Ge Gao

Separate Fidelities


Fool’s Gold, 2020, by Lawrence Lemaoana


“An interpreter who can speak both Chinese and English is needed.”

My job search wasn’t going as well as I had expected. I’d finished college, ended a three-year romantic relationship, and done away with the thought of moving back to China after six years of American life. As Minneapolis’s mornings turned warmer, lighter, moister, I woke up with sweat on my back and my pillowcase, anxious as each day grew a bit longer and brighter.

Kevin, who had posted the ad on Craigslist, explained that his girlfriend’s family from China was coming to the States soon. An interpreter would be needed to help facilitate the dinner with two families.

I thought this would be an easy gig. After graduation, I had looked for translating jobs, since being bilingual was one of the strongest skills I brought to the table. But I soon found out that the market did not really need people who speak a foreign language or understand subtle cultural contexts in a sophisticated conversation. Translators or interpreters were needed mainly for business, medical, and legal institutions. Language was not a currency unless it was a tool for an industry that already made money.

Jobs in those fields required bilinguals trained in a professional translating program, which I wasn’t. I understood the rationale behind having a certificate, though. Being able to speak both languages fluently in my daily life did not mean I comprehended certain terminology in a specific setting. I read the term “hedge fund” in the newspaper and could tell my friends that “the Wall Street hedge fund guys are just evil,” but if you asked me the Chinese equivalent of that term, I had no idea. I could not even explain what a stock was in either language. Translation is not merely a game of switching names. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives are meaningless if the speaker has no clue about the referents her utterances apply to.

This job, though, was different. It seemed that Kevin and his girlfriend only needed someone who could help the families conversations flow across the dinner table. I doubted that there would be in-depth discussions about how the fluctuation of Chinese stock markets affect the exchange rate between the dollar and the RMB.

Besides, once I knew that a Minnesotan was going to have dinner with his Chinese girlfriend’s parents for the first time, I knew I wanted a seat at that table.

* * *

When Kevin called in response to my email, I could almost picture what he looked like by just hearing his college-educated, middle-class speaking manner, tinged with a slight Minnesotan accent. He sounded trustworthy. I imagined a bulky Caucasian who’d drive a Subaru and own a two-bedroom house in Golden Valley. He would wear a grey button-down shirt and casual sports coat for work and play basketball on weekends to keep in shape. Having grown up in a suburb of Minneapolis or St. Paul, and having secured a management-level position in an office, Kevin was now executing the most exciting experience of his life (besides road tripping with his family to a Florida beach once a year): he was dating a real Chinese girl.

Three days later, I received a call from Emily, Kevin’s girlfriend. She wanted to make sure that I spoke Mandarin, not Cantonese. Kevin’s vague Craigslist post would have been confusing, misleading, even outrageous to a linguist: there is no such thing as “speaking Chinese.”

Kevin had not yet mastered the specifics of being the boyfriend of a Chinese girl. I, on the other hand, had learned to be flexible early on: I reduced myself to being an “Asian” in front of an American’s eyes. Speaking to a Chinese face like Emily, I supplemented details to indicate what kind of Chinese person I was, whether the born-citizen kind, the green card holder kind, the international student who has rich parents, or the bio-chemical nerd who depends on a scholarship to pay the rent. Annoyed, at first, with the feeling of being either boxed-in or over-exposed, I saw the logic behind my adjustment for those two different audiences—all of us just wanted to figure each other out quickly so we could know who we were at the moment.

When Emily asked me where my home province was and at what age I’d moved to Minneapolis, I tried to imagine her life story. Her Mandarin was impeccable, with no hint of a provincial dialect. She said my name was pretty and she had a friend with the exact same name as mine. But her voice showed no sign of a possible friendship after this phone call. She explained that they needed an interpreter for the dinner because she was the only one who spoke both languages, and she had a young daughter to take care of.

The last detail seemed to reveal everything about her immigration story—a single mother was looking for a second chance in a foreign country. I knew that some middle-aged divorced Chinese women ended up marrying abroad. Over the past decade, the divorce rate in major cities in China had grown as high as in many Western countries, but the Chinese public still stigmatized single mothers as “half-price at the market,” a phrase that offended me, a college graduate who’d written papers about how Sex and the City reflected the principles of second- and third-wave feminism for my American Popular Culture and Politics class. Yet I naturally had sympathy towards those women as if they really were damaged goods. It was challenging for those divorced women to date and find a decent man to remarry. “Foreigners,” usually older white men, did not seem to mind single Chinese mothers at all. A perfect match of leftover resources on both sides.

A voice like Emily’s intimidated me. Her calm, clear speaking tone told me that the wrong question or an unnecessary comment would make her cautious and form impressions about me that I’d like to avoid—voyeuristic, loose-lipped, judgmental—even though I knew my interests in this job was no longer about money. I wanted to see what happened next, to watch how Emily and Kevin’s family navigated around each other, and to be a part of that family affair.

Over the phone, I kept my answers short and tight, letting Emily fill in the uncomfortable silences, and waiting until she reached a decision herself: “Come and have dinner with us at Little Szechuan in St. Louis Park.”


A couple of my cousins broke off their relationships, even engagements, because someone’s mother or father was not happy. Hearts and flowers matter in dating, my older cousins told me, but marriage was about making the right decision. We may never get to choose who our parents are, what lousy jobs we end up doing, who the next president will be, or what we are allowed or not allowed to say or do at the whim of the Party, but marrying the right person, the right parenting partner, should be the most responsible thing you can do for your—and your parents’—fretful hearts. Life is hard enough; why bother bringing someone home who makes your mother cry and your father frown?

As I grew older, I saw the other half of the truth—a wedding and an independent adult life require money. Earning your in-laws’ affection depends on your charm and luck; making them pay for your honeymoon trip to Bali demands a negotiation of money and power. That first dinner is a play where each one of the six participants has a role to perform. The mother wants to earn respect; the father needs to exert domination; the children ought to please yet assert self-importance. An exchange of a question, a word, a look can define the dynamics of a relationship. This dinner gives away whether you are a “settler” or a “reacher”; it also indicates whether your family will be commanding snobs or flexible plebeians.

Emily’s parents, unfortunately, did not have characters to play, goals to achieve, or discussions to prepare for the evening’s dinner. They were in America now, and none of these calculations about a possible marital union would apply here. On my drive to St. Louis Park, I imagined what my parents might’ve said or done at this dinner if I were Emily. The truth was, they might’ve refused to attend in the first place. A Chinese girl who chose to date a foreigner could be perceived as wild—in translation, a slut. Even if my parents were amenable to the idea, they would’ve been silent, acting like children, for they did not know how to interact with foreigners at all.

