Charlie Tran

When I was a child, I used to ask my parents why we left the Fragrant Harbor. For the  longest time, I didn’t know its actual name because my parents refused to call it anything else.  Mama said whatever the world called it would take on a different meaning soon, so they had to  call it what it truly was or it would lose its spirit altogether. Mama wouldn’t tell me anything else  about it until I called it by its “proper” name. I used to forget every time, but eventually, it felt  wrong to call it anything else. We weren’t the only ones. All the families who had come to Porto  Alegre with us called the Fragrant Harbor our collective home, and since no one else called it  that, it was like we were a people of our own coming from a place no one knew, at least, not like  we did.  

I used to refuse to call it by what she wanted me to call it, but every time I gave in. Once  I called it by its proper name, she would tell me what little she could. I knew she didn’t tell me  everything because she told me she didn’t. She knew there were things I was not ready to know,  but she said she had traveled too far to deceive people out of comfort — especially her own  daughter. She would not be silenced, not even by herself. Still, she didn’t tell me much. She told  me I had been before just months before The Agreement, which she referred to as “heaven’s personal mandate for us to leave before things got worse.” She told me about how all of our family  and close neighbors got on the ships together and the last time she took in the smell of the harbor.  After that, she always trailed off into memories about the vast ocean and scattered anecdotes  about stops along the way, but by then I had gotten all I wanted.  

After she finished, I always went and asked Baba, but he didn’t like talking about it. He  typically said it was something I shouldn’t worry about because it was in the past. When I was  about ten, he told me something different.  

“We left the Fragrant Harbor because a wise mentor of mine told me that we could not  prosper there and that we should leave for a land far away — ‘Beautiful Country’ — and there  we would be blessed with ‘prosperity and posterity.’ The way he talked about Beautiful Country,  you would have thought he was talking about heaven. I wasn’t sure I believed him at first, but  when I heard about The Agreement, I heard God telling me that he was right.” Then he smiled. “I  was fortunate that your mother heard God saying the same thing, and that she was willing to let  our beautiful daughter never see our home again.”  

“Is this the Beautiful Country, Baba?”  

He smiled again. “It’s not the Beautiful Country he was talking about… but it is close.  Maybe we can go there one day.” I didn’t know what the Beautiful Country would be like, but  my imagination exploded with the possibilities, and I knew I would see it one day.  

When I was seventeen, God told Baba it was time to leave Brazil for the Beautiful Country. The night before we left, I went down to the beach with my two closest friends. We spent the  night crying, celebrating, singing, dancing, yelling, chanting, and whatever else we felt we had to  do so I never lost the spirit of Brazil when I left. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see them again, but I  hoped one day they would follow me to the Beautiful Country. Before going back home and appreciating my last night in my own bed, I said my individual goodbyes to them.  I said goodbye to María first. She was the closest thing I had to a sister. Her parents were 

next-door neighbors to mine back in the Fragrant Harbor, and she was born just a month after  me. I always pretended we were twins, and I never cared when we got in trouble together because it was more fun that way. When we were ten, we both got suspended from grade school for  causing trouble on the playground. We had just studied some war I’ve forgotten about since and  organized a pretend war in place of any other game. María was in charge of one side, and I was  in charge of the other, but we secretly worked together to make it more entertaining and more  dramatic. Our classmates loved it. I’m not sure how she ran things on her side, but I always repeated some nonsense that I had read that the Monkey King had said. My parents said I wasn’t  old enough to read that book, but the cover was so compelling it felt wrong not to. Our playground war wasn’t actually violent, but the potential for violence deeply concerned the teacher.  She shut it down fast and asked all the students who started it. No one said, but someone did slip  up and tell her that the war was between “Brazil and China,” and she decided it must have been  the two Chinese girls in her class who started it. She was right, of course, but she never had sufficient evidence to make such an accusation. As she laid down our sentence, she told us, “I expected more out of you two.”  

