No matter how old I am, I’ll always be a restaurant kid

This first-person column is by Rachel Phan who lives in Toronto. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

« I hate my job, Rachel, » my mom said out of the blue during our phone call. As always, a pain tugged at my heart, but the sharpness of the pain was long dulled by years of hearing him utter the exact same phrase.

My mother turned 60 last year and her body was worn down by three decades of backbreaking work in our family restaurant. Day after day, slinging her wrists over a wok to fry rice, along with endless wonton making, vegetable chopping, and meticulous peeling of shrimp left her with carpal tunnel syndrome. in the wrists and arthritis just about everywhere.

My father, now 64, also has physical trauma in his body. He still lifts heavy soup pots and overflowing garbage bags, but with half the speed and triple the grimaces.

My parents – who are of Chinese descent, but were born and raised in Vietnam – were among the hundreds of thousands of “boat people” who fled after the Vietnam War.

Ten years after arriving in Canada in 1981, my family of five pulled up to the back of a red brick building in our red Chevrolet Lumina. Like so many other Chinese families who settled in small towns across the country, our path to the Canadian dream passed through a humble restaurant serving Chinese-Canadian cuisine that was as foreign to us as it was exotic to our customers.

The restaurant became ours 10 years after my parents arrived in Canada. Finally, my parents had something of their own after years of sweating in other people’s kitchens and evenings gathering worms to sell as fishing bait. For two people who survived bombs and starvation during a needless war in Vietnam, it was a dream come true.

As for me, I became a « restaurant child » for life.

Growing up, we blasted through music videos for my dad’s favorite songs in the kitchen and weaved our way through piles of Chinese drama on VHS tapes. My dad translated Cantonese into English for me while he puffed on a cigarette between lunch and dinner rushes.

These days, when we help out in the restaurant on family visits home as adults, it’s the sound of sports and Canadian assimilation that echoes through the air as my mom yells « Go Leafs Go!

Rachel Phan, left, and her mother stand back to back inside the family restaurant to see who is taller. (Submitted by Rachel Phan)

As a daughter, I patiently waited every day for 10 p.m. to pass because that’s when the restaurant transformed from the main focus to the backdrop for our family dinners. Someone would say « Dai gah sik fan— which roughly translates to ‘everyone is eating rice together’ — and for an all-too-brief moment we were focused on each other.

Once the soo guy and western dishes were put away and chilled, we sat down to enjoy our people’s food: Mom’s braised pork belly with pickled vegetables in a rich, slippery sauce that I wanted to drink by the spoonful. salty; leafy green choy sum or gai lan sautéed with garlic; and Papa’s lobster prepared traditionally with scallions and ginger or, my favorite, with evaporated milk, butter and onions.

With our family now spread all over the world, we only eat together a few times a year as a whole family, usually when we get together for western dishes like prime rib and potatoes au gratin for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I try not to be sad about it.

A teenage girl stands barefoot and wears a Toronto Raptors jersey in a restaurant.
Rachel Phan spent the night after graduating from 8th grade in 2002 at the family restaurant. (Submitted by Rachel Phan)

Unsurprisingly, almost all of my childhood memories feature the restaurant in some way.

I remember with amusement how I once organized a slumber party at the restaurant. My friends and I pushed chairs together to form a makeshift bed, and to protect ourselves from any potential intruders while we slept, I kept a butcher knife near our heads. We ate handfuls of fortune cookies until we got sick and my friend, holding her stomach, exclaimed, « I can never eat another one again! »

Then there was my brooding adolescence. Wanting to spend time with friends instead of helping in the restaurant, I forced my parents to endure many terrible acts of defiance. I was screaming and breaking dishes, and once I deliberately ruined a batch of rice. I try to suppress those memories because remembering my mother’s downcast and tired expression could tear me apart.

As much as it serves as our living room, the restaurant is also our battlefield. I remember how mom and dad would throw chicken balls at each other while swearing in Cantonese during their cooking explosions.

Now, after decades of insisting on the same bruises and shouting the same Chinese epithets at each other, the fights have changed shape – further evidence of my parents’ bone fatigue. When they fight now, it’s in icy silence.

« Your dad was grumpy and hasn’t spoken to me since Friday, » mom will say over the phone. “Can you tell him that we should close next Sunday? I’m 34 and live four hours away, but I’m still expected to diffuse the tension.

Three smiling people stand side by side next to an aquarium.
Rachel Phan, center, regularly returns to see her parents and hangs out at the family restaurant, now located in Leamington, Ontario. The family poses in front of their parents’ beloved aquarium. (Submitted by Rachel Phan)

I’m tired of the restaurant preventing me from communicating with my parents. I desperately want to know them as people – not as tireless restorers.

I want to know what life was like in Vietnam and if they are happy with where their life has taken them. I want to know how they keep the demons of their past from haunting them today – the sound of bombs overhead and the memories of their bloodied feet after so much walking, running and running. I want to know if coming to Canada and spending decades doing this work of body destruction was worth it in the end.

In my weakness, I know I won’t ask. Not yet. I can’t bear to see them cry or suffer any more than I have already seen. I am not ready to know them on a deeper level.

Yet my parents sometimes show me glimpses of their secret dreams. “Dad wants to go back to Vietnam when we retire,” Mom once told me.

« But Rachel, when we closed, I don’t know what to do, » she told me after the pandemic forced them to close for a month. « Maybe when I retire I’ll have a little puppy to walk with me. Or maybe I’ll go live with you. »

I could push her to tell me more about what she wants to do and who she hopes to be when the restaurant isn’t the center of our family’s universe, but we’re not going there yet.

Three trays of wontons surrounded by meat stuffing.
While others are celebrating the New Year, the Phan family is working. Each year, Rachel prepares hundreds of wontons to serve at the restaurant. (Rachel Phan)

This means that when I call my mom this weekend, I’ll inevitably take the conversational route of least resistance and ask, « How’s the restaurant? Was it busy? »

Mom will sigh and say, « That was so busy, » before rummaging through her purse to find a crumpled piece of paper that shows how much money they’ve made each day since our last conversation.

She keeps track, not for herself, but because she knows her youngest « restaurant kid » will call and ask, time after time.

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