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  • Barbara Saunders

Home is Where You Make It

I finally landed my first full-time job. It was a boring admin job, but at least I didn't have to wear skirts or stockings. I didn't have to punch a time clock. The hours weren't that rigid as long as I put in eight of them. I didn't have to show a badge or sign in with a security guard. I entered through a lobby crowded with patients, mostly seniors and young women with babies. Doctors and medical assistants yelled out names to be heard over the noise.

The building had a full kitchen, and people cooked lunch there every day. They made rice on the stove and heated up meat. Cliques of people sat together and ate, speaking in Cantonese. I knew it was Cantonese only because one of the senior managers told me that's what it was, and that she grew up speaking Mandarin and English, in New York City.

My previous gig had been in a cavernous, windowless room at Bank of America, crammed in with a bunch of other temps, cleaning up the mess of a credit card rewards programs their computer systems couldn't handle. My new workplace felt like a community. During work one time, I had a dental emergency and saw one of the providers. She stroked my cheeks before she looked in my mouth, and again after she treated my throbbing tooth.

One day, the CEO threw a party at her home and invited staff. I couldn't figure her out. In the clinic, she wore a lot of jewelry and fancy suits. She was in the office every day, hands on, though I saw her name in the paper a lot. She was part of high society, sat on boards of other organizations, and owned a few businesses along with her husband.

The clean, modern design of the home took me by surprise. Abstract paintings on white walls, knick-knacks in jade and gold, matching couches and chairs with dark gray upholstery and metal legs. I hadn't been in an apartment like that in San Francisco, I lived in a Victorian, and so did everybody else I knew. The home had the sort of understated look that lets you know the homeowner is extremely wealthy.

In the office, Eileen was always curt, spoke in short sentences, gave you her orders and walked away without a smile or a please. Here she was maternal. Her makeup was still perfect, but the braided gold earnings were off. She served dim sum on a tray and paused to give a warm smile to each person filling their little ceramic plates. The message – You can do this too. This is the American dream.

A television played softly in the background as people talked and laughed. I found conversation partners among the best English speakers. I wondered if I'd ever before been at a party where every person besides me was Chinese.

I'd never heard Eileen speak anything but English when she spoke to a large group of staff, but at this moment, she hushed the group sharply in Chinese. Everyone was quiet as one person after another turned toward the television. A news program was on.

A man in a white shirt and black pants, holding two shopping bags, stood in front of a line of tanks. The group watched in silence as the tanks tried to get around the man, the line of tanks came to a stop, and the man climbed into the tank and talked with the driver.

He came out of the tank, got back into the street, and blocked it again, until hands yanked him into the sea of people. The tanks rolled on. Eileen turned up the television and I could hear the commentary, in English, though the anchor did nothing more than describe the confusing scene.

I started to feel uneasy, I looked at my coworkers' faces. Some of them were crying. They all looked stunned. I wanted to cry. I felt like I was witnessing a moment not meant for my eyes. So, this is why people have to come here. This is why.

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