cindy chen

brooke mitchell  

There is nothing that satisfies me more than a column of neatly ordered assignments, color-coded to match their subject: blue for creative nonfiction, turquoise for biostatistics, green for biology, orange for forms of writing, etc. There are no empty slots, no wasted time. 


Tuesday is my dad’s only day off from work, and on Tuesday, he can usually be found running errands, cleaning the house, or fixing a part of his car that isn’t broken. 


In my family’s vacation photos from the past five years, you can see my mom, brother, and I in Canada visiting our uncle, soaking in the sun on the California beach, or traveling around the States on a tour bus. My dad usually can’t be found within the frame, but he isn’t the one behind the camera either. 

Once my mom announces our vacation plans for the summer, my dad’s eyebrows furrow and his tone takes on an edge as he complains about how my mom spends more time thinking about how to have fun than paying the bills. But when it’s time to drop us off at the airport or the bus station, he tells my mom not to worry about the restaurant since he’ll be there to take care of everything. 


Growing up, I resented my parents. Unlike other kids who spent their weekends hanging out with friends, I spent mine working at our restaurant: bagging food, picking up orders, serving customers, or doing whatever else my parents dictated. 

My parents aren’t fluent in English, so I took on many of the restaurant’s managerial tasks. I texted work schedules from my mom’s phone, reformatted our menus when items were added or taken off, and handled customer complaints—which was my least favorite part of the job by far. 

By the time I was ten, I began to think of them as oppressive overlords, and at work, I would dream of being a part of a family where having a “normal American” childhood was my reality. 


My mom and I argued about all the hours I spent at my local ice rink. Since I started learning too late to ever go competitive, medals weren’t something that I could put on my college applications. In her eyes, this made figure skating a waste of time. 

There is no monetary value I can assign to the feeling of weightlessness as I turn on a piece of steel less than an inch wide. My ears would perk up at the sound of my blades ripping across the ice, and I even loved the frustration of practicing something a hundred times only to be told to do it a hundred more. Yet even then, I couldn’t deny that my mom was—at least to some degree—right. 

The cost of figure skating racked up quicker than I could calculate, and unlike college, it wasn’t an investment into my future. I skated purely because it brought me joy. 

From my vantage point, I thought that my mom’s disapproval of my hobby was irrational. 

How could she think that something that made her daughter happy was useless? 


The summer before my senior year of high school, I worked 60 hours a week—minimum. 

Tens of thousands of restaurants had been forced to close due to the pandemic that year, but by the grace of God, my parents managed to keep their doors open. 

We might have lost our chef and most of our waitstaff, but we still had enough to keep the lights on at home. For the first time in my life, I felt grateful for my sore feet and my aching limbs. 

I’ve always believed that God is on the side of those willing to accept His help, but looking at the lines etched in the crevices of my parents’ hollow faces, I couldn’t deny that we were doing just as much as any divine power. 

After all the customers leave the restaurant, we stay. A daughter of survivalists shining tables with lemon oil wood polish. A mother and father preparing the space for the next day of back-breaking labor. Rolling silverware, cleaning bathrooms, sweeping the floor, washing dirty rags—day or night—their list of tasks is infinite. 


In Chinese culture, each person receives a bowl of rice for themselves, and on the table is a spread of dishes—fresh vegetables, savory meats, and succulent seafood—simmering with concentrated aromas. 

Yet, flavor is the background noise to the constant clicking of chopsticks against ceramic plates. The slender sticks peck back and forth, occasionally finding their way into someone else’s bowl, like a mother bird feeding its young. 

In general, Chinese parents do not say “I love you.” They make meals that take hours to prepare, save the best bites of food for their children, and peel the fruit that we are too lazy to do ourselves. 


Across the street from my parents’ restaurant is a theater called The Wellmont. On nights when a show is taking place, the restaurant sees a rotating carousel of customers who are greeted by servers hiding their exhaustion behind practiced smiles. 

Morale dips low, but it’s replenished by a box of donuts in the kitchen. My mom always makes sure to buy at least a dozen when she knows her staff will face a long night. 


It took a month of coaxing to get my friend Hailey to go ice skating with me. She kept saying she was afraid of falling, and she had a point. Even though the most serious injury I’ve gotten from skating is a deep purple-black bruise, my muscles still tense every time I’m practicing a new skill. 

It seems paradoxical to find relief in something fear-inducing, but ice skating is a type of adrenaline rush that makes me forget about the pressure of daily life: there is no work, no school, no expectations. Even when the bone of my hip strikes the concrete ice, I get up with joy in knowing that I continue to exist outside of reality. 


Last semester in my ecology class, my professor introduced The Red Queen Hypothesis; it’s the idea that species must constantly evolve in order to survive against their biotic adversities. 

The name comes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the book, the Red Queen tells Alice that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” 


My dad used to tell me stories of what it was like growing up in rural China, but now that I’m older, I realize that even before he became an adult, his childhood was already long gone. 

