The food had already arrived when I walked in. A perfect Beijing-style roasted duck sat in the center of the table surrounded by Asian condiments. A bowl of tofu soup sat in front of Ba Ba and a plate of fried rice sat next to it. My mouth watered as I brushed the raindrops from my hair. From behind, a waitress approached, setting down a bowl of mixed vegetables and a plate of buns. The aroma of the different types of food filled the air creating a delicious scent. Ma Ma tugged at my coat from behind and I quickly slipped it off. She set them both down on a chair next to the table.
“Hello Nai Nai and Yéye,” I said, greeting my grandparents while still eyeing the food.
“Hello, how are you,” Yéye asked in mandarin as he pulled the chair, next to him, beckoning me to sit.
“Good,” I said, as I sat down and leaned over to grab some vegetables, “What about you?”
“Haha, I’m doing just fine,” Yéye replied as he turned to Ma Ma and asked how she was. I looked at Yéye and smiled. It’s been forever since I’ve seen him, yet he hasn’t changed a single bit. The same, smiling, energetic man remained behind the circular glasses. The wrinkles that were beginning to appear on his face only gave him a god-like wise aura. Yéye reminded me of a Japanese botanical plant. Delicate, wise, and timeless.
I smiled and filled my bowl with fried rice. I grabbed a small carrot from the vegetable mix. Start small. Don’t eat too much, I thought as I made a mental map of what to eat.
“Aiyoo, you’re too skinny! Make sure you eat some meat,” Nai Nai said as she grabbed my bowl and filled it with meat. I smiled and nodded my head in appreciation. There goes my plan, I thought.
I took a bite out of the duck and Nai Nai smiled approvingly before putting more duck on my brother’s plate. I smiled. Nai Nai was always so generous. Behind her square glasses and her hard, physical demeanor, Nai Nai always reminded me of Santa Clause who would always bless my brother and I with plates of different types of food. Even when Ma Ma insisted that we eat too much, Nai Nai would simply shake her head and feed us more. I looked over at my brother. He just finished his last piece of duck and was busy sitting in the corner, playing some game on his phone.
“Are you getting ready for college next year,” Nai Nai asked as she poured herself a bowl of tofu soup. I nodded.
“Yea,” I said, smiling, reaching over to grab the iced water. Ma Ma slapped my hand away.
“Ice water is bad for your stomach at night,” she said and instead, placed a cup of hot water in front of me. Yéye smiled and continued the conversation.
“Very good,” Yéye said, “College is competitive. Don’t forget that you are competing with more than just the kids in your school.”
“Yes,” Ba Ba said, “Aubrey, here is trying to maintain very good grades.” I nodded and smiled, mentally trying to bury the thought of my failed calculus test.
“Well, that’s good,” Nai Nai said and turned to look at me, “We will be waiting for your good news then.” I nodded and smiled. Haha, that’s only IF there will be good news, I thought.
The college landscape was so competitive nowadays. Kids my age seem to be thriving on their own. From starting their own businesses to creating scientific inventions, I seem to be worlds away from where they are. On top of that, colleges look at so many things now. From good grades to extracurriculars…I sighed. I didn’t even know if what I’m doing is in the right direction. Is this what they want in a student? What if they didn’t let me in because they didn’t like my essay? What if I wasn’t good enough?
Fear bubbled up in my chest. And on top of that, colleges are beginning to limit the amount of Asian students going into college. What if I couldn’t compete with the other smart Asian students? It wasn’t a secret or a stereotype that Asian students were smart. Everyone knew that just based on the statistics. We were considered to be a model minority. But, still, I thought, wasn’t it unfair to limit the amount of students that get in? Then, wouldn’t it just be the Asian geniuses that got in and the rest of us would kind of just float around aimlessly? My heart raced and my head began to spin.
The subject of the conversation immediately shifted and Ba Ba began to talk about work while Nai Nai began showing Ma Ma pictures of her newly planted flowers in her backyard. It will be okay, I decided, still a bit worried.
“I decided to move the bush to this side,” Nai Nai said to Ma Ma.
“Yes. It’s going well. There has been an increase in profits by,” Ba Ba said to Yéye.
“Don’t forget to water it everyday.”
“You should consider maybe marketing this.”
“Don’t plant it in a sunny area.”
“I plan to execute the business plan in a month.”
