American Dream at Macy’s

American Dream at Macy’s

My first string of jobs in NYC was waitressing, from Flushing to Manhattan, from Brooklyn to Greenwich, CT. I was fired constantly, because I knew nothing about serving, its culture within the culture. I was terrible at counting money. I often forgot to get clients to sign their credit cards. I didn’t understand why my boss called me a “whore” when I sat down to chat with a client upon his invitation. Finally, a friend took pity and found me a job in a Flushing law office.

Mr. Manzie hired me right away, $5 an hour, 24 hours a week, cash. His girlfriend Phillis wasn’t too happy. She wanted me to get some “normal” clothes to meet the office “dress code.”

I grew up with hand-down clothes from my mom and aunt. If I wanted new clothes or shoes, I made them myself. Before I arrived in NYC, I stopped at HK and bought some skirts and shirts. I found them stylish and beautiful, but not Phillis. She wore heavy makeup, gold rings, earrings, necklace, bracelets, anklets. With her blonde hairdo, she looked like a Barbie.

“Go to Macy’s and get yourself something nice,” she told me, when she handed me an envelope on Friday, my first week salary. It had $120 inside.

After $20 for rent, $20 for food, $20 for saving, I would have $60 to spend, in Macy’s.

I’d never heard of Macy’s. In 1986, there was no internet. So I walked across the hallway and asked my friend May, a realtor secretary, to take me to Macy’s.

May was from Mainland China, young and pretty, married to a Chinese merchant in Flushing two years ago. She dressed and talked as if she were a real American. And she loved to show me around to melt me into the American dream as fast as possible. 

We took 7 Train from Flushing to Elmhurst, and walked into Macy’s.

My mouth dropped when I stepped inside. What hit me first was the perfume. I’d never smelled such thick fragrances in the air. A woman, dressed like Phillis, sprayed something on my face. I sneezed violently. May laughed and told me I’d get used to it. She sneezed like a country bumpkin herself during her first visit. When I got my breath back, I looked up and saw the cosmetic counters under bright light, women sitting on stools like penguins, waiting to be attended by beautiful girls.

“Want to try my lipstick?” May asked. She picked up a dark cherry tube and smeared it on my mouth. “Take a look!”

The black lipstick looked lovely on rosy-cheeked May, but deadly on my malnourished face.

“Phillis would hate it,” I said, wiping my mouth clean. I picked up a pink sample, and placed it against my lips. I didn’t dare to put it on. I was holding my first lipstick in my life. Nobody had used it. Was it waiting for me? Or was it simply not as fashionable as May’s dark cherry?

May made a face and sighed. I was being a “country bumpkin” again. She sat down on a stool, closed her eyes, and let a sales girl put on “shadow” on her eyelids.

I looked around, my fingers turning the lipstick round and round. This was the world I’d tried to imagine before I came to America, and it was vastly different. I was born in Shanghai, China’s most fashionable city, then moved to an island on the East China Sea. Whenever I visited my grandma, my aunt would take me window-shopping on Huaihai and Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s fashion center, with the oldest and largest department stores.

My only memory was the crowd, so thick that we never got close to the counter. After the window shopping, my aunt would get some fabric and make beautiful clothes from what she remembered. She was an engineer, but she was also a talented singer, dancer and tailor.

Macy’s was spacious, shiny, fragrant, and busy, bustling with people and merchandise, from cosmetics and jewelry to hats, bags and clothes, counter over counter, space within space, goods upon goods. I looked at the price of the lipstick on the counter. $19.99. That was my whole week’s food and transportation! The shadow May was sampling cost $36.99. So the two items alone would wipe out my $60 budget. And Phillis made it clear that I must get some dresses more suitable for her office. Her office? It was Manzie’s. And I just discovered that his girlfriend was Rosemary, who had showed up today looking for Mr. Manzie. I didn’t tell her about Phillis, but my heart ached for the lovely Puerto Rican who had been living with my boss for 12 years. 

Maybe I could buy a dress this week instead of cosmetics? I ventured over to the clothes section. A yellow jumpsuit jumped into my eyes. The skinny mannequin looked sassy and lovely. Would that pass Phillis’ dress code? Perhaps not, because she never wore pants, only skirts and dresses. But the bright yellow would match her hair! It cost $45, but  it was one for two, top and bottom together. I picked Size Small off the rack, and walked to the mirror.

“Hmm, it’s definitely not for office,” May said behind me. The gray shadow on her eyelids and dark lipstick made her look like a lovely witch.

I let the jumpsuit drape from chin to feet. Without trying it on, I knew I’d look sassy, just like the mannequin.

“What did you do with the sample lipstick?” May asked suddenly.

I froze, feeling the tube burning against my thigh. I must have pocketed it when I picked up the jumpsuit. What should I tell May? In my pocket? I had meant to return it? Would she believe me? The contempt in her eyes said I was not only a “country bumpkin,” but also a “thief. 

