Ka Ming Lau wakes up early Saturday morning, surrounded by model cars he’s assembled and watched by a poster of the Hong Kong pop star Ekin. He pulls on a grey T-shirt and a pair of prodigious khakis and hurries out to start his trek to Rappaport Playground at 53rd Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway.
Saturdays are usually handball days for Ka Ming, a sophomore at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, which is located just up the street from the courts. Weekdays mean school and homework. Sundays are often his parents’ one day off from work, and Ka Ming feels obligated to spend it at home.
Ka Ming loves playing handball because it’s a cheap way to hang out with his friends. “I know how to play it and I’m good at it,” he says. It’s also a welcome break from having to worry about whether he’ll understand his homework or speak English correctly or earn money for his family. Handball is one of the few parts of his life that doesn’t pull him in two directions at once. All he has to do is hit the ball after the first bounce. Simple.
A boyishly chubby, good-natured 15-year-old, Ka Ming was brought to Sunset Park from Hong Kong five years ago with his older sister, Sandy. Since then, he’s become a Chinese American, watching Titanic and Hong Kong action flicks, drinking Gatorade and eating dim sum on Sundays.
The transition wasn’t easy. At first, his parents stayed in Sunset Park just long enough to get the kids settled in with their aunt, then they would come back from Hong Kong for a quick visit a couple times a year. Tired of the family being separated, his mother pestered Ka Ming’s father to sell his construction business. She moved to Brooklyn for good about two years ago, and his father followed a year later.
Now his father works when he gets paged, rehabbing apartments around Brooklyn for several different Chinese construction outfits. His mother sews clothes in a Brooklyn garment factory. Ka Ming says he can’t think of a single person he knows who doesn’t have at least one parent working in a New York sweatshop.
Sometimes Ka Ming wonders if their move was a good decision. “My father just keeps saying he is the boss in Hong Kong, and now he has to work for other people,” Ka Ming says. “He don’t talk to me. He just keeps saying that.”
When his dad does address him, it’s usually at high volume. “We always have arguments,” says Ka Ming. “He keeps telling me things like when he was 15 like me, he was already working for the family.”
His mother and aunt tell him that his father lectures because he cares, but Ka Ming isn’t convinced. He thinks his father is unhappy with him–frustrated might be a more accurate word–because he’s not bringing any money into the family. He says that his father has a more amicable relationship with his sister, who works as a dental assistant.
Ka Ming isn’t sure how much money his parents earn, but he knows it isn’t much. Chinese immigrants in Sunset Park work an average of about 10 hours a day, six days a week, according to Patrick So, a social worker for Brooklyn schools. They typically earn from $10,000 to $14,000 a year, or about $3.20 to $4.50 an hour.
“[The kids] think their parents have a miserable life in the United States,” So says. “They don’t want to live their parents’ life.”
Even though he resents his father’s criticism, Ka Ming still tries to please and impress him. “That’s why I want to go to school,” he says. “So when I’m older, I can buy him a house or something like that.”
So, as best as he can, Ka Ming makes an effort to do well in school. He usually goes straight home to do his homework. He studies for tests. He enjoys drawing and thinks he’d like to work as a commercial designer, although he’s not quite sure what the job would be like.
About two-and-a-half years ago, one of Ka Ming’s classmates asked him to help teach English–and American culture–to a weekly class of about two dozen new immigrant youth, a project sponsored by a community organization called the Chinese-American Planning Council. In March, Ka Ming joined the Council’s youth group advisory board.
“New immigrants from China, they don’t have a chance to learn English. When they come here, they cannot communicate, and they don’t even know what the teacher’s talking about,” Ka Ming says. “I can help them to speak and learn more things.”
Ka Ming considers himself lucky to have learned a few English words in Hong Kong. He says he picked up the language fairly quickly, although he’s hit the “vocabulary wall,” where his conversational English isn’t enough help in writing school essays. He’s also a little self-conscious when he has to mentally translate Cantonese into English, embarrassed that it slows down his speech and might make people think he’s dumb.
Many of Ka Ming’s Chinese immigrant classmates are beyond caring about what their parents want or expect. They laugh at his volunteer work. They regularly ditch class and sometimes commit petty crimes. Ka Ming is friendly and can adapt to different crowds, so he’s one of the few teenagers who associates with both the “good” and “bad” kids, as he describes them. “I hang out with them, but I don’t do what they tell me to do,” he says. “If they tell me to cut class, I just say I have a test today in the last period.”
Ka Ming understands quite well why school isn’t appealing. When he started school at IS 220, he and the other Chinese kids who couldn’t speak English well used to get kicked walking up the stairs, tripped in the hallways, and teased in the cafeteria by their Spanish-speaking classmates. Occasionally there were fights.
The situation is better in high school, but Ka Ming worries about passing the Regents exams, his math and biology tests, the SATs. His classes are too crowded to ask many questions–there are almost 40 students in his math class–so he tries to seek help after class. But sometimes six or seven students compete for the teacher’s attention after the bell rings. When Ka Ming can’t afford to be late for the next class, he gives up.
His parents care about his grades, but don’t get involved with his schoolwork. “They just want to see my report card, but they don’t care about my tests and stuff,” he says.
Ka Ming’s best friend since sixth grade, Billy Wong, says his parents are the same way. “They sort of ask me about whether I did my homework, but they don’t check it or anything,” says Billy. “They don’t read English anyway, so why bother?” And when he’s struggling with an assignment? “I don’t do it,” he says flatly.
By the time Ka Ming reaches Rappaport Playground, the courts are already growing noisy with the thwock of balls off backboards. The park attracts dozens of Chinese-American and Vietnamese-American teens from around Brooklyn each weekend, playing handball, shooting hoops, smoking, spitting, horsing around.
Some residents grumble that the kids have overrun the park, says Pat Scotignello, a lanky 54-year-old who has lived in the neighborhood for almost 25 years: “They say, ‘Jeesh, you can’t even get a game in with all those Chinese players.'” Scotignello doesn’t mind, though; in fact, he’s one of the few who plays handball with them.
“Hey!” yells Ka Ming to his friends as he lopes over. He is tanned from playing ball; his thick, normally flat hair stands at a slight angle from sleep.
“Hi, hi,” answers a chorus in Cantonese. “Where’s Billy?” asks one.
“I don’t know. I guess he’s late,” shrugs Ka Ming, also lapsing into Cantonese. Except for the occasional “shit” or “asshole” in English, the teens speak mostly Cantonese when they’re together, regardless of whether they were born in the United States, Hong Kong or China.
Ka Ming quickly joins a doubles team and soon loses himself in the rhythm of the game.
Sometimes Ka Ming imagines what life would be like if his family had never left Hong Kong. He wonders if his father would be happier, if his parents wouldn’t have to work 12-hour days. “It changed my family,” he says.
As for life in Sunset Park, Ka Ming feels no hesitation about roaming around his neighborhood, even though his mother won’t walk the family dog alone after dark. “My mom thinks it’s dangerous here,” Ka Ming says. “She’s afraid of those Spanish people on our block having parties until 2 a.m. She thinks they do drugs. But I know those guys. They don’t do nothing to me. We’re friends. I always say hi to them.”
Does he identify more with the U.S. or Hong Kong? “It’s like half-half. Sometimes I feel more American, sometimes Chinese,” he says. “Anyway, I think my home is here.”