Journey to the West

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An illegal Chinese immigrant embarks on a long and dangerous odyssey from Fujian province to the promised land of America
By TERRY MCCARTHY Fuzhou and New Jersey

It was the most dangerous thing Chen Canting had done in his life. But as he crouched in a fishing boat in the south China province of Fujian, he had no idea just how perilous it would be. A dozen others huddled in the small craft. Some of their faces were familiar, but the 20-year-old knew none of them by name. In the pre-dawn darkness, nobody said a word. They had only one thing in common:all were bound for America. Illegally.

Chen told no one he was going except his father. The 50-year-old farmer from Meiyou village was not really surprised. Canting, the second eldest of his five children, was the most ambitious. Slightly built, but with a surprisingly deep voice and a self-assurance that belied his years, No. 2 Son always wanted more than the village offered. Instead of carousing in karaoke bars, he had tried to set up his own business. He went south to Xiamen to trade seafood, but ended up losing money in the fickle, seasonal business. Undaunted, he was now attempting something far more audacious:trusting local snakeheads to spirit him across the ocean to the promised land of America.

The father warned him to be careful, to stay out of fights. There were plenty of stories of people dying on the ships, or of being caught at the other end and sent back. Father and son agreed not to tell the young man's mother. She would try to stop him. The night before he left, Chen took over from her as usual at the noodle stall he helped her run. After she went home, he quickly closed up the stall and made his way into Fuzhou, 25 km away. At the main railway station, the snakeheads were waiting for him, just as they said they would be.

A friend had introduced Chen to the snakeheads-gangsters who run human smuggling syndicates in southern China, with links to Chinese communities all over the world. Shifty, violent men with a liking for gold watches and rings the size of plumbing fixtures, the snakeheads have a ruthless reputation throughout Fujian. Chen was afraid of them, but he was also exhilarated at the prospect of getting to the U.S. and earning more money. It was to be a rite of passage. (Chen's name, village and some identifying details have been changed to protect him and his family.) For $37,000, the snakeheads had promised to take him to New York. He didn't know how long it would take, what the route would be, what kinds of risks he would endure. It was with a mixture of fear and excitement that he sat in the boat as it pulled away in the early hours of Sept. 3, 1999.

Every year, thousands of Chinese pay huge sums to cram into ramshackle ships and sealed containers in the hope of sneaking into America. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of people trying to leave China in this fashion rose fivefold last year from 1998 levels. Rough estimates suggest that 10,000 actually reached U.S. shores by boat in 1999. Some are caught-1,500 were repatriated last year-but most succeed in joining the estimated 275,000 illegals who enter the U.S. annually. A significant percentage also die trying. In January, a container ship docked in Seattle with 18 Chinese in the hold. Three were dead, buried in the filth at the bottom of a container; the others were on the verge of starvation. Still, like Chen, they keep coming.

The ship that would take Chen across the Pacific was waiting off the coast in the darkness. It was a rusty old Korean freighter with three holds. Chen was among 100 people packed into the rear hold; 60 more were loaded into one of the front holds, and the third held food and water for the voyage. When the hatches were slammed shut, Chen felt as if he was on a prison ship.

Life inside the hold was nightmarish. There were no windows and only one fan to suck out the stale air. We were cold all the time, says Chen. The toilets consisted of two buckets-one for men and one for women. Hygiene was impossible to maintain in the cramped conditions. Everyone got eye infections. For a week my eyes were all red, and I couldn't see anything. The snakeheads periodically handed out water, rice, peanuts and some vegetables to their human cargo, but no meat, fish or tea.

Half a dozen snakeheads and three armed Cambodians stood guard. They were Khmer Rouge-you know, assassins, says Chen. They spoke no Chinese-the snakeheads communicated with them in English. They allowed the emigrants onto the deck once a week to wash in salt water. Otherwise Chen and the others were confined to the hold 24 hours a day. Once when he tried to sneak out on his own, Chen was caught and beaten before being thrown back into the hold. The snakeheads would sit on deck and drink beer at night. Then they would go into the holds and pick out one or two young women to come up on deck. Nothing was said, but when they came back everyone knew what had happened, says Chen.

The snakeheads did not waste much sympathy on their human cargo. Several weeks into the trip, a man who was traveling with his wife and three-year-old daughter fell ill. For three days the man was nauseous and disoriented. On the fourth day he died. The captain of the boat had his body thrown overboard.

