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A Western Veneer for Chinese Wood - creative nonfiction from Koby Chen

The immigration office was uncomfortably cold. The air conditioner had blasted a biting breeze into the room, rendering every surface chill to the touch. No one spoke a single word, including the others sitting in the waiting area. Even in the silence, my thoughts were drowned out by the incessant hum of the AC and the occasional sniffling of a runny nose. My mother, father, and I had been instructed to sit in front of a dark wood desk, one that was decorated surprisingly elegantly. Ornate with flower carvings and rococo patterns, it was out of place amongst the other banal furniture.

“This is a very nice table you know,” my father commented in Mandarin. “It is like Chinese mahogany— hong mu. Very special. But of course, not as valuable as real mahogany. In Seattle, people would have no appreciation for this wood.”

Skeptically, I questioned him. “It looks just like the mahogany table at Richard’s house. I’m pretty sure it’s just that. I see no difference.” After all, the swirling motifs and brass knobs gave off a distinctly European flair.

But before I could continue to question the origin of the strange piece of furniture, the immigration officer appeared abruptly. My father, who had been slouching in his seat shot up. My mother, who was scrolling away on her phone, promptly dropped it into her purse. The officer dumped a thick stack of paperwork before us. And soon, my parents were flooded by a deluge of legal documents: residential information, birth certificates, financial records, and the sort. They began to fill them out in inky and hasty strokes.

While they were filling out the forms, my gaze wandered back to the desk. My eyes followed the wooden roses that crept up the legs. I examined the grain pattern that ran along the surface like trails on a map. However, I noticed in a hidden corner, that the reddish-brown wood had peeled back, revealing a stale and insipid coloured core. It turned out that we were both wrong. It was neither hong mu nor mahogany, but rather, a cheap pine covered in veneer. Aloof, and distracted by the corny fixture, I was oblivious to the officer’s remarks.

“Sign this. Do it clearly.”

“Me? Are you sure?” I stumbled back in Mandarin.

She handed me a beige piece of paper. Printed at the top were bold Chinese characters that I couldn’t decipher. Though in italics, a translation read: “Children and Family information”. With her slender finger, she pointed to the bottom of the page, where two hair spun lines sprawled across the margin. “Signature. Print name in Chinese”. The immigration officer shot me a stern gaze, waiting for me to scratch my signature onto the form. I was overcome by a sense of guilt and embarrassment— I couldn’t tell her that I didn’t know how to write my own name.

When my mother and father had left for the West, they brought few things with them. They had clothes, books, and two plane tickets that they had purchased for a foolish sum. Though, like many chasing the American dream, they had been severely disillusioned. My mother would often recount their experience: “We touched down on the runway in January. It was then that we saw snow for the first time, piled up on the runway, more gray than white. The city had looked nothing like the postcards. Though, we told ourselves that this was better than anything Fuzhou had to offer. Shortly after we stepped off the plane, an airport officer seized dad’s navy suitcase. It was the only one we had carried on. We didn’t know how to ask for it back. While we looked for our dictionary, he simply laughed and sauntered away. ”

She would always go on to recall their feelings of fear and confusion, retelling the story along with many more anecdotes about their migration. One theme was constant throughout her tales: the loss they experienced because of their inability to speak English. I am confident that it was because of that day, their very first experience in Seattle, that they raised me to be acclimated to the West. My parents never wanted me to be looked down upon like they were. Through hours of tutoring, they would go on to make sure that I spoke perfect, “white-sounding” English. Little did they know that it meant I would eventually end up speaking broken, “white-sounding” Chinese.

Even though the AC was still blasting in the office, my hands had begun to sweat. I lost my grip on the pen. I glanced at my father, hoping for a hint on how to mark the three characters that made up my name. I vaguely remembered that one resembled a funny-looking “B”. For a while, he sat motionless in his gray suit. His collar was slightly unfurled and his tie was poorly tied. Next to him, my mother watched me wearily. I could see her face shimmer under the halogen lights. She had plastered over the creases of her skin with lavish creams and lightening serums. She wore a cardigan from a brand she couldn’t pronounce.

Then, I realized the absurdity of it all. Just like the desk, my parents had put up facades of western abundance. My father’s shirt creased like the veneer of the wood; my mother’s skin glistened like the varnish that masked the worn pine beneath. They were determined to prove to others—and to themselves— that they had found the prosperity that they sacrificed so much for.

“What are you waiting for? Are you confused?” the officer snapped.

“He just needs a moment. His Chinese is poor.”

My father, finally catching my call for help, slid me a photocopy of my passport. On the page, next to an outdated and blurry photo of my face, my Chinese name was printed. I was meant to copy. Slowly, I mimicked the striking symbols. They were meaningless to me but supposedly carried meanings of harmony and wisdom. When I was done, I handed the document back to the officer.

Chen Pei Gen” she read aloud. “What an interesting name. Like the British scientist?” You were named after Francis Bacon, right?”

Primly, my parents bobbed their heads. They shuffled up the papers and handed them to her with a sigh.

British Scientist? My given name wasn’t even Chinese? With that revelation, I wondered whether it was worth it all to them. To return to this chilly office every few years and pray that our visas would be renewed. To go back to Seattle and be lost in a constant state of confusion. To not know how to ask for a price at the grocery store, or how to read the government letters we received, or where to find the luxurious lives they were promised.

As the immigration officer left the room, I could hear her mumble to herself, “How strange. He didn’t know his own name.” Her heels clicked down the hallway, echoing through the hallowed building.

We would continue to wait for the next round of procedural tasks, in the same discomforting silence. I ran my finger against the glossy wood, trailing the patterns with my hand. I sat there, for many more hours, in the cold and sterile office, pondering what exactly it was that made mahogany so much more treasurable than hong mu.


Koby Chen a high school student from Vancouver, BC. Outside of writing and studying, he can be found at the ceramics studio, at the pool, or hanging out with his pet rabbit Jimbertim.

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