Hanbei knew the story Jingwei, the fierce bird who flew through the skies above the Chinese oceans. She often wished she had met the beautiful princess who was transformed into the mighty-winged bird who protected her people from the crashing waves and the powerful seas surrounding her homeland. Hanbei regularly looked up into an unfamiliar sky filled with New York skyscrapers, and she wondered if Jingwei knew that she now lived near the Atlantic Ocean and in new country where her family needed the protection of the bright, majestic bird.
Dragons moved to the new country years before Hanbei was born, and often it slept quietly until poked to awake and stir the words and actions of those who spit fire and clawed into the air. Because of this, Hanbei’s mother forced her to stay indoors until the dangerous creatures slept again, leaving the city in peace. Deep in her bones, Hanbei, like so many new immigrants, yearned for the open spaces of city parks where trees shaded the pathways and where children safely ran until their legs grew tired.
Her parents did their best to help her feel that she could live beyond the thin walls of her apartment by setting up ‘play dates’ with classmates on the computer. Hanbei took virtual violin lessons and played small pieces with those from the other apartments who sometimes leapt to their balconies to share their musical abilities with the city. Still, Hanbei wished she had wings like Jingwei. She wanted to fly far from the invisible danger that lurked like an approaching storm just outside of her front door.
Hanbei’s parents knew their daughter’s legs were itching to move and her arms aching to fly. Once, on a shopping trip, Hanbei’s father looked frantically up and down the aisles for his daughter’s favorite spaghetti sauce; this was her favorite American food. Surprisingly, during his search, he discovered the very small display of various games in the back corner of the store. Immediately, a pair of red handles and a bright yellow jump rope caught his eyes; he could not stop smiling when he put this great find in his grocery basket. As soon as he was home, he and Hanbei ran down the steps to the small patch of dirt and grass that everyone at the apartments called ‘the garden’. They immediately began to practice jumping in sync while Hanbei’s mom videoed the perfect moment Hanbei’s feet jumped together in rhythm with her father’s, and they flew from the ground and left the earth for a moment.
Still, in between laughter and happiness, there was always something hiding behind her parents’ smiles. Hanbei heard them whispering in Chinese, and sometimes in English, about how dangerous this new world was for them. She knew her parents cried behind the bedroom door, and when her dad stepped out on the balcony or sat alone in the apartment ‘garden’ with his tea, she knew things weighed heavily on his mind.
Hanbei felt the most fearful when her mother’s glasses fell off the bathroom counter. Purchased in China just months ago before they crossed oceans, the glasses were frequently taken on and off during moments when her mom felt a headache coming on. Eventually, the screw holding one of the lenses in place fell out and was nowhere to be found. Hanbei and her parents quickly crawled on the floor looking for the one piece that would hold the lens in place. Quite unexpectantly, her mom, not being able to see clearly, accidentally crushed part of the frame of her glasses with her knee when she thought she caught sight of a silver speck and reached out to grab hold of it in the blurry world in which she now found herself. At the sound of the plastic frame cracking on the tile floor, Hanbei’s mother drew her hands over her eyes and began to cry, softly at first, and then uncontrollably. The three of them huddled on their knees in the bathroom and secretly wished they could all magically be transported back to their homeland.
The crying passed when Hanbei’s dad taped the frame of her mother’s glasses so that the lens could stay in place. But at breakfast, the lenses from the broken frame popped out and landed in her mom’s cereal. Everyone laughed at how silly it was to see the lens floating in milk. Both Hanbei and her dad made funny faces and pretended their ears or noses fell into their cereal bowls, and they would wait patiently for Hanbei’s mom to smile as they each fished through their own bowls in search for what they had lost.
During one of those times at breakfast, Hanbei looked longingly at her parents who began to question the strange glaring of their daughter’s eyes. Was she was feeling all right? Did she have a fever? Hanbei assured them that she was fine as her parents felt her forehead and held her cheeks in their hands. Hanbei understood why her parents built the safety nest of the apartment; she knew they loved her more than she would ever understand. But she felt something move within her and she needed them to let her go. She did not excuse herself from the table. She did not ask for permission.
Hanbei’s mother quickly jumped for her daughter who was now already down the hallway and near her bedroom. Hanbei’s father jumped up too; he reached out for his wife who wanted to run for their daughter now shut up in her bedroom, door locked. He held her as she cried into his shoulder. Into the curve of his neck, she pleaded for him to let them return to China where it was safer for them all. Quietly in Chinese, he desperately tried to calm her. Didn’t she know she needed to accept their new country, its dragons and monsters lurking? Every country did have them, regardless of whether they seemed more familiar to her in their home country than they were here. Hanbei listened to her parents from the other side of her bedroom door; she wanted to strike out of the apartment, but she could not leave her parents standing alone. She quietly opened her bedroom door and moved down the hallway. Once within reach, she threw her arms around her parents, and from just outside her window, the wings and the cooing of city pigeons could be heard as they swept between the buildings.