The adults continued to talk about their own affairs and I, who didn’t care too much about their business, directed my attention to the feast in front of me. I stuffed my face with food, but the food formed a dry lump in my throat as I continued to think about college. Ugh, relax. I shouldn’t ruin such a good dinner, I thought as I grabbed a duck leg here, a bowl of tofu there, and some cabbage whenever they came around. Nai Nai turned to check up on me and I simply nodded my head, smiling. My brother only glanced up occasionally to check if we were going.
“….and so, because I moved Andy to the office in Singapore, he has been,” Ba Ba continued. I checked my phone. 6:49. We were going to be here for at least another 30 minutes, I thought. I still had so much studying to do. I looked around the restaurant. The tables were filled with families of all sizes who had come together for a pre-Chinese New year dinner. A child was busy eating a rice cake. An older lady was feeding who I guess to be her grandson. A young daughter was introducing her boyfriend to her family.
I turned back around and put my hand on my bloated stomach. I should enjoy today, I decided as I felt my stomach churn. I was beginning to regret consuming all that food. Pieces of duck and tofu seemed to swim back up my throat and I took a deep breath, determined to keep whatever it was back down. Ding! The doorbell rang and a tall man came walking inside. Oh. Great. Just one more person to watch me throw up if I can’t keep it down, I thought as I focused on the cup of water sitting in front of me. “Don’t ruin everyone’s dinner,” I repeated to myself.
Some mumbling started in the background and I heard some voices get raised. “Focus on the water,” I muttered to myself. Ding! The door opened again and a breeze of cold winter air blew inside. I instantly felt better as I rubbed my stomach again.
“…Excuse me..are you trying to rip me off,” a voice yelled and I immediately turned around. The man that had walked in before was now yelling at the waitress. His face was red with anger and he was pointing at the food in front of him. The entire restaurant fell silent as heads turned. The waitress desperate to resolve the issue quickly beckoned the man to lower his voice as the manager came running from the back.
“What type of meat is this? Look how flimsy it is,” the man said loudly as he shoved his fingers into the food and threw it at the managers face. The room was silent. Everyone stared at the man, trying to determine who was in the wrong. The manager paused for a second, probably overcome with shock before simply raising his hand to adjust his square glasses.
“Sir. You ordered Beijing duck meat. The top half is like that because we fry the skin and serve it on top of the meat. This is good quality,” the manager explained as he grabbed a napkin for the waitress to wipe the food off her clothes. The man grew even angrier, annoyed that someone was arguing with his opinion. By the looks of it, he was the type of man that believed in “the customer was always right.”
“No sir. Do not give me that bullshit,” he said as he raised his voice even louder.
“Sir, please refrain from…”
“Listen to me. I will not have some chinese chink tell me what is good quality and what is not. I’ve had enough of it with your kind. You come into this country and rip everyone off,” the man said growing angrier by the second. He flipped the food off the table and duck fell on the floor. Everyone gasped, shocked.
“Sir. I will have to ask you to leave. You are upsetting the guests,” the manager said. The poor waitress stood next to the manager, almost on the verge of tears. The cook from the back slowly walked in from the back.
“Is this what you cooked,” the man screamed. The cook nodded. “Well you could hardly call yourself a cook then,” the man said. The manager, now fully annoyed, took a deep breath to keep his cool.
“Sir. I am asking you to leave. If not, I’ll have to call security.”
“That’s fine. I don’t want your dog meat anyhow,” the man said before grabbing a cup of water off the nearby table and dumping over the duck. He then, exited the restaurant building, slamming the door behind him. Everyone was silent for a second and then, the restaurant burst into chatter.
“That guy has issues,” one lady said on the table next to us.
“How ridiculous. That sort of attitude,” another man said.
“He deserves to rot in hell,” a child said before his mother quickly shushed him, warning him to watch his own language.
Ba Ba and Ma Ma looked at each other.
“We should probably go home. You should get your rest,” Ma Ma said to Yéye and Nai Nai as they nodded in approval. I agreed. The mix of water and duck on the floor was beginning to make a putrid smell. A piece of what I think was duck came up my throat and I quickly took a sip of water, swallowing it back down. Ba Ba raised his hand and called the waitress to bring the check. The young, frazzled waitress quickly ran over and put the check on the table.
“I’m so sorry, sir, for the commotion,” she said as she reached over to clear the table of dirty plates, “will there be any food you need takeout boxes for.”
“No, thank you and don’t worry about the commotion. It wasn’t your fault anyhow,” Ba Ba said as he reached into his wallet, grabbing his card. The waitress thanked him for his generosity and rushed away.
