Memories of my “China”
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but my most vivid childhood memories are two hours south in Chinatown, Chicago. Most people think of Chinatown as a busy street where tourists stroll in and out and snippets of Mandarin can be heard on the street.
That’s not the Chinatown I remember.
In the late 90s, the streets of Chinatown were populated by immigrants from southern China – mainly older ladies with armfuls of produce, crowding around the tiny import markets. As they haggled for groceries, a clatter of Cantonese (a predominant dialect of Chinese), a riot of color and a mild sense of claustrophobia added to the chaos. On the holidays, my parents would take us to visit our relatives there. We squeezed three generations into a condo a few blocks outside of Chinatown. I remember us as kids running around throwing footballs while our parents discussed business and our grandmother was busy making food for all twelve grandchildren.
It was in Chinatown that I built the foundation for my identity and spent some of the happiest days of my life; I wished we could stay.
Raised by a Pair of Restauranteurs
My parents run a restaurant on the end of a strip mall on the outskirts of Milwaukee, recognizable by a big sign with the words “China-Hut” over a green, upturned pagoda-style rooftop. The waiting area is no bigger than hallway, but it has a large window that takes advantage of the natural lighting to create an illusion of space. During the lunch and dinner rush, my mom takes the customers’ order behind the countertop covered in Chinese take-out boxes. My dad stands behind a wok and makes each dish to order. During down time, they prep vegetables, butcher meat, batter deep-fried dishes, craft the specialty sauce for the next rush and take stock of the supplies.
When I was in preschool, my brothers and I played in the back of the restaurant while my parents worked at the front. Eventually they felt my brother, the eldest child, was responsible enough to take care of my other brother and me, so we stopped going to the restaurant after school. Instead, we stayed at home and only saw our parents when they drove us to school in the mornings and when they came home with food at night. At home, the three of us created our own little world. That meant a lot of video games, computers, books (mainly comic books), sporting goods, Vanilla Coke, and Oreo cookies as well as high-speed internet and cable T.V. My parents gave us whatever we wanted in order to be happy as their way of fulfilling their absence in our lives and expressing their love for us.
Another barrier grew between my parents and me during those years as well: language. My English progressed as I tried to mimic the refined language in literary classics. My Cantonese froze with the linguistic finesse of a first-grader. As feelings of adolescence grew difficult to describe, I lost the desire to speak with my parents. My little accomplishments, my dreams, my worries were unknown to my parents; and theirs unknown to me.
Before I knew it, it was time for me to leave home. I couldn’t find the words to express my gratitude for them. I graduated high school, a stranger to Mom and Dad.
My Family’s “China”
As I neared my twenties, the age at which my parents, aunts, and uncles had made their own decision to leave behind their life in China for the States, I wondered about their motivations. If they had stayed in China where they had resources and connections, they could have had a much more comfortable life. I didn’t buy the story that they immigrated for us — their then nonexistent children. There had to be something more.
In family gatherings, the narrative of our family history is like an epic poem rich with aphorisms, centered around China and my grandmother in the 1940s. Throughout the years, these stories painted a fuzzy picture of my family’s past and it fascinated me.
My grandmother lost her mother at an early age, and soon after Japanese soldiers brutally trampled their home in Guangzhou. Around the age of 12, she became the family’s eldest child, taking care of five younger siblings. For months, they survived on a steamed egg dish made by adding two parts water to every one part egg and then steaming it to a thin, watery, custard-like texture. This way, every egg could be split between her and her siblings and would last them last three days. I found this a bit hard to believe, but in our family Grandma’s words were the absolute truth. After I heard this story, I took Grandma seriously when she told us to not to waste a single grain of rice and eat our bowls clean.
At the age of six, I told my grandmother with tears in my eyes that my eldest aunt was the scariest person in the world. In turn, she told me that when my aunt was in her teens during the 1970s, she was an ace at everything: studies, athletics, work and even in the army. At the peak of her successes, school officials, her coach and her teammates wouldn’t accept her into a leadership position simply because of her mother’s (my grandmother) political background. Frustrated, my aunt wanted to leave China. She swam across the strait between Guangzhou and Hong Kong (then a British colony) four times and was sent to prison three. I never spoke another ill word about her.
At that time, stories like these were just stories. Outside my family, I was given no evidence that verified them to be true, not in my textbooks I studied, not in the books I read, not in the movies I watched. I was always fascinated how they could exist separately from the world I learned about outside my family. The summer before college started. I was taken back to those old stories and wondered if they were true.
I stayed at my grandmother’s house for a week to fact-check these stories. I asked my grandmother how exactly our family came to the U.S., and if things could really have been that different in China. When I saw her eyes well up with tears, I knew I had asked something unnecessary. She showed me some old photos from the days our family was still in China: photos of her younger siblings, photos of my aunt outside of the gates of a prison. After this week with my grandmother, an outline of my family was burned into my brain.
When college started, I decided to take classes on Chinese history and politics to learn about the world that pushed my family to leave their home. The dates of everything lined up with my family’s story. I gained a foundation of keywords and events which opened up a new world of conversations with my parents. My family’s history finally became mine, and I wanted to share it with others.
China Beyond Home
A lot of people talk about culture shock when they go to a new foreign country and return home. I had my first experience on my university campus where I met masses of international students from China for the first time in my life. When I was in Milwaukee, anyone that was ethnically Chinese was a close friend of my family. We were a part of the small, Chinese restaurateur community in Milwaukee. We supported each other for survival. With each student I met, I had the tendency to greet them with open arms and an open heart, just like they were my family. It was a habit.
More often than not, when I approached my new classmates, they were happy to know there were people in the States that welcomed them. There were times when I would invite them over to chat. I’d prepare tea and little snacks as I would normally when hosting a guest. When they’d invite me over, they simply flicked on their laptop and ordered takeout. They chuckled at me and said I didn’t have to be so stuffy and old-fashioned.
We’d often share our experiences growing up at home, and our similar lists of favorite singers, movies, and T.V. shows. I’d list the names of artists and songs that I enjoyed the most, Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, Jackie Cheung, Andy Lau, their response to me would be, “Oh, so you like the classics.”
That’s when I realized the China I knew was outdated. In these thirty years, that my parents have lived in the States, how much could China have changed?
I wanted to discover modern China and to breathe some life into the word “China” as Americans understand it today. That is why I’m in China now.
So far, it has not fallen short of my expectations. I am fortunate to have come to this realization at this moment in time, and thankful to be involved with Project Pengyou for this past year as a leadership fellow, as a chapter leader, as a happy intern.