I cried the ugliest tears of my life when I said goodbye to María. She told me to be good,  and I told her I would if the Beautiful Country was good in return. I told her to keep writing stories and to send them to me. I loved her stories. They were uniquely her: a fusion of the Fragrant  Harbor and Porto Alegre. Sometimes she wrote stories about me that made me dream about what  my life could be like in all the places she wrote about, whether it be in Brazil, the Fragrant Harbor, the Beautiful Country, or in some world from her imagination. I told her I would make at  least one of them come true. She smiled through the tears, then let me cry into her hair as she  cried into mine.  

I sent her home after that so I could have some time alone with João. For a moment I just  wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his chest, knowing he would let me cry if I  needed to. He wasn’t my boyfriend, but I loved him, and I probably would have married him if I  hadn’t left. I knew he knew this, but I never knew how he felt. Some days I felt like he loved me  back, and I would act as if I was his wife, and he would act as if he was my husband, but I noticed he kept the respectful distance of not actually being my husband. Some days I felt like he  didn’t, and it would hurt me to see him, and he would keep his distance — not fully knowing  what was happening — while making sure María took care of me. I wanted to ask him to come  to the Beautiful Country as soon as he had enough money, but I told myself he would do it without my prompting if he truly loved me.  

We spoke little before parting, but he said one thing to me: “Jadá, remember to always be  the Little Dragon.” I grinned, but I didn’t let him see it. I hit him lightly on the shoulder. He always called me Little Dragon. At first, I thought it was just because I was Chinese, but he never  called María that. I would tell him he should call me Little Ox instead because that was the year I  was born, and he would laugh and shake his head. I came to realize it was because he thought I  had a dragon’s heart in my human body. I never knew if he meant it literally or not, but now  wasn’t the time to ask. I simply told him one last time he should’ve called me Little Ox when he  had the chance.  

I left João with a light kiss on each cheek, and he did the same. I wish I had shown him  more love, the love he deserved from me, and I beat myself up over it for at least the first few 

months after leaving Porto Alegre.  

My family spent most of our money to move to Dallas. Baba told me that, when we made  landfall in São Paulo (before settling in Porto Alegre), his brother followed God’s calling for him  to settle in America. I had never met my uncle, and then he was my neighbor. Not only that, but  he was by far my favorite neighbor. We would just sit in his kitchen with my aunt, and he would  tell me stories about the Fragrant Harbor, about America, and embarrassing ones about his wife  when she wasn’t in the room. He made me laugh — as a good uncle does — and he laughed at  me when I told him all about my antics in Porto Alegre. “You’re crazy,” he’d say lovingly.  

Uncle tried to help me make friends in our neighborhood. At first, I was encouraged that  we lived in a predominately Chinese district of town, but I quickly learned that race only made  us one people; it didn’t necessarily make us friends or companions. My upbringing was far different from theirs. My English wasn’t proficient yet, and they all spoke it fluently. We all spoke  Chinese, but I spoke Cantonese while most of the other kids spoke Mandarin. None of them  spoke Portuguese. Most of them shared a common story: they were born in China or to a family  from China and moved to the United States in their youth. Those that didn’t were just one generation removed, just close enough to manage. Growing up in Brazil was a completely different  life, and I didn’t have time to adapt before most of us would go off to college. I spent a lot of  time crying over my lost friendships in Brazil. Baba told me to try making friends, but I refused.  I wanted to spend my time with Auntie and Uncle, and I did, deciding to wait until college to  make American friends while I practiced and perfected my English. I think many of the other  young people in our neighborhood thought I was unwell, but my parents — despite disagreeing  with me — weren’t worried. They knew I was smart enough to prepare myself for the world.  

The University of North Texas at Dallas was the most affordable school we could find  close enough for me to stay and work with Baba. That’s where I met Micah. He told me he chose  UNT Dallas because he had a teacher in high school who was like a father figure and a mentor to  him, and that teacher took a job there, so he moved from Chicago after he graduated to have that  teacher again. He even majored in film for just that reason.  

