- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
By SUSAN CRATON
Other residents may still be in recovery from the election — the incessant, nasty ads; the debates; the constant publicity about everything that is wrong. Some may be feeling that the United States has lost its footing, that the country is in decline and that it needs to keep its eye on the growing economic power of other countries, like China.
But the Chens of Mechanicsville see it differently. To them, the United States is still a destination full of promise.
Over the last dozen years, one by one, members of the Chen family have pulled up their roots in Southern China and have moved to the United States. Jackie Chen moved first in 2000. His sister, Annie, followed him in 2001. The two worked in the restaurant business in New York City, raising funds to start their own business and in the hopes of bringing their parents over also.
“Some people say the American dream. Some people say America is like heaven,” Annie said, explaining why they left their homeland. Annie told the family’s story as she sat in the family’s restaurant, the Hot Pot in Mechanicsville, last Friday afternoon.
On Sept. 19, much of the family was finally reunited when Jackie’s and Annie’s parents moved to Mechanicsville. Ke Qi Chen, the father, will work in the restaurant and the plan is for Jin Hua Wu, their mother, to help with grandchildren. Annie and Jackie are now U.S. citizens and they are sponsoring their parents, who have green cards.
The couple knows no English at this point, and Annie translates for them, though even she sometimes struggles to find just the right words to express herself in English still.
“People in America, they are very patient and give us a chance to learn more English,” Annie said. She said they were exposed to English in school while growing up in China, but British English was taught rather than American English. Annie worked on the new language by taking ESL classes in Manhattan.
Ke Qi Chen, 57, stepped out of the kitchen and shared his first impressions of his new country. While his daughter translated, he talked with a smile about the fresh air here. There is a lot of pollution in China, Annie explained.
He said that people here are very nice and very helpful. “Here, there are a lot of trees,” she said for her father.
Both her father and mother have noted that technology is more apparent here than in China. The family had lived in a town in China.
The new arrivals have already identified some aspects of their new home that will be a challenge. “Here, you have to know how to drive,” Annie said her mother noted. “You need a car to go anywhere ... in China, they could just walk.”
The couple is also somewhat isolated in their new home. Not only do the Chens work long hours — the restaurant is open seven days a week. “We open at 11 a.m. and go to 10 p.m.,” Annie said.
But there is a language barrier to overcome for the new arrivals, as well as the spread-out nature of development in Southern Maryland. It makes it harder to make friends.
“In China, everything is very close,” Annie said. “They can play together and talk, just sitting in front of the house. They play cards. Here, they are so far apart.”
Annie said her mother tells her, “See the house. You don’t see people in front of the house to talk to her.”
Annie said she was confident her parents would adjust to these challenges. “My parents are hard working. My father, he was a farmer before.
“I wanted the whole family to stay together. That’s what I wanted.”
But the Chens are not all together yet. Annie married while in New York and they had two children. Now, 7 and 5, her two children are being cared for by her in-laws while the family works to get the Hot Pot thriving. “We are working hard to let the business get successful,” Annie said, saying that the goal is to reunite the entire family in St. Mary’s County.
And her grandmother, her father’s mother who is 87, is still back in China and is not expected to come over.
In addition, there is a younger sister whom Annie and Jackie hardly know still back in Asia. The government forced the family to give her up when she was very young. “We have one sister still in China,” Annie said. “You are not allowed to have too many kids. We have to send my sister to another place ... That’s like a nightmare.”
So their younger sister grew up with a different family in a different town and Annie and Jackie didn’t know her as they grew up. About 10 years ago, the adopted father sent the family a letter letting them know that the sister is OK.
“We still talk to her on the phone,” Annie said. “We are missing her.
“The Chinese government wants to control the population. America ... They treat the people like human beings. In China, the government controls everything,” she said.
The Chens see that they can also contribute to their new country. They learned the ropes of the restaurant business in New York City and now they hope to introduce more true Chinese cooking to visitors to the Hot Pot. They understand the Americanization of much of the Chinese restaurant food in the United States, but they hope to serve more real Chinese cuisine to local diners. “We want to focus on clean, fresh and tasty and healthy,” Annie said.
Much of the Chinese food served in America is doused with premade sauces,” she explained. “It’s fast.” But in real Chinese cooking, “the cook has to create the sauce. But it is more tasty,” she said.