Once I stepped into Little Szechuan, my eyes darted around the restaurant looking for signs of Emily or Kevin. But my search was distracted by the setup of the space. The last—and only—time when I had been there was with my boyfriend and our Chinese friends, and it had been much different then. There was a fish tank now, and the colorful LED lights around the tank blended in with its white and orange fish—I was not sure if the display was for watching or for choosing which fish to eat. The dark-painted wall and expensive square chandelier lights were the same as I remembered them. My boyfriend and his friends were gone; I was here to witness the change.

A child was running around and screaming; a Chinese girl waved in my direction. I hesitated—she seemed too young, too pretty to be Emily. Before my eyes could examine her beauty from a distance for a few more seconds, she approached and introduced me to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Chen.

Mr. Chen was short even by Chinese standards. With his neatly fitting Oxford shirt and well-cut pants, he had an authoritative look and was eager to talk. His hair was half grey, as was Mrs. Chen’s. She was a bit taller with the help of her low heels. Her white silk dress had printed flowers scattered around her waist in the style of a Chinese mountain-river painting. A cheongsam, I realized. How odd it was to see an older Chinese woman wear this old-fashioned dress in St. Louis Park. That awe quickly shifted to embarrassment—my blue lace miniskirt from Abercrombie & Fitch all of a sudden felt too short and tight.

Both of them seemed relieved to be able to talk with someone who spoke Mandarin. Mr. Chen shook my hand and asked me my last name. He decided to call me “Little Gao,” a common way for seniors to address young adults at work or social occasions—you are a little thing capped under your family name. It felt funny to me, the formality of handshaking and the acknowledgement of that title. When I’d left China, I was still a teenager, too young to be a “Little Gao” or receive an older man’s handshake.

Kevin gave me a handshake too and introduced me to his parents, Joan and Frank. A quick exchange of greetings established this family as a good representative of “Minnesota Nice.” All three of them were tall and wore matching khaki pants with polo shirts. Both parents’ hair was blond going grey, but Kevin had dark hair and eyebrows—the handsome all-American look, exactly as I’d pictured him. They were the type of Americans that Mr. and Mrs. Chen would like, I thought, the type that many of us had imagined before we experienced the country ourselves. You’d hear stories about a lost young Chinese couple and a man like Frank eagerly driving the extra miles to show them the direction back home, or a lady like Joan showing up to her Chinese neighbor’s house with a basket full of bell peppers, zucchinis, and curly kale from the grocery store, having misinterpreted the woman’s vegetable garden as a sign of lack. Joan, Frank, and Kevin would attend local school board meetings and listen to NPR while sipping their morning coffee. With their big smiles showing their straight white teeth, the American parents got a role that Mr. and Mrs. Chen could not compete with: the genuine, friendly neighbor.

As I stood in the corridor exchanging greetings, trying to talk in a manner I envisioned a professional interpreter would, a child from the other side of the room careened towards Emily as though she had yet to learn the relationship between her body and the physical world around her. “This is my daughter, Emma,” Emily smiled. A skinny white child with hazel eyes looked at me. She opened her mouth and laughed once, for no obvious reason. Before I could say hi, she ran away again.

* * *

They had reserved a round table with a lazy Susan. Kevin asked me to sit between the two sets of parents, while he and Emily put the child in a high chair between them. Unintentionally, little Emma and I formed a diagonal line, with Kevin’s family on one side and Emily’s on the other. I was not clear if my job had already started when Mr. Chen began talking to me about their stopover in Hawaii before arriving in Minneapolis. Was I meant to listen and respond to Mr. Chen’s conversation, or should I translate his words to the American audience who were busy studying the dinner menu and asking Emily and Kevin for recommendations? Mrs. Chen put her hand on Mr. Chen’s arm and gently interrupted, “Let Little Gao see what she wants to eat. You always talk too much.”

I watched them discussing whether the sautéed string beans with garlic or the stir fried hand-torn cabbage with vinegar would be a better choice for tonight. This was also how my favorite uncle and aunt talked during our family gatherings. It had been a couple of years since I’d sat with my family at a big round table for a banquet, lengthy and tedious for teenage me, now rare and lavish for Little Gao, who did not have a family nor much money in Minneapolis.

Emily asked me in Mandarin what I’d like to have. “Order whatever you like. It’s okay,” she added. Kevin and I had talked on the phone before about my hourly rate. He was the one who would write me checks for this arrangement. He offered $11 per hour, which was cringingly low for a translation job, but a fresh-out-of-college me was too embarrassed to ask for more. The dinner would be covered as well. I looked at the menu and did not feel comfortable ordering whatever I liked. In a moment of indecisiveness, I picked the most basic dish—shrimp fried rice. My regret was immediate: only Americans who went to a cheap Chinese food joint and did not know any better would settle for a fried rice or a lo mein dish. Over the years, I had forgotten how to write some Chinese characters, but not knowing which fine dish to order at Little Szechuan felt intolerable.

After the waiter took the order, Mr. Chen brought a bag out of Mrs. Chen’s purse. It was a gift for Joan and Frank. He explained that this was a bag of tea, very good green tea from Fujian, where they lived. Then he told me that his family used to live in the north, Shandong Province, and later moved to the south, a province close to Taiwan. A decision about what to translate and what to omit was made there and then: I would only tell Joan and Frank what I thought would be relevant, understandable, or interesting to them. All of the migration history Mr. Chen had shared was distilled into a complimentary note—“They are from Fujian province, which is in the south of China and is very famous for cultivating this kind of green tea.”

Joan thanked them and let me tell Mr. Chen that she loved a good cup of tea. She then added that she had always appreciated Chinese green tea, the refreshing taste of it. I did not doubt Joan’s self-identification as a tea person, but I did question how an older Chinese man might interpret such a declaration. Mr. Chen would expect a passionate tea person to be someone like my father, who took his annual spring trip to a tea tree farm to collect the green leaves. He’d label and store them in boxes in a mini fridge with a set temperature. When my father prepared his daily glass of tea, he’d pour boiling water to wash the tea about three times and calculate the best timing for the leaves to burgeon, the color to lighten up, the flavor to emerge. Adding milk, sugar, or half and half to a cup with a tea bag would be a ludicrous crime to my father or Mr. Chen. Did Joan even have proper tools to deal with loose tea leaves? Nevertheless, I translated Joan’s appreciation for tea with much exuberance in my voice. “This is a great gift because she loves drinking tea!”

