Saturday, May 4, 2013

After the Flood: a Personal Essay

The following is a true story. I wanted to share the account about how losing everything in the 2007 Midwestern Floods changed the way my Chinese immigrant family viewed life and the true meaning of happiness, and I hope it inspires people to see the positive light in their own lives.

**
I was 12 when I first had to work at my family's restaurant, China Garden. It was located in a rectangular brick building on the eastern border of Coffeyville, Kansas, a small town with a population of 10,000 that had an oil refinery a few miles from our restaurant. The oil refinery emitted a sulphuric, rotten egg stench that often floated to our parking lot, but thankfully, the smell didn’t travel indoors, which had the typical décor of a small town Chinese eatery. Big red booths. Mobiles hanging from the ceiling. A good fortune cat and green Jade Buddha by the register. The only thing truly unique about the décor was a collection of drawings I had created when I was in eighth grade. I had enrolled in a drawing class at the community college, and my instructor became fascinated with me based upon my art. “Your work has a quiet sadness to it,” he would say, and me being an eighth-grader, I had no idea what he was talking about. When the semester was over, however, I had a large collection of drawings that were very advanced for my age, and my father displayed them throughout the dining areas. Despite my gallery, I disliked being at the restaurant, and I remember how much I hated sitting behind the front counter every Saturday morning working as a cashier. I used to pretend I was sick halfway through my shift so that I could take a nap in the office. I'm sure my father knew I was faking it because I mysteriously was sick every Saturday morning for four years.

And I feel bad admitting this, but I hated the restaurant too.

Courtesy of www.firehow.com
Oh, I loved the food. It was amazing. My parents made the juiciest, most flavorful egg rolls I had ever had, and each of them were exquisitely rolled, bursting out of their wrappers with shredded cabbage, pork, and carrots. Their orange chicken was equally to die for. Each chicken chunk was perfectly square, coated with breading and then deep-fried to crisp perfection. The orange sauce was the perfect mix of tangy and sweet, and it was both thick and flowing. Besides the food, I loved bringing my friends over and treating them to whatever was on the menu. Sweet and sour chicken. Hot and spicy chicken. Crab Rangoon. It made me feel like a big shot. But best of all, I loved that the restaurant gave my Chinese immigrant parents a way to provide for me, my two sisters, and my cousin, and I knew that I would never go hungry or not have a roof over my head.

All of those reasons and more are why I felt bad hating my family’s livelihood, but I still did. Yes, I was somewhat of a moody brat during my younger years, but my disdain stemmed from more than that. My parents went to work every morning at 8 am, and they didn’t return until 10 at night. There were some seasons that they took a day off, but mostly, they worked seven days a week, in the hot kitchen, cooking dish after dish behind a flaming stove or a deep fryer. When they returned home, they were exhausted, my father cranky, and then they would go to bed, just to do it all over again the next day.

I knew that working that much strained their relationship and took a toll on them physically. Every Saturday when I went into work, my father would yell at my mother if something went wrong, and being a restaurant, something always went wrong. Most days, my mother would stew in silence if he snapped at her. Rarely, she would say something back and cause the rest of the kitchen staff to awkwardly look away. He never blew up at his employees, but his high expectations and comfort around his family meant we had to deal with the aftermath of his temper. As I aged and I continued to gaze at those drawings, I wondered if maybe my art professor was onto something with what he saw.

I often asked my mother how she was able to put up with being around my father 24/7 and dealing with his moods. “We both work so hard,” she told me, the tiredness emerging from her soft voice. “And although we’re grateful to have the restaurant, it wasn’t what he had originally wanted to do with his life. He chose this path to take care of all of you.”

I gazed at my mother, who looked little like the girl in her old sepia-tinted photographs. In her youth, she was always up on the latest fashions, and physically, she had been a classic Chinese beauty. Pale skin. Large eyes. Thin body frame and shiny black hair. The restaurant had aged her. Gone were the pretty dresses. The makeup. The stylish haircuts. She now wore t-shirts, Wal-Mart pants stained with food, and old sneakers every day; and my father cut her short hair. In her youth, she lived a life of luxury, and now my parents were very cheap. Any money they earned, they spent on us children, on the business, or it went straight to savings.

