The Help that Finds Us by Jack Cheng
At the beginning of See You in the Cosmos, my eleven-year-old protagonist, Alex, sets off for a rocket festival in the New Mexico desert accompanied only by his dog. What he doesn’t know yet is that his quest to launch his iPod into space will turn into a sprawling journey across the American Southwest—a journey that will bring into his life a cast of characters who recognize his vulnerabilities, and step in to help him when he needs it the most.
It was not unlike, I realized, the help and compassion shown toward a young immigrant family trying to make it in a strange new world.
We moved to Detroit from Shanghai when I was five years old. I’m thirty-three now, and when I think back on that time I’m struck by how almost unremarkable it seemed to me then—seemed to a kid who didn’t know any other experience than the compassion of other human beings. I remember Delphine (who gave great hugs) or Terry and Anita (and their three joyous, self-possessed kids); these were people who took us in—sometimes literally took us in, offering us temporary rooms when a previous living arrangement had fallen through. There was the local Chinese community, who helped my mother and father with the very mechanics of starting a life in a new culture: hunting for an apartment, getting a driver’s license, enrolling me in school, finding a doctor in anticipation of the birth of my brother. Some of those who helped us had been in our shoes just years before. Others, I think, simply saw that here was a family as vulnerable as a child would be on his or her own. They saw that it was simply the right—and human—thing to do, to help when and where they could.
All through my life there have been those who saw something in me that I had not recognized, and who, through their seemingly small gestures, made a lasting difference. I think of Mrs. Calaboro, who had me stay after class in second grade not as punishment for some wrongdoing but so she could give me—the aspiring artist—a book on how to draw dinosaurs. There was the star senior football player, Terry, who stood up for me—a scrawny freshman who hit his growth spurt late—when I was being picked on in the lunchroom. I think of all the people I’ve met on my travels, with whom I’ve shared long conversations at hostels and on trains and mountain trails—people I’ve known for only days, and sometimes hours, yet who all the same seemed to lead me to an answer to some large question over which I’d been puzzling.
And I think, also, of my twelfth grade English teacher, Mr. Johnson, who in the midst of our AP prep made us feel that there was something much bigger than this test—bigger than even college—on the horizon; that our whole lives lay ahead of us, yet to be unfurled. When I saw him years later at his retirement party, he told me that he and his wife were going to get in a car and drive west, and keep driving until they wanted to stop. I wonder, sometimes, if this had planted the first seed for my own trip west—the trip that would inspire the themes and setting of my novel.
A friend and I were talking recently about people like the ones I’ve described, and we discovered that there was already a word for them: angels. And the way we defined them was not as shimmering, winged figures descending from the sky, but as the very real human beings who step into our lives, sometimes for the briefest of moments, and offer us what we need the most at that time—encouragement, protection, a nudge in a new direction, a hint of some larger truth.
And if you buy into this conception of angels, then it follows that we are all angels for each other. The characters who come to Alex’s aid in See You in the Cosmos find that as much as they help him, he helps them; that our small acts of compassion toward others go hand in hand with the help and compassion we receive from others; that our fates are entangled with those of our fellow human beings.
They find, as I’ve found, that our individual journeys are not as lonely as we might first think.
Born in Shanghai, Jack Cheng came to the U.S. when he was five, and grew up in metropolitan Detroit. After nearly a decade in New York City working in advertising and tech, he returned to Detroit to pursue new projects that integrate his professional experience with his passion for creativity and innovation.
Curious about the publication process behind SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS? Listen to Jack Cheng’s new podcast series, See You on the Bookshelf.