Joan offered her hospitality. She recommended a hiking trail near Emily’s house when Mr. Chen mentioned there was nowhere to go or visit in Emily’s neighborhood—a suburb community not quite the same as the metropolis the Chen family lived. Joan cheered for her home state.“Minnesooota’s summer is so pretty and the winter here is very brutal,” she said, assuring Mr. Chen that he was in a special place in America.

Minnesota or not Minnesota, what difference did it make? Mr. Chen’s daughter had settled down in a foreign country and cared for her child alone. His granddaughter looked nothing like him; Emily’s first husband or boyfriend must have been a white American too. A father was supposed to lead the dinner conversation, talk about his insights into the local administration, comment on world affairs, and make predictions about real estate markets, but being placed in an American Midwestern suburb where he did not know where to go or whom he could talk to, he simply wanted to understand. When the waiter brought out General Tso’s chicken, Mr. Chen asked me if Americans ate beef a lot. There was a cultural myth that the reason why Americans were tall and buff was because they loved to eat raw beef. I did not translate his question but answered myself, “They do eat a lot of beef, but they eat chicken, pork, and fish, too.”

Across the table, Emily and Kevin were cheerleading for Emma’s every bite of food. A cup of rice, a few fried shrimp and string beans were enough for them to clap and cry, “Emma did a great job today!” I glanced at Emily whenever I assumed my stare was not too obvious. She looked like an actress from a Japanese late-night drama—a young professional who works at a publishing house on weekdays but runs an underground crime organization during the weekend. Her shoulder-length hair was pure black, straight and luxuriant; a sleeveless, midnight-blue dress fit her slender body neatly; her bare arms showed clear muscular lines, a sign of strength and discipline. But the most remarkable part was her doe-eyed, blank expression, dazzling yet cold.

Her English was flawless. It was the kind of speaking manner only educated foreigners were capable of possessing: clear pronunciation of each word in a sentence, heavy usage of formal vocabulary with perfect grammatical structures, no colloquialism, no trace of any particular accent. Emily talked to Kevin and Frank most of the time, while also taking care of her daughter and mother, making sure they had food in their mouths and weren’t anxious about having no other audience who understood their language. Between listening and interpreting conversations of Mr. Chen and Joan, I did not have a third ear to hear what Emily and Kevin were laughing at or talking about. Mainly, I wanted to hear if they had made any comments yet on my performance of interpretation.

Earlier, when Kevin had replied to my email for this job, I had lied and said I had “some experience.” How hard could interpreting be? I was perfectly capable of speaking both languages. Yet half an hour in, I felt my mind exploding inside. Years later, when I heard about an interpreter at the United Nations collapsing out of exhaustion during a long speech given by a foreign government official, my amusement was tinged with deep sympathy. What was it about the practice of interpretation that makes the brain so tired and tense? Paying so much attention to other people’s words so you can memorize and articulate their words in another language with precision? I had always thought that the strenuous part was the translation, switching the hearing and speaking channels back and forth and correlating our thinking and talking in a short amount of time. But now, when no one expected me to interpret simultaneously nor with absolute accuracy, my anxiety came from elsewhere—not only did I interpret Mr. Chen and Joan’s conversations, I tried to create conversations for them. The circumstances made my role more than a language interpreter: I was a mediator.

* * *

After eight dishes had circled around the table, our conversations quieted down. As I was trying to take a bite myself, Joan cleared her throat, took a sip of water, and asked me, “There is something I want to say, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate in your culture. Maybe you can help with it?”


When my mother visited me in Minneapolis during my freshman year of college, she commented on many things: the convenience of frozen processed food packages, the light traffic, the sturdy physique of tall, blond Minnesotans, the coldness in the air. But somehow she was most fascinated by the fact that there were many disabled people driving their mobility scooters around and shopping at the Mall of America.

Her “educated” daughter had to explain to her that visibility reflected accessibility, that many disabled people were able to participate in public life because society had built sufficient infrastructure around their needs. How did a disabled Chinese adult navigate an independent life? I had no idea, for I had not known any such person among my family or friends. The only disabled people I’d seen in public were beggars on the street with parts of their bodies missing, their eyes, tongues, arms, and legs, or some other indiscernible yet insidious sickness.

My mother sighed, “We have too many people. Who can take care of everyone?”

She then shared a family story that no one talked about. Her older cousin had a daughter who was born defective. “Back then, we didn’t have ultrasound. Who knew what was wrong with that baby? She was born developmentally disabled.” One evening, after the girl turned seven or so, her father held her hand and walked her to their local train station. They got on the train and took their seats. When the train was about to leave the station, the father quickly got off the train without anyone noticing.

“Then what?”

“Nothing. He left his daughter on the train and hoped someone would raise this child. You have to understand that back in our time, we could’ve starved to death. A girl like that? Her father really couldn’t feed another mouth.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“But you know what? That cousin died a couple of years ago. So young, just turned 50 years old! He died of cancer or something mysterious. No one really knew. He should never have abandoned his own daughter. Karma. All karma!”

In the weirdest way, I laughed upon hearing that the moral my mother drew from this story was karma.

* * *

Emily’s daughter tried to stand on her highchair but was intercepted by Emily and Kevin. The three of them laughed together like a happy family from a photo album. Little Emma was oblivious when Joan mentioned her name; no one paid attention to what Joan was about to say. I put down my chopsticks and met Joan’s concerned eyes.

“You see, Emma was born with a genetic disease. She has a part of a chromosome missing…” Joan told me tentatively.

I looked at the little girl again, trying to match up the information I had just learned about her with her scraggly torso, her thin, light brown hair. I did not have enough experience with children to tell the difference between what a typical four-year-old and a part-of-chromosome-missing four-year-old looked like. Was an average four-year-old girl likely to be bigger than Emma?

Joan continued, “Her body and brain develop more slowly than other children’s at her age. She has learning disabilities, and her physical and mental disability probably will never allow her to live as a normal healthy adult.”

Now I noticed that Emma often shouted out a few unintelligible syllables or words to express herself. A four-year-old can tell a story, or even a joke. A few times, Emma wanted to say something funny. I only knew this when her mother translated that humor for the rest of us. I would laugh along with others, even when I didn’t know what I was laughing at. Silliness was sometimes harder to comprehend than sense.

“But we all love her and find her adorable. I love Emily too. She is such a good mom. How should I talk about this with Emily’s parents? Do you think I should bring this up?” Joan wanted to know if talking about disabled children was a taboo in Chinese culture. She wanted to express her empathy without it sounding too much like pity.

