Broken and Barred: On Personal Tragedy in a Closing World
This March, I lost my father. About a month later, I lost my job.
I’m used to change: I was a rural dropout and then a factory worker; a programmer in the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen and most recently a contract software engineer at Google’s New York office. Prior to April, I felt like my journey was only just beginning. I’d been in New York for over a year; I was in an algorithm study group; I’d started riding my bike around Manhattan filming short videos; I’d even joined a Frisbee team.
Then things started going downhill. My father’s cancer had returned last March, but prior to late February he seemed to be holding up. Then his legs suddenly started to swell. The next day he was bedridden, and the day after that he stopped eating. The cancer advanced quickly. Every morning I’d wake up dreading a message from the other side of the world that would confirm the worst.
I eventually applied for leave so I could take care of him. On March 7, after receiving messages from both my brother and mother urging me to return home immediately, I realized there was no more time to waste. I changed my ticket to that night. I knew the pandemic was still ongoing and that the U.S. had instituted a ban on travelers from China, but at that moment, I didn’t have the energy to worry about my return.
After a more than 40-hour trip, I found myself back in rural Hunan province, in central China. My father was lying on his bed, waiting for me. Like many rural fathers, he had always been a strong, silent type. Never talkative, he spoke even less this time. I watched him as he lay there, his slumber punctuated by the occasional scream of pain. Two days later, he was gone. I missed his funeral when one of my fellow passengers tested positive for COVID-19 and I was confined to a “quarantine hotel” for observation.
I was still in China when the next blow fell. In the early hours of April 9, I suddenly received a late-night phone call from the States asking for an update on my situation. Thinking they were just confirming my personal information, I told them my father had passed away.
So I was caught off-guard when I received an email from my employer a few days later, informing me that since my father had died, I was no longer eligible for my New York state-granted carer’s leave and the time would instead be counted against my shorter personal leave. If I could not find another U.S. job opportunity through the firm by the end of the month, they would “have to consider my exit from the company.”
Staring at the word “exit,” I was stunned. I felt abandoned: It was actually the first time I realized what it meant when I signed up for at-will employment, that I could be dismissed at any time. I knew the odds were stacked against me, all the more so because non-U.S. nationals who had traveled to or resided in the Chinese mainland within the previous 14 days were not even allowed to enter the country. But deep down, I also knew I wasn’t ready to give up my life, my work, and my friends.
Out of the Countryside
I was born into a rural Chinese family that never really believed a girl could amount to anything. My father’s only expectation for me was to grow up healthy, marry someone, and start my own family.
So my parents were never particularly supportive of my education. I was the top student at my high school, but ultimately, I still fell below the line for public university admission.
After that, I had few choices. I went to Shenzhen with a classmate and became a worker on an assembly line. Within months, however, I was desperate to get away from the repetitive toil of factory work. And the only way out I could see was education.
Of course, I didn’t have enough money to pay for a study program. But I was determined. I quit my job and spent all of my savings on a semesterlong certificate course at a private study center. I worked part time to support myself until finishing in 2011, when I got a job and officially became a programmer. For years, I spent my meager earnings learning English. Then in April 2017, I started saving up to apply for a master’s program in computer science at a university in Iowa, which eventually led me to my first job in the U.S.
My parents did not quite understand what I was doing. Even after I explained, my dad would occasionally still ask how things were going “at the factory.” But once they realized I was earning more money than my peers, they started to trust me. Every time I called, my dad always sat by the phone and listened carefully as I shared my experiences with my niece.
But when everything started to come apart this year, I realized how fragile my newfound status was. With the clock ticking, I decided to fight.
A friend of mine introduced me to a chat group dedicated to sharing information about travel between China and the U.S. during the pandemic. That’s how I learned I could make the trip by transiting in Cambodia.
It wasn’t cheap. I spent more than 15,000 yuan ($2,100) on plane tickets — from China to Phnom Penh on June 27, then on to Seoul and New York. That’s twice what I usually pay for a round-trip ticket. My 16-day stay in a Cambodia hotel cost another $640.
Then there was the uncertainty. Policies could change at any minute. Most of the successful cases shared online were from students with active student visas. Without a job, I didn’t know would happen once I landed in the U.S. Nevertheless, on July 13, I reached New York City and successfully passed customs. I was back. Now I just needed to find work.
An Uncertain Future
I looked around my apartment. Same room, same bed, only my employment status had changed.
My contract had run out on April 30, meaning my visa’s 90-day unemployment limit would be up soon. I had just weeks to secure a job to extend my legal stay in the U.S. I sent out as many as 70 applications in a day. Sometimes, I didn’t even take the time to read the job descriptions. As long as the position title seemed right, I hit “apply.”
There were ups and downs. I might receive more than a dozen calls from recruiters in a single day, then not hear anything for half a week. All I could do to calm my anxiety was set up a detailed plan that kept me busy all day, every day.
In interview after interview, I realized how much progress I made in my two years abroad, but also how much the external environment had changed. About half of the companies that had called rejected me after I told them about my visa status, which did not happen back in 2018. Many offered only 80% of my previous salary, without any benefits or insurance — a tough sell in a pandemic.
After a while, I learned I had to lower my expectations. Even when the salary was much lower than I wanted, I should at least try for an interview.
Finally, as my deadline ticked closer, I got lucky. After a hard Friday filled with four intensive and brain-consuming technical interviews that lasted from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., a company in California gave me an offer. The salary was lower than I’d hoped, but it was still a job.
I know that life will not get easier in the near future. If anything, it will probably get harder. But when all looks bleak, I try to remember something my dad said to me last year. I was getting ready to give a talk about my experiences, but was so nervous I called him up for support. “As long as you put your mind to something, you can make it happen,” he said.
My dad was never particularly engaged in my education, but I like to imagine I inherited his hardworking character. I know there are some things I’m powerless to fix. Still, sometimes it’s the losing battles that are most worth fighting.
As told to Sixth Tone’s Cai Yiwen, Shi Jiannan.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)