Micah was a good friend who loved learning about my culture. He helped me navigate  life in America, but he refused to teach me what it meant to be an American. “I don’t want you to  lose your culture in it. It’s not worth it.” I told him I wouldn’t, but he said he didn’t want to risk  it. I told him it wasn’t his decision to make, but I never sought it out. I didn’t want to learn it  from anybody I didn’t trust, and I didn’t trust anyone as much as I trusted him. For a moment,  something deep inside me saw him as the American reincarnation of João — not as a replacement — but he made it very early on that he had no romantic interest in me. He had a girl back in  Chicago he wanted to marry, and I quickly came to terms with that.  

I was closer to him than anyone in the neighborhood. He was my best friend, all through  college. I felt like he understood me. One day, he told me his brother was moving to Dallas for  work, and that I had piqued his interest. I asked what that meant, but he didn’t elaborate beyond  the fact that it was romantic. I didn’t know how to react, so I shoved Micah off the park bench  when he said that he talked about me to his brother. He laughed. He didn’t say much about his  brother Judah, but he showed me a picture. Slender and sleek, there was something adorable  about the way he looked, but the look in his eyes turned that into a weapon of confidence. I 

couldn’t wait to meet him.  

It wasn’t until I met Judah that I realized Micah Franklin came from a rich family. I knew  he was well off enough to live in the nicer suburbs of Chicago and to pay for school without  working jobs during school, but I didn’t realize they had that house, vacation houses in Florida,  Colorado, and Maine, and a block’s worth of real estate in Dallas, including the house Micah  lived in. It turns out Micah was the anomaly in the family. His parents were both Harvard graduates, and Judah graduated as a Harvard legacy and worked for a big tech company I didn’t care  about that paid him a ridiculous salary for his entry-level job.  

Judah and I dated for about six months before he proposed to me. I accepted. I didn’t  think I needed to date him longer than I did. We were crazy in love from the start, he proudly  taught me everything I wanted to know about being an American, and my parents told me that  they believed he was the prosperity God promised our family. Plus, I loved Micah like he was  my brother, and now he would be. We got married six months later, pushing up our original date  by about half a year because his family insisted that March was the only time worth going to St.  Croix and that pushing the wedding back rather than up would sow false doubt that could ruin  everything. I was worried about how my parents, uncle, and aunt would be able to afford the trip,  but my in-laws compensated them for their hotel — a far cheaper one on the same island, but  nicer than any met family had stayed in — and their flights.  

The wedding was beautiful, but overall uniquely Franklin. They paid for the wedding, but  I fought for some Chinese and Brazilian traditions I had been dreaming about since the days I  thought it would be with João, but I faced too much resistance to bring them into reality. I would  propose a tradition to his mother, she would decline, I would double-down, she would decline  again, I would start to argue with her, then Judah would pull me aside and tell me I had to calm  down if we wanted them to pay for the wedding. I debated with him, saying I didn’t think he  cared about my traditions.  

“It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just…” he took a deep breath as he thought of how to word  his explanation, “with something like this you have to make compromises. It’s like a negotiation.  Professionalism will get you further than hysteria.”  

I rolled my eyes at him, but I tried it his way, biting my tongue the whole time. I couldn’t  get her to compromise on the color red (“too sensual”), the Catholic Church ceremony (“too imposing”), or the golden shoes (“too flashy”). I wanted to scream at her over the shoes because I  didn’t think it was her place to tell me what shoes I could or couldn’t wear, but Judah told me it  wasn’t that big of a deal since few people would see my shoes anyway. I did get her to accept the  tea ceremony, but she made it her own, turning it into nothing more than a pre-wedding reception  that featured tea.  

Still, it was a beautiful wedding. My parents convinced Judah’s to fly María up to be my  surprise maid of honor. She brought a short story she had written for me as a gift, and it left me  in tears all the way through the ceremony. Judah told me so many times not to cry during that  that they were practically his vows. To him, it was just as much a symbol of his love.  