My mother never complained though. That wasn’t in her character.

“Why don’t you guys do something different?” I asked. “I doubt either one of you wanted to move to a small town in Kansas and work 14 hours a day doing manual labor.” I wanted to add that they didn’t even take time to enjoy what they earned, but I bit my tongue.

This was a conversation I repeatedly had with my mother. Why don’t you both change your lives if it isn’t what you want? But her answer was always the same. “Not now. One day.”

**
I knew the story of my parents’ immigration to United States from Taiwan. It was the late 1970s, and my father earned a scholarship to do graduate physics research at Wichita State University. He was already married to my mother, so he was able to bring her over, and while students, they lived frugally and my dad worked a part-time job at a Chinese restaurant. After he received his masters, he hit a snag in his career. This occurred around the same time my mother was pregnant with my older sister and his boss at the restaurant asked if he would like to buy into the business. Although my father had originally dreamed of a life in the scientific field, his life circumstances forced him to make a decision: continue to struggle as a poor academic or become his own boss and see what happens. Choosing the latter, he co-owned the Chinese restaurant that had first employed him, and later he ventured out on his own. He bought a restaurant in Coffeyville, and the business thrived decade after decade.

However, growing up, I felt as if he regretted his decision. Not only because it wasn’t his original dream, but because working so much robbed my family of something just as valuable as money: time.

For instance, I remember standing on stage during school plays year after year and looking out into the crowd and not seeing a face for me. On the other hand, my best friend’s family was cheering her on every night, smiling when she said her lines, greeting her with flowers at the end of the show. Seeing that type of support made me wish that my own parents would just take a few hours off and come see me. To be fair to them, sometimes my dad would come one night of the show’s run, but my mother to this day has never seen me perform. Someone always had to be in the kitchen.

It was the combination of all the negatives that made me wish the restaurant would close. After my cousin and my sisters moved away to go to college, I had hoped that my parents would finally retire—that “one day” had come. After all, they had invested over twenty years of their lives in a venture that they often said they couldn’t wait to get out of. What was stopping them? It was no longer my sisters and cousin, and business had started to decline when two other Chinese restaurants had popped up in town.

So really, what was stopping them?

The answer was Fear.

My parents had created a routine, and although they didn’t love it, change was scarier. My parents had sacrificed a lot to give to their family, but they weren’t ready to give to themselves. That was a completely foreign concept to two people who knew sacrifice but didn’t know how to be selfish. After I went to college, I questioned if all of their reasons for keeping the restaurant were excuses, and that they were never going to change their lives.

And then “one day” happened.

In late June of 2007, a policeman came to China Garden and warned my parents that heavy rains were coming. My parents asked how bad they thought the rains would be. The policeman said that there would be a flood and that they should evacuate and take as much as they could with them. That afternoon my father had bought boxes of canned biscuits from the supermarket, and he had received a great discount. He and my mother loaded their van with the biscuits and a few perishables from the refrigerator. They figured that the worse thing the rains would cause would be a few inches of leakage onto the floor, and since they had their own carpet-cleaning machine, they were ready to fix the damage themselves the next day.

I was living in Lawrence, Kansas at the time with my sister and my friend, Matt. We were staying with him for the summer as I finished up classes to complete my bachelor’s degree at the University of Kansas, and life was wonderful. During the day I would go to class, and at night, I’d eat dinner with the two of them and watch episodes of Law and Order: SVU. I loved my summer, but my blissful life changed when I received a phone call on July 1, 2007.

“Turn on the news,” my mother said.

I did as she instructed, and my sister and I were shocked at what we saw. Almost a third of Coffeyville was underneath water, including the oil refinery. The oil from the refinery polluted the flood waters, causing even greater destruction. Then a shot taken by a helicopter appeared, and I gasped. There was footage of China Garden underneath water, only its sign and a part of its roof visible. What my parents had thought would only be inches of water turned out to be ten feet.

“Was there any warning?” I asked, and they told me about the policeman’s visit. “So you took stuff home?” I asked, and I thought about my artwork.

