The Leavers

by Lisa Ko

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Now the only mother in the apartment was Vivian, and the fact that Deming’s mother was gone was no secret. It was a car alarm cutting through an empty street in the middle of the night. He could curse as much as he wanted, but the words tasted like they had gone rotten in his mouth. He tried to remember as much as he could about her. Such a brief time when she had belonged to him alone. She cuffed her jeans twice so they wouldn’t drag on the ground. She pulled the sleeves of her sweaters down like oversized mittens. The pleasing incongruity to her cackle, how she’d pinch the fat under his arms and call him a meatball, the delicate prettiness to her features. You had to hunt for her beauty, might not even catch it at first. There was a sweetness to her mouth, her lips lightly upturned, lending her a look of faint amusement, and her eyebrows arched so her eyes appeared lively, approaching delighted.

Deming is traumatized when his mother disappears. No one will explain to him what happened or where she's gone, and he feels abandoned. His memories of her are good ones, and now he feels adrift because there is no more structure or security. Deming doesn't find much sense of security again until after he reconnects with his mother, when he has been renamed Daniel. Even when he leaves the Wilkinson home to go find his mother, he isn't sure whether his adoptive parents will ever talk to him again. He finds it difficult to place trust in people after having been abandoned by someone he loved so deeply.

Deming wouldn’t have the scar on his right forearm that Daniel had gotten from skateboarding with Roland in eighth grade. While Deming was growing up in Chinatown and the Bronx, was Daniel hibernating, asleep in Planet Ridgeborough? Or had they grown up together, only parting ways after the city? Daniel had lay dormant in Deming until adolescence, and now Deming was a hairball tumor jammed deep in Daniel’s gut. Or Deming had never left Rutgers Street; he’d been here all along.

Daniel has a difficult time reconciling both sides of himself: Daniel and Deming. Deming is the person that he was with his mother; Daniel is who he becomes with his foster parents. He has to embrace Daniel in order to get along with the people in his new life. At school, the other students mock his language and the customs he grew up with. Even after he starts his life as a more independent person, he still struggles with this dichotomy. He can't decide which person he really is, and part of his journey lies in coming to terms with both sides of his identity and the acknowledgment that he is both Daniel and Deming.

I asked the guards for a lawyer, for Immigration, but they told me to wait. No one offered advice or answers. Some women didn’t speak any English, and others spoke in such rapid English I couldn’t keep up. Any day now, I kept telling myself, Didi and Leon would find me and get me out of here.

When Daniel and his mother discuss what happened to her, he finds out that Polly was in a detention camp for fourteen months. After that, she was deported to China. The detention camp was inhumane, and her experience there broke her down and changed her as a person. When she and Daniel reconnect in Beijing, Polly tells him the story of what happened to her in the camp after explaining that it will be difficult for him to hear. Daniel is shocked at how long she was in the camp and at how she was treated while detained.

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