The next time I went into work, Michelle, my store manager, called me into her back office. The room was about the size of a walk-in closet and contained only a large filing cabinet, two fold-up chairs, and her desk, where the company handbook, with all its majestic HR policies, sat like a sacred tome.
“Can’t believe I almost forgot about this,” she said. She palmed her forehead and made an exaggerated d’oh face. Michelle always maintained her Midwestern gaiety, even when the grade-school kids spilled soda on the floor, even when they wiped their sticky hands all over the cabinet screens.
She casually handed me a manilla folder containing a single piece of paper. The label read: Nickels and Dimes, Inc. I-9, employment verification.
“Just bring something in when you can.”
That evening, I went into my dad’s lair of an office and presented him with the official- looking form. Because we had moved around so much in the past decade—a Spanish colonial in Shanghai, multiple shared sublets in Vancouver, the home of my only American aunt, and finally, a house by the park, our very own—my mom kept all our passports, certificates, and proofs filed away in a safe I had never seen before. The logic was this: if we were to ever pick up again, she would know exactly where things were.
My dad narrowed his eyes and concentrated on the sheet of paper as if he were playing a game of Go. In order to verify both my identity and my ability to work in the United States, the form requested copies of either my US passport, a permanent resident card, or a social security card. He adjusted the collar of his blue Ralph Lauren polo shirt.
“Why don’t you show her your driver’s license?” said my dad in Mandarin. He gave the form back to me and turned away towards his desktop computer.
“The paper here says that’s not enough,” I said. I read the instructions aloud, indicating what was acceptable—a passport, a green card—and what was not—a driver’s license, the one thing on the list I actually possessed.
“Hmm,” he grunted, furrowing his brow. The lines settled into his forehead.
“So, um… Can I have my social security card?”
“Well, yes,” said my dad. “But your card is a bit different, because we are Canadian.”
I had never actually seen my social security card before, so when my dad showed me the flimsy blue card, I balked at the label stamped on top in thick black caps lock: ‘NOT VALID FOR EMPLOYMENT.’
“Dad, I can’t show her this,” I snapped with a grimace. “Do we have a visa or whatever?”
“But don’t you need like a visa or something to live in the States?”
“No,” he said flatly. “We are Canadian.”
Because we were Canadian, he said, because we were not from here, we did not have a US passport, a green card, or a visa. He informed me that we had nothing.
“So, what should I do?” I looked into my dad’s eyes for an answer, a glimmer of hope, but all I saw was my dumb, searching face reflecting back at me. My dad paused.
“Find another job.”
“Wait,” I said. “How did you get your job?”
“It’s simple,” said my dad. He leaned in and looked at me knowingly, as if divulging a trade secret. “You don’t need to show anything when you run your own business.”
As my dad bent toward me, I honed in on the front right breast of his shirt and spotted the little Ralph Lauren logo, a polo player in mid-swing. For as long as I could remember, my dad always wore the same shirt style for every occasion: solid polo, collar unbuttoned, loose-fitting, untucked. The only variables that changed over the years were the sizes of his shirts— he had predictably gained weight in America—and the little stitched-in logo. Even in that old family photo of ours, the one where we’re sitting in a park in East Vancouver, my dad wore a blue polo shirt, faded and plain. Back then, his clothes didn’t have logos on them.
I thought about that photo often. How young my parents looked, huddled together on that empty lawn, my mom sitting demurely, my dad cradling his knobby knees. My mom was wearing an outfit I had never seen before: an elegant white blouse, a patterned red skirt. They held their limbs close to their bodies, almost as if they were too self-conscious to even take up space on that browning patch of grass. I was in the photo too. I was the toddler with the big head and ruddy cheeks, propped securely on my mom’s lap. My mom held my tiny pink hands in hers, but that didn’t seem to comfort me. I was side-eyeing the camera, my eyes black and questioning. It was as if my environment was expanding before me exponentially, and the only thing I could do was stare.