By Tai Dong Huai
"This is Mrs. Lim," my adoptive mom says. "Mrs. Lim, my daughter Leah."
Mrs. Lim's is as razor thin as I am. Her hair, like mine, is very dark brown, black by most light. My 13-year-old nose, uncustomarily long for an Asian girl, seems to be reflected in her middle-aged face.
"Ni hao," she says without the trace of a smile.
"Hi," I say back.
My mom's talked about Mrs. Lim. About how her husband is totally opposed to her studying English with a literacy volunteer. About how little time she gets away from the ice cream franchise that she and her husband own.
But this is the first time I've ever seen her, and I have little doubt that the same blood runs through our veins.
"We're going to study in here today," my mother says. "So maybe you can wrap it up."
I've just made oatmeal cookies and I'm arranging them on a wire rack to cool.
"No problem," I say.
"I just have to run out to the car and get our books," my mom says. "I might check the mail, so give me a minute."
I know her by now. Give me a minute means she'll be smoking her daily cigarette—the one she doesn't think I know about—inside the garage.
When the front door closes, Mrs. Lim sits at the kitchen table while I load the dishwasher.
"Do you speak Chinese?" Mrs. Lim finally asks.
"A little," I tell her, which is pretty close to a lie. I'm strictly hello-goodbye-thank-you when it comes to my native language.
"We have much in common," she says.
A glass measuring cup falls from my hand and breaks on the ceramic tile floor. "Shit," I say out loud.
Mrs. Lim keeps her seat as I go for the broom by the side of the refrigerator. "Careful to not cut yourself," she says.
"What do you mean we have much in common?" I ask.
She finally shows her smile, but keeps her teeth hidden. "You speak little Chinese, I speak little English." After I find the dustpan, she says, "So where in China?"
"Taizhou," I say.
"Ah," she says. "In Jiangsu." She pauses a second, then adds, "You lucky to be here. In Jiangsu maybe you be stuck in factory already."
"I was abandoned," I say.
I dump the broken glass into the trash under the sink. "Do you have any kids?" I ask.
"Two sons," Mrs. Lim says. "One in MIT, one in high school."
"Do you wish you did?" I ask.
"I try not to wish," she says. "'Wish' just another word for disappointment."
I think about this a second before I say, "You want a cookie?"
"If you have cookie, I have cookie."
I bring over a few still warm cookies on a plate. "They're oatmeal," I say as I take the chair across from her.
Mrs. Lim reaches for a napkin in the holder on the table, unfolds it, and puts a cookie on the center. She breaks off a tiny piece and puts it in her mouth.
"Is good," she says.
"The black is raisins," I tell her, "not burned."
She gives a little laugh at this and we eat in silence a moment or two before she says, "So what you study in school?"
"Regular stuff," I tell her. "Math, social studies, English..."
"Again like me," she smiles.
"Kinda," I say.
I nod. "Right now we're learning about the Gold Rush."
"What is Gold Rush?" Mrs. Lim asks.
"1849," I say. "In California. People came from all over the world trying to get rich."
"Ah," she says.
"My teacher thinks it's where the phrase ‘not a Chinaman's chance’ comes from."
"What means that?" she asks.
I lean forward on the table between us. "Well," I start, "the Chinese— since they were from so far away—were the last ones to get there. Nobody though they had much of a chance to find anything."
"But they did, right?"
"They did because they banded together and worked as a team."
"Chinaman's chance," she repeats.
"You good teacher," she says.
I hear my mom on the front porch and I know my time with Mrs. Lim is almost through. My adoptive dad, were he here to give me advice in this situation, would probably say, "Go for it," or "Swing for the fences." So I do.
"Are you my mother?" I ask.
Mrs. Lim stares at me for a few long seconds, and I'm afraid at first that she doesn't understand. I'm sorry, I'm about to say. Stupid question. But she interrupts my thoughts as the front door opens.
"Your mother," she says, "just came in."
A second later my mom steps into the kitchen. She smells like nicotine and Tic Tacs, and I find the odor pleasing. She puts the English grammar books on an empty kitchen chair.
"Ready to begin?" she asks Mrs. Lim.
"Yes. Ready," Mrs. Lim answers.
"Would you put the teapot on?" my mother asks me, her way of telling me it's time to leave.
"I broke the measuring cup," I tell her.
"But look how good she clean it up," Mrs. Lim says.
From the living room where I slump on the sofa and page through Great Expectations, I can hear them. My adoptive mom and this woman I share a country with.
"Yesterday I would have arrived if I'd have known," my adoptive mom says.
Mrs. Lim repeats the phrase almost perfectly.
"He would have arrived on time if his train had not been late."
I put Dickens aside and sit up straight. My lips begin to move, but I am as silent as smoke, and Mrs. Lim's voice seems to come from somewhere deep inside of me.
"They would have arrived together if circumstances had been different."
Tai Dong Huai was born in Taizhou, China. Fiction has appeared, or is scheduled, in elimae, Thieves Jargon, Hobart, Word Riot, Wigleaf, Underground Voices, and other terrific places. "Chinaman's Chance" is from I Come From Where I've Never Been, a collection in progress.
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