That day, I went from Ms. Jadá Chen to Mrs. Jade Franklin. Judah and his mother both  agreed that it would be best if I changed my name to Jade because Jadá was too close to Judah,  and it would be confusing for us to have names that were so similar. “It won’t be confusing, 

we’re two different people,” I said, but no one listened. I agreed but made sure I kept my maiden  name as my legal middle name, regardless of whether the Franklins approved or not.  We spent our honeymoon in St. Croix living out the rest of the voucher while our families  went home. I cried for the entire first day — unsure if I would see María ever again for the second time in my life — while Judah did his best to comfort me. It took him that long to ask for  what he really wanted. I cried and gestured frantically. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t let  me mourn. I phased back and forth between languages until he wrapped his arms around me and  started sweet-talking me into calming down. “Please don’t cry. Please don’t cry,” he said in a  voice full of love. I did, and I eventually gave him what he wanted.  

About six months later, I heard God speaking to me. I never knew what it meant to hear  God speak until then. It wasn’t through an audible voice, but through the sheer amount of newborns I encountered. I thought it was a coincidence when I saw them on the street and in the  park, but girls from my neighborhood who I had rarely spoken to would introduce me to their  newborns every time I visited my parents or my uncle. Still, I ignored the call until I had a dream  of me holding a baby girl on a plane. I woke up in the middle of the night and woke my husband.  “What did you say?”  

“I want to have a baby,” I told him.  

“No, you don’t. And I don’t either. We’re not ready for that.”  

“What do you mean?” I sat up, crossed my legs, and faced him.  

“I mean… we’re too young. We just got married. I thought we agreed we’d wait two  years, try it out with a dog, and then maybe, if we were ready, have a baby.”  “We never had that discussion,” I said confidently.  

“Of course we did…” he sighed. “You’re always talking about how much you love your  work anyway. You don’t wanna give that up, do you?”  

“I wouldn’t have to. What makes you think I have to?”  

“It’s gonna be harder.”  

“You don’t think I can do it?”  

“I don’t think you want to.”  

“It’s not just me…” I broke eye contact with him. He sat up and leaned closer to me.  “Ah, are your parents pressuring you already?”  

“What? No. God has been speaking to me and thinks I should have a baby.”  “The Catholic one or the…” he stopped himself before he said something insensitive.  “What do you mean?”  

“You know God? He’s been giving me signs that I should have a baby.”  

“You’re crazy.”  

I took offense to that and refused to sleep in the same bed as him. He tried to get me to  come back to bed, but I told him he had to have a rational conversation with me about the baby  before I did. He ignored me and went back to bed. I fell asleep on the chair, but I woke up back  in the bed, noticing he had switched our places. I appreciated the gesture but was still furious.  Every time he tried to talk to me that morning, I brought up our baby. He would either ignore me  or tell me to stop bringing it up. We were supposed to go to a dinner with his work colleagues  and their wives, but he told me I should stay home if I planned on trying to start a conversation 

about a baby in public. He left before I could tell him I wouldn’t do that. He came back frustrated.  

“Can we talk about it now?”  

“No, since you couldn’t go to the dinner, I can’t talk about it tonight.” I tried talking  about our daughter with him anyway, but he continued ignoring me. I couldn’t not talk about it,  so I left to talk to Micah.  

“He’s probably just scared to have a child,” Micah said.  

“How do you know?”  

“Because every man is,” he said, swirling his wine around like a modern philosopher.  “Why doesn’t he just tell me that?”  

“He has no clue how to do that; he doesn’t even know he’s feeling that way. He never  did, so he won’t even try.”  

I went home to tell him he didn’t have to be afraid of a child, but he said he was too tired  to talk about it. I assured him that, if it was God’s will, he’d be ready, but he said he was too tired  to talk about God’s will. I told him that, if we had a child, I would make sure we could handle it  and we would raise her well. “Her?” He said. I told him about my dream of the baby girl. He  shook his head at me, laughing, and told me I shouldn’t have to worry about him. “I’ll come  around to it eventually. Just not yet.”  

Eventually, the voice of God won out, and within 2 months I became pregnant with a  baby girl. I was already prepared to name her María after her quasi-aunt. Judah argued with me  about it, but either way, she’d be María, and if he opposed it, I’d negotiate giving her his mother’s name as her middle name.  

