They were the vanished, they were the unfortunate.
To the human smugglers -- the snakeheads -- who carted them around
the world like pallets of damaged goods, they were ju-jia,
To the American INS agents who interdicted their ships and arrested
and deported them they were undocumenteds.
They were the hopeful. Who were trading homes and family and a
thousand years of ancestry for the hard certainty of risky,
laborious years ahead of them.
Who had the slimmest of chances to take root in a place where their
families could prosper, where freedom and money and contentment
were, the story went, as common as sunlight and rain.
They were his fragile cargo.
And now, legs steady against the raging, five-meter-high seas,
Captain Sen Zi-jun made his way from the bridge down two decks into
the murky hold to deliver the grim message that their weeks of
difficult journeying might have been in vain.
It was just before dawn on a Tuesday in August. The stocky captain,
whose head was shaved and who sported an elaborate bushy mustache,
slipped past the empty containers lashed to the deck of the
seventy-two-meter Fuzhou Dragon as camouflage and opened the
heavy steel door to the hold. He looked down at the two-dozen
people huddled there, in the grim, windowless space. Trash and
children's plastic blocks floated in the shallow tide under the
Despite the pitching waves, Captain Sen -- a thirty-year veteran of
the seas -- walked down the steep metal steps without using the
handrails and strode into the middle of the hold. He checked the
carbon dioxide meter and found the levels acceptable though the air
was vile with the smell of diesel fuel and humans who'd lived for
two weeks in close proximity.
Unlike many of the captains and crew who operated "buckets" --
human smuggling ships -- and who at best ignored or sometimes even
beat or raped the passengers, Sen didn't mistreat them. Indeed he
believed that he was doing a good thing: transporting these
families from difficulty to, if not certain wealth, at least the
hope of a happy life in America, Meiguo in Chinese, which
means the "Beautiful Country."
On this particular voyage, however, most of the immigrants
distrusted him. And why not? They assumed he was in league with the
snakehead who'd chartered the Dragon: Kwan Ang, known
universally by his nickname, Gui, the Ghost. Tainted by the
snakehead's reputation for violence, Captain Sen's efforts to
engage the immigrants in conversation had been rebuffed and had
yielded only one friend. Chang Jingerzi -- who preferred his
Western name of Sam Chang -- was a forty-five-year-old former
college professor from a suburb of the huge port city of Fuzhou in
southeastern China. He was bringing his entire family to America:
his wife, two sons and Chang's widower father.
A half-dozen times on the trip Chang and Sen had sat in the hold,
sipped the potent mao-tai that the captain always had in
good supply on his ship and talked about life in China and in the
Captain Sen now saw Chang sitting on a cot in a forward corner of
the hold. The tall, placid man frowned, a reaction to the look in
the captain's eyes. Chang handed his teenage son the book he'd been
reading to his family and rose to meet the captain.
Everyone around them fell silent.
"Our radar shows a fast-moving ship on course to intercept
Dismay blossomed in the faces of those who'd overheard.
"The Americans?" Chang asked. "Their Coast Guard?"
"I think it must be," the captain answered. "We're in U.S.