PART I — A BROKEN ENGAGEMENT
A young Korean woman glided into the United States on a bicycle. This woman, Unha, had her hair cut ragged short right before her journey so that where it was once long and shiny, it now hung unevenly over her neck, her bangs slashed crookedly over her forehead. She was pale and sweating. She was trying not to appear as terrified as she really was. She was in Tijuana and everything—the language, the people, even the sweltering, dusty weather—was foreign and strange, and she was overwhelmed with a multitude of fears.
She feared being abandoned in Mexico. She feared crossing the border illegally, her imagination exaggerating the stories she had heard of illegals being imprisoned for years.
She feared Han, Mrs. Bung’s grossly overweight son who rarely spoke but looked at all of them through puffy slits for eyes, sweat bubbling over his acne-scarred forehead. Unha prioritized her fears, ranked the most urgent one getting stopped at the border.
They had explicit instructions.
They each had a California Driver’s License. Unha’s was for a Julie Kim even though the photo looked nothing like her. Julie was chubby and cheerful, Unha skinny and exhausted. Julie had long hair, Unha short. But Mrs. Bung had told the girls to study and memorize the information, to be able to speak it in English if asked. The other four girls were stricken with test anxiety.
They had to learn the words—the address, even the names, phonetically. Unha, though, had a good memory and she knew enough English to sound out the words. The “L” consonant was difficult for Koreans. “Julie” could sound like “Jurie” or “Judie,” but Unha had learned the way to say it from her English lessons with Mrs. Chun in her village outside of Taeshin. Mrs. Chun had called it the buckteeth sound, because the tip of the tongue pressed against the front teeth. La. La. La.
Unha practiced her name, address and birthdate. Mrs. Bung told them to know how old they were supposed to be, just in case they were quizzed. They were waiting for Han to return from the border crossing. Unha had overheard Mrs. Bung tell him to gauge how busy it was.
They were in a small, dirty motel in Tijuana, the carpets stained and the paint peeling off the walls in long, diseased strips. Dust coated the windows, and outside, on the street below, sat restaurants, clubs and more small motels. The air conditioner blew lukewarm air that smelled of fish. Mrs. Bung explained how they were going to do this. As soon as it was busy enough, they would rent bicycles to ride through the special bicycle gate.
Bicycle? Unha asked, alarmed. Why a bicycle?
Mrs. Bung was a short, stout woman with thick fingers and folds of skin under her neck. She said in a sharp, impatient voice, A bicycle is faster. They do not check as many people.
I cannot ride a bicycle, Unha said.
Of course you can, Mrs. Bung replied. Everyone can.
Mrs. Bung continued her instructions: Ride through the border crossing; drop off the bicycles at the rental stand on the U.S. side; get into the waiting van. They will then drive up to San Francisco.
Me do the talking if you are stopped, Mrs. Bung said. Unha wasn’t listening. Her back had broken out into a sweat, and not just from the heat in this hotel room. The last time she had been on a bicycle, over ten years ago, she had tried to pedal a few times and lost control of the handlebars.
She tumbled to the side and crashed to the ground. Her friends laughed at her. She skinned her palms, scraped her knees. She hadn’t been back on a bicycle since then. She hadn’t needed one in town; she always walked everywhere. What if the border police saw her falling off her bicycle?
Would they know she was illegal? She tried to remember what had gone wrong ten years ago. She had lost her balance and hadn’t known how to recover. How could she ride without practicing? She was about to tell Mrs. Bung that she couldn’t do this, but there was a knock at the door. Han opened it and filled the doorway. Mrs. Bung asked if it was time.
He nodded his head slowly.
Unha’s story really began with a broken engagement, and what annoyed Unha was that it was a broken engagement with someone she didn’t particularly love. Her fiancé, Woo Chul, the son of a family friend whom she’d known since she was a child, had actually broken up with her, and this had shocked her. He broke up with her? This was a man who had a beak nose and a habit of picking his teeth with his bony, crooked pinkie, a man who was going to spend his life working at his father’s machine repair shop and had never shown any signs of ambition other than buying a new car.