Later in my pregnancy, we hosted several of his work colleagues. Judah said he didn’t  want to pressure me or overwork me with the baby, but he thought they would really appreciate  some homemade Chinese cuisine. I obliged and prepared it all for them. I had my parents come  over and help cook to make it perfect for them. I wish I hadn’t.  

Near the end of the meal, Judah’s boss gave us the news: they were going to transfer us to  Chicago. I shot a glance at Judah, and he looked shocked. Immediately, I turned back to his boss.  “You can’t transfer us. This is our home. My daughter needs to grow up around her grandparents.  That’s how this is supposed to work.”  

He looked at me, feigning understanding. “We aren’t transferring you as a unit. We’re  transferring Judah. That just means you’ll have to come with him.” His tweaked wording meant  nothing to me and only infuriated me further. I started swearing in Portuguese. My parents were  shocked. I hadn’t sworn like that since they told me we were leaving Brazil, and that wasn’t until  they left the room. Judah grabbed me by the arm and excused us from the room. I continued  swearing as he whispered for me to calm down.  

“Anger’s not good for the baby, dear,” he said.  

“María. Her name is María. Don’t you want her to grow up with her grandparents  around? They can’t afford to move, and they sure as hell won’t want to. And neither do I! This is  our home! Are you gonna let them take us from our home?”  

I understand,” he said. “But it’s not like we’re going somewhere neither of us has been.  Chicago’s my home. We’ll be fine.” 

“You don’t understand,” I started to cry, “I don’t want to move homes again. I’ve done it  too many times. I just want to stay here for the rest of my life. Or go back somewhere I’ve already been. No new homes. I’m so tired of it.” I paused and looked at him. “Do you even want to  stay?” I sobbed. He kneeled down and took my hand in one of his and put the other on my pregnant stomach.  

“Please don’t cry,” his voice was comforting and steady despite his words. “Our daughter  will be fine. You will be fine. Please don’t cry. Please don’t cry.” Eventually, I stopped. “I want  to stay too, but we have to do this.” I didn’t want to answer him. I felt God was telling me it  wouldn’t happen, but I didn’t tell him that. He didn’t listen to Him like I did despite the fact it  was right last time. “Now, can you go in there and apologize to my colleagues?”  

“Why? I didn’t do anything?”  

“You made a scene.”  

“I just said what I was thinking. They couldn’t understand half of it and neither could  you. I could’ve said ‘Oh, I’m just so excited to move to Chicago!’ for all any of you know.”  He sighed. “I know you didn’t say that. Just… can you please apologize?”  I thought it over for a second. “Okay. But can you please fight for us to stay here if you  actually want to?”  

He paused. “I will do my best. Just… please don’t let it happen again.”  

I cleaned myself up and he led me back into the dining room and apologized for my behavior. Judah’s boss accepted, still a bit startled. “I guess I just didn’t expect it. You don’t seem  like that type.”  

I really believed God wanted us to stay, but no one else listened. His bosses didn’t come  to the realization on their own, and Judah failed to convince them to let us stay. I don’t know  how hard he tried, but I know I would’ve tried harder. He moved up there several weeks before  her birth, but I stayed with my parents so they could be there for the birth of their first grandchild. I had nightmares about Judah missing her birth, and every time I called him to tell him  about it he told me it would be okay. We were fortunate enough for her to be born on a weekend  because he came just in time to see his daughter being born. We named her Maria because Judah  insisted on removing the accent, claiming it would be difficult for her and the other kids. I relented, and he left in time to be back for work on Monday.  

I spent about a month in Dallas after Maria was born, splitting time between phone interviews for jobs in Chicago and refusing to leave at all. Judah told me to take all the time I needed,  so I had no intention to leave. Mama told me to do whatever I thought was best, but I was unsure  about what that was. Baba answered differently. “Jadá,” I corrected him with my legal name.  “This man gives you and your child more opportunity than we can. Our job was to get you to a  place where you could be better off than us. God brought us to the Beautiful Country, and God  brought you to where you needed to be to meet this man who will take care of you and bring you  both more prosperity. Take that opportunity and don’t let it go.”  

