Dressed in a yellow polo shirt, apron tied around his waist, freshman Brian Li moves through Bo Lings’ main dining room. He sets down plates full of Cantonese flounder, and hot and sour soup that nearly spill off the sides. He fires off rapid Mandarin to the managers, and flips to concentrated but clear English with the customers. Even on a Sunday afternoon, the Plaza restaurant has full tables. Li remains calm, his face happy but professional, among the madness.
* * *
Li looks out of an airplane window as it touches down at Denver International Airport in November 2010. He’s shocked, because all he sees is empty streets. America is so deserted, Li thinks to himself. But after he files through customs and gets ready to board his flight to his final destination, Kansas City, Li realizes that the U.S. looks more like heavily-populated China than he anticipated.
Li, his parents, their belongings and a vocabulary limited to Chinese, are landing for good, without a return ticket. They have been trying for eight years to immigrate across the Pacific, but with no luck, they remained living in a rented house in the populous city of Qingdao of Shandong province, in Eastern China. His dad worked late nights in an uncertain job and his mother had trouble finding work. They longed for a stable home in the States.
* * *
Li sits in his class at Briarwood Elementary school. It’s his first day. As the teacher moves through the lecture, all he hears is gibberish. She looks at him, he stares back at her. But nothing gets through. English is still too foreign, too garbled for him to understand. He’s quiet and bored, and most of all frustrated.
At recess, his classmates come up to him. Politely, over-politely to Li, they introduce themselves, wanting to make a new friend, trying to be considerate. But it’s no use. The language barrier is too much to overcome.
“People would try to talk to me, because they were being nice,” Li said. “But I just couldn’t follow. I didn’t know what the heck they were saying.”
Even as the semester pushes along, and English becomes clearer when he listens, Li still can’t seem to form the English words himself.
It takes an entire spring and summer before he can respond to his classmates. His teacher’s lectures now make sense. He can raise his hand when he knows the right answer. English has started to decode itself before him.
But the language isn’t the only aspect of American life Li has trouble with at first. In his first semester at school, his inability to make friends is only exacerbated by the amount of free time he now has after school. He spent hours tinkering with his family’s laptop or just sitting on the couch, bored. No friends, no cable television, no job.
* * *
Even still, the U.S. felt better to Li. Back in China, he would spend hours, usually until 11 p.m., after school just trying to get his homework done for the next day. To him, he didn’t have a choice in his grades. Chinese schools required and demanded excellence.
“Basically, till the age of sixteen, all you can do is learn.” Li said.
Despite the initial hardships, his family lived in their own house, owned their own car and every day he breathed fresh American air, different from the grey polluted atmosphere of his home country. In Li’s mind, these simple pleasures made the move worth it.
Five years later, Li’s language skills are near-perfect. He works weekends at Bo Ling’s, his aunt’s restaurant, where his father works as a chef and mother a dishwasher. Now, although he still has the choice to study or not, he keeps his grades up, to please his mom in the hopes of someday becoming a computer programmer or an architect.
The move was no easy feat. The language posed a serious challenge, something his parents are still trying to overcome, which means Li has some non-traditional responsibilities.
“I do most of the paperwork.” Li said. “Bills, cars. They don’t know what to do.”
However, Li holds firm that American life is better than Chinese life. He misses the vibrancy of his old city, and the ease of his first language. But to him, life now is easier, happier, and freer.