By NINA BERNSTEIN
Even in New York, the city of eight million unfinished stories, the one about the Chinese deliveryman stuck in a Bronx elevator for 81 hours has lingered in collective memory. But for Ming Kuang Chen, the deliveryman, the ordeal never really ended.
In the first sit-down interview since he was belatedly rescued in April and then promptly dropped from sight, Mr. Chen spoke yesterday about the lasting results of his confinement: his crippling fear of the dark, his terror of immigration authorities, and the stomach pains that have plagued him since he was trapped in a brightly lighted 4-by-6½-foot box without food or water, thinking that he was going to die.
“I’m afraid to go anywhere dark now,” said Mr. Chen, 35, speaking through an interpreter in the office of City Councilman John C. Liu, who has become one of the few people he trusts. “I have to get about in the daylight hours.” As for elevators, he added, he has yet to enter one alone.
Now, after months of moving from place to place, mainly out of state, to avoid being picked up as an illegal immigrant, he said he had returned to New York for one day, for medical help.
Psychiatrists call such symptoms classic hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder, and spoke of barriers to treatment like language, culture and money. But for Mr. Chen, who is deeply indebted for his passage to the United States and supports a wife and son in his home village in the Fujian province of China, his illness mainly represents a disastrous obstacle to delivery work in the nationwide network of Chinese restaurants where illegal immigrants like him are dispatched from New York to toil night and day, six days a week.
Last spring, aspects of his elevator ordeal came to seem strangely symbolic of the status of illegal immigrants in New York – omnipresent in the everyday economy of shrimp-fried-rice deliveries, yet virtually invisible in their legal no-man’s land. A security camera had been operating in the elevator car the whole time that he was stuck there, even as the police, fearing the worst, were conducting an aggressive door-to-door search of the Bronx apartment tower and sending scuba divers into a nearby reservoir to search for his body.
To Dr. Lynne Tan, a Montefiore Medical Center psychiatrist who has helped arrange treatment for Mr. Chen at no fee, there is also wider symbolism in his traumatic experience of helplessness in the elevator, where his cries went unheard, misunderstood or unheeded for so long.
In that sense, it is the immigrant experience at its worst. “He can’t speak English,” she said. “He was trying to speak through the intercom and couldn’t communicate. This is to be completely helpless and not to be able to ask for help.”
Notwithstanding the lights in the elevator – an express that had become stuck between the third and fourth floors of a 38-story building, Tracey Towers, and was then taken out of service with Mr. Chen still inside – his fear of the dark is a classic traumatic-stress reaction to the fear of dying that he endured, Dr. Tan said. She agreed with his own view that his symptoms also reflected fear that immigration officials could be lurking somewhere, preparing to grab him.
Like most immigrants from the villages in the Fuzhou area, Mr. Chen speaks a dialect closer to Mandarin than to Cantonese, but distinct from both. At Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, where he was treated for dehydration after his release from the elevator, language quickly became an issue when doctors realized that he needed psychotherapy for the lasting effects of his experience, Dr. Tan said.
“We referred him to psychiatry, but nobody could treat him,” Dr. Tan said. “The residents don’t speak Mandarin. I can’t do therapy in Mandarin.” Telephone interpretation services by AT&T, known as language lines, which are useful for other medical interactions, do not really work well for this kind of doctor-patient exchange, she added.
Montefiore’s policy is to treat residents of its neighborhood regardless of their immigrant status or whether they are insured, but that is not the case with many psychiatric practices. As an illegal immigrant, Mr. Chen could not apply for Medicaid. And at postgraduate centers where therapists in training are willing to see patients for $5 to $10 per session, Mandarin, let alone Fuzhou dialect, is nonexistent, Dr. Tan added.
Eventually, however, she was able to refer Mr. Chen to a Mandarin-proficient doctor at the Charles B. Wong Community Medical Center in Chinatown.
Mr. Chen, a slender man who wore a black T-shirt and dark trousers during the interview, said he was relieved when Montefiore officials who set up his treatment told him he would not have to worry about the bills. He has been taking the medication prescribed by his doctors, he said. But so far, he finds the results disappointing.
“It’s helping a little bit, but not the way I was before,” he said. “I worry about my health, because the way I am now, I’m not able to work, and we owe so much money, and I have a family to support.”
He did not want to reveal where he had lived, where he lived now or how he had tried to work. “It’s been very hard since my status has been discussed,” he said. “For the past four months, I haven’t really been living anywhere stable,” he added, describing shared quarters “sometimes in New York, sometimes out of state.”
One reason the police feared foul play the night Mr. Chen failed to return to the Happy Dragon restaurant in the Bronx, where he had worked for two years, was that in recent years several immigrant deliverymen had been killed for money or food. Others have been robbed. But even without such disasters, the typical life of Fujianese immigrants is one of extreme stress and isolation, according to Kenneth J. Guest, an anthropologist at Baruch College who has studied them.
“They may not ever learn the name of the city where they’re sent – just the area code,” Mr. Guest said yesterday, pointing out the lists on a board at an employment agency at East Broadway and Division Street in Chinatown, one of many that dispatch such immigrants around the country. “The jobs are so intense and demanding that people can only stand it so long. Then they bail out, and hop the next bus back to New York.”
Still, Mr. Chen said, he does not want to go home to his wife. “I would prefer for her to come and take care of me,” he said with the first hint of a smile. According to Councilman Liu, Mr. Chen earned $300 in his Bronx delivery job for 12-hour days, six days a week. “It is definitely hard work over here,” Mr. Chen said. “But the money you earn is worth it.” In China, where his job was loading cargo on a ship, “we just had barely enough to survive.”
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company