A Chinese Restaurant in Switzerland
Excerpt from On the Move
December 2007 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
One night in March of 1989, I woke up at 3 AM and scurried onto a public bus in Guangzhou, China, accompanied by my grandmother (my father's mother) and several large suitcases. Despite the fact that it was the middle of the night, the bus was packed with people and the city was still awake with the sounds of honking cars and the glare of storefront lights. My grandmother told me that we were headed to the train station to take a train to Hong Kong, and then a plane to another country.
After what felt like an eternity spent on my first-ever plane ride, we finally landed in Zurich, Switzerland. My father greeted us at the airport and drove us for several hours to Geneva, a city located near the Swiss-French border. As we set down our bags, I laid down to rest for the first time in over 36 hours since leaving my grandmother's house in the middle of the night.
As I was trying to fall asleep that night, I had a gut-wrenching feeling that I would never go home again. This wasn't a vacation; it was a relocation. I soon learned that the only reason my grandmother came to Switzerland was to help take care of me for a few weeks while my father made the adjustment to parenthood. After my grandmother returned to China, it was just my father and me. (My grandparents raised me in China for the first five years of my life while my mother was in the U.S. for graduate school and my father was in Europe for work.)
At the time, I had no idea why my father was in Switzerland, but years later he told me that he was there because he worked for a Swiss-China joint venture company during the second half of the 1980's. His company assigned him to go to Switzerland to find new business opportunities, and as a result, he opened a Chinese restaurant in Geneva as an investment and spent several years managing it.
To save costs, he lived on the second floor above the restaurant in a room he shared with several co-workers. It wasn't nearly as cozy as a room in a typical house; it was more like an attic that was converted into a dorm room, with each person's living quarters separated by makeshift partitions made out of thin sheets hung on clotheslines. The head cook lived in the partition next to my father's.
During the afternoons when the restaurant was closed, I watched my father and the other workers fold napkins and tablecloths, set up plates and silverware, manage the inventory, and make various preparations for the dinnertime crowd. I often grew bored and restless since nobody was around to entertain me.
At night, the real action started. Since the customers were mostly local French-speaking Swiss residents, my father hired a few Chinese men who could speak French reasonably well to serve as waiters. He often worked double duty as both manager and waiter when he was short on manpower. I loved watching him interact with customers, even though I could not understand what he was saying. He spoke French quite fluently for a man who had never formally studied the language. With his tall stature and confident smile, he was an impressive salesman, even though he was just marketing roast duck and fried noodles.
At the time, I did not understand the world that my father had entered. I could not fathom what it was like to interact with people who did not look Chinese or speak the Chinese language. I felt most comfortable in the kitchen, with the loud sizzle of woks and skillets, the overwhelming feeling of hot oil and grease, the aroma of Chinese spices and sauces, and the rough Chinese slang and cursing that the cooks yelled to one another. That was more like home. I could understand what the cooks were saying to one another, and I could relate to the smells of their cooking. I knew that this was the most I would see of my former home, these few men crowded into a back kitchen with stains on their aprons and oil burn marks on their forearms.
I recalled that my family back in China used to cook festive meals, take me out to lavish banquets, and feed me everything that I ever wanted. And now I found myself in a foreign land where my only family was my father, who had neither the resources nor the time to give me privileged treatment like the rest of my family had done in China when I was a baby. I had suddenly come from being a Little Emperor with dozens of relatives as my faithful servants to being all alone with nobody to cater to my whims.
After getting over the initial shock of moving, I tried my best to behave and to stay out of trouble when my father was busy working. I did lots of thinking during those long and lonely hours I spent in the restaurant, relieving my boredom and anxiety by pondering about the world. I would queue up long streams of questions, mostly about the physical sciences, and ask my father whenever he had a free moment—Why is the sky blue? What is fire made of? Aren't we going to run out of oxygen if millions of people keep on breathing all of it? My mind was overly active and curious, and my only outlet was to ask him questions.
I would ask my father questions when he was busy relaying orders or whenever he had a five-minute break to take a sip of water. Even more annoyingly, I would wake him (and everybody else sleeping in the same room) up at 5 AM almost every morning by jumping into his bed and pestering him with questions that I had accumulated from the previous evening. I usually went to bed by 9 PM, long before he and his co-workers were done closing up the restaurant. I didn't realize at the time that he came up to the bedroom around midnight every evening and studied for an hour to improve his French skills, so he only got four hours of sleep each night before I jostled him awake.
Even though I was trying hard to behave, I had grown up accustomed to receiving instant gratification from my family back in China, so I desperately wanted my father's undivided attention as well. I did not feel as appreciative at the time, but I am now very grateful that he always tried his best to answer my questions, no matter how busy, stressed out, or fatigued he felt. It did not matter that his responses were not always scientifically accurate. What I cherish most about our interactions back then was that he was always willing to listen to me and to answer my questions, which helped to nurture my scientific curiosity and love for learning.
I always inquired about how the world worked, but I never asked personal questions about our family's status. I never questioned why I was stuck here spending every day in a Chinese restaurant in a foreign country without seeing any other child my own age. I grew homesick, but it didn't matter. It was the first of many times throughout my childhood when I had to accept my circumstances without question since I had no power to change anything. I never asked to go back home to China, because somehow I knew that it was impossible to do. Instead, I learned to seek comfort in observing and thinking about the world around me.