The dust motes. They floated with the ambience of rolling hills. A suspended colloid, only visible with a shaft of early morning sunlight piercing through the window of the electric bus, making those dust motes shiver and dance. At eighty-six years old, my grandfather watched the new skyscrapers in Tianjin and the crammed-in stands selling red bean rolls blur past, focusing on the nearly invisible flakes. Through the years, they were seen during dazed daydreams, especially in places filled with lazy sunlight and disturbed dust. And my grandfather did marvel at the flecks as they crept from the numerous crevices of the cramped walls and floated lazily around him.
During the 1940s in Shanghai, China, after growing up in a rural household of eight siblings, my grandfather, struggled to stay afloat. Forced into the courtyard dwellings implemented by Mao Zedong, he lived a monotonous life in the square buildings. Since Chairman Mao took over, he stayed under the radar as he watched other young men disappear. Sometimes, he saw them reappear as part of the Red Guard. Powerless, he lived timidly until he met my grandmother. He had heard how the Red Guard took everything from her family’s profitable shoe-making company. Though they had next to nothing, their lives were idyllic with dusty suits and gray strolls until they had three children. On New Years, they gave the pear that cost a month’s salary to their little boys. On winter nights, they gave their blankets to their little boys, enduring the cold tendrils. On raining mornings, they gave the only umbrella to their little boys. With cracked eyes and hard palms, they gave everything to their little boys.
My father watched the dust motes glint off his skin as he tasted sweet bubbles for the first time. The brown fizz gurgling in his mouth made him smile at the strange sensation. He felt weightless like the floating dust motes, but in a few years, he was forced to focus on a future. Entering college, with his older brother, who was denied an education for 15 years because of the Cultural Revolution, my father still believed in the greatness of Chairman Mao, proudly repeating the new anthem. Though he loved his country as all young boys do, he wanted more than the four mud walls of his Tianjin home. Thus, given the opportunity to earn an education in America, he left the only comforts he knew and arrived in a country with broken English. The first years were gallons of milk, cheaper than water, to the point of developing diarrhea. He worked in a Chinese restaurant ran by a Jewish employer and learned what racism meant. Along the way, he met my mother, living the same way with the same American dream. They built it by painfully lifting each block on their own. They tore away their youth to use their bodies as foundation. They gave away their families to whispering waters in hopes of sturdy beams. They endured degradation to build a roof from their bones. They gave me everything they had.
In front of me, my grandfather and father talk as though nothing has changed. It’s been ten years since we have been back to China, and my grandfather developed a limp as most old people do, while my father now wears wrinkles. On the still unpaved road, the dust motes rock with the ambience of the Yellow River, surrounding the people who built dreams from sacrificing themselves. The dust motes float up, higher and higher, until they disappear, almost intangible, but no longer impalpable dreams.
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