My mother was silent. “No…” she finally said. “I’m sorry. We didn’t know…”

“What did you save?” I asked. “Did you take home my drawings?”

She told me that they had taken home the biscuits, and I felt an explosion of emotions.

Biscuits? I thought. I had inherited my father’s quick temper, and I was livid at my parents for saving off-brand cans of instant biscuits instead of original artwork from their daughter. I knew that they were obsessed with saving money and that they often prioritized logic over sentimentality, but really? Biscuits? I forced myself to choke down my frustrated tears.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked. She replied that she didn’t know. There wasn’t sadness or fear in her voice, and I mistook that as them being fine with what had happened. In fact, my parents were in a state of shock.

When I got off the phone, my sister looked at me. “What’d she say?” she asked.

“They saved the biscuits,” I replied.

China Garden underneath several feet of flood water (courtesy of USA Today)
**
In August of 2007, I started graduate school at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. I had driven from Kansas to California in my beat-up Mazda that didn’t have air conditioning or a front grill, and I had found a cheap room for rent off of Craigslist located near the intersection of Crenshaw and Venice Boulevard. Despite what had happened at home and despite looking like a yokel in image-obsessed Los Angeles, I was determined to stay positive.

But it was hard.

Dorothy said it best. “I’m not in Kansas anymore!” USC was a top-notch school full of talented people, but the competitive environment drained me emotionally. The Los Angeles smog ruined my skin, and the traffic terrified me. The furnished room I rented was inexpensive by Los Angeles standards, but it cost more than my adorable one-bedroom apartment in Kansas. I shared a bathroom with two guys, one of whom I got into a shouting match because he left on the floor a napkin with feces on it. Adding more to my stress, the updates about my family weren’t promising. A few months after the flood, my father found a job as a manager of a grocery store in Lawrence, which was 150 miles North of Coffeyville. My mother stayed behind to take care of the house and our dog, and it was the first time in their married lives that they had ever been apart. I remember thinking how strange it was—the change. I never would’ve thought that the end of the restaurant would result in two people who had previously spent every hour together now spent weeks separated.

I had no idea how they would handle the time apart, and turns out, the answer was not well. During their separation, my father lost a lot of weight, and we knew it would take a while for him to adjust to his new lifestyle. Even though he was a manager, he still had a boss, and working at someone else’s company wasn’t something he was used to. I remember my younger sister would call me, worried. “He’s taking all of this really personally,” she said, “We think he’s depressed.” “How depressed?” I asked. I already knew he had a strong temperament, as did I, one of the many things I inherited from him. I imagined how I felt when my own depression would sink it, and it terrified me to imagine what kinds of worse case scenarios could emerge from his. I also didn’t want to think about my mother alone, and worrying about my parents used to keep me up at night. I hated how I was living in Los Angeles, far away from my family, far away from our real problems as I was trying to make a career that didn’t seem like it was going to happen. It all felt meaningless and selfish, but my parents assured me that everything would be fine.

After my first year of school, I questioned whether or not I should return the next term. I had always loved art, movies, writing, and entertainment, so it made sense for me to go to film school. However, I became discouraged seeing other people obtain opportunities that seemed to be closed to me, and although I had experience with rejection, I was not prepared for the volume of rejection that awaited me in Hollywood. All of my life I had been a go-getter, and when I worked hard, I achieved my goal. Perhaps it was naïve to think the real world worked like that, let alone the arts, but I was as frustrated and cranky while a grad student as much of my father was at the restaurant when he had experienced a bad day. Furthermore, I felt foreign in Los Angeles. Even though I was in the same country, I was in a different world, a world where people looked at you funny if you wore jean skirts to a club. A world where smiling and saying “hi” to strangers scared them. A world where people spoke to others based on what they could obtain from them. That aspect irked me the most.

I wondered if this was a similar situation that my father faced in his youth as an immigrant in grad school. Did he doubt his dreams and his ability to obtain them? Did he realize the world he had longed to enter was really not what it had seemed? What was the moment that caused him to walk away? I finally began to understand my parents, their psychology and their life choices, and this understanding was something that had eluded me in my younger years. This was the moment that I finally started to see my parents for what they were; imperfect people who tried to do the right thing and made mistakes along the way.

