Sophie He | Nonfiction

The Canadians

In Southern California, we looked to retail to indoctrinate our youth, and these were my rites of passage: get your ears pierced at Claire’s, steal from Bath & Body Works, buy a halter top at Wet Seal. Victoria’s Secret was where you went to feel less like a virgin. The parking lot was where you went to do the deed. My mom and dad were secular Reaganites, proud parents of late-stage capitalism’s finest consumer: the teenage girl. The mall, with its holy fluorescent lighting and its sanitized luster, was the closest thing I had to a regular place of worship.

Every other week, my mom and I went to the Puente Hills Mall. We lived in a house nearby, an upgrade from the small apartment we used to occupy back in working-class East Vancouver. Despite this, my mom still only ever shopped at Ross Dress for Less, the mall’s discount department store. Though the distinction of a brand name possessed life-changing properties, to my mom, it was never worth paying full price. It didn’t matter that all her coveted steals—oddly-scented Yankee Candles, bedazzled Calvin Klein tees, Coach handbags inexplicably festooned with rivets—came from the bowels of bargain bins, so long as she was able to feel as if she was paying significantly less than everyone else for the same approximate thing.

As for me, I wanted nothing more than to work at the mall. I wanted to be at the center of adolescent life. I imagined myself wrapping baubles in printed paper and curling ribbons with a blade, turning frozen fruit into drinks—just add powder!—or frothing milk ’til it foamed. I wanted to lovingly fold shirts, smooth out their creases, breathe in the fabric. I wanted belonging in the form of a uniform, something I had never had in my life before. And though the cloying scent would later make me retch, I wanted nothing more than to come home smelling like an oven-fresh Cinnabon.

In the winter of 2005, it finally happened. My friend Colleen got me a job at Tilt, an arcade across from AMC Theaters and Kelly’s Coffee & Fudge. It was the beginning of my new career as Part-Time Floor Attendant. At school, I sat in class with my head down, shoulders concave, filling in Scantron forms. But when I was at the arcade—and therefore at the mall—it felt as if I were lit up and plugged into the machines myself. Every day, I sat in the dark behind a glass counter, exchanging bills for quarters, listening with glee to the dizzying sounds of pinball bumpers, dance music, knives swooshing, gunshots, explosions, car crashes, and male voices on-screen yelling, “RELOAD!,” all occurring simultaneously, like one conscious cry.

“This must be what Times Square feels like,” I thought to myself.

When I wasn’t at the mall, I liked to look up fun facts about it on the Internet. For instance, every kid in the 626 knew that the parking lot scene in Back to the Future was filmed at the Puente Hills Mall, but thanks to the Internet, only I knew that a strip of black gaffer tape—an artifact from the shoot, now decades old—still dotted a section of the asphalt. Another fun fact: the Puente Hills Mall was built in 1973, around the same time as the OPEC oil embargo. Energy conservation was a huge priority in these times of crisis. The air-conditioned mall was met with moral indignation.

My favorite mall fact was its origin story. The American mall was invented in the ‘50s by an Austrian architect and immigrant named Victor Gruen. Looking to his native Vienna as a source of inspiration, Gruen sought to design a civic square for shoppers in the sprawl. He envisioned a bustling indoor plaza: spacious, smartly lit, and lush with plant life. The mall was a place of the future, both America’s and mine. After my first week at Tilt, I decided that I wanted to work at the mall for the rest of my life.

And why not? Everything else in the world seemed so complicated, so far away. Boys my age used to joked about AK-47s, Osama bin Laden, and the logistics of a cavity search, but now they were all shipping off to Iraq. Girls my age went on the pill; some of them got pregnant anyway. I was clean-faced, carless, a virgin. I had never even watched real porn before, which I still referred to as ‘pr0n,’ just because I couldn’t say the word with a straight face. College applications were due soon. All I wanted was for everything to stay the same.

