2008 Contest Shortlist

From Communist China to Italy in 1952

Arriving on the boat to Sicily, innocent Chinese immigrants were walking targets.

1952: I was 18, my sister Maria 11 years older. A few days before, our ship from China had docked in Naples, and we had gone, by train, with our parents to the refugee relief camp in Sicily. After the camp people allotted us our straw cots and tin washtub, Maria and I faced facts. Being so much older and more experienced, Maria decided for us, but it was hard.

“Mama,” Maria began. “Luci and I have to leave you and Dad for a while to go look for work up north. We will never find any here.”

I said nothing, just looked at Mama’s little bound feet. Already she, a Chinese, and her feet, were a sensation among the camp inhabitants. How would she pick her way through the rubble on the ground, buy food, go to visit our father in the hospital? Dad had a heart attack soon after we arrived by donkey cart from the train station. The final blow of the camp almost finished him. He was Italian, a cosmopolite in the international setting of Shanghai who was never prepared for this.

Mama only said faintly, “I understand.” Maria struggled on.

“I changed fifty dollars into lire.” She took out the lira notes and put them on the cot. “I wish we could leave more with you, but we need the eighty dollars to live on up north.”

“Do what you need to,” Mama said. She was very pale.

We laid in supplies”tomatoes, bread, cheese, eggs we boiled in the communal kitchen, filled a bottle begged from the front office with drinking water, and added a newspaper to the lot; not to read, for she knew no Italian. This was for the hole-in-the-ground latrine.

I hugged her hard. I was trembling, but her body was rigid. She looked very small as we left her at the stained tarpaulin partitioning our cubicle from the others.

We made a stopover back up in Naples. Maria counted our money again. The Communist Chinese had allowed us to take with us 50 American dollars each, and we were down to $80 after train fare and frugal meals and leaving $50 with Mama.

Our purpose in Naples was to find my father’s cousin. Perhaps he could help us find housing in Naples, a job, anything. The address we had was ancient. Dad had not written his family in decades. He’d had a full life as a businessman in China and he had made his home there. Locating his cousin was a slim hope. From the train station we walked an hour, then two, asking directions.

An elderly man sent us a block up the street.

“It’s gone. See?” he said, waving at the modern new office building in place of the address.

Maria thanked him. “It was a long shot, anyway,” she said to me.

I replied, “I guess we go on to Rome now.” I sighed. “It’s hot for April isn’t it? I’m kind of tired and my feet hurt.” She said nothing. There was nothing to say.

On our walk to this place we had noticed a money changer outside a hotel hawking 900 lire per dollar. The bank rate was 625. We needed to exchange more dollars to buy train tickets to Rome but a rate of 900 lire would stretch our money further. In China we dealt in the black market often, even in the last three years under Communist rule though the transactions became more and more dangerous.

We walked back to the money changer.

“Hey, beautiful signorita,” he greeted us. “How much do you want to change? It’s dollars, isn’t it? I don’t buy Chinese money.” He laughed. He had merry eyes in a small face crowned by wavy dark hair.

Maria thought. “Twenty dollars will do.” She held the note firmly in her hand while extending her other hand for the lire.

I had looked into a store window for a moment and the next sound I heard was Maria’s gasp. I whipped around and saw her running down the street after the money changer. I took off after her, saw the wad of newspaper clippings in her hand, and ran faster. The man dodged around a corner. I went after him.

Behind me, Maria screamed, “Careful!”

But I was not thinking about caution as I raced down the alley. My thoughts were all on getting my hands on him, tearing him to pieces. I’d forgotten all about the money. I wanted to kill.

He dodged into a doorway; so did I. I heard his feet pounding the stairs above. I took them two at a time, but he was a man with longer legs. At the landing a door flew open and a woman rushed out calling me names, telling me to stop. And at the next, another apartment dweller trying to stop me.

My quarry ran through a door and onto the roof. I burst into the sunshine. He was gone. There was no sign of him, no noise I could track though I looked about wildly.
My heart thundered in my head and I realized I had lost. There was no one to grab, to punish. The money was gone with him. I cried, then. My rage, grief, despair all came flooding out my eyes and mouth. A minute later, Maria was beside me. She found her handkerchief and cleaned my face.

She said quietly, “We have to catch the train, then.”

We rose and, slowly, made our way back down the stairs.

Lucille Bellucci