I didn’t know what to say. I guessed that talking about disabled children in any culture would be difficult. Two phrases came into my mind when I thought of translating the word “disability”: canji and quexian. But both had unpleasant undertones. Then I came up with the word special to substitute. Was that out of my Chinese diplomatic way of thinking, my American political correctness, or my Midwestern politeness? Nevertheless, I told Joan that we could tell Mr. Chen about her love for Emma without making Emma’s disability part of the conversation.

Mr. and Mrs. Chen seemed content with the dinner. They were pleased with their choice of dishes: sautéed string beans with garlic, pork shreds with bamboo shoots, diced fish with chili peppers. Szechuanese cuisine probably was not what they regularly consumed in Fuzhou: they sipped cup after cup of tea to dissipate the spicy taste of the fish. But sitting in any kind of Chinese restaurant must have been comforting to them, the familiar setting of a family banquet, the Chinese characters on the menu, Mandarin-speaking waiters bustling, a window-sized classical Chinese painting of mountainscapes on the wall. This was the end of the dinner, and my eyes started squinting at the dark brown oyster sauce left on the plate. I felt tired, sleepy, fulfilled. All I wanted was to go home, collapse, and not worry about a thing.

I tried to make it sound lighthearted when I turned to Mr. Chen.

“Joan said that Emma is a special child. Therefore, they all love her so much.”

These two sentences should’ve been connected with the transition word “but” instead of “therefore.” I had my voice in Mandarin go over the options in my head and found “but” simply sounded more natural in this context—the relationship between a special child and love were somehow expected to negated each other. Yet I changed it to “therefore,” for I trusted that the intention of Joan’s speech was to express her love for little Emma because of the fact she was “special,” not in spite of it.

But it didn’t matter which transition word I’d used. Mr. Chen listened to my words with his arms crossed and became quiet. His eyes looked down at the same dark brown oyster sauce on the plate in the middle of our dinner table. His face turned emotionless; he didn’t say anything. Kevin and Emily were talking to Frank, unaffected by the intensity underneath these seconds of silence on our side of the table. I didn’t know whether Mrs. Chen had heard me or not; the gap between her body and Mr. Chen’s seemed wider, the emptiness in the air hollow and uncomfortable.

That was how we express embarrassment when faced with the dreadful. We smiled a bit to be polite and kept quiet to ignore or pretend. A moment like this puzzled me, revealing my difficulty discerning subtle Chinese moral attitudes. This particular silence could have an explanation that I, an inadequate Chinese language interpreter, failed to grasp.

For the next two months that I spent with the two families, my translation of that sentence was the only conversation we ever had about Emma’s disability.

* * *

We lingered for another 20 minutes while saying goodbye outside of Little Szechuan. A Minnesota goodbye was long enough, but partnered with a Chinese family who couldn’t give in and appear less than considerate, it almost became an endurance test. I repeated many thankses in both languages and tried not to yawn before I was in my car. The cool summer breeze gave me a chill. The night was dark with some street lights on—my favorite time to drive around, for it gave me the sensation that my past life in China, my future at who knows where, my anxiety about not knowing how to place myself in this world, and every ounce of fear and desire could be driven out on an American highway. The road was endless; my time seemed eternal.

I rolled down my windows to let the bracing air keep me awake. My head was heavy and drowsy, my body warm. I hadn’t spoken that much Mandarin in a long time. Hearing and speaking it felt raw and grueling. Not only that, as if a hip-hop song I once listened to in middle school all of a sudden came on my car radio, triggering memories from long ago, I felt suddenly confused about who I was on my own life’s timeline. The Mandarin-speaking part of me had been stunted before adulthood, replaced by the English-speaking part who nurtured its sense of self by reading Joan Didion and A History of Western Philosophy. Language had constructed a persona for each half; neither one of them was even recognizable to the other.

I regretted my decision to bring up Emma in front of Mr. Chen. Four years of American liberal arts education had made me fall into a kind of idealism where I was convinced that every personal or political complexity could be grappled with critical thinking practices: recognize the intricate texture of human thoughts and sentiments, identify them with precise words, then analyze or argue. But I had forgotten that there was this silence too. The silence that many people prefer—things we don’t talk about, people we ignore, memories we try to avoid. Maybe that was the difference between academia and life. Maybe that was the reason I chose to use my English-speaking brain to live my days. My own family excelled at silence; I begrudged the unspeakable.

* * *

The last time I’d been at Little Szechuan was for a lunch gathering with my Chinese boyfriend and his business school colleagues. My boyfriend’s roommate, a Chinese married man, made an announcement there under a loud John Mayer or Coldplay song: he and his wife were expecting a baby later that year. Two months later, during one of my weekend stays at my boyfriend’s apartment, the husband told us that his wife just had a miscarriage. We stood in the kitchen, kept our voices low, finished the conversation quickly and matter-of-factly; the wife was taking a nap upstairs.

Our weekend double-date outings became halfhearted in the following months. Soon, all three of them went back to Beijing or Shanghai to get jobs in finance or marketing and become a part of the growing force in the impetuous Chinese economy.


Two weeks later, at another dinner gathering at Kevin’s house, Mr. Chen told me Emily had been a child prodigy. Kevin’s two-story house, like Kevin himself, was comically predictable: clean, dark-wood floor surrounded the black marble kitchen island, all brand new; a few family albums and souvenirs from travels were the only décor on his display shelf. Identical white stucco homes lined the surrounding streets like something out of HGTV. Cookie-cutter style inside and out.

Kevin brought pounds of fresh salmon from one of the 10,000 lakes and got everyone excited for the dinner. Emily and her mother were preparing a vegetable dish, while Joan was baking a blueberry pie for dessert. Emma goofed around beside Emily and sought the adults’ attention. A harmonious family scene: mothers were helping in the kitchen, fathers were sitting down in the backyard and exchanging travel notes. My job excused me from the realm of domestic femininity. I was apologetically relieved.

“Emily went to college at the age of 14, and after she graduated, many famous professors asked her to study with them,” Mr. Chen told me once he learned I had just graduated. “But she insisted on coming here instead. What’s good here anyway?” Many Chinese parents like to praise their child by voicing a compliment with an undertone of degradation—my child is too good to be the only thing I want her to be.

Other bits of family histories were dropped here and there. For instance, I picked up that Frank was Kevin’s stepfather, Joan’s second husband, when Joan guided me through their family pictures on the shelf. Kevin’s family were lovers of aviation: a photograph of Joan skydiving from years ago, many memories of Kevin flying a helicopter. But the past of the Chens’ family could only be exhibited by the family themselves. Mr. Chen called his daughter a nickname that I couldn’t discern by his pronunciation of it. Emily’s Chinese name was still unknown to me. I didn’t know when Emily became Emily, but Mr. Chen’s sharing of his daughter stopped at her academic excellence. Whatever had happened after her college life was left out.