“I got a headache. I need to go home and make some ramen,” I whined. Since I couldn’t return the lipstick to the counter now, under May’s watch, I could return it tomorrow, on my own.

She nodded and walked to the exit with me. As we were about to get out, she dashed back to the cosmetic counter. I knew she was checking to see if the sample was still missing. She came back with a big frown. She couldn’t even look at me. My heart sank.

We parted our ways in Flushing. That was the last time I ever spoke to May, my first girlfriend in NYC.

I went back to Macy’s on Saturday. A new sample lipstick stood there like a pointing finger. I left the old, untouched sample on the counter. Would the sales girl even notice or care? Macy’s was having a giant sale that day. I bought the jumpsuit at half price, and a down coat for $59. It wiped out my saving and half of the food money for the week. But the coat would keep me warm in my little room. My landlady kept the house just above the freezing point. I had a feeling Phillis would hate the jumpsuit. She’d be disappointed to see my naked face on Monday. But she’d have to wait.

I walked out of Macy’s in my new clothes, the first “big” purchase I made with my first paycheck in America. Deep in my heart, a question kept gnawing: is this why I left everything behind for America? To make money then spend it all on a jumpsuit and coat?

I stopped a passerby and asked her to take a picture of my first “American Dream” outside Macy’s, for my parents, siblings and friends in China.

A Kind of Intelligence–the Whale Who Knows “Thank You”

A Kind of Intelligence–the Whale Who Knows “Thank You”

A humpback whale is caught by crab nets, entangled in the mess of nylon lines that cut into her tail, mouth, even her blubber. Coast guards and volunteers come to her rescue, diving into the ocean to sever the nets, one by one, line by line, taking the risk of getting caught by the nets themselves, in the lapping waves, or if the whale slaps her tail in distress. But the whale stays in stillness, until she’s free. Instead of leaving right away, she circles around each diver, touching, nudging, and “kissing” them one by one, as if to say:

 

Thank you.
Tears well up in my eyes as I listen to the story, real stories off the coast of California, Hawaii, and other places…

A whale is a cetacean, a sea mammal. It has a much larger brain than a human’s, in fact, the sperm whale champions in the realm of brain, its intelligence shown through the epic battle between Ishmael Ahab and Moby Dick, between Man and Whale. For a long time, scientists argued that it’s not the size, but the spindle neurons involved in social conduct, emotions, judgment, and theory of mind, the special intelligence that mark humans as God’s chosen species, conqueror of the earth. Despite countless stories, eyewitnesses, field notes, videos, and studies, they firmly believed, until 2019, that only humans own such intelligence, therefore, are capable of higher intelligence, cognition, or emotions for pain, joy, love and gratitude, for self-awareness and community.

How much do whales, porpoises, and dolphins have to give to prove their emotional intelligence? How many humans do they have to lift from a stormy sea, how many kisses for their human rescuers? How much more love and forgiveness must they give to counter greed and violence in this world?

To know gratitude, one needs to know kindness. To know kindness, one needs to know love. To know love, one needs to know self, who we are, why we are here, how we relate with others outside the self, with communities, other species, rivers and mountains.

“To know love, one needs to know self”

It’s all bundled together, around the spindle, an axis that spins and weaves all the energy and matter and spirits together, and they are called spindle neurons, padded with fat, the oil that protects and moves the neurons smoothly, sending love and gratitude, the special kind of intelligence, through our brain, body, the world.

Because love can’t be born on its own, cannot exist or grow without the spindle of communities, it can’t move without the protection of gratitude. Self can’t exist without the other, individual can’t live without the communities, forgiveness can’t happen without gratitude, and life can’t go on without the ocean of love. The whale knows how to grieve, play, love, learn, and teach.

Do we know, as humans, how to play, grieve, learn, and teach our spindle neurons, just as generously padded with love, covered with gratitude, as the whales?

The divers cry as the freed whale circles around and around, saying goodbye and thank you, one by one, her body bleeding from the nylon lines, her heart flowing with gratitude.

I cry as I listen to the story, my tears joining the ocean of gratitude, my spindle neurons strengthened by cetacean love.

Tuesday, November 3rd, Americans voted.

They knew they were taking risks in the worst pandemic of virus and race. The lines were long, the threat of violence and virus was pulsingly visible.

But they went anyway, to exercise their special kind of intelligence, because they knew who they were, knew who had sacrificed their lives so that they could stand in long lines to vote, and they must honor it with gratitude, as an individual, as a community.

Cetaceans came from the ocean, then moved to the land, then moved back to the ocean, each transition transformed them, each transformation was traumatic, but they embraced it and triumphed, and became the flowers of the sea, with their special kind of intelligence.

I know we can transform and triumph through this pandemic, together, as a community, a country, with our special intelligence for love and gratitude for the self, the community, and life on earth.