Four Sparrows. Chapter 1, Scene 2

Jungdo and Kan arrived three days later in Mokelumne Hill and found lodging with fellow Chinese miners. The gold country was hilly, and even the grass was golden. Creeks weaved around the foothills and through the valleys where miners coagulated. They staked their claims that afternoon, paid the foreign miner’s tax and got to work. They weren’t aware of how they were being treated at first; everything was so different.

It was a migrant slave-owner from Texas who proposed the Miner’s Tax in spring 1850 just before their arrival. It was passed and signed into law by Governor Burnett. As non-whites began to find gold, steps were taken to prevent it, and the word foreigner became more closely associated with non-white. The Irish and French floated betwixt and between the definitions of white and foreigner. The Americans weren’t sure yet what to make of the Chinese. The most recent census labeled them under the white race.

Jungdo and Kan panned about eight ounces of gold in that first day. They used the river water to swish the ocher mud out of their pans. Their luck continued with persistence, and fourteen-hour days. They worked every day of the week and prospered while others grumbled at their presence.

“They call us celestials. It’s not just those lacking pallor; the overcooked ones seem to loathe us too,” Kan said.

“They call us lots of things, but mind yourself, to them it’s not a compliment. They don’t realize that hard work leads to success. They try to make us out to be the uncivilized ones, but it’s they who have no honor, no reciprocity, no endurance.”

“You speak with certainty,” Kan said.

“Their only traditions are their abused god and their own greed. Who would worship a dead god? Confucius himself said it is pointless to even try to understand god. It’s better we don’t associate with them. Don’t be seduced by foreign ways.” Their fellow miners were in agreement for the most part, though a few were opening up to Western culture.

They panned for gold wearing long brimmed hats to shield themselves from the heat of the sun. They squatted at the edge of the river and swished the dirt in the pan, letting the water wash out the silt and leave gold on the bottom. Their feet grew cold and their backs grew hot.

Back home in Middle Kingdom Jungdo had a vast network for his export business. He had contacts up in Shandong to purchase granite blocks, which he’d sell to the Spanish in Manila. He coordinated with the silk industry in his native Guangzhou to sell books of raw silk and lacquer furniture to British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. In fact he himself had come to California on a French merchant ship carrying silk he had sold to the captain. He could have booked passage across the Pacific on his own, but proving he was able to honor his word and pay his debt to Chan was worth the extra step.

Kan’s older brother was overseeing the investments back home while they explored opportunities in this new world. Their fellow Chinese miners weren’t as well off. Many were farmers who lost crops in recent floods. Others lost their land due to taxes, imposed after the Opium War.

Immersed in the rhythm of the work, they were startled when a pair of white miners walked through their claim. Jungdo looked up at them, his line of sight limited by his hat.

“What are you lookin’ at Chinaman?” The white man bent down and blew smoke in Jungdo’s face. Jungdo wasn’t going to let smoke destroy him and he stayed very still. The men waited to see if Jungdo or Kan would do anything. Kan stood up from the water, making eye contact.

“Bai hoi, Kan,” Jungdo said with sharp eyes, telling him to stand aside. The men walked on to wherever they were headed.

“Hengfu says there’s no protection here. Don’t ruin this for me.” Jungdo spoke in swift breaths from under his hat.

“I didn’t want you to get hurt,” Kan said, though he was more interested in testing their ability to defend themselves in California.

“It doesn’t matter why they do what they do. They are ghosts. We must focus on how we will get what we want.” Jungdo hoped this venture would be a quick way to build wealth. He said he would prefer to stay home and have many children. His international trade sounded prosperous, but was always in flux.

“Kan, you know why we’re here?”

“Yes, to expand our trade networks,” he cupped more water into his pan, “and see more of the world while we’re at it.”

“The business is barely making a profit! Traveling by sea, the costs add up.”

“Indonesian pirates keep threatening our cargo,” Kan added, to concede to Jungdo’s point.

“These barbarians, are limiting our opportunities. Discovering a cache of gold to take home would tip the scales in our favor.” Jungdo looked behind him and saw the pair of men down river still looking at him. Justice would be painful.

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About Daniel Roddick

Daniel has a B.A. in American History with minors in both Ethnic Studies and Sociology. He also has an M.Ed. in College Administration and Counseling. Daniel has worked in the financial aid industry for over a decade. He has presented all over the country on financial aid issues related to equity, inclusion, and access to education. He is also a writer of poetry, fiction, and this blog, all of which touch on identity.
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