As we waited for the check to come back, the manager hurriedly arrived and placed a plate of lotus roots covered with a sweet syrup. My head was still spinning and I became more and more nauseous. The mix of duck, water, and cleaning supplies now really wasn’t helping me out. I grabbed the cup of cold water when Ma Ma wasn’t looking and quickly took a sit. I immediately felt better as the icy liquid traveled down my throat and into my stomach. The manager approached from behind me.
“This is due to the commotion,” he said, smiling.
“Thank you,” Ma Ma said as Yéye and Nai Nai reached over to grab the first few slices. I looked at the delicious lotus roots. And like I always do, I picked up my chopsticks and leaned over to grab one. I’ve had enough of you asians. Chinese Chink. Dog meat. The words that left the man’s mouth resurfaced in my head. I stopped mid-air and looked back at the lotus roots. What had once looked so good, no longer seemed to be that good. I put my chopsticks down and instead, took a sip of water. I turned around and looked around. Life in the restaurant seemed to have gone back to normal as if absolutely nothing had happened. How does everyone just do that, I thought as I continued to look for even a little sign of lasting shock.
Suddenly, a familiar figure standing in front of the door caught my eye. I squinted, trying to discern who it was. I looked closely and saw Claire and her family enter the American restaurant across from us. I bet she’s never encountered anything like that, I thought. Maybe if I was more American like her this stuff wouldn’t happen, I thought as I begun resenting the restaurant. I pinched myself on the leg. “Of course it would happen! I couldn’t control things like this,” I mumbled. I looked at the food then, back outside. I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, I decided. I turned back around to Nai Nai’s smiling face.
“Take one,” she said as she beckoned at the lotus root. I forced a smile.
“Oh. That’s fine then. You ate a lot,” she replied before turning to my brother.
Ma Ma looked at me, oddly, but she said nothing again and leaned down to eat her lotus root. I shrugged, trying to show her I was fine, and she redirected her attention.
By the time everyone had finished their lotus roots, we were all ready to leave and stood up. Ma Ma grabbed me my coat and we headed outside. Immediately, we were greeted by a piercing, cold wind and I instantly reached behind me to put on my hood. My grandparents wrapped their scarfs a little tighter as Ma Ma and Ba Ba crossed their hands across their chest. Even my brother put away his phone and shoved his hands down his pockets.
“See you later,” Ma Ma said to Ba Ba as she and I headed to her car as Ba Ba took my grandparents and Edward to his car.
Shivering, Ma Ma and I hopped into the car. She blasted the heater and the two of us sat in silence, warming ourselves up. Ma Ma put one hand on the steering wheel and began to back out. We drove into the streets and the lights began to flash by. Ma Ma looked back at me.
“Ignore what happened at the restaurant. You can’t really do anything about it. It happens so just learn to let go quickly,” she said quietly, as her eyes darted back and forth between the review-mirror and the street. I looked at Ma Ma. How could she just say that? Isn’t this why Asian racism is normalized? Because we just simply let go and hold no one accountable? I looked at Ma Ma again, her eyes focused on the road.
“Ma Ma,” I said, steadying my voice, “You can’t just say that. We need to defend ourselves.” Ma Ma looked back at me and sighed.
“Yes,” she responded, “But what’s done is done. You can’t change that.” I looked at Ma Ma and said nothing.
“Besides, don’t get yourself in bigger problems,” she added, looking back at me. Anger bubbled up within me. Don’t get yourself in bigger trouble? Well, bigger troubles are going to grow from staying silent, I thought. We need to defend ourselves and hold others accountable. This is why Asian racism is being normalized. If we don’t speak up for ourselves then who will? I looked at Ma Ma. Couldn’t she see the problem?
“Ma Ma, if we-,” I begun to say.
“Enough. I don’t want talk to about it,” she interrupted. I stared at her in disbelief. Why didn’t she want to talk about it? Did Ma Ma feel hurt too? Did she hate being Asian as well?
I looked down at my hands. I looked at my yellow skin. A feeling of disgust of simply being Asian rose up in me and I swallowed my saliva, hoping to gulp the feeling down it as well. Tears began to form in my eyes and I bit down on my tongue, refusing to blink and refusing to cry. I looked outside. My sight was blurry and a single tear slid off my cheek and landed on the back of my hand.
The car stopped and I hopped off the car. My face at this point, was covered with free flowing tears and I immediately, ran as fast as I could dragging my backpack and dance bag off with me and up the stairs. I didn’t want Ma Ma to see me cry.