I nodded reluctantly, knowing I had to go to Chicago. I held Maria in my lap as we flew  from Dallas to Chicago. I had always secretly hoped the fulfillment of my dream would be back  in Brazil. I wondered why my feelings we wouldn’t end up in Chicago were wrong. Was it because I didn’t tell Judah that I heard God again? Did I misinterpret what God was telling me? Or 

was His plan just being executed in a way I couldn’t understand. Would the plane drop out of the  sky before we got there? Would He save us from death, and would the plane crash-land in the  river? Would the river sweep us out of the mainland and into the Atlantic, and would the Atlantic  carry us home? None of that happened, but I didn’t give up hope that we would end up wherever  He wanted us.  

We hosted his new Chicago colleagues in our new suburban home. Judah asked for the  same dinner as before, and I obliged again — this time opting to add some Brazilian flair to the  food that I picked up in my childhood — hoping his colleagues wouldn’t attack our way of life  again, knowing if they did I would have to bite my tongue for Judah’s sake, and for Maria’s sake.  

In our new home, there was a door between the kitchen and the living room. I kept it  closed as I cooked because I wanted the smell to flood in all at once when I presented their meal.  Cooking took a while, but I wanted to keep the mystery alive and the smell concealed, so I sat on  a stool next to the door. That’s when I overheard one of his colleagues talking about me. I could  tell he tried to whisper, but his naturally bombastic voice permeated through the door.  

I don’t remember the things he said about me, only that they were inappropriate for a  dinner in my own home and extremely derogatory in a way I never expected from a professional.  For a moment I felt conflicted — both grossly flattered and unbearably uncomfortable — until  he started saying some more crass and derogatory things I’ve since scrubbed from my mind. I bit  my tongue behind the door so hard it started to bleed. I waited. Nothing but nervous laughter.  Judah didn’t defend me. He wasn’t outraged. He had to have been outraged, how could he not  be? His silence forced my hand, and I slammed the door open. I let the man have it in English,  Portuguese, and Cantonese. He didn’t flinch. Instead, his eyes widened. I wanted to hit him, but I  settled for trying to flip the table like Jesus in the temple. Before I could, Judah pulled me away  and into our room where Maria was sleeping.  

“I thought I asked you not to let that happen again.”  

“Judah,” I yelled in a whisper only for my daughter’s sake, “he just said so many terrible  things about me! Someone had to tell him, and you should be just as outraged.”  

“Jade, he’s gonna get fired soon anyway. Me yelling at him isn’t going to help that.”  

“Why couldn’t you have just done it? For me, for Maria — she’s gonna be a young Asian  woman someday. Would you want someone saying those kinds of things about her? Couldn’t you  yell at someone for her?”  

He paused. “It’s not healthy to yell like that. I’m trying to stay patient.”  

“It’s less healthy to pretend you’re not outraged. Are you outraged?”  

He inhaled deeply. “Okay. I think you should just stay in here for the rest of the night. Let  me handle it, please.” Maria started to cry. I turned away from him and towards the crib, and he  left the room as I picked up my daughter. I tried rocking her back to sleep, wondering how much  of what the man said was true for Judah. I didn’t really believe I was just a token he collected to  show off to others, but I couldn’t help but let the anxiety of it creep into my mind and pray that it  wouldn’t happen to his daughter.  

She continued to cry, so I opened up a drawer full of stories that her namesake had sent  me over the years. There was a whole section labeled “fairytales” that I would read to my daughter to put her to sleep. It always worked. It must have been the spiritual connection of the name 

they shared with the mother of Christ that calmed her down. I picked up the first one I hadn’t  read to her before and opened it:  

“Jadá’s mother always told her to find someone who shows his love for her as much as  she showed her love for him, and anyone who refused to put in the effort wasn’t worth it.” 

That first line broke my heart, and Judah knew it. I didn’t cry, but I sat deadpan in our  bed until I put Maria to sleep. He slept on the couch of his own choosing.  That night, I couldn’t think of anything but João. What would he have thought if he had  seen me now? I was no longer the Little Dragon, and I never would be again. I could only hope my dear daughter María would be.