I could have given up right there. The rat showed up again. It slipped out of nowhere and ran along the purple-painted rails of the bed, and climbed up the rectangular stairs that held the wooden bunk bed together. The rat never really came close to me, but I remember carefully tracing its frantic path as it explored every corner of the 20 sq. ft. room except for the trusty bed upon which I lay.
I watched as the rat studied the meager contents of the room; it seemed unimpressed by the bed, the rusty shoe-rack and the poorly-painted wooden study table. I still remember when my dad surreptitiously dug up that very table from the dumpster downstairs, and had polished and painted it so he could fool me into believing that it was a new one. The dumpster was directly beneath our window. During the summertime, my mom would open the window whenever she thought air conditioning was a luxury. And chemical warfare would ensue. Within five minutes, the room would be filled with a scathingly foul stench that consisted predominantly of eggs and vegetables, the only food most inhabitants of this building-other illegal Chinese immigrants-could afford to buy.
The building was filled with people like us, people simply looking for a better life. We lived in a red-walled apartment at the end of Christie Street, a common shelter for illegal aliens who had just arrived in New York City. Within a few months, I became a self-proclaimed chef. But my dishes sucked. They often consisted of eggs with tomatoes. I always cut the tomatoes too fine and cooked them with the egg turning the whole dish into a kind of pudding. It didn't taste right, but at that age I didn't care what was good or bad, just what was available to me. I cooked so that when my mom came home, she would have something to eat.
My mom worked 14-hour days at a clothing factory. When she came home, she threw herself onto the bed. She became hysterical when it came to taking a shower, and she would make sure that she had shut all the blinds in the kitchen, because the "bathtub," if it constituted one, happened to be in the kitchen, covered only by a skinny, almost penetrable, curtain. She usually came back after midnight, which was good since, by then, our neighbors had already gone to bed. I didn't even care about people seeing me naked: I was only 11.
We had been in America for about a year and a half. But my dad was always working as a delivery man in another state, sometimes in Richmond, Va., sometimes in Atlanta, Ga., sometimes in some unknown town in North Carolina, and sometimes in New Jersey (which was the most desirable because he would come back more often). When he did come back, we would have lots of food, and I didn't have to cook. But I never showed him my new cooking skills. He would have called me weak-willed because cooking, in any form, would be unsuitable for his son.
Naturally, he wanted me to master English and become independent. I was enrolled in an ESL class in New York. Although I was making decent grades, I was not serious about school. Every day after school, I would go to one of my friends' houses. Sometimes we would go to a nearby court to play basketball; other times I would stay in their house watching Chinese T.V. shows. In one of the shows, a first-generation immigrant family was so successful in their shoe-making business that they ended up sending their kids to Cambridge to study medicine. I fantasized my own parents might open a factory one day. I became so blissfully engrossed by the link between shoes and education that I almost ceased to worry about whether or not my mom would overwork herself, or when my dad would come back home to cook for us.
My family had come to America in search of the American dream. We rented a bedroom owned by the Chen family who lived in another bedroom across from us in the same apartment. Usually only Mr. and Mrs. Chen lived there, but occasionally Anthony, who was ten, would come home on the weekends.
Anthony was the window through which I saw the world. He would tell me about the football games in his school, the cheerleader he had fallen madly in love with, the bully that he wanted to beat up and the 2008 Mustang Convertible GT he wanted to drive when he turned 17. I called him crazy, but he stared at me and replied, "You're the crazy one! You're too scared to dream!"
As I finished middle school, I became increasingly rebellious. I saw no future for myself. I didn't know where this education thing would take me. I started questioning my place in this country. My grades took a toll. I would go out playing basketball until very late at night, or stay in my friend's house until his parents kicked me out of their apartment. I would not cook for my mom; I would not even cook for myself. I would stuff one or two slices of bread into my mouth and go to bed without washing. I hated the bathtub.
My mom was too weak to scold me. She would only hum faintly on our bed because she was too hungry and too tired to cook. She wouldn't even scold me for not washing myself. When I came home, I would just lie gently against the pillow, the only tangible thing in this world, and dream of fancy Ford Mustangs, unattainable cheerleaders and the elusive American dream. And when I weighed these dreams against the flimsy existence we had eked out of this country, tears would begin to rush out of my eyes. I would feel my mom grab my hand, and I would hear her turn around and a stifled sniff. Together, we would fall asleep.
Seven years later, I was living in a dream again, this one called the Duke dream. Here, I've been blessed with truly wonderful and talented friends. We hang out together, pull all-nighters and share our aspirations. One thing my friends don't know, though, is that I am here illegally and I don't have a future. Still, I have been more than thankful. Yesterday, as I walked through the Duke Gardens and smelled the flagrant scent of blooming flowers on my way to class, I remembered where I came from and how it smelled. I am thankful for the best time of my life. It is brighter than any American dream I could ask for.
The strong stone this University is built on, however, does not shield us from the cruel uncertainty of the world outside. I can see my graduation approaching and I'm scared. I'm afraid I won't find a worthwhile existence for myself outside these walls. Right now, I am living in a dream, but can America wake up in time for my American dream to continue?
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The author of this column is a Trinity upperclassman. More information about the DREAM Act can be found at www.change.org/ideas/view/pass_the_dream_act_now.
The Chronicle holds a strict policy against running columns or letters to the editor submitted and/or intended to be run anonymously. But we believe the column above presents an extraordinary case, and we run it anonymously to protect its author.