***

At school, I overheard that a kid who went by Hoser got banned from the mall for an entire year. I thought, “That guy’s life is officially over.”

Hoser’s real name was José Zamora, and though he was scrawny and small, he was the undisputed leader of a band of Mexican kids who called themselves ‘YM,’ short for ‘Your Mother.’ He had crinkly eyes and dark wavy hair, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he still couldn’t grow a beard, he might have looked mature for his age. Rumors swirled, but no one really knew what had transpired on that fateful day. Some kids said he got caught shoplifting books again at Borders. Others said he flipped a switch on the escalators—manufactured by the Swiss, according to the Internet—so that up and down ran in reverse. Brian Yamamoto told me that, actually, he had pulled the emergency fire alarm, just to see what would happen. When the mall cops came for him, he booked it. I pictured Hoser in his perfect sprinting form, tearing through the crowd like a comet, his movement reflecting off the white tile floors. I pictured the shrill blaring of the alarm, panicked shoppers looting storefronts, a bloody revolution at Foot Locker. People asked Hoser about the incident, but he just grinned at them, his half-moon eyes wrinkling at the corners.  

***

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?”

“No.”

“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.

***

The next day, I stood outside Michelle’s office and knocked on her door. I waited with dread, feeling compulsively aware of the nervous tickle in my stomach, like I had just swallowed a vial of spiders. When she let me in, I sat down across from her and delivered my practiced speech: I had a social security number, but no viable card that could confirm my ability to work in the US. I did not have a US passport, only a Canadian one. I did not have a green card or an alien number, nor did I have a visa. In fact, I did not have any of the appropriate documents listed on the I-9 form except for my driver’s license, which did count for something, right? Sure, there were some things I couldn’t “verify,” but I had a passion for working at the mall for the rest of my life. Wasn’t that enough?

Michelle looked at me and presented a cautious smile.

“Okay, hun,” she said sympathetically. “Let’s see if we can help you out here.”

Michelle flipped through the printed pages of the company handbook, scanning for answers. When she found none, she picked up her handheld phone and gave Tilt Corporate a call. I stood there awkwardly as she engaged in codified, corporate chatter—something about labor laws?—with the disembodied voice on the other end of the line. After a brief five minutes, Michelle hung up. It was decided. Without addressing me, she unlocked her bottom-right desk drawer, opened it up, and took out a metal cash box. She pulled out my timesheet from last week and squinted as she did the math in her head. Then she opened the box, took out a stack of crisp bills, and, turning toward me, counted the bills out loud in a professional tone of voice, like a bank teller. She placed the cash on the edge of her desk.

“That should be what we owe you,” she said matter-of-factly. “Sorry, hun. We need those papers.”

It was my last day as an employee at the mall. As I was waiting for my mom to pick me up, I went to Claire’s and paid $8.99 for a pair of plastic hoop earrings, white with black polka-dots all over. I put them on in the mall bathroom, but when the steel post plunged through my freshly-pierced skin, a terrible pus seeped out from underneath. A few weeks later, Colleen told me what Michelle said after I left: “Honestly, it was so nice having another girl work at an arcade. It’s too bad she was an illegal!”

“Illegal,” I intoned, the word wailing through my voice like a police siren.

That day on the Internet, I did not feel like looking up mall facts. That day, I looked up ‘I- 9 form’ instead, which is how I learned Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 gave amnesty to millions of migrants, but also criminalized the act of hiring anyone who was not authorized by the government to work in the US. If a prospective employee did not possess the listed documents on the I-9 form, it meant that they were not supposed to be here.

