“The white rice was excellent. Followed the directions on the bag perfectly. Way to go.”
By Hunter Zhao on October 24, 2017
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.
Cydney Gardner-Brown: The neutral white population
By Cydney Gardner-Brown on October 11, 2017
Following the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations of the past few weeks, my African American studies professor gave students the platform to have a discussion in class about how the racial tension on campus has been affecting our lives. After many of the Black students bravely shared their stories aloud, shed tears and expressed how dehumanizing and degrading being called a racial slur can make a person, better yet, a community feel, a white female student decided to speak up. She said (roughly quoting): “It breaks my heart to hear that when stuff like this happens it can remain on the backs of the Black students for the remainder of their day or week or even for years. It breaks my heart because I know that even though I am sad about it, I can leave today and remain totally unaffected and continue with my day. That is due in part to the privilege that I have as a white person. It allows me to remain unaffected and ignorant to what is going on with other people in my own community.”
Her statement shook me to the core. For the first time since I have been on campus, I heard a white person admit to the privilege of indifference. The privilege of neutrality in times of racial crisis.
This mindset of neutrality is one that privileged whites tend to have in the United States (and on this campus) regarding race. White people who choose not to be a part of the conversation of racial tension and who would rather “not take a side” perpetuate an endless cycle of aggression and attack.
From a distance, it may seem as if most of the white students do not see what is happening on campus. It seems that they are totally oblivious to our struggle. However, I have found that the issues we as people of color face are in fact being seen by white students on campus but it seems that they are only seeing us through a TV screen — as if these racial attacks are a natural disaster occurring in some foreign land leaving them totally unaffected.
Black students feel as if they are isolated on an island experiencing a calamity and all the complacent white students act as if all they can do is watch. They are not seeing our anguish through their own eyes, in their own halls, buildings and front lawns. They are not feeling our pain in their own bodies because even hundreds of years after being brought to this land, Black people still are only seen as visitors. As the girl in my class said, many white people don’t feel personally affected or attacked when a Black man is called “n*****” because they do not view said Black man as a member of their community but another community completely separate. We as Black people are only tolerated as guests on a campus we have worked equally as hard to reside upon. Therefore, when something happens to us, the urgency of the matter is only our issue and no one else’s. It is not that these white people are evil or would ever themselves attempt to dehumanize a person of color, it is that they choose to remain ignorant to the issues affecting people of color and therefore choose to remain neutral to any remedies.
The only way we can fix what is going on here is if we somehow make the complacent white students, who have no inclination toward either side, feel obligated to defend the identities of students of color. They have to know that what is happening is not fiction. It’s not alien. It’s not happening on a TV screen! It’s occurring right here and right now. The neutral white students have to feel personally affected when their Black neighbors are being attacked and they have to view an attack on a person of color in this community as an attack on everyone.
We can only move forward if they know their participation is integral to our movement for positive social change on campus.
Michigan in Color: We condemn The Order of Angell and all other secret societies
By MIC Editorial Board on November 6, 2019
Michigan in Color stands in solidarity with the Native American community. We are issuing a formal statement, following in the footsteps of the United Asian American Organizations, La Casa and the Arab Students Association, to condemn The Order of Angell and all other secret societies at the University of Michigan. As a section of The Michigan Daily, we extend this sentiment to any staff at The Michigan Daily who were or are presently a part of these organizations.
The Order of Angell, formerly known as Michigamua, is a secret society at the University that has engaged in racist and exploitative practices. Their past practices have specifically targeted the Native American community by acquiring a large number of stolen artifacts and engaging in mockery of Native American rituals and iconography. While the organization claims it has taken progressive stances in recent years and has moved on from its racist history, we reject the notion that incorporating more leaders of color and modifying appropriate practices remedies the harm they inflicted on the Native American community. Essentially, these transgressions are not pardoned by the Order’s performative actions that have made no contribution to uplift the Native American communtity on campus. It is evident that the Order of Angell actively participates in upholding similar colonial structures on campus with its lack of transparency and elitist composition.
The secrecy surrounding the Order perpetuates a narrative based on social and economic hierarchies and misrepresents diversity as tokenism. Moreover, the existence of secret societies exacerbates the pre-existing social and economic elitism embedded in the University’s foundations and practices which have been present since its inception. Its furtiveness further displaces communities already outside of the considered elite and upholds standards of supremacy. The Order of Angell is just one of many examples of the University repeatedly upholding colonial structures and valorizing racist University figures. For instance, James B. Angell, a former University president after whom the society was named and founded, has a racist history of drafting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. More recently, in 2001, a Native American faculty member was wongfully terminated after her involvement in the Students of Color Coalition’s occupation of the Michigamua “wigwam” in the Michigan Union. This, in addition to the previously mentioned marginalization of Native Americans, is an affront to the indigenous community as well as other communities of color.