They had dated for five years, first through the end of high school and then as Woo Chul worked for his father and Unha helped her grandmother make imitation handbags and wallets that Unha’s cousin sold in Seoul. Woo Chul’s proposal had been expected and unenthusiastically accepted. She liked Woo Chul, she had become used to him, but she certainly didn’t love him in any thrilling and romantic way.
When Woo Chul sat her down for an important talk, she had suspected what he was going to say. He couldn’t meet her eyes. He talked to the ground and shifted on his feet. He said he wanted to go to Seoul and find work there. She said cautiously that she had always wanted to live and work in Seoul. I want to go alone, he said. Although she knew what he meant, she pretended to be confused.
She said, I’ll follow later? You want to set up an apartment? Do you want to have the wedding there?
She watched him squirm. He grimaced, and she thought what a coward he was.
He said, I am sorry. I am too young to get married. She almost smiled.
She said, So you want to postpone the wedding until you’ve established yourself in Seoul?
That is a good idea.
He picked his teeth and shook his head. No, he said. We should not get married.
Then she realized that everyone would know that he rejected her, and she became angry. She said, Was this your mother? She always believed she should get a dowry.
No. My mother knows your mother and grandmother can’t afford a dowry.
Unha’s father died when she was young, and her mother worked in a rice noodle factory. They couldn’t afford the traditional dowry of buying wedding clothes and gifts for all of the groom’s family.
Unha said, Your mother thinks you can get the three keys from someone else?
Woo Chul said, That is a custom for the rich. Another dowry—keys for a new car, a new house, and an office for the groom—was becoming more popular in Korea.
Unha said, You know that the women in Seoul will laugh at you.
Unha said, You have made a very big mistake. She turned and left without looking back. She was feeling both elated and frightened. She was free yet didn’t know what to do. But she was impressed by Woo Chul’s decision to leave their small town for the city. She should do something as bold. She realized that she needed to get out of here too. There would be the smell of failure around her; she had somehow lost her man, and she knew her mother and grandmother would be disappointed.
She remembered a girl from her town named Munya, who had no money yet managed to immigrate to the U.S. and find a factory job. Her mother had told Unha’s mother how Munya was beginning to send money home.
Almost immediately after leaving Woo Chul, Unha went to talk to Munya’s mother. There was nothing left for her here. The bicycle rental stand was just a wooden trailer and a foldout table. Unha stood in line, worrying. A deeply-tanned, bearded Mexican man in a sweat-stained T-shirt stood behind the table and told the crowd of American tourists to form one line, that they would get through the crossing much faster by bicycle.
Unha remained tense, watching a group of young college-aged men rent bicycles and speed away, laughing, swerving and racing each other. They had crew cuts. They made riding look effortless. Unha’s heart beat rapidly, her breath quickening. The border police in their short-sleeved uniforms stood casually at the large gate, thick lines of cars and people crowding the narrow entrances.
The mid-morning sun was hot, and Unha’s shirt stuck to her body. Mrs. Bung spoke with Han, telling him to divide up the group—two with him, three with her. They would ride through separately and meet at the rental pick-up stand. Mrs. Bung’s face had rivulets of sweat dripping down off her cheek.
Unha cleared her throat and said, I don’t know if I can ride one.
Mrs. Bung said to her, All you have to do is ride through the gate.
I don’t know if I can.
What if I fall? Unha asked.
Get back on and keep riding, Mrs. Bung replied.
And if I fall again—
Enough, Mrs. Bung said, wiping her face with a sopping handkerchief. If you fall and get caught, we will leave you behind.
Unha bit her lip. They joined the line to rent the dusty, rusting bicycles from the bearded man. Mrs. Bung pulled out a wad of cash, counting off five-dollar bills. She separated two of the women, sending them with Han, and herded Unha and two others to another section of the line.
She said in English, You are American tourists. Okay?
They nodded their heads, though Unha knew the other two could barely understand a word of English.
Unha wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans. Maybe she could walk with the bicycle. No, they wouldn’t allow that. Maybe she could coast, using her toes on the ground to keep her balance. But what if the bicycle was too big? She looked for a child’s bicycle, but they were all one brand, one kind. The big kind. What happened if she was caught? Detained? Interrogated? Arrested? She would be deported back to Korea, and everyone would know she had tried to smuggle herself in like those Mexican workers they had seen in pictures, jumping the fences and running from the Border Patrol. Her mother would be disgusted, because Unha had lied to her, told her that everything was legitimate, that her job as a waitress was already set.
