Four years ago, I had assumed that my parents were complete animal enthusiasts. They came home every night after long shifts at our restaurant seemingly eager to turn on Animal Planet. My mom would call me over to watch, giggling at the frenzied yet astute organization of meerkat manors. My dad would gawk at the ferocious pace of lionesses chasing zebras across the Serengeti. At garage sales, he could never resist bringing home a stack of National Geographic magazines. We’ve housed nearly every animal allowed as a pet by the state of Michigan.
I was obviously wrong.
It’s clear today that they could not care less. My parents cheer enthusiastically at “Sing! China” and other knock-off music competitions. The browsing history of our home computer is filled with 2000s-esque online tabloids divulging the latest Asian celebrity scandal. Their smartphones constantly blow up with WeChat pings from their friends across the world. There are no more Discovery Channel specials documenting the inscrutable beauty of wild dolphins; instead, now my parents only discover the “unbelievable” talent of the Dolphin Princess (张靓颖). They spend hours glued to a screen, eyes welling up when prompted and laughing exactly as scripted. It’s the mindless media every baby boomer life coach warns against. But this was exactly what I wanted.
There’s a charming simplicity and boredom to life in the American Midwest. It’s the birthplace of the five-day work week, the 9 to 5 shift and church on Sunday. My parents, however, were never part of this simple life. They arrived by boat, uneducated, unskilled and unable to speak a lick of English. They opened a small takeout restaurant in western Michigan, where they worked endless hours to support our family in the New World. Our restaurant is among the oldest in the city; my grandma’s garden in the front earned it a mention in the Muskegon Chronicle. My parents’ unmistakable effort and spirit of entrepreneurship fits neatly into the myth of the American Dream. It’s exactly the false consciousness surrounding upward mobility — their success obscures how so many others are failed by the invisible hand, how we lived anxiously without health insurance, how we became too accustomed to armed robberies.
I could count the number of Chinese families I know living back home with one hand. Though it’s a cliché in the coming-of-age stories of other Asian/Pacific Islander American kids from small-town America, I wrestled with the sense of “otherness” and assimilation. But it was during my senior year of high school when I began to think, what about my parents? While I could easily Facetime people on the other side of the planet, they were still buying “电话 card” (international calling cards) to reconnect for mere minutes with their friends back home. In 2013, my parents had never logged onto a computer; they had never sent a text message over the phone. To be frank, they were ignorant, but perhaps not in bliss. Were they bored? Were they lonely these last 20-or-so years? Maybe my dad kept replaying the same CDs because he had no idea where to find new Chinese music. Maybe they spent so much time watching wildlife because those programs didn’t require English comprehension.
After lobbying my parents for months, they finally bought a computer. I sought their digital enlightenment. They could chat instantly with their friends across the world. With Google Maps, they could retrace their old neighborhoods back in China. Though they were comfortable with the fact that my brother and I had been surfing the internet for years, they were ferociously resistant to idea that they do the same. “We’re too old for this!” they’d complain — an excuse too common in immigrant households.
From the mundane like translating during grocery trips to the complex like explaining tax forms, there are numerous moments where immigrant children become the parents. It was humiliating for my parents to have established a thriving business, only to struggle to use a keyboard. I’d sit with them for hours at a time, guiding their mouse across the browser. Sometimes when they got it (the red “x” means exit), I’d see a childlike sense of accomplishment spread across their faces. But, inevitably, we’d get frustrated. We’d argue. They’d call me a “死仔.” I’d tell them “I can’t do this anymore!” We’d storm off, only later to return — no apologies — and simply try again.
Soon, they became semi-proficient. They could turn the computer on and off and learned to open Google Chrome. It was good enough. Understanding how to browse the internet was their watershed moment. And before I left for Ann Arbor, they wanted smartphones with WeChat and Weibo, a way to stream Chinese cable, and instructions on how to download music. I have a disdain for mass media, but when my mother received her first WeChat voicemails from childhood friends who asked, “Yan Li! What took you so long???” and I saw the excitement and joy that raced through her existence, I decided I’ll always put aside my thoughts for them.