My dad was fourteen when he dropped out of middle school. He was the same age when he started working full-time. Child laborers don’t earn much, but even the little income he made must have made a big difference for a family who struggled to afford survival. 

Even after escaping poverty, my dad hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to have to share a single egg with three other siblings. 

His pursuit of a better life began at twenty-three, young and alone in a foreign country. 

He’s been running ever since. 


My writing assignment for creative nonfiction is highlighted in blue, underneath it is a turquoise reminder to read for biostatistics. Under my dorm lights, the two hues look almost identical. You would think a humanities class and a mathematical science would be reflected by hues that oppose each other like red and blue. That would make sense, but the colors in my planner aren’t meant to. 

Things like color coding assignments seem trivial when your parents have been running all their lives so that you can afford to catch your breath. But it’s a necessity for me: the blocks of color in my planner—one stacked upon the next—are proof that I, too, am working as hard as they are. 

I’m not close with my dad in the traditional sense. Our phone conversations usually last under five minutes, and when we’re together, there’s an awkward stillness that betrays how we’re unsure how to act around one another. Yet, despite the emotional distance between us, I think we both have a deep understanding of what it means to exist under the rule of the Red Queen Hypothesis. He runs to maintain his children’s middle-class lives, and I run to prove that I deserve all the effort my parents have put into being providers. It feels wrong for either one of us to stop. 


Although my parents constantly talk about how hard it is running a restaurant, I never really understood what it was like until I experienced those 60-hour work weeks. 

Yet even then, those hardships were a forgettable fraction of my life while my dad has never known anything else. 

On a normal day, my dad wakes up by eight in the morning to buy produce for the restaurant. He gets there by eleven and doesn’t leave until the clock strikes the same hour at night. This used to happen seven days a week until my parents decided to make Tuesdays their day off. 


My dad spent a month on a boat to come to America, and I discovered this fact as my mom and I pulled into the parking lot of Target. Our conversation only lasted for three minutes, so logically, my memory of it should have been lost in the shuffle of time. 

I can’t recall every detail, but I remember thinking that it was strange how casually my mom spoke about his experience. She didn’t find a quiet moment to sit me down at the kitchen table. Instead, the news was sprung on me as if it were something I wasn’t expected to think about after that day. 

I wish I had asked why my dad traveled across the ocean instead of taking a plane like my mom. If I did, I wouldn’t have to grapple for reasons in the dark. When I think about my dad, twenty-something years old, arriving on the shores of America, I am reminded of African migrants fleeing war-torn countries on rickety boats because they can’t access a legal channel of migration. I wonder if my dad, like so many of these migrants, risked drowning at sea for the slim chance of haven. 

I don’t know anything for sure, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering to what extent my parents have hidden their suffering from me. 


Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in China. It is characterized by crowds of people making their way to bus stations, train stations, airports, or any other mode of transportation that allows them to make the journey to be with their loved ones. 

My parents haven’t been back to China since they immigrated, and not being able to celebrate with their parents and extended family is hard. However, not all tradition has been lost. 

Every year, our restaurant hosts a dinner to celebrate Chinese New Year. It’s a time when the staff—servers, cooks, delivery drivers, dishwashers, etc.—come together to form a family that transcends blood. 

Even before the last customers leave, my parents will push together six square tables, forming a rectangular island stretching from the middle of the restaurant to the front. Over plates of glistening long noodles, whole steamed fish, and stir-fried savory cakes, some employees toast in honor of a holiday they don’t even celebrate. 

I think of the restaurant as a miniature melting pot of sorts. My parents—Chinese owners of a Japanese-European restaurant—tell me to eat more before turning to chat in English with native Mexican, Nepali, and Thai speakers. Over half-empty plates, I find myself joining the chorus of multicultural laughter. My soul floats with belonging, and I discover that my parents have created their own type of weightlessness. 


The word immigrant is synonymous with sacrifice: almost every immigrant family has a story like mine to tell. 

Assignments written on one line after another, green lines on top of sky blue on top of turquoise on top of orange. It feels like a crime for us to not take advantage of every moment we have been given. At least that’s what my parents say. It’s not incorrect to think like this—many immigrant parents do—but wouldn’t it also be wrong to not enjoy what I have been given? 

My parents made sure I would never have to worry about physiological needs, so I could structure a life around fulfillment instead of productivity. Adopting their survivalist mindset almost feels like taking a step backward; In the words of John Quincy Adams, “I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet.” 


Before stepping onto the ice, I inhale deeply, taking in the cool bite of the air and the faint chemical smell of the rubber-coated floors. Remnants of guilt resulting from my mother’s disapproval dissipate and fade to make room for a deep sense of peace. The push and pull of my world versus that of my parents used to exhaust my sense of direction, but now I have come to think of them as a piece of the same rope, operating in perfect tension.

cindy chen
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Cindy Chen '26 is a double major in English Literature and Biology.