The line moved forward quickly. A blond-haired American family stood in front of her. Their faces were sunburnt and peeling, and they smelled of mint lotion. The bearded man explained to them that sometimes the border police stopped riders to ask for identification, so have their identification with them, but usually the guards just waved them through. Just bring the bicycles to the stand at the other side. A truck with a trailer clattered toward them—more bicycles arriving.
As the truck pulled onto the shoulder, dust billowed up and swirled around them. A group of skinny Mexican boys filtered through the long line of people, selling tourist trinkets, churros, bottled water. Unha felt dizzy. She inhaled dust and coughed out grit and phlegm. The other girls looked at Unha with concern.
They were nice girls, a little young, and just wanted to get out of Korea, like Unha. One of them, Singme, a pretty, tan girl with severe cheekbones, asked Unha if she was all right. Unha nodded her head quickly. It was their turn. Mrs. Bung paid the bearded man and led them to the row of dusty, dirty bicycles leaning against the trailer. She climbed onto one, her thick leg easily swinging over the seat and pushing onto a pedal, gliding her forward. She stopped and turned, waiting.
The other two girls chose their bicycles, and even though the seats were too high and their balance was wobbly, they pedaled forward and joined Mrs. Bung. How did they do that? Unha grabbed the handlebars of the next bicycle, and straightened the front wheel. Everyone was watching her. In line behind her, the two other girls with Han whispered to each other.
Unha’s hands shook. She straddled the seat and planted her feet on the ground. The handlebars were rusted, the rubber handgrips cracked and hard. At least she could stand up with her feet planted on the ground. Mrs. Bung told them in Korean to follow her and to act like they were having fun. She began pedaling, swerving easily around a pothole and heading for the bicycle gate. Unha walked the bicycle forward, shifting left and right, trying to gain momentum, but she couldn’t keep the handlebars straight. She locked her elbows and leaned forward. Her feet slipped and she hit her shin on one of the pedals, sending a shock of pain up her leg. She heard someone in line behind her say in English, She can’t ride that. She stopped and tried to catch her breath. She looked down and saw that she had torn her jeans. Sweat dripped down her forehead and stung her eyes. Mrs. Bung and the two other girls were coasting ahead, the distance growing between them.
Singme called back, Hurry up!
Any child can do this, Unha told herself. She stepped up onto a pedal and pushed down, but this forced her too far to the side, and she realized with a gasp that she was falling to the ground, the bicycle caught in her legs and the handlebar digging into her ribs. She cried out as she clattered to the pavement, her limbs entangled. Her elbow sent spasms of pain through her arm.
Han ran to her, his heavy body jiggling, and he grabbed her roughly by the arm and pulled her up. He yanked the bicycle up with his other hand. He said in Korean, Get on and ride or we will leave you here. This was the most she had heard him speak in the past three days, and she was surprised by the high pitch.
She said, I am trying.
Try harder, he said, and he held the bicycle still. He waited, keeping it steady for her. She climbed back on, her ribs and elbow aching, and clutched the handlebars tightly.
Put your feet on the pedals, he said.
She did, shifting back and forth unsteadily.
He said, I will push you forward. Pedal slowly. Look straight ahead. Go in a straight line.
She asked, You will push me through?
No, he said. I will push you to get you moving. He held the back of her seat and walked forward.
She swerved the handlebars and he said sharply, Keep them straight! He sped up, pushing her faster, and she tried to keep the handlebars straight. He said in between heavy breaths, Pedal. She pedaled, her thighs burning, and found that the faster she went, the more balanced she was.
Hot wind blew in her face. Then she saw that Mrs. Bung and the two other girls were on the other side, watching. To her horror she also realized that the Border Patrol guards were watching her too. Han yelled, Now keep pedaling!
He gave her an extra push and let go. She wobbled for a moment but kept pedaling, and her heart was beating so fast that it hurt her chest. If the guards stopped her, she’d fall again. She had to keep going fast. She approached the gate, and the guards watched her. The handlebars wobbled again, and she almost lost her balance. The guards pointed to her and laughed. One of them clapped his hands, saying in English, Go, go, go!
She glided through the gate and entered the United States of America.