September 24, 2022


This First Person column is by Rachel Phan who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

“I hate my job, Rachel,” my mum said out of the blue on our phone call. As always, an ache tugged at my heart, but the sharpness of the pain has long been dulled by years of hearing her utter this exact same phrase. 

My mum turned 60 last year and her body has been worn down by three decades of back-breaking work at our family restaurant. Day after day of flicking her wrists over a wok to fry rice, along with endless wonton making, vegetable chopping, and meticulous shrimp peeling has left her with carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists and arthritis pretty much everywhere.

My dad, now 64, holds physical trauma in his body too. He still lifts the heavy soup pots and overflowing garbage bags, but with half the speed and triple the wincing.

My parents — who are ethnically Chinese, 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 they landed 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 have settled in small towns across the country, our path toward the Canadian Dream ran 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 landed in Canada. Finally, my parents had something that was theirs after years of days sweating in other people’s kitchens and evenings picking worms to sell as fishing bait. For two people who survived bombs and starvation during a pointless war in Vietnam, it was a dream come true.

As for me, I became a life-long “restaurant kid.” 

In my childhood, we played the music videos of my dad’s favourite songs on full blast in the kitchen and made our way through piles of Chinese dramas on VHS tapes. My dad would translate the Cantonese to English for me while he puffed on a cigarette between the rushes of lunch and dinner. 

These days, when we help at the restaurant on family visits home as adults, it’s the sound of sports and Canadian assimilation that rings in the air as my mother screams, “Go Leafs Go!”

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

As a girl, I would wait patiently each day for 10 p.m. to roll around because that’s when the restaurant shifted from the main focus to the backdrop of our family dinners. Someone would say, “Dai gah sik fan” — which translates roughly to “everyone eat rice together” — and for a too-brief moment in time, we’d focus on each other.

Once the soo guy and western fare were packed away and refrigerated, we’d sit down to savour the food of our people: Mum’s braised pork belly with preserved vegetables in a rich, slippery sauce I wanted to drink by the salty spoonful; verdant green choy sum or gai lan stir-fried with garlic; and Dad’s lobster prepared traditionally with scallions and ginger or, my favourite, with evaporated milk, butter, and onions.

With our family now spread across the world, the five of us eat together as a complete family only a few times a year, usually when we gather for western fare like prime rib and scalloped potatoes for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I try not to be sad about it.

A teenage girl stands barefoot and wearing a Toronto Raptors jersey in a restaurant.
Rachel Phan spent the night after her Grade 8 graduation 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 hosted a sleepover in the restaurant. My friends and I pushed chairs together to form a makeshift bed, and to protect us from from any would-be intruders while we slept, I kept a butcher knife by our heads. We ate fistfuls of fortune cookies until we got sick and my friend, clutching her stomach, exclaimed, “I can’t eat another one ever again!” 

Then, there were my surly teenage years. Wanting to hang out with friends instead of helping at the restaurant, I forced my parents to endure many terrible acts of defiance. I’d yell and break dishes, and once, I purposely ruined a batch of rice. I try to repress these memories because remembering the defeated, tired look on my mum’s face could split me in two.

As much as it serves as our living room, the restaurant is also our battleground. I remember how Mum and Dad used to throw chicken balls at each other while cursing in Cantonese during their kitchen blow-ups.

Now, after decades of pressing on the same bruises and screaming the same Chinese epithets at each other, the fighting has changed shape — more evidence of how bone-tired my parents have become. When they fight now, it’s through icy silence. 

“Your dad was cranky and hasn’t talked to me since Friday,” Mum will say on the phone. “Can you tell him 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 closely together next to an aquarium.
Rachel Phan, centre, regularly travels back to see her parents and spend time at the family restaurant, now located in Leamington, Ont. The family poses in front of her parents’ beloved aquarium. (Submitted by Rachel Phan)

I’m tired of the restaurant preventing me from connecting with my parents. I desperately want to know them as people — not as indefatigable restaurant owners.

I want to know about what life in Vietnam was like and if they’re happy with where their lives took them. I want to know how they keep the demons of their pasts from haunting them today — the sounds of bombs overhead and the memories of their bloodied feet from so much walking, running, and fleeing. I want to know if coming to Canada and spending decades doing this body-destroying work 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 to hurt more than I’ve already seen. I’m not ready to get to know them on a deeper level.

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

“But Rachel, when we closed, I don’t know what to do,” she told me after the pandemic forced them to close for one month. “Maybe when I retire, I’ll get a small 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 centre of our family’s universe, but we don’t go there yet.

Three trays of wontons surrounded by the meat stuffing.
While others celebrate New Year’s Eve, the Phan family works. Every year, Rachel makes hundreds of wontons to serve at the restaurant. (Rachel Phan )

That means when I call my mum this weekend, I will inevitably take the conversational path of least resistance and ask, “How’s the restaurant? Was it busy?” 

Mum will sigh and say, “It was so goddamn busy,” before rummaging through her purse for a crumpled piece of paper that lists how much money they made each day since we last talked.

She keeps track, not for herself, but because she knows her youngest “restaurant kid” will call and ask, every single time.

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