Chen thought the journey would never end. In fact, it would take the aging freighter five weeks to cross 14,000 km of ocean. A modern container ship would have been faster and even cheaper, because the snakeheads pay only the freight costs for each container-as little as $900 from Hong Kong to Seattle. A 40-foot container can carry up to 24 people. But there are drawbacks:the windowless boxes are locked from the outside, and nobody can get out until the container is unloaded. Immigrants can starve or be asphyxiated, especially if the crew of the ship doesn't know it has stowaways. Moreover, the chances of discovery are higher, as the huge ships have to dock at recognized ports and pass through customs formalities. Older cargo ships are often barely seaworthy, cost the snakeheads $250,000 or more and carry only 100 to 200 people. But they have the advantage of being able to land pretty much anywhere. Chen's cramped freighter had no bunks, and people slept cheek by jowl on the floor.

At the beginning of October, the ship encountered a big storm. As the rickety bucket rolled from side to side, waves crashed over the decks and water poured into the holds. Suddenly the daily fear and uncertainty escalated into full-scale terror, and the holds echoed with screams. Everyone on the ship thought we were going to die, says Chen. But the ship plowed on, and on Oct. 8 it reached its destination-not America, as Chen had presumed, but Guatemala, well away from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Bad weather hampered a landing, and on the first night only half the Fujianese, including Chen, were offloaded. They were forced to stand on a shallow reef, with water up to their thighs, waiting for small boats to come out from shore to pick them up. Finally five vessels, manned by Taiwanese gangsters, ferried them to land. The Fujianese trudged through fields for several hours before they reached a road where vans awaited them. The next night the Taiwanese boats went out again, but this time the Guatemalan police were waiting at the landing site. Chen thinks local peasants who saw the first group tipped off the law. Most of the second batch of Fujianese were arrested as soon as they reached shore. One boat capsized in the choppy water; Chen says a dozen people drowned.

Chen and about 100 others were taken to the home of a Taiwanese who lived with his Guatemalan wife on the outskirts of Guatemala City. He was a big boss, says Chen. His house was like a mansion, and there were 100 servants. Chen quickly discovered that Guatemalan peasants led, as he puts it, much worse lives than farmers in China. Indeed, he and his fellow illegals were not fleeing desperate poverty. Their coastal province is relatively well-off for China:Fujian receives plenty of investment from Taiwan, just across the strait, and the land is fertile enough to feed everyone. But Fujianese have a centuries-old tradition of emigration, peopling Chinatowns around the world. Many young people grow up with the idea of emigrating to join their rich relatives overseas. What China denies them is not food, only opportunity. At home Chen was making $120 a month wholesaling fish and running the noodle stall. In the U.S. he knew he could earn much more.

At the house of the Taiwanese, Chen and the others were told to keep out of sight. The Guatemalan police were searching for them, so they spent a month holed up inside, waiting to resume their journey. For the snakeheads, who get paid only on arrival, the trip had now gone badly wrong. A dozen of their human cargo were dead, an additional 38 had been arrested by the Guatemalan police, and U.S. immigration authorities had been alerted. The snakeheads would not allow any of the illegals to call home.

What Chen did not know was that news of the drownings and arrests had already made its way back to Fujian. In their small red brick house at the end of a dirt road, Chen's parents were deeply worried. We would make food and then just sit at the table looking at it, with no appetite to eat it, says his mother, a thin woman with a weather-beaten face from years of working the fields. She wished bitterly that she had been able to stop him from going.

At the beginning of November, a white truck pulled up to the Taiwanese gangster's home. Chen and 24 others were marched outside and forced to climb into a tight crawl space under a false floor in the back of the truck. The vehicle was then loaded with grapefruit and driven north into Mexico. The trip took 40 hours. We had no water, very little air, lying down all the time. For sure if it lasted even another hour or two I would have suffocated, says Chen. By then I was more scared of dying than of being caught and sent back. Lying there, all he could think of was his home and his family, and he wished he had never left.

But now there was no going back. Chen was fearful about what would happen when he arrived in the U.S. He hoped his family would be able to borrow enough money to pay off the snakeheads, but he wasn't sure. If your family has no money to pay, they throw you into the black market. I have heard that could be selling heroin. Or worse:snakeheads have no compunction about killing if their bills are not paid.

Chen and his companions were finally released from the truck in the middle of a forest in Mexico. They were given into the care of three armed coyotes who guide emigrants across the border. The Mexican leader spoke some Chinese; this was not the first group of Fujianese he had seen. Chen was told that the men would earn $5,000 for each Chinese they got into the U.S. alive. But because the immigration authorities were on the lookout for Chen's group, they camped in the forest until the end of December. Chen and his comrades had no idea where they were. They had little choice but to hunker down and eat the unfamiliar Mexican food they were served. Chen learned a few Spanish words, including cigarrillos; cigarettes were his only antidote to the tension. At New Year's the anxious band was driven north near the border to a town full of bars, only to wait some more, presumably while the coyotes contacted accomplices on the U.S. side of the line. On Jan. 10 they headed out on foot across the desert.