“Why did you want to come here? Was it your parents’ idea?” inquired Mr. Chen. “They must regret it already! You were too young to move here. When you’re young, you adjust well, but you will get used to this life here and never go back later!”

“Better education,” I said. Close enough to the truth.

Mr. Chen shifted the conversation back to the secondhand car market in America. He wanted me to ask Frank if his car was a used one, and how much he had paid for the car. His question was short, his face honest and innocent. Such a direct inquirer stumped me. Had I had two seconds to think it over or two more years of maturity, I might have suggested to Mr. Chen that talking about money in America probably was not the best ice breaker, especially during the second meeting with your future in-laws. I could’ve also rephrased Mr. Chen’s question to a less personal one: how much do you think a car like yours would cost? Instead, I blurted out: “He wants to know how much you paid for your car and if yours was a secondhand one.”

Frank, often a wallflower, surprised me. He was not taken aback, didn’t show the slightest uneasiness. His reply sounded downright Chinese: "In America, many people buy secondhand cars because it’s cheaper. You might pay anything from $3,000 to $10,000, and they work pretty well.”

As I pulled up my iPhone and tried to work out the Chinese RMB equivalents, Kevin approached us and laughed at my attempt. He reminded Frank that I was a translator, not a calculator. I explained it to Mr. Chen. We all laughed and headed to the dining room for dinner.

* * *

I wanted the Chen family and Kevin’s family to like each other. It was not a professional thing to wish; but then, I was not a professional. A happy ending was always desirable, especially when I was presumptuous enough to claim my own part in it. But it also had to do with my fear of conflicts. How to appropriately interpret a speaker’s dissatisfaction or unhappiness? The previous February, Russian troops had started annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region. In June, the news was still reporting on the aftermath. When I listened to the news in my car, I imagined how much anger and menace Putin’s interpreter had to convey. (Once, noticing the interpreter was speaking too quietly, Putin did ask his interpreter to work on his voice and sound more “assertive.”) I was less concerned about the American family—the worst a Minnesotan could display was indistinct passive-aggressiveness. But a Chinese parent’s sigh of disappointment was enough to alarm me, let alone a scolding, or even worse, their silent resentment.

My worries turned out to be unnecessary. In college, I had encountered two kinds of international students: the first experienced constant embarrassment from not being able to fully express themselves as adults and would shy away from Americans or anything “foreign.” The second found speaking a foreign language liberating and would engage in subjects they normally wouldn’t dare bring up in their native culture—sex, politics, off-color jokes. Even their speaking voice and body language would adapt and embody the American style—open, expansive, dramatic. Mr. Chen, who still didn’t understand a single English word, found his way to indulge in the humorous side of Americanness.

When I’d arrived for the salmon dinner, the four parents had greeted each other spontaneously. Frank complimented Mrs. Chen’s dress, another modern silk cheongsam. Chinese men rarely made comments on the dress of another man’s wife. I translated that compliment in a bright yet mischievous tone. Mrs. Chen blushed; Mr. Chen was quick—“Tell him that I always see him so old and bald. Joan looks much younger and nicer!” A joke in the language of patriarchy was universal: if you pay attention to my wife, I will lay claim to yours.

After I translated it, the four parents burst out laughing.

I doubted that Mr. Chen would show such playfulness if it were a dinner meeting with other Chinese adults at his age. I certainly wouldn’t insert that impish flavor myself in front of four older Chinese parents. Sometimes we are more at ease with “others” —outsiders, foreigners, people who do not understand or need to follow the rules. We tolerate and forgive others’ missteps. We watched others’ unsavory acts and even joke about them. Harsh measurements are only reserved for ourselves.

* * *

At the end of the salmon dinner, after everyone had left, I stayed and sat down with Kevin in his study. Before my arrival, I had emailed him and asked for a raise of my hourly rate, not because a few more dollars would’ve made any difference, but a way of asserting myself as an adult. Kevin had offered $15, not out of “generosity” but cleverness. He would process me as one of his employees so a regular paycheck from his company would be issued and delivered to my address.

Navigating out of Kevin’s cul-de-sac, I couldn’t determine whether I should respect Kevin more or less for this move. More because he was not a clueless man after all, or less because he was cheap. Running a home care agency required business acumen, I’d give him that. I imagined that this might have been how Kevin and Emily had met, a romantic movie plot: her searching for home care for her daughter, him answering the inquiry. His attentiveness touches her, her independent motherhood impresses him. They meet; they share past histories and life stories; they talk about a future together, meeting each other’s family, moving in, raising little Emma, making a family. A second chance in America.

Not a bad story to tell yourselves or your parents. As I was driving back home, the traffic became light and my lane seemed wider; my Toyota and I were like a fish swimming through the night with ease and speed. I realized that I had missed the point of this story. Emily and Kevin’s relationship, however it may turn out, didn’t matter. They could marry, they could hurt each other in a few years, they could maintain what they had now, two houses, two adults. Nothing was needed from their parents. Yet these dinner meetings were the children’s effort to reach, to converse with their parents through a stranger. In retrospect, talking to foreigners through an interpreter perhaps was easier than talking to one’s own family in one’s native tongue; an outsider might be more receptive to the oddities of life after all.


A month later, in mid-July, little Emma’s birthday came. The celebration took place at Joan and Frank’s house, another neat, spacious suburban house. No stains on the wall, no misplaced mail or receipts by the door—no history. Mothers were helping in the kitchen again; fathers sat in the backyard and enjoyed their beer. The only difference this time was that a few feet away from the fathers’ rocking chairs there was a hammock where Emily cuddled her daughter and read her a children’s book.

My pleasure and freedom of interpretation were snatched away whenever Emily was around. She was the only person who could tell whether I skipped a few words or phrases for the convenience of a conversation. She’d also noticed that I had come to be relaxed when talking to the parents. Little jokes between me and Frank, my this-is-how-America-works tutorials with Mr. Chen, and Joan’s yoga tips and roasted vegetables recipes all seemed to be signs of intimacy. Our interactions felt familial—until Emily sat down next to us. Her presence was a reminder that this was a job after all.

* * *

During our first dinner at Little Szechuan, Mr. and Mrs. Chen had reminisced about their previous foreign trips in Europe when Joan and Frank brought up the experience of traveling. The four parents started playing the game of have-you-ever. Have you ever been to Germany, yes; have you been to Switzerland, no. Mr. Chen recited a list of cities they visited, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam. Then I was stuck with his mention of bu lu sai er.

