Chapter 2: Reuniting in Switzerland
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
One night in March of 1989, I woke up at 3 AM and scurried onto a public bus in Guangzhou, accompanied by my grandmother (my father's mother) and several large suitcases. Despite the fact that it was the middle of the night, the bus was packed with people and the city was still awake with the sounds of honking cars and the glare of storefront lights. My grandmother told me that we were headed to the train station to take a train to Hong Kong. Even though I was an intellectually precocious five-year-old, my world view still consisted solely of the cities of Zhongshan and Guangzhou where I grew up. I had never been outside of the shelter of my two homes, so Hong Kong seemed like a world away, even though the train ride was only going to last an hour.
When we arrived, I noticed that the people in this former British colony looked Chinese, but parts of my surroundings were foreign-looking. For instance, I could understand the Cantonese dialect that Hong Kong residents spoke, but I could not make out some of the words on the signs and billboards along the streets. The writing was not the neatly-printed, block-style pen strokes of Chinese characters that I was accustomed to reading, but rather consisted of narrow symbols with both straight and curvy components that strung themselves together into clumps separated by spaces. Some of these strange symbols appeared more than once in a word, and I wondered what kind of written language could be so simplistic that it recycled its symbols so frequently. I mean, how many different words could you make out of a few dozen symbols?
Too bad I didn't have much time to marvel at the sights of narrow streets crowded with layers of neon signs and double-decker buses that drove on the wrong side of the road. My grandmother and I headed straight for Hong Kong international airport. It was my first time in an airport, and I had no clue where we were headed. She told me that I was going to Switzerland so that I could live with my father, but I had no idea where that was on the map. I barely even knew what was 100 kilometers outside of Guangzhou, so how could I possibly imagine what the world was like on another continent?
After what felt like an eternity spent on my first-ever plane ride, we finally landed in Zurich, Switzerland. My father greeted us at the airport and drove us for several hours to Geneva, a city located near the Swiss-French border. As we set down our bags, I laid down to rest for the first time in over 36 hours since leaving my grandmother's house in the middle of the night.
As I was trying to fall asleep that night, I had a gut-wrenching feeling that I would never go home again. This wasn't a vacation; it was a relocation. I soon learned that the only reason my grandmother came to Switzerland was to help take care of me for a few weeks while my father made the adjustment to parenthood. After my grandmother returned to China, it was just my father and me.
At the time, I had no idea why my father was in Switzerland, but years later he told me that he was there because he worked for a Swiss-China joint venture company during the second half of the 1980's. His company assigned him to go to Switzerland to find new business opportunities, and as a result, he opened a Chinese restaurant in Geneva as an investment and spent several years managing it.
To save costs, he lived on the second floor above the restaurant in a room he shared with several co-workers. It wasn't nearly as cozy as a room in a typical house; it was more like an attic that was converted into a dorm room, with each person's living quarters separated by makeshift partitions made out of thin sheets hung on clotheslines. The head cook lived in the partition next to my father's.
During the afternoons when the restaurant was closed, I watched my father and the other workers fold napkins and tablecloths, set up plates and silverware, manage the inventory, and make various preparations for the dinnertime crowd. I often grew bored and restless since nobody was around to entertain me.
At night, the real action started. Since the customers were mostly local French-speaking Swiss residents, my father hired a few Chinese men who could speak French reasonably well to serve as waiters. He often worked double duty as both manager and waiter when he was short on manpower. I loved watching him interact with customers, even though I could not understand what he was saying. He spoke French quite fluently for a man who had never formally studied the language. With his tall stature and confident smile, he was an impressive salesman, even though he was just marketing roast duck and fried noodles.
At the time, I did not understand the world that my father had entered. I could not fathom what it was like to interact with people who did not look Chinese or speak the Chinese language. I felt most comfortable in the kitchen, with the loud sizzle of woks and skillets, the overwhelming feeling of hot oil and grease, the aroma of Chinese spices and sauces, and the rough Chinese slang and cursing that the cooks yelled to one another. That was more like home. I could understand what the cooks were saying to one another, and I could relate to the smells of their cooking. I knew that this was the most I would see of my former home, these few men crowded into a back kitchen with stains on their aprons and oil burn marks on their forearms.
I recalled that my family back in China used to cook festive meals, take me out to lavish banquets, and feed me everything that I ever wanted. And now I found myself in a foreign land where my only family was my father, who had neither the resources nor the time to give me privileged treatment like the rest of my family had done in China. I had suddenly come from being a Little Emperor with dozens of relatives as my faithful servants to being all alone with nobody to cater to my whims.
After getting over the initial shock of moving, I tried my best to behave and to stay out of trouble when my father was busy working. I did lots of thinking during those long and lonely hours I spent in the restaurant, relieving my boredom and anxiety by pondering about the world. I would queue up long streams of questions, mostly about the physical sciences, and ask my father whenever he had a free moment—Why is the sky blue? What is fire made of? Aren't we going to run out of oxygen if millions of people keep on breathing all of it? My mind was overly active and curious, and my only outlet was to ask him questions.
