Lisa Chiu

Can Understand, Cannot Speak

Northeast · Asiatown · Memoir

Before Cleveland had Asiatown, we had China Town—although in the ’70s, it was less like a town and more like a corner. Over the years, more Asian restaurants and grocery stores started to open in Cleveland. In the ’80s, my mom started working at Hunan Gourmet, a Taiwanese-owned restaurant located inside a hotel on Euclid and East 36th. English was a second language for nearly everyone working at the restaurant, from the owners to the dishwashers, including the wait staff and my mom.

In the summer between tenth and eleventh grade, Mom enlisted me to bus tables at the restaurant while she greeted customers, answered the phone for takeout orders and reservations, and helped manage banquets and large events. At home, I was accustomed to her always bustling about, whether she was keeping me and my sister in line or coordinating activities with her friends. Mom had a loud voice, a quick temper, strong opinions, and no tolerance for idleness. I tried to shush her in public once. I didn’t try it again.

At work, Mom was extra bossy, buzzing about making sure everyone was on task. She introduced me to everyone, and a dishwasher smiled, not bothering to correct her when she told me his name was “Amigo.” The chef spoke to me in Taiwanese, asking if I could speak Taiwanese too. I hesitated, too shy to answer him. My mom jumped in, responding on my behalf in direct and efficient Taiwanese: can understand, cannot speak. He laughed and showed me how to cut lemon slices quickly with a sharp knife in staccato bursts. He motioned for me to try and laughed again when I sliced the lemon slowly and in uneven chunks.

Every weekday morning, I tagged along with my mom to work at the restaurant It was a different world for me—a darkly lit, carpeted world of tables, booths, and bizarrely, gazebos. Around 10 a.m., I helped with side work, folding cloth napkins and filling clear plastic pitchers with ice and water. If we were expecting a large party or special event, I would help prepare the banquet room, moving tables and chairs and laying out freshly laundered tablecloths. Then I would hang around the coat check area by the aquarium, in front of the hostess booth where my mom was stationed, until customers began to arrive.

As each party was seated, I quietly approached their table and filled their glasses with ice water, accommodating requests—no ice, can I have some lemon slices, leave the pitcher on the table. I stood in the back of the room and refilled glasses if they were half empty. I refilled and replaced empty stainless-steel teapots. After the customers left, I cleared the tables, placing plates, bowls, glasses and teacups in black plastic tubs to take back to the dishwashing station. I swept up food, usually rice, that had fallen to the floor.

Even though I was meek, inexperienced and slow, the restaurant employees treated me kindly. After the lunch rush was over each day, we would enjoy meals the chef prepared just for the staff, dishes that were not on the menu. I saw how hard everyone worked, on their feet every day for long hours.

One day, a group of boisterous businessmen sat down for lunch. As I approached their table, one of them held up his glass and pointed to it. “Wa wa,” he said. “Can I have some wa wa?” His colleagues laughed.

“I speak English,” I answered, “probably better than you do.” My mom overheard and yanked me away. She apologized to the customers, speaking to them softly with her heavy Taiwanese accent.

Out of earshot, I complained to my mom about their rudeness and condescension. There was more I wanted to say to the men. They didn’t know who they were talking to; they assumed the broken English they heard from my mom and other restaurant staff was a sign of weakness, and they needed to be told otherwise. My mom said she understood but that I could not speak to them.

Language would be my weapon, I decided then, and I would sharpen it.

Lisa Chiu

Lisa Chiu is a Taiwanese American writer who often covers family, food, culture and community. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, People, Ohio Magazine, the Plain Dealer, the Mercury News and anthologies including Cheers to Muses: Contemporary Works by Asian American Women and Who’s Your Mama?: The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers. She is passionate about collaborative creative projects. In 2012, the Asian American Women Arts Association selected her for its Emerging Curators Program, and she conceived and developed Hungry Ghosts: Yearning for Fulfillment, an exhibition in San Francisco featuring thirty-eight visual and literary artists. In 2017, one of her essays was featured in Crossing Borders: Immigrant Narratives, a staged reading held during the Cleveland Humanities Festival.


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