By Vivien Li
Growing up as a daughter of resturant owners, I explore the shame of not having parents that could dedicate their time to me and the realization of the sacrifices they made for my happiness.
When I was younger, my parents owned a Chinese takeout restaurant. They called it Li’s Kitchen, a name that I hated later on for its lack of originality. When I was younger, the restaurant was my playspace, a playground almost. There was a huge walk-in freezer with bulk items. In it, I imagined myself in a giant’s world, much like the one Jack found at the end of the beanstalk. The sauces were placed inside huge barrels. There were vegetables in huge boxes, 15 pounds of broccoli with dirt still stuck in between the florettes. There was meat hung on racks, neatly stored as if they were clothes at a mall. The restaurant was a family endeavor, with my grandpa washing dishes or preparing the food, my mother taking orders, and my father the glue that held it together, filling in whatever spots needed to be filled.
When middle school came and I had to help out, I started resenting the restaurant a little. By that time, I had already put the kitchen life behind me. I had lived with my aunt in suburban Queens for 3 years by then and left behind the memories I had of my life in the Bronx. The summers in Queens, though hot, were marked with gentle breezes, blue skies, and grass. Going to my new school, I felt the need to hide the fact that my parents owned a restaurant. All the girls around me had moms who were involved in the PTA or volunteered at the annual bake sales, while I had to make up excuses to my teacher for why my mother or father could not help out or chaperone the trip. Every summer I had to go to the restaurant and help out with taking orders, feeling ashamed that I had to work instead of going on vacation.
In senior year, we watched the Japanese film Afterlife in English class. In it, the deceased were asked to pick one memory that they would like to keep with them forever. I realized that despite all the resentment I felt back then, if I could only choose one memory to take with me, it would be from that restaurant, the summer before third grade. Summers there were always hot. Between the grills, the fryer, and the giant gas stoves perfectly made for woks, the heat inside the kitchen was always unbearable. I was sitting on a stool behind the register where my mother took orders. My father was at the grill preparing the ribs. After he was done, he turned around, his face wet with sweat, and he asked if I wanted to go to Coney Island. I honestly had no idea where that was, but I probably thought it was a store of some kind and I always agreed to go to the store with my parents because I was often given a chance to pick one item I really wanted, like a toy or a snack. We got in the car, just the two of us, and I kept asking if we were there yet, not knowing where we were going. Not yet, my father said. Eventually, I fell asleep midway there, the motion of the car lulling me to sleep. I didn’t realize Coney Island was an amusement park. I remember going on to the bouncy castle and jumping up and down, embracing the searing heat of the plastic on my skin. I remember my father standing there on the side, watching me having fun with a smile on his face.
As I was growing up, all the adults in my life (my grandparents, aunts, and uncles) reminded me of how hard my parents were working. It was a reminder that my parents worked hard so that I may have a happy childhood. When I remember back to that in Coney Island moment, I wondered if my father would have rather spent his free day doing something else other than watching me have fun in the sweltering heat. I felt very loved and supported by my father, and that is a feeling that I would like to hold on to.
I used color pencil on watercolor paper and wanted to portray the image through the lens of children, the bright colorful world and the feeling of flying when jumping on a bouncy castle.
Vivien Li is a senior from New York who enjoys reading and writing about the emotional experiences. She enjoys stashing art and journaling supplies. During her spare time, she destresses by playing games such as Don’t Starve Together, Minecraft and Stardew Valley with her friends. She hopes to be able to travel to China to learn to read and write Mandarin and spend some time with her extended family.