Proper nouns were the hardest words to translate, in my experience. My mind registered certain names of objects either in Chinese or in English. “Brussels” was a word I’d hardly ever said in Mandarin. When I traveled to Brussels a year ago, I had just finished a summer French program in Paris. I’d been learning French and quizzed on the spelling and pronunciation of “Ville de Bruxelles.” Memorizing the translations of city names between English and French was hard enough; now, bu lu sai er couldn’t register any locations in my mental map. Nothing clicked in my mind.

I paused, then I decided to omit the unfamiliar name and continue with the rest of Mr. Chen’s list. Bu lu sai er didn’t matter in this conversation. Mr. Chen made his point—he and Mrs. Chen were the kind of Chinese people who’d travel to Europe. He’d tried some German beer and loved it. Unlike many other refugees and immigrants who came to this country to survive, America was a choice for this family, for better or worse.

Emily somehow sensed my split second of hesitation. As I went on with the list, she interjected, “Brussels!”

I looked at her, flabbergasted. She actually paid close attention to the conversations we were having on our side of the table. I quickly mumbled, “thanks,” avoiding any second of lingering that might further reveal my rough usage of language, my translating failures—my fake resume for this job.

That feeling of trying to cheat yet getting caught stung me for a long while. Missing a city’s name was almost irrelevant. I was rather being watched for my judgments about what mattered in others’ conversations.

* * *

A small, plain cupcake seemed meager for a child’s fifth birthday celebration. Joan, Mrs. Chen, and Kevin came out of the kitchen and presented the cupcake on a dessert plate with a single blue candle on top. Emily and Emma had removed themselves from the hammock, joining us at the patio table. The mother and daughter blew the candle together, the rest of us singing “Happy Birthday.” Before I had finished considering the missing cake, little Emma had devoured her treat. All the adults delightedly teased Emma for being a “little gobbler”—except Mr. Chen. He couldn’t stand watching his granddaughter bolting a cupcake as if she had been starved for years.

He turned to his daughter instead. “Give the little one something else. Can’t she have another one? It’s only once a year.”

Emily grew impatient. As Emma herself took up the demand for more, Emily had to explain to her father, apparently not for the first time, “She can’t. I told you, everything has to be gluten-free.”

The term “gluten-free” quieted Mr. Chen. He didn’t seem to understand what it meant, yet he didn’t press the point. Everyone watched their exchange without any translation needed.

I wished I could have spared Mr. Chen his discombobulation. His generation has lived through the Great Leap Forward, the Three Years of Great Famine, and the Cultural Revolution. Even today, with limited land feeding over 1.4 billion people, whose body had the right to ask for lactose intolerance or a low-carb diet? Mr. Chen couldn’t possibly understand America’s “gluten-free.”

Noticing everyone was watching him, Mr. Chen scratched his head and found something else to talk about. He looked at me.

“She doesn’t know how to cook. She always feeds the little one trashy American food. After we moved in, we made Chinese dinners. Last week, we made fried rice with vegetables. The little one loved it! She asked her mom if she could have the same the next day.”

I translated his speech to lighten up the mood in the backyard. Emma’s forehead had turned light pink from the evening summer heat and her begging for a second cupcake. A child’s desire for sweets can prove hopeless to contain. Kevin and all three mothers tried different tricks to distract the girl, who only grew louder and more chaotic.

Everything Mr. Chen had said was meant to be humorous: his teasing of Emily’s parenting choices, his description of Emma (though I didn’t translate his description of American food as “trashy” in front of Joan and Frank). Once I said the words in English, something about Mr. Chen’s food story sounded self-soothing. He was asserting the idea that although his granddaughter couldn’t pronounce a single Chinese word or use chopsticks, she would naturally prefer fried rice over burgers and French fries. Our Chinese blood, however thin or partial, would dominate our tastes and make us Chinese over anything else.

Emily didn’t respond to her father’s critique on her cooking skills. All of us moved back inside of the house and sat down at the dining table.

* * *

Half of the table was empty. Emily and Kevin chased after little Emma to feed her food, Mrs. Chen cleaned up the food dropped on the floor after them, Joan was elsewhere, busy in the kitchen. Once again I was relegated to sitting between Mr. Chen and Frank. The dining room felt hot and stuffy. No one was having a great time with a child running around, screaming, frustrated by what she couldn’t express.

Mr. Chen started rambling about China’s speedy development in the past decade and recounting anecdotes about a historical figure, a general from his province whom I had never heard of. Many Chinese people’s nationalist sentiment came from those two things: the past thousands of years of history and the modern days of economic development. Across the table, Frank’s eyes were fixed on his dinner plate and he didn’t have much to respond with. He had a typical Midwesterner’s mentality: fundamentally, he wasn’t interested in learning another culture’s long history, nor did he particularly care about any foreign country. Why would he? I started to resent Frank for his lack of engagement with anything else besides his little, perfect, quiet, middle-class American house life, whereas I bore the responsibility for listening and validating Mr. Chen’s words.

In fact, by then, listening to Mr. Chen’s talking and translating his words had become tiresome. I understood each word he said, but my comprehension was lost. I couldn’t detect his emotions or purposes behind his words, nor did I believe in what he said. I wanted to hear him talk about his daughter, his wife, or himself, but these stories rarely came up. Instead, his drab comments on random subjects made me feel cornered, like I was a clueless little girl again.

* * *

Since I was a child, adults around me all talked and sounded like Mr. Chen. A door was closed between a child’s guessing and adults’ murmuring. I had always suspected that adults’ real intentions and emotions were hidden underneath their spoken words. Their vocabularies were understandable, but their tone was mysterious, as if their conversations were channeled through a different frequency than I had learned from school and books. Why, I couldn’t figure out, and it wasn’t a coincidence that in college I had studied analytical philosophy to force myself to write and speak as clearly as I could. Looking back at all my Mandarin- and dialect-speaking years, I had admitted and accepted that to be a Chinese child was to live with tingling ambiguities, the unnamable murkiness that couldn’t be shared with other Chinese friends nor understood by my American friends. But even as an adult, equipped with Chomsky’s linguistic theories, I still couldn’t decipher Mr. Chen’s speech.

I had sensed that Emily, too, apprehended her parents through that closed door. She was more like Frank and Joan’s daughter than anything else. She was easy, funny, warm when updating the two of them on her daughter’s progress in school. Once she switched to Mandarin to talk to her parents, though, an air of distance and hesitance seeped through. The silence underneath her short exchanges with her parents felt too familiar to me. And I could only guess that the “special” situation of Little Emma played a part in it. I even wondered if that was the purpose of my job, so that when the American parents wanted to discuss this matter Emily didn’t have to be the one to translate and communicate back and forth with her own parents.