One day, my mom caught me off guard while I was home for Fall Break. She had prepared a simple, nostalgic lunch for my return: steamed rice with 腊肠. As she watched me eat, she remarked, “They gave our restaurant four out of five stars.” The reviews. Who told her? For every one bad review, there are 20 other to drown them out, but everyone, my parents included, wants to hear criticism. I was annoyed and surprised that she had discovered the online reviews of our restaurant on her own. Perhaps her friend Rose from Milwaukee told her about it. We chatted about how our competitors were only three stars and how some restaurants didn’t even show up. She was surprised that people even liked the food in the first place and then joked about how funny life was where two Chinese “peasants” could become successful in America. Playing into her humble boast, I pretended to be delightfully shocked.
“Hunter, can you translate the reviews for me?”
. . .
. . .
Thank God I never taught her how to use Google Translate. If you’ve interpreted languages before, you know the three most important things are syntax, meaning and context. But it only matters if you’re trying to be truthful.
I, like other children of immigrants, chose to lie to my parents.
The language barrier that had been the root of so much childhood self-hatred and embarrassment became my saving grace. I never thought that teaching my parents to use a computer could ever backfire. Right now, my mom doesn’t know how to translate and read the reviews, but eventually she will. She’ll get better on the computer. She’ll discover that she doesn’t need me. And she’ll read them.
My parents didn’t come here to run a Michelin-starred restaurant; they came here to give their children a better chance at life. Leaving their dreams behind, they provided me the ultimate opportunity to pursue mine: a life free from poverty and oppression. I can never fully describe the sacrifices they made, the barriers they overcame. Even if hot vegetable oil burns and blisters my arms — just like my father’s — from stir-frying “cheap” takeout food for self-proclaimed Chinese culinary experts, my life is still better than it would have been.
Instead of a conspiracy of ripping off customers with “garbage food,” maybe we don’t accept credit cards because my parents don’t know how to use them. Maybe the girl who “is a complete moron” struggles on the phone because we didn’t have money for English lessons. Maybe it “is not Chinese at all” because actual Chinese people don’t eat General Tso’s Chicken as their plat principal with a fortune cookie as dessert.
Maybe the reason why our white rice is “excellent” isn’t because we followed the directions on some bag. It’s because my parents learned to cook it perfectly when it was the only thing their families could afford. That every last morsel mattered back then. That even when you burned it, you scraped the charred bottom crust and ate it to ease the pain of hunger. That before my dad was even a teenager — his house stripped bare by the government, his parents sent to labor camps, his older sisters deported for “reeducation,” his family blacklisted by the community and the survival of two siblings left in his hands alone — he would wait outside homes in the middle of the night to wait his turn to dig through their trash and find smashed remnants of soured, rotten white rice, bring it home to soak it in water so that the ants would float up top to be poured away, and fed to his younger brother and sister so they wouldn’t starve. He’d eagerly eat what was left of the rancid slurry.
How can a single comment so effectively, so easily erase the histories of my family? In this digital age, anonymity begets such cold cruelty. And in truth, I can’t bring myself to blame them. It’d be unrealistic to demand that customers censor their thoughts — they have the right to express a bad experience. Honestly, the comments people leave for our restaurant are hilariously creative. Nevertheless, as the restaurant owners’ son, I can’t help but overreact at the ignorance and insensitivity of these comments. I can’t help but be defensive.
They probably wrote those reviews in less than two minutes, mindlessly thumbing characters, uncaring about who the audience was and what the impact would be. Four out of five stars doesn’t just represent the success of our restaurant; it’s validation of my parents’ lives — their journey, their challenge, their success.
I know I shouldn’t be worked up. I know these comments mean nothing. I know my mom is a lion, strongest among beasts and turns away from no one. Even if I translated them faithfully, she’d probably be fine; but I have a brutal sense of protection towards my family. I would never let anything, not even the minutiae of online restaurant reviews, come close or even attempt to chip away at their accomplishments.
I will never.
“Mom, they love the food. They said everything was affordable and delicious.”
Her ears perk up. She sets her eyes on me, her subtle smile clear. She’s proud — a pride distinct from reading any kind of review. She’s proud to have kept her end of the immigrant bargain and prouder that I’m about to keep mine. Come April, I will no longer be a first-generation college student; I’ll be an alum. After my graduation, our restaurant will finally close its doors having achieved its purpose.
I wish I didn’t have to lie, but then again, I am her stubborn and selfish American son. No more translations of reviews. “There’s no need,” I constantly assure her. “Nothing has changed.” Because of course, our white rice will always be excellent.