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My childhood included everything from waking up to my mom’s dramatic wake up calls in the mornings, eating ice cream from the carton with my siblings, rough-and-tumble play with my father, to family dinners at our Chinese restaurant, filled with boisterous laughter. However for my parents, who had the stress of managing a business, life was not as carefree. In 1995, they immigrated from China with my two older siblings and committed to a life of working fourteen hours a day for their children. Despite their financial struggles of trying to achieve their American Dream by starting a Chinese restaurant in Mount Vernon, New York, they provided all the tools for me to lead a different, better life than theirs.
Although I tried my best to advance their American Dream by doing well in school, I grew up to become a carefree ice cream binge-eater who would frequently finish their favorite ice cream flavor before they could even get a scoop. I guess I was like the pecans I would pick out of the butter pecan ice cream. My short height, endless chattiness, and habit of stuttering only added more pecans to the mix.
At the age of twelve, my family’s Chinese restaurant was sold off, just as my older siblings had left home for college and work. I thought of it as a new beginning, motivating myself to be more articulate and stutter less because now I was in charge of communicating on behalf of my parents, who never fully grasped the English language. I felt independent when I began walking to school alone and stopped letting my parents micromanage my affairs for me. I thought I had finally gotten rid of a few unwanted pecans in my mix but in actuality, I realized I was not even close. In April 2012, my father suffered a life-threatening stroke at the age of forty-seven. Fast forward two months later at a rehabilitation center, I saw the man who used to cook for fourteen hours a day at the restaurant, now with a limp and droopy eyes, trying to learn to walk and speak again.
Despite my father’s serious health concerns, my parents’ biggest worry was how my dad’s unemployment would affect me and my future. After seeing my mother—the strong woman I always depended on—cry, I had to make a choice: to live in a bubble, pretending my only responsibility was school and my friends or to use those tears to grow a backbone in my household.
I chose the latter. I knew my parents deserved the comfort of eating the good ice cream flavors from the carton. Taking initiatives in family matters, I worked hard to make sure my father got his social security benefits, which became a big part of our income now since he could no longer work. Despite my young appearance, I learned to pay house bills. I did not let my stuttering stop me from communicating with doctors about my dad’s health. I swooped in to cook quinoa for my father and used my chattiness to translate for my parents at doctor’s appointments. With a smile on my face, I learned to balance my schoolwork and my father’s trips to the physical therapist’s office, being his chaperone in my mother’s place. It was difficult to grow up so quickly, but I knew I was working to give my parents something priceless—reassurance.
I still have a few unwanted pecans, but I realized some pecans can be good. Although I haven’t done nearly enough to repay my parents for the sacrifices they made when they left China, I will fulfill their American Dream. Mei Xiu Amy Zhang is the name of the baby—and ice cream monster that is starting to share—of the Zhang family that shall, in 2021, give her college diploma to her parents as a proud, confident college graduate, equipped with her trademark smile.
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