Lastly, Michigan in Color would like to formally recognize our past involvement and participation in the Order of Angell. We recognize the harm that Michigan in Color has caused by remaining complicit, and we condemn the past participation of individuals who were involved, especially those who held leadership positions. This goes against the constitution and foundation that MiC is founded upon in that MiC “does not exist within a vacuum that is immune to the oppressive systems and identity politics of our campus and beyond.” Moving forward, MiC will be following in the footsteps of UAAO, La Casa and ASA in amending our constitution to reflect our rejection of secret societies and ensure that our members, both present and future, understand this.
Michigan in Color stands in solidarity with the Native American community and any calls to action that they initiate. As the mission of Michigan of Color is to uplift and amplify the perspectives of students of color on campus, we will remain dedicated to dismantling oppressive institutions and structures that inhibit this commitment.
Maya Goldman, 2018-2019 Editor-in-Chief of The Michigan Daily, was a member of Order of Angell and played no role in this statement.
Aarel Calhoun: The annoying burden of being your teacher
By Aarel Calhoun on November 8, 2017
Being Black in a white world is exhausting. While other people get to live their lives, oblivious to instances of racial injustice, Black people are not afforded that same privilege. Several non-Black students did not know about any of the racist things on campus — the spray-painted praise of Dylann Roof, the N-word written on various spaces and several racist posters — that occurred on campus before I mentioned them. While I lived my days in increasing fear and growing discomfort, they were unaware that anything was even going on. While I remain slightly on edge because I don’t know who among my peers would love for me to not be at this school, or who would casually call me a n—–, I also have the burden of having to teach people about what is and what isn’t racism, on the daily.
Frankly, I’m annoyed constantly teaching people about what racism actually is. Do you know how frustrating it is to teach person after person about history that they could easily just look up? On one hand, I am happy to help shed light on issues that people may otherwise not have thought about, but on the other hand, it gets tiring. I’m tired of having to explain to you why the Confederate flag is a symbol of the heritage and history of hate. I’m tired of having to explain to you why me calling you a racist is not nearly as bad as you actually doing something racist. I’m tired of having to explain to you that racism lies much deeper than skin. You having one Black friend does not mean that you’re not racist. Just because you smiled at a Black person one time when you were 5, doesn’t excuse the fact that you yell n—- at frat parties when rap songs come on. Calling yourself an ally yet continuing to let racist friends and family be racist does not help anyone, and acting as if you’re colorblind certainly does not help me. But I don’t have the time to tell you this. Not when your president doesn’t value Black lives. I don’t have time to explain to you why your tendency to read anger into anything I say is supporting a negative stereotype when I have to go to a march to let people know that I will never let them forget, pretend or ignore the fact that my life matters. I can’t assuage your white guilt when I have to follow the news day in and day out because yet another unarmed Black person was shot by a police officer, and I want to know if they’ll finally get justice this time, though I know that is often not the case. When you’re trying to pretend that your Confederate-flag-owning relatives aren’t supporting a history of hate, I’m trying my hardest to not be upset by white friends who I know mean well, but still can’t really see white privilege.
Bottom line: I don’t always have time to be your teacher. It’s difficult, stifling and annoying to always have to sugarcoat what I need to tell you about your varying degrees of racist actions. Instead of flat out telling you that the #AllLivesMatter movement is racist because it exists to overshadow the point of #BlackLivesMatter, I must coddle you by saying, “I know you mean well, and I’m glad you want to be an ally, but all lives already matter, yet according to the cops…” I must be the politest, and the gentlest in my wording, or else you won’t even hear my point because you hear “racist” and think, “You called me racist — how dare you?” As a result of the systemic racism that has infected this country, each day I have some form of injustice to be upset by, but when I want to convey this to you, my words must be gentle as a lamb, even though you weren’t so gentle when you said Colin Kaepernick was dumb for kneeling and “protesting the flag” (fun fact: That isn’t what he was protesting). My words must be soft, and carefully chosen, so as not to upset the white person who is struggling to admit to their own racism, which is maddening because it quiets what I would prefer to yell from the rooftops: Yes, you may not believe me but this is indeed racist! I’m tired of policing my words to help to you realize what is and isn’t racist. My world, in terms of racial injustice, is difficult, jarring and sometimes scary, and yet the world has to be insulated for you.
I do not want to be your teacher, but despite this, I know that I must continue to be it. I can’t let people go on not being aware of their own racism, even if it drains me to repeatedly teach them. Despite loving the empowered feeling that I get from being Black and socially aware, I’m tired of the burden being placed on me to teach people who don’t want to be educated.