not knowing what else to do, she bought a ticket to the unknown city of Cramer and waited a short while to board the train.
As soon as she sat down, she fell asleep. After all, it was the middle of the night in Beijing. She arrived in Cramer in a fog and wondered what to do next. There were cabs everywhere but no bus in sight. In desperation, she took a cab the 30 miles to Redbud Corner and paid the exorbitant fee reluctantly.
By this time it was six o’clock in the evening. The cabbie had dropped her in the middle of campus, but she had no idea where to go next. She asked a passerby where the international student services office was and he shrugged his shoulders. Entering a nearby building, she spotted a janitor scrubbing the floor and asked him the same question. He stopped working and scratched his head but finally said, “Sorry, I ain’t got no idea.”
Seeing an office, she went in and interrupted a secretary busy at work, who looked annoyed before Ah Ni said a word. “Could you tell me where the international student services office is?”
Without looking up, the secretary said, “Two buildings down, going north. First floor.”
Wincing, Ah Ni looked nervously around. “Which way is north?”
The secretary pointed and resumed her typing.
Walking out of the building, Ah Ni looked hopefully down the street. She wanted so badly to stop and rest, but she needed to get to the office. She wished she had someplace to leave her suitcase. Climbing the stairs of the indicated building, she pulled open the doors and moved timidly into the hall. To her relief, a door in front of her said “International Student Services” in big letters. Her momentary happiness turned quickly to dismay when she realized the door was locked.
What was she to do now? The only instruction she had was to go to the international student services office when she arrived. She didn’t know where anything was in the city and she was reluctant to part with one more coin after spending so much on the cabs. Fighting a great temptation to sit down and bawl, she picked up her suitcase and thudded it down the stairs and back out to the street. Looking across campus, she saw a pond and a grove of trees. It looked like an oasis to her.
Dragging her heavy load, she crossed the street and made her way to it, not sure why she was going there but feeling compelled to do so anyway.
Sinking down under a tree, she took in the beautiful setting and felt the first ray of hope since she’d left the airport. Realizing that she was very hungry, she pulled out the peanuts and cookies she’d saved from the airplane. As soon as she started eating, a few large birds that she later found out were geese practically attacked her, trying to get her food, so she had to eat her meager meal standing up.
When the geese lost interest and wandered away, Ah Ni realized she was exhausted. Maybe I’ll just lay my head down for a few minutes. She used her backpack as a pillow and put an arm protectively over her suitcase. She thought of home one more time and then entered a land that had no jets, trains, or cabs, and where her mother sang her lullabies.
*This is an excerpt from JoHannah Reardon’s novel Redbud Corner.