Meanwhile, my parents were able to sell their home and my mother moved to Lawrence to be with my father. She found a job, and the two of them slowly adapted to living in a new city. Unlike Coffeyville, which did not have a large Chinese population, Lawrence was a college town, and my parents were able to make friends with other Chinese immigrants. My parents were involved with the community in Coffeyville, but I knew that they missed speaking Chinese with their friends and being around others who had experience with the culture. Now that they worked traditional 40-hour week jobs, they had time to enjoy their lives. They went to dinner with friends. They spent weekends with their grandchildren. They hosted parties and watched movies. I wasn’t there to witness the change within them, but I knew it was happening.

I, on the other hand, was on an emotional roller coaster. Some days I was good, loving the weather and the opportunity to be around other passionate people. Other days I was bitter, wondering why my career was not moving forward like my more successful classmates. That bitterness morphed into depression, and I became withdrawn and sad.

Finally, during the summer of 2010, I decided that I was going to pack, move back to Kansas, and live with my parents until I found myself again. I had failed as a writer. I was unhappy as an entertainment assistant. I felt out of place and lonely. I didn’t have a plan on what I wanted to do next, but I just knew that I didn’t want to figure it out in California.

I called my parents to tell them the news, and although I knew that the aftermath of the flood had changed them, I didn’t fully understand how much until after I spoke with my father, who in my childhood was a shining star of Chinese Tiger parenting.

“I want to come home,” I had said.

“Great. It’s been a while,” he had replied.

“No, I meant for good. I want to move home.”

He was silent, and I waited. The calm before the storm. I expected him to blow up at me. Why did you spend so much money on graduate school? Why did you choose a career in the arts? We told you to be a lawyer! Why didn’t you listen to us?

To my surprise, he was calm. “Do what makes you happy,” he said. “If you really want to quit, quit. If you want to write, don’t quit just because things are hard. Keep trying and everything will work out the way it is supposed to. God always has a plan for us.”

The encouragement was shocking enough, but my father’s mention of God jolted me. I knew that he was raised Christian and when I was a child he sent my sisters and I to church, but I had never heard him talk like that before. In fact, his previous philosophy seemed to be about one’s own control, and if one couldn’t control something, then he needed to try harder to do so.

But now, here he was. His rebellious, artsy daughter was telling him that she had failed to “make it” as an artist and wanted to come home with her tail between her legs. This was a perfect moment to say “I told you so,” but instead, he was urging me to be happy and let fate guide me.

“Losing the restaurant changed us,” my mother told me afterwards when I was at their home in Lawrence on a Christmas holiday. Despite the cold weather outside, my mother was vibrant and glowing. “We thought we had everything planned,” she said, “But then one day… it’s all gone. Life will happen even if you don’t want it to, so there’s no point in worrying. Just be happy and do what makes you happy. Everything else doesn't matter.”

“I never thought I’d have to learn how to be happy,” I replied.

“We never thought a flood would teach us how to either,” she said, and I nodded back at her. She was right, and there was nothing else to say.
China Garden's sign after the flood cleared. (courtesy of Coffeyville Journal)

7 comments:

  1. Great family that provided steady money for my family. It still pains my heart to drive past the location where the business was located. I'm pretty sure that I would have starved if it weren't for your parents. Alot of anger and frustration in that building but, there was a lot of love too. Great essay!

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  2. What a beautiful story, and so well written. I find it fascinating because of the mix of cultures, in a universal experience shared with people of all races, all countries, and all catastrophes... floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes.... re-awakening of universal truths... what is important in life? flavored with Chinese seasonings, on an American small town plate. Beautifully told. God bless you.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  4. Teresa, thank you for writing this. I found this link in my facebook newsfeed. I share many of the experiences that you wrote about, and it lifts me up to know that everything will be okay.

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  5. Hi Teresa,
    I really enjoyed reading this piece, and I really appreciated your candidness. It made me consider some tough/provoking questions with my own parents. Thank you!

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  6. Your experiences inspire me to share my own. Inspiring and well written!!

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  7. Enjoyed reading your story. Life does happen. How we respond makes or breaks us.

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