August 10, 1896
I pushed the dump carts, pulled by horses, filled to the top with rock debris. Others, I saw them clear the paths of rock.
The air was filled with the cold scent of metal.
It was some continuous work, day by day, moving forward.
It was the transcontinental railroad.
After a few weeks, the manager calls me, Chen, you can start clearing the roadbed.
I can feel the bottom of my shoes getting thinner from all the laborious work.
When I first came here, I saw many foreigners, who looked so different from me, the Irish, German, and from England.
Everything seemed so different, strange. I felt a big hole in me, an empty space. And while sat down to take a break, I would take a picture and stare at it for a long time, smiling unconsciously, looking at the smiling face of my son and daughter, seeing their silly faces, and seeing the smile on my wife.
Immigrants like me never really spent time with others.
Was it how we looked different.
Or was it the different accent we had that separated us.
I could even feel the difference in their eyes, looking at us, like we were some dangerous people. I work with the thought of meeting my kids at the end, and my wife. This journey would be long. I am waiting, waiting for the day when our hopes become reality, the day when our family would not have to live in the fear of starving, or the fear of poverty.
The first friend I met since I am came to America was a man named Wang.
He was one enthusiastic man, always with an amiable smile on his face.
He would always talk about his daughters, with bright eyes like him and all of the fun pranks he did on them.
I could always see the hope in his eyes, bright and warm.
August 21, 1896
This was not a home. It was not the home like in my homeland with my children and my family, the small one, but warm.
It was dark, dry, rocky, and sandy, each day I would wake up with a dry throat, craving for water. Many of us lived in the underground tunnels, all tired with exhausted arms and legs.
We woke up one night, one of the nights among several repetitive days, by the rumbling sounds of the tunnel.
As I looked around in the dark, I felt tiny pebbles trickle down and hit my shoulders. We heard more rumbling sounds as more people in the tunnel woke up. The sounds were getting louder and louder.
Suddenly, we all realised that there was a rock avalanche, starting to crumble down the tunnel sides, slowly getting larger and larger. I ran as fast I could, dragging the painful legs that I did not know if they could hold up my body anymore.
I ran out, desperate for my life.
Several possibilities of death whipped past my head. I had to meet my kids again, bring back a better life, for them. I saw the open sky of darkness outside and turned back to notice what had happened behind me. The tunnel had collapsed. I looked around finding some people, huffing and all sweaty.
I kept looking around, trying to find something, it felt like something was missing, until I realized not everyone had escaped the tunnel.
He was still inside, the one enthusiastic man, always with an amiable smile on his face.
I missed Wang, I couldn’t talk about my family anymore, I couldn’t listen to his funny stories about pranking his daughters.
One thing I did know was that he was the best dad, friend, husband, and I will never forget the bright smile he had on his face.
September 23, 1896
I still remember the last day we saw our husband, dad, our hero.
The day that seemed like a last resort, but a new beginning, a new hope.
That day, we all went out as a family, first in a long time.
Where are we going? Our son said excited.
We are going to take a family photo, Chen said. We had never taken photos before, and I smiled in excited, as the kids laughed with him.
Maybe it was the happiness in our family, maybe it was because it could be the last.
Everything looked more beautiful than ever. The sky was such a beautiful blue, with bits of cloud, all different sizes. The breeze was so warm, but cool to the skin, shaking the leaves on the trees.
When we got to the photo shop, we were ordered sit on a bench with a grey background.
Smile. Said the person with the camera. I noticed until now, I had always lived without freedom, Always caught in the thought of going to each day.
But today, it was the first time my smile was real, full of real happiness.
That night, we sat around the table, eating dinner. It was a very quiet meal. As the time for letting Chen go, the more fretful I felt.
I kept bringing it back in my head. It is not the last, it is not a last. My thought continued to bring it back no matter how much I try.
But what if?
I notice myself asking a thousand of these what if questions.
You don’t have to worry he said.
I still remember that day, that day when Chen stood on the threshold of our house, saying goodbye, saying, I will definitely be with you again.