Christopher Yen is the son of my cousin , Bob Yen , the grandson of Joan Yen , and the great grandson of San Tong . Like his grandmother and Dad he has an artistic bent and is an accomplished writer . He penned the following story concerning San Tong and his " Secret Machine" a cobbled together invention to help harvest asparagus . It is told from the perspective of Joan , San Tong's daughter. Jack is San Tong's son. Grandma is Leong Shee who is raising Jack and Joan . Mother is Jack and Joan's mother , Rose ,who passed away when Joan was only 4 years old and Jack only 7 years old .
The Secret Machine
I ask Jack what an immigrant is and why it’s so bad to be one. He says it means you moved from one country to another, and it isn’t. I ask him if we are immigrants and he says we aren’t, since we were born in California and still live here so far. He says our father is an immigrant because he was born in China and now lives in the United States. I ask him what about our mother. He says that she was just like us.
Our father dreams of a machine that harvests asparagus. That’s why he sleeps in the shed with all his tools sometimes. I ask Jack what it looks like. He weaves his fingers together to describe its swinging, steak knife teeth. I tell him I want to see it too. I imagine my hair is being devoured like asparagus by our father’s machine as my grandmother rakes my head with a flat, metal comb.
She wipes my face with a damp cloth and pins a bright, yellow badge to my overalls in the place where my heart should be. It says “Proud to be Chinese-American.” Jack removes his identical yellow badge on our walk to the bus. I ask him why and he says it looks stupid. I ask him if he isn’t proud to be Chinese-American and he says that’s not what it means anyway. He says it means “I’m not a dirty Jap so don’t spit on me.” I ask him why your grandmother thinks people will want to spit on us. He sighs and holds out his hand. I take mine off too because he is my brother.
Girls at school wear ribbons in their hair and dresses made of silk and lace.I tie mine in a ponytail with a red rubber band. My teacher says you can’t wear overalls in the class photograph. I tell her all my dresses are too small. She says to ask my mother for a new one.
I explode dirt clods with my sneakers all the way home. Jack slices the air with a walnut branch. When we reach the house he extracts the plastic badges from his pocket and says to put mine back on so our grandmother will know we are proud to be what we are. I try to find the hole where the needle has already pierced the denim but cannot.
A mustang neighs and rubs against the wood corral, exciting the mares inside. Workers sling lassos at its coal black head. It bucks and whinnies, kicking one of them through the slatted fence. Our father says to quit shouting and hold their ropes. He calms the wild horse with apples and leads it to the stable with an empty silver pail.
Jack says what our father doesn’t know won’t hurt him. He smuggles celery and peanut butter brittle out his window to the stable. He reads the mustang bedtime stories from his favorite cowboy book, and after a while its distant shrieking fades away.
I ask Jack won’t our father be mad if he finds out. He asks if I still want to see the secret machine. Jack lifts me on his shoulders and says to be quiet so our father won’t catch us peeping through the window of his shed. I watch him cough into a paper bag, fumbling with a tarnished phonograph on the table inside. He blows his nose into a handkerchief and stuffs it folded in his pocket. Then he draws his fingers through his hair and puffs up his chest the way Jack does sometimes when he’s tired of feeling sad. Jack asks me if I see the secret machine and I say I’m ready to come down now.
Our father’s face turns red when he catches Jack riding the mustang. Jack’s does too. He says he’s sorry and jumps off, falling in a pool of mud. Our father picks him up and takes therein. The mustang jerks and rises on its hind legs. Our father falls in the mud too. Jack rushes between them. He lifts his hands and makes a soft, sweet sound. The mustang snorts and stumbles backward, digging its hooves in the squishy ground. Jack helps our father to his feet and offers him the rein. A smile crosses his muddy face like a shooting star. He puts Jack in the saddle and tells him to stable his horse. Jack says his name is Lightning and watch how fast he runs. He flicks his wrist and Lightning gallops swiftly home.
Our father climbs a column of welded rungs and shuts himself inside the metal cage on top. The secret machine pulsates to life as though he is its heart. He guides the machine like a dragonfly on a string, raising a lever to lift its long head off the dirt. He pulls another and it bears a steely jaw with bands of sweeping blades. It shakes from side-to-side, rattling its metallic jowl for a taste of father’s asparagus. Once all its parts are in motion he sends it shimmying into the field. It mows the pointed stalks in perfect rows, shuttling each severed spear to bins along a whirling, rubber belt. The spoils plop and rattle in its heaving, metal gut.
We race through tire tracks along a dusty road of furrowed dirt. Jack says to slow down as the machine approaches the edge of the field. Our father shouts too. The secret machine buckles and makes a stammering noise, then roars and plummets through the western fence, sending splintered posts sailing in the air. Our friends and neighbors and all the workers on the ranch chase us as we chase our father’s runaway machine. It carves a crooked course toward the sea, scattering alfalfa and white-spotted cows and birds in the meadow and broken purple flowers and ringed puffs of smoke and even the fiery red sun retreats beyond the shimmering coast.
We arrive at the bank of a pond where our father’s machine has finally come stuck. The workers splash through murky water to rescue him but he says he doesn’t need to be saved. They pant and shrug their shoulders as they come wading back to shore. Our father sits in the cockpit of the secret machine as it sags and slowly sinks beneath the weight of baskets crammed with verdant potpourri. When all the guests have retired and the workers disperse, he climbs out from the mud and metal, puffs up his broad chest, and points his thumb at the starry sky.
I ask Jack why the workers sing. He says because our father needs them still. I ask him what they sing about. He says they sing of life and love and places they once knew. We pinch the light from fireflies and let it trickle down our fingers. Jack leaves to feed Lightning dinner. He runs to the stable, wiggling his fingers in the dark like glowing tentacles. I cool my feet in a patch of moss by the front door. My grandmother calls me inside, rustling the fields from my tangled hair. She places a red rubber band that she saved from the newspaper in the palm of my hand and kisses me tenderly goodnight.
I climb into bed beneath a blanket made of feathers. The moon rises in the east, out of Asia. Mexican songs spill through my window. I close my eyes, puff up my chest, and try to remember the face of my mother.