Minor Magics of Chinatown by Wen Wen Yang

I hefted the bulky envelope and stared at the return address. Wellsley college.

Well, damn.

They don’t send heavy packets to rejects. I didn’t even need Cousin Lei’s red-envelope-telepathy to tell me what it said.

The rest of us held our red envelopes up to the light to see what bills were inside. Cousin Lei would rub it between his fingers and just know.

At dinner, I told my mother, “I got into Wellsley College, in Boston.”

“Boston is too far.”

That night ended with a slammed door. I furiously wrote in my journal, “Even if she doesn’t give me permission, I’m going.” I drew stars enclosed in circles around that sentence as if I could force my future into place.

When I woke, my puffy eyes made my monolids even more pronounced.

I pressed a hot towel to my face and wanted to scream into it. Instead, I silently accompanied my mother to the Chinatown farmer’s market. We moved like choreographed dancers. She stayed a couple steps ahead of me while I pushed the rolling cart.

A Coach handbag, First Auntie’s latest gift, hung from her shoulder. First Auntie could tell a counterfeit from authentic without touching the leather goods.

“How much?” my mother asked in Mandarin.

The vendor told her the price. My mother weighed the mangos in her hands.

Her father was a grocer so I don’t think her abilities came from magic. Her hands learned from years of sorting the fruits and vegetables. She never brought home mangos with internal brownness. Her grapes were always plump and sweet.

She couldn’t find a red delicious apple that was worth buying because that name is a lie.

My mother countered with a lower price.

Thankfully, this wasn’t Macy’s.

One winter after I’d hit my growth spurt, we couldn’t deny my need for a new winter coat anymore. The sleeves couldn’t cover my wrists and the jacket looked cropped. At Macy’s, my mother ripped the tag off a J. Lo winter jacket, the last one in stock. She hoped the store would find a lower price on the computer. The Macy’s store clerk must have come from similar people, telling my mother that whatever the price turned out to be, she should buy it. Because I looked like J. Lo in it. We’re both from the Bronx, but that’s where the similarities end. My mother didn’t know who J. Lo was, though we did buy the jacket. I was going to pack that coat for Boston’s winters.

The fruit vendor looked at the mango in my mother’s hand and countered with another price.

I thought it was fair.

My mother offered another price.

I sighed loudly.

My mother shot me a look.

The fruit vendor laughed, “Ok, for you. Your daughter doesn’t like haggling?”

“She’s too American,” my mother said, her fingers sliding over mangoes.

I added the bag, it felt like five pounds, to the rolling cart as she paid.

“You should learn to do this,” she told me in her city’s dialect. “I can’t always be shopping with you.”

I started to say “Does that mean–” when a woman by us exclaimed my mother’s name in our dialect.

My mother turned and greeted a woman with a bright round face. She introduced me and I greeted Auntie Xi who had worked with my mother at the sweatshop, excuse me, garment factory.

“Wow, she’s so tall!” Auntie Xi looked at my mother like she had overwatered me. I felt like I was wearing the too small winter coat again. “How old?”


“Off to college soon.” Auntie Xi then turned to me and asked in English. “What school are you going to? NYU? Columbia?”

Even people who just met me assumed I would stay home.

“Wellsley College, in Boston.” This felt more real than getting the thick envelope, full of forms and futures.

My mother’s eyes widened but managed to smile when Auntie Xi explained, “You’re letting her go to Boston! She will marry a Harvard student. My son’s going to Chicago for engineering…”

I exited the gossip train and went in search of bubble tea.

My mom found me at the small seating area by the food trucks. She added a golden pineapple to the cart.

We made several more stops, Vita Tea in Lemon Tea, a copy of the World Journal, until the cart was heaped with goods. We rode the screeching subway home without speaking as the announcers mumbled. When we had put away the groceries, she reappeared with the acceptance packet.

She set it gingerly in front of me. I pointed out the financial aid information.

“It’s out of state tuition, but I will get a work study job, and I have savings–.”

“Only girls in the pictures.”

“It’s an all women’s college, next to Harvard.” I silently thanked Auntie Xi for reminding me of that point in its favor.

“You want to go, you go.”

I blinked up at her. “I can?”

“I saved money for your college too. Your college is in Boston.”

I beamed up at her and quickly wrote the check for the first semester before she could change her mind.

“Besides, whatever Auntie Xi says, happens. You’ll find a husband at Harvard.”

I looked into the gift horse’s mouth. “Could Auntie Xi say I was going to win the lotto instead?”

My mother waved her hand as if sweeping away that crumb. “She’s only good with marriages, not money.”

I shrugged.

My mother beamed, “And Auntie Xi said there is a Chinatown bus to Boston. You can come home every weekend.”

Even the magics of Chinatown could only loosen my leash, not sever it.

Leave a Reply