I would never know the validity of my assumption. That closed door not only blocked me from hearing what was said but also trapped the distrust and suspicion that lay behind my own guessing. I was already a biased interpreter. I had expected that meaning was to be lost between the two languages. But language itself had started to seem misleading or deceptive to my ears, no matter what language I spoke or listened to.

But who was I to demand truth and honesty from people I had only met a few times over the summer? By our third dinner together, I had started to question whether all of my private opinions about these two families were even real, in the sense that my observations of their family dynamics might just be my own projections. My parents and I hadn’t had a real conversation for years. Speaking without any layers of embroidery, speaking the truth with each other, could mean absolute collapse.

I wasn’t clear about my own intentions. That’s when I made a mistake with my translation.

* * *

Mr. Chen ran out of things to say after his speech on China’s economic growth. He then made a rare confession: because of the language barriers, he and Mrs. Chen couldn’t play with Little Emma the way Joan and Frank did. “Her mom has to be around,” Mr. Chen explained, “Otherwise, one minute we would be playing and the next she’d start crying and looking for her mom. Once she wouldn’t stop crying. She thought her mom diu le.”

Diu is a tricky word. It means to throw, lose, or put aside an object. When used with a person, it indicates that a person is missing, lost, or left behind. What Mr. Chen said about Emma’s crying was easy to understand, but the reason was unclear. Did Emma cry because she was afraid her mother was missing? Or because she was left behind—because her mother lost her?

I could’ve chosen a smarter way to phrase this. The actual sentence that came out of my mouth was “Emma cries at home when she doesn’t have Emily around. She worries her mother abandons her.”

Emily entered the dining room and interrupted me immediately. “No, Emma thought I was lost, that she couldn’t find me.” She didn’t look at me while explaining this to Joan and Frank.

Emily then switched to Mandarin and talked to her father. “I’ve told you many times. You’ve never met her in person before this trip. She doesn’t know who you are, or why you are here in our house. It takes time for her to get to know you.”

Her message was too private for me to translate. Mr. Chen had that awkward smile again on his face and simply nodded. All of us were quiet for a few seconds, waiting for the moment to pass.

* * *

What had happened to Emily in the past six years? A woman was involved with a man, got pregnant, and wound up raising a disabled child alone. Her parents were living abroad and never visited. How did she survive the Minnesota winters herself, where each morning for six months you’d have to dig the car out of the snow and get the engine running? Emily was too pretty to live a life like any other Emily in America.

Something was diu le and I could never find out what.


That summer, I started talking to my mother more often. We didn’t discuss real matters—why I had decided to move to another continent, why I had broken up with my Chinese boyfriend who moved back to China after graduation. Nevertheless, we talked.

My voice in conversation with my mother was thin, childlike, filled with vexation and hesitation as I struggled to pronounce words in our local dialect, to explain myself, to say what I meant to say. My mother’s speech was coarse, high-pitched, obtuse, and full of local gossip. Even at the best of times, hearing her talk was unpleasant and alien to me. Occasionally, however, I allowed myself to crave her care.

For a few warm, idle afternoons, I’d sat on the cracked wood floor of my apartment, leaning against my IKEA bedframe, one hand holding my iPhone to my left ear, listening to my mother update me on various family matters mixed in with news about people we knew, the other hand leafing through piles of graded college papers, notebooks, printed-out reading materials. Some passages were underlined, highlighted, and scribbled over with notes and definitions for words such as “montage” or “deontology.” Nothing made sense.

On one of those afternoons, I told her that I needed a year to rest, a break before applying for graduate school, a pause amid the continuous life she expected me to live. My plan of pursuing a PhD in philosophy halted, partly because I admitted to myself that the strenuous reading and writing work an academic career required was beyond my ability to perform; I had also observed enough from my undergraduate studies to conclude that what I wanted from studying philosophy couldn’t be given by the academic realm.

My mother didn’t respond. She continued recounting the engagement party of a family friend’s son. The dramas of it all. For a brief second, I wanted to share the story of the Chen family, of Emily the single mother and her mixed-race, developmentally impaired daughter, of my eagerness and puzzlement in my role as an interpreter. Yet imagining what the story would’ve sounded like in my local dialect made my desire to talk about Emily and her family disappear. After all, I didn’t know what the story really was, or what my intention was in telling it. And I had a feeling, on a gut level, that whatever I said about the Chen family, my mother would’ve come up with cruel notes—a single mother with a crippled girl, how sad.

Instead, a rather personal and honest piece of information slipped out. I confided in my mother that I had dreamed about getting cancer recently. In my dreams, all sorts of cancers crept inside my body, a secret invasion, a fearsome growth. I worried if such dreams were a bad omen or whether it carried some obscure deeper meaning that had yet to be revealed.

My mother handed the phone to my aunt, who reassured me that dreams could be nonsense, the results of poor sleep or working too late or staring at the computer screen for too long, that none of our family members had been diagnosed with cancer or any other incurable sickness. Logically speaking, I needn’t worry.

Clear-headed, I thought to myself that there were many other things to burden my nerves with: money, future prospects, loneliness. Struggling with dream interpretation shouldn’t be one of them.


Kevin called me one afternoon in mid-August and asked if I could drive Emily’s parents for a doctor’s visit.

“I’m sorry, you’re the only one I can think of now,” he said. “Emily is on a business trip in Boston, and she’s left me to do this, but I have a meeting. It’s easy, just like babysitting. You help them check in and the doctor will do the rest.”

I wanted to help. Every time I’d met Mr. and Mrs. Chen for dinner, they talked to me like eager five-year-olds. When my mother stayed with me in Minneapolis, she grew bored after a week. Without knowing any English, she couldn’t go to a park or do grocery shopping herself; even TV watching was not an option. She became dependent and confined, an uncomfortable state of being for both of us. In the course of that week, she spent over a hundred dollars on nightly phone calls to her mother. Mr. and Mrs. Chen must have felt the same after their daughter left in the morning for work and their granddaughter went to school: as though they were misplaced children in America.

“There’s something I should tell you,” Kevin hesitantly. “ You know, if the doctor says something, which I don’t think they will, please don’t tell Emily’s parents.”

* * *

I didn’t need to be lectured by an American about keeping sensitive patient information to myself. Many Chinese doctors tried to avoid telling bad news directly to patients for fear of eliciting dreadful shocks. A patient’s family members were often the first ones notified of a diagnosis by the hospital.