Illegal. The word had a mean ring to it now, like a cuss. It felt heavy and intimate. A dirty look. Prior to this, the only illicit thing I had ever done was lift CO Bigelow menthol lip balm from Bath & Body Works. All the girls at school had it, for the way it made their lips tingle. I remembered how sweaty my hands were, palming the contraband in my sweater pocket as I walked out the door, trying hard not to think about the consequences if I had gotten caught, if I had given myself away. But now I knew who I was. I knew I would never be like the girls at school, or the sun-kissed surfers at PacSun, or the beach blondes at Hollister. Knowing that I was not supposed to be here scrubbed me of the very thing that defined me: I no longer possessed the privilege of innocence. I guess had been shoplifting all along. Later, I asked my mom why she never told me we were undocumented. She always denied it, changing her story each time: we were here on an obscure visa, we were already sponsored but the system was slow, we were citizens of the US’ sister country, and therefore did not need visas to be here. Years later, an American relative would sponsor our green cards, but my mom would never acknowledge that we were ever here illegally. It was a point of contention—one of a growing many—and it usually ended with me yelling in English, “Why won’t you just admit it?!”

“We not illegal!” she screamed back in English, shaking her permed head. “We Canadian!”

What secrets had she stowed away in that safe? What would I find inside that bolted black box? I tried to pry it out of her, but eventually I realized that my mom had already decided, long ago, that she would never give me access. Maybe she really didn’t know. Maybe she believed in Ronald Reagan so much that she just couldn’t admit to herself that she was the kind of person his supporters hated. I stopped asking her about it. It was pointless, and it only widened the distance growing between us. She did not see her denial as an act of betrayal. To my mom, it didn’t matter how we got here; we were still here. It didn’t matter where the Coach purse came from; it was still Coach.

***

At the end of his career, the father of the shopping mall reflected back on his life’s work with the bitterness of an outsider looking in.

“I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all,” said Victor Gruen in a 1978 speech. “I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments.”

I got a new job working under the table as a server at a froyo joint. I cleaned the moaning, metal yogurt dispensers and came home every night smelling like spoiled milk. I stopped calling it ‘pr0n.’ My piercings crusted over and closed up. My college applications asked me if I was a citizen, a permanent resident, or a nonresident alien. I did not know what to say, but I applied anyway.

At the mall and now at school, Hoser was labeled a delinquent, a deviant, a rabble-rouser. I used to think that meant we were opposite—he above the law, me under it—but now I knew that the line drawn in the sand, the line that once separated me from him could be erased, swiped clean, redrawn. Hoser had realized this sooner than I had.

In May the following year, a massive protest hit downtown Los Angeles. According to the homeroom TV news, over 500,000 marchers were rallying at City Hall to protest a new bill proposing strict federal regulations on illegal immigration. If the law passed, then all undocumented immigrants, as well as their accomplices, would be classified as felons. On that day, dubbed “A Day Without Immigrants,” Hoser led his very own boycott at school. He walked out of class, rounded up the YM crew, and circled the outdoor campus, shouting, whooping, cawing, banging on classroom windows. I didn’t see the action. I sat at my desk with my head down as the boys galloped by, yelling in their cracking adolescent voices, “Sí se puede!”

The school administrators placed the campus on lockdown mode, which, considering how past security threats involved perverts, bombs, and school shootings, seemed overzealous to me. We were forced to sit still in class until the school resource officers finally managed to catch Hoser and his accomplices. I pictured him careening past the fake cops, zipping across the sidewalk as they bumbled after him in a daze. His long Che Guevara mop flapped in the wind; his peach fuzz glistened with sweat. My homeroom teacher admonished his activism, called the whole thing juvenile. But I gave her the side-eye, just as I had given that camera the side-eye 14 years ago.

I wasn’t ready yet to join the boys outside, but soon, I would also discover new places to worship, new alarms to ring. Now, Hoser was dashing through the mall and across campus, making his way toward the outdoor parking lot. The warm sun cast him in a golden glow—his whole figure looked backlit. He had breezed through the obstacle course, and now he was running through the hills and into the city, never stopping to look behind him. One day I would get there too, and I would see Hoser running in the distance.

Sophie He is a writer from Los Angeles, CA. She is currently an MFA candidate at Washington University in St. Louis, where she studies creative nonfiction.
2019-02-27T00:29:12-04:00