I met Stacey in a crowded Starbucks in the underground mall beneath Toronto’s Financial District. She had been living in Toronto for the past two years, working on the thirtieth floor of the gleaming office tower above us. She was a physiotherapist, treating executives and athletes at an elite private clinic.
Talking to her here, just another smartly dressed young woman in the middle of downtown Toronto, seemed like an impossible juxtaposition with my meeting with her mother back at the family’s restaurant on Fogo Island. I tried but failed to conjure up the image of that faded restaurant on the quiet island where she’d grown up.
“My mom would wear out her shoes,” she said. “Same as my dad. He owned, like, four items of clothes and washed them constantly.”
I told her about my parents and how they refused to throw out dish cloths. And about how, even a decade after I’d moved out, I’d still find my mom wearing hand-me-downs—not from other relatives or friends, but from us. The clothes they had bought us as teenagers—studded t-shirts and brightly coloured Gap parkas we’d long since discarded—my mom was now wearing as her own.
She nodded in recognition. Running the restaurant 365 days a year. Living alone—apart from her husband so that they could run two restaurants. These were decisions they had made, she said. “My mom’s never, ever shown me any signs of regret,” she said. “She’s never like, ‘I wish I had done this instead.’”
It was still better than what they would have had back in China, she said.
After we’d been sitting for almost an hour, I finally worked up the courage the one question I was there to ask.
I explained to her the larger purpose behind our meeting. I told her about learning about my own family’s connection to Chinese restaurants. How I was trying to understand my dad’s history, and how I hoped it might help me better understand him.
“My dad’s sick,” I said finally. I told her how he’d been slowing down. How he’d been skipping more of his Saturday hikes. How sometimes, when he answered the phone, he seemed to barely have enough energy to answer my questions.
I spoke slowly, unsure of how to proceed. “I guess what I’m trying to figure out is, what now?”
I knew I was being unclear. So I continued.
Her parents, like mine, had spent all their lives sacrificing. They had scrimped and saved for decades, giving it all to their kids. I recounted to Stacey how, even after my family had moved out of Abbotsford—even after Dad had become head chef at a big restaurant in Vancouver—the sacrifices never stopped. I told her how, when Expo ‘86 came to Vancouver, my dad took a side job supervising the overnight kitchen operations at Cara, which was catering several of the pavilions. Each day, he’d work a full day at the restaurant, then report for duty at Cara at around ten p.m. From there, he’d work through the night overseeing the kitchen line. Afterwards, he’d drive straight back to the restaurant, napping for just a few hours before he started work all over again.
Stacey nodded, listening. A few times, her eyes flickered with recognition.
I told her how, as I was growing up, Dad often had two, three, even four different jobs—restaurant jobs, contracting, landscaping, even stucco—working evenings, weekends and all hours of the day. Eventually, he’d retired. But he’d never stopped scrimping.
“So now, here we are,” I said, gesturing around me—at my five-dollar latte, at the crowd of women in their shiny heels and the men with their briefcases, at the gleaming office towers above us with their marble foyers and contemporary art collections. This place we were both living in that felt worlds away from the lives of our parents.
She kept nodding. She seemed to understand what I was getting at.
I wanted to ask her about dealing with the guilt. And the question of how we could ever repay them.
But instead I settled on this: “How do you know if you’re living up to the expectations?”
The question didn’t seem to throw her. It seemed like something she’d thought about before.
“These days,” she said, “it’s about making sure my parents are comfortable.” She offered to help put her brother through grad school, if he needs it, and if it will help her parents to retire sooner. She’s offered to help them financially, too.
Beyond that, she said, “you just don’t want to disappoint them.”
I asked her what that meant—what she or her siblings could have done to disappoint them—but she shook her head.
There weren’t specific expectations, she said. They weren’t told they had to become doctors and lawyers and accountants. (Even though initially, she did want to become a doctor. And her sister went on to become an accountant). There wasn’t pressure towards any of that.
For Stacey, her parents just wanted to make sure she’d be able to take care of herself. For years after she moved to Vancouver, and then later to Toronto, the questions her dad asked her during their phone calls were all the same: “Do you have enough to eat? Do you have enough money? Are you doing okay?”
I thought back to all the conversations I’d had even over the past few months with my dad. All of the weekly phone calls with the both of them from Toronto.
“Have you eaten?” they would ask. “How’s work?” To each of their questions, I would grunt a yes. That was more or less all that was ever said. Underlining those conversations was always a simple question: Are you okay? Even after all this time, they were still worried.
But recently, she said, she’d managed to get them to understand that she’s not just getting by, but doing well. The clinic she works at is a branch of one of the leading hospitals in all of North America. She’s paid well and lives comfortably. She has her own apartment in downtown Toronto and travels frequently. And now that they finally realize it, they can be at ease, she said.
“Instead of, ‘Do you have enough?’ Now he’s like, ‘You’ve got to take care of yourself, you’ve got to pace yourself,’” she said, laughing.
“It’s interesting,” she said. “He recently asked me—and he’s never, ever asked me this question before.”
I asked what it was.
“He asked me if I was happy.”
The espresso machine let out a loud hiss as I sat there, thinking about what she’d just said.
He asked me if I was happy.
She chuckled. She knew it was unusual, from a Chinese parent. The question had surprised even her.
“So how did you respond?” I asked.
“I was like, ‘Alright, yeah. I’m happy,’” she said. She smiled as she said it. We were underground and the lighting was harsh—but she glowed as she said it. And I believed her.
Her mom had called recently, Stacey said. She’d said something that had stuck with Stacey. They echoed the words Ms. Huang had told me back in Fogo.
“My mom said to me, ‘We can breathe now. You kids are okay. We can breathe now.’”
Excerpted from Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants, by Ann Hui. ©2019. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.