Crossing the border took six days. The Chinese had little water and less food. At night, when the temperatures dropped below freezing, they could do nothing but hold each other for warmth. Their Mexican guides would not allow them to light fires, and Chen still had only the two thin shirts and one pair of trousers he had been wearing since he left Fujian. On the sixth night they reached a chainlink fence, which the Mexicans cut open. Chen pushed his way through. After 17,000 km and 135 days he had finally made it to America.

There was no chance to enjoy the moment. If ever the immigrants were in danger of being captured, this was the time, with the U.S. Border Patrol on the prowl. The Chinese were lucky that night. A minivan with darkened windows was waiting for them, a Chinese driver at the wheel. The snakeheads' far-flung networks had delivered. The driver sped through the night to a large city, which Chen discovered was Houston, though he had only the vaguest idea of U.S. geography. All he had was the telephone number of a distant cousin who lived in someplace called Flushing, New York.

The snakeheads were not finished with Chen yet. After a day in Houston, he was driven to Los Angeles, locked in a room and told to phone his family in Fujian for the passage money. The price had suddenly increased because of the Chinese who died or were arrested en route. The snakeheads now demanded $50,000 for delivering Chen safely to the U.S. That represented a fortune, more than 30 years' earnings for Chen back in Fujian. The amount was not negotiable.

Chen called home on the night of Jan. 18. His mother answered the phone and burst into tears. For more than four months, the family had had no idea whether he was alive or dead. The only thing they knew was that he had not been among those reported arrested.

The same day Chen's father began the onerous search to collect the money, borrowing from friends, relatives and money-lenders-who demanded interest at a rate of 2% a month. As he brought each portion home, he hid it underneath his wooden bed. We were very nervous, says the father. We had never had so much money before. I told Eldest Son to stay at home all the time to watch the money. After two weeks he had acquired the full amount. On the night of Feb. 1, two local snakeheads came to the house to pick it up. The next day the snakeheads in Los Angeles released Chen and put him on a plane to New York City.

New York was great-like playtime, says Chen. His cousin from Flushing gave him a bed, and for a week he wandered around Manhattan, gaping at the skyscrapers and the aircraft carrier Intrepid, which made him realize just how small his own craft had been. I had never seen a ship that big.

But Chen's cousin, who has U.S. residency, did not want him to stay indefinitely, and after a week she kicked him out. Chen then learned the meaning of being alone. He didn't know a single other person in the country. The only place he felt comfortable in was Manhattan's Chinatown, once he knew how to get there by subway. Wandering the streets, he came across a window sign in Chinese, advertising a job agency. For a $40 introduction fee and a $12 bus fare-almost the last of the small amount of savings he had brought with him from home-Chen was soon on his way down the New Jersey Turnpike, bound for the Dragon King Chinese Buffet Restaurant-an all-you-can-eat crab legs, sweet-and-sour pork, and 'plenty more' for $12.95, plus fortune cookies with your checkkind of place. The food bore little resemblance to anything he had eaten at home, but he knew how to chop vegetables, wash dishes and mop the floor. For a 13-hour workday, six days a week, Chen makes $1,400 a month and pays no taxes. He sends most of the money back to his family to repay the snakehead debt.

Chen has been working at the Dragon King for more than two months now. He is happy to be in the U.S. and seems to identify naturally with the American can-do mentality. The best thing about America? You can work without ID, says Chen, smiling broadly. He likes Americans:When you bump into someone on the street, they will smile and apologize, not like in China, where people snap at you all the time. But it bugs him that he cannot buy cigarettes or beer, because they need ID-and I don't have any.

Chen has come of age in the course of his long odyssey. He cannot hide his pride when he says he will keep sending money to support his family in China, even after he has paid off his debt. For the time being he works with 17 other Chinese, all from Fujian, as well as five Bangladeshis and one Indian-and not a green card among them. Finding proper papers will come. I haven't had time to work that out yet, he says, implying it shouldn't be too hard. Meanwhile he is trying to learn English so he can climb out of the dishwashing level of the economy. He has already dreamed up a business plan to import crabs from China. And at the right time he plans to get married, to some Chinese woman who also came over by boat. They are tough, and don't cry much, so they make good wives, he says.

His family are delighted that No. 2 Son is safe in the U.S. When Time shows his parents pictures of Canting standing outside his restaurant and sitting in a car, the mother rushes off to show all her neighbors, as proud as American parents displaying college graduation photos of their children. Like a knight slaying a dragon, Chen Canting did the most dangerous thing he knew of-risking death on the high seas, imprisonment in four countries and abandonment in a nation where he knew nothing of the language or the culture. He broke the law and remains an illegal immigrant, which still poses a problem if he is ever caught. But for now he is in America. And that, as he says, is the strangest, most wonderful thing of all.

With reporting by Ricardo Miranda/Guatemala City