Kevin explained that Mrs. Chen had had rectal cancer before. She’d been treated in China, and her cancer had gone into remission. For a few years, everything was fine—until now. There was a spot on her lungs. Her husband, her daughter, her daughter’s boyfriend, perhaps even the boyfriend’s parents, all of them knew that her cancer had come back at its endstage. Mrs. Chen, on the other hand, had remained uninformed.

* * *

The radiologist who greeted us was a middle-aged blond woman, who looked like she’d passed the due date of her pregnancy. Pulling up Mrs. Chen’s medical record, she told me that she was going to call for a translator.

“I am a translator,” I replied, “Anything I can help with?”

“No, I need a medical translator employed by our hospital. She has to be informed of the whole procedure. Otherwise, it’s against our hospital rules.”

Minutes later, a tall, thin Chinese man in blue scrubs showed up. Mrs. Chen greeted him immediately, “Oh Little Liu, it’s you again.”

Little Liu smiled back. He reached out his hand to shake mine. “Taking your mom here again?”

Mrs. Chen laughed, “No, no. She’s not my daughter. Little Gao is our translator. No wonder you think she’s the one you saw the last time. They are both skinny. Too skinny!”

The radiologist interrupted our laughter and asked Little Liu, “Shall we start?”

* * *

On the way back to Emily’s house, all of us were quiet. The August sun was blazing, and the hum of the AC was monotonous and drowsy. A hospital trip was always strenuous. I couldn’t tell whether Mr. and Mrs. Chen were asleep or not. What would happen next? Once the scan was recorded, the results soon would speak for themselves. How long could Mr. Chen and Emily keep silent? How would Mrs. Chen interpret all these hospital trips? She must know, I decided. At the very least she knew that her health had declined. She knew her husband and her daughter had always kept the worst from her. She must know and pretended she didn’t. Just like her husband and her daughter.

I was wrong again, then. I had always assumed that Mr. and Mrs. Chen’s first trip to Minnesota was to witness their daughter’s second potential marriage, or to hug and pat their granddaughter as long as they wanted. But the trip, in the end, was for Mrs. Chen. She was dying, and her daughter wanted to try everything to save her.

* * *

After we arrived back at Emily’s house, I ate lunch with the couple before heading off. Mr. and Mrs. Chen stood by the door and watched me get into my car. We waved at each other and said bye again and again. That was the last time I ever saw Mr. and Mrs. Chen.


Later that summer, I started applying for graduate schools. An undergraduate degree wasn’t enough for my parents’ expectations of a “higher education.” Two different graduate fields came into my mind: translation and social work. I was convinced that in order to answer Socrates’s question of how to live a good life I needed to actively practice how to speak, observe, act, and be involved with actual matters in life.

What I ended up doing after that summer didn’t involve much speaking, nor did I have to interact with strangers from Craigslist again. I wrote essays, dogged by the French word essayer—to try, to seek, to attempt. The essay form laid out a white space for me to find out things—what had gone wrong, what hadn’t been said, and what I had wanted to say all along.

* * *

On the night of September 8th, around nine o’clock, Mr. Chen sent me a message: “Happy Moon Festival!”

Such holidays mattered less and less to me as I accumulated more and more years in Minneapolis. The process of assimilation was both fast and slow. For the first three years, I had friends who’d host hotpot gatherings regularly, and over the steaming pot we’d exchange insider jokes and gossipy comments on our American classmates or roommates in Mandarin. I was dating someone whose home province was right next to mine, so even when he was video chatting with his parents on weekends in their local dialect their words and tones were still discernible to my ears. But after he left Minneapolis, I realized that most of these friends were actually his friends, that my own friends were people I met from classes like Writing for Social Change or Philosophy of Language. They were Minnesotans. They may or may not have cared about the fact that I had lived a different life than they had, but they had let me to adopt a great deal of their Minnesotanness. Within months of my then-boyfriend’s departure, I started confiding in them about my private feelings using their Midwestern round-about way of talking. We developed our own insider jokes and gossip about the other Chinese and Minnesotans who walked around our college campus in their own distinct, ridiculous way. Every September, when the air turned crisp, we’d talk about Oktoberfest, getting paper bags to compost leaves in the front yard, and our annoyance at the football season. The Moon Festival was the last thing on my mind around that time of the year.

I was on an empty late-night campus shuttle when I got Mr. Chen’s message. The bus’s air conditioner was blasting; I stretched my skirt to cover my bare legs. The moon I looked at now outside of the bus window wasn’t the same moon my family celebrated and gazed at on their Moon Festival; the image of this radiant, full, pale yellow moon in my mind wouldn’t be the same as the one in Mr. Chen’s or his family’s minds. The story about Emily’s family could never emerge as clearly as I wanted it, and it probably wasn’t the story that Mr. Chen had imagined himself living years ago.

Was Mr. Chen’s message a generic holiday greeting for all the contacts on his phone, or a specific written message for me? Replying felt like an extension or an encouragement for a possible relationship outside of my job as an interpreter. By that time, Kevin was no longer contacting me for help. Not knowing whether I wanted this relationship or not, or how my reply would’ve been perceived by Mr. Chen or his daughter, I didn’t text back.

What would be the perks of being a young immigrant if I found a new parent figure in my new world, integrated myself into their family business, behaved myself according to their expectations and approvals, and hoped that I could still be a good, promising daughter in their eyes? Why, after all, did their daughter move to the States about the same age as I did if she were not tempted by the desire to choose something different?

At my stop, I got off the bus and took a deep breath of the wet, cool September air. My interpreter job had ended; the secrets and assumptions about Chen family had stayed with me. Would Emily, Mrs. Chen, or Mr. Chen get their second chance in Minnesota? I’d never know. And I questioned myself if my attachments to this family could ever be translatable.

The Hypocrite Reader is free, but we publish some of the most fascinating writing on the internet. Our editors are volunteers and, until recently, so were our writers. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, we decided we needed to find a way to pay contributors for their work.

Help us pay writers (and our server bills) so we can keep this stuff coming. At that link, you can become a recurring backer on Patreon, where we offer thrilling rewards to our supporters. If you can't swing a monthly donation, you can also make a 1-time donation through our Ko-fi; even a few dollars helps!

The Hypocrite Reader operates without any kind of institutional support, and for the foreseeable future we plan to keep it that way. Your contributions are the only way we are able to keep doing what we do!

And if you'd like to read more of our useful, unexpected content, you can join our mailing list so that you'll hear from us when we publish.