I would ask him questions when he was busy relaying orders or whenever he had a five-minute break to take a sip of water. Even more annoyingly, I would wake him (and everybody else sleeping in the same room) up at 5 AM almost every morning by jumping into his bed and pestering him with questions that I had accumulated from the previous evening. I usually went to bed by 9 PM, long before he and his co-workers were done closing up the restaurant. I didn't realize at the time that he came up to the bedroom around midnight every evening and studied for an hour to improve his French skills, so he only got four hours of sleep each night before I jostled him awake.
Even though I was trying hard to behave, I had grown up accustomed to receiving instant gratification from my family back in China, so I desperately wanted my father's undivided attention as well. I did not feel as appreciative at the time, but I am now very grateful that he always tried his best to answer my questions, no matter how busy, stressed out, or fatigued he felt. It did not matter that his responses were not always scientifically accurate. What I cherish most about our interactions back then was that he was always willing to listen to me and to answer my questions, which helped to nurture my scientific curiosity and love for learning.
I always inquired about how the world worked, but I never asked personal questions about our family's status. I never questioned why I was stuck here spending every day in a Chinese restaurant in a foreign country without seeing any other child my own age. I grew homesick, but it didn't matter. It was the first of many times throughout my childhood when I had to accept my circumstances without question since I had no power to change anything. I never asked to go back home to China, because somehow I knew that it was impossible to do. Instead, I learned to seek comfort in observing and thinking about the world around me.
Just as I was becoming accustomed to having my father as my only family, one day he brought a woman home with him. This woman seemed very excited and eager to see me, as though she had not seen me for many years. Even though I had no idea who she was, I was happy that she seemed to know me well, so I let her take me on a long walk around Geneva while my father worked. I had barely been outside of the restaurant for several months. She asked me about myself, and I told her about how my previous life in China contrasted with my current life here in Switzerland. Out of courtesy and respect, I never felt that it was my place to ask her about herself. After all, she was an adult who seemed to know my father well, so she wasn't a stranger.
After we spent that first day together, she asked me whether I knew who she was. I honestly replied that I did not. "I'm your mother," she told me. "Hi, Mommy. Thanks for taking me around town today." She seemed happy that her own son acknowledged her presence. However, later that evening, after we finished dinner at my father's restaurant, I said to her, "Mommy, my dad and I are going upstairs to take baths and to go to sleep. You can go back to your home now. Goodbye." My mother told me years later that she cried after hearing me say that, but at the time, I didn't realize I had inadvertently hurt her feelings. I didn't know what it really meant for someone to be my "mother" since I had no memories of ever seeing her before. When I was 11 months old, she left China to attend graduate school in the United States. Now, four years later, she had just graduated with a Ph.D. in Sociology, and as soon as she received her diploma, she immediately rushed over to Switzerland to reunite with her family. The greeting she received from her only child was, "You can go back to your home now. Goodbye."
How could I have known any better? I never recalled having a mother, and until a few months prior, I never even recalled having a father. My universe never included a special place for Mommy and Daddy, because my extended family in China was my only family. I understood what it meant for this woman to be my "mother" by the literal definition of the word: She was the woman who gave birth to me. But I thought that she was no more important than any of my other relatives in China. I did not realize that she was coming to live with us in Switzerland so that we could form a nuclear family consisting of my father, my mother, and me. The concept of a three-person family living far away from cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents was unheard of back in China. But then again, we were not in China anymore.
It did not take long for me to get comfortable with having my mother around. Since my father was at work most of the time, I spent the majority of my days with her. She had waited for over four long years to reunite with her son, and she was trying hard to make up for the valuable lost time. She was more than eager to take me around the city, tell me stories, or just be with me. Within a few days, I grew inseparable from my mother, and never again would I view her as simply another family member. The pampering that my relatives in China provided was mostly superficial, but now for the first time I felt a deep love that only a mother could provide.
At the time, I still had no idea why my family was in Switzerland or how long we would remain there, and it turned out that my parents knew little more than I did about our uncertain future. They told me years later that, although both of them wanted to eventually return to China, my father had hoped to make lots of money off his restaurant business and then return to China to start another business. After four years of separation while my mother was in graduate school, he wanted our family to be together again in Switzerland and to remain there for at least a few years until he made enough money to kick-start his business ambitions in China. Of course, I had no input in any of these family decisions, and my mother also had little choice since she had just graduated from school and my father was already working.
All three of us concur today that our year in Switzerland was one of the most emotionally challenging experiences in each of our lives: My father worked night-and-day to keep his restaurant afloat since business was slow and often inadequate to maintain profits, my mother felt frustrated about being stuck in a country where she could not find a job commensurate with her academic credentials, and I had to start kindergarten in a new school where nobody else looked like me or spoke my language.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo