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Behind the Counter

Updated: Jul 6, 2020


|This is the 5th story of Our Life Logs|


Everyone has lived a life of his own, a life that you may never know. I have owned and operated a Chinese restaurant in the United States for decades, which is all most people see. The truth is, my story is a lot more than a takeout menu.

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I was born during the Chinese Civil War in 1947. It was a time of social turmoil and pain. When I was growing up, the country was incredibly poor. I was grateful to live in the city because many in the countryside starved to death.  Work was hard to come by, and food was even harder. I was the oldest of six children, four boys and two girls. There were a lot of days when we didn’t have enough to eat.

Luckily, education had always been good where I was from. School was cheap, and even my sisters were able to attend. Girls were normally valued less than boys at that time, so a lot of the girls especially in the villages would drop out of school at a very early age or didn’t go to school at all. Fortunately, my siblings and I were able to receive education. But that all changed in 1966 when the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution came along. In China, this was a period of great unrest. Many intellectuals and innocent people were beaten in the streets, displaced or even put into prison. Schools were closed for years as the country came to a halt. New political movements were dangerous and often deadly if you picked the wrong side. I had to go with whatever political winds were blowing around me to survive. The economy was worse than ever, and people were being purged from the streets. It can be hard to explain that pain or experience to someone who hasn’t lived through it.

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In 1976, the last elements of the Cultural Revolution came to an end. The violence subsided, and schools reopened. There was fierce competition from all over the country to attend college. It is considered a great honor to be well educated in China, and many felt they had been shorted. After ten years, so many students that had missed their opportunity to be educated wanted a chance. I had been a local teacher during the revolution, giving lessons at the factory school. My love for academics translated with my high scores in tests, and I was one of the lucky few to attend Sichuan University in 1978.

My primary focus was on the English language. I loved the history and style of the words. I had a great passion for the academic world and scholastic achievement. I also knew that I would always have a job in China if I could become more fluent. I received a Fulbright scholarship which helped expand my interest. After my graduation, I had planned to stay on at the university as a professor of English. However, other plans were made for me. The administration wanted me to stay, but instead, they wanted me to join a new program and travel to the United States. I didn’t have much of a choice and I figured it would help advance my career, so I went.

I left my wife and daughter in China and moved to the US in 1984. The exchange program was done with our sister school Southern Illinois University. The program made sure Chinese students had a chance to learn and work. We could study and work at various internships as teacher’s assistants. The full immersion was an interesting opportunity that proved to be eye-opening. I ended up earning my master’s degree with a focus on English Linguistics in 1987. After that, I continued with my doctoral studies in Education.

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It was around this time in 1987 when my wife and young daughter joined me in the United States. I had been by myself for three years, and I had missed them. While I continued focusing on my studies, my wife started to work in local Chinese restaurants near the university. She wanted to learn everything, and people began to appreciate her hard work and dedication. The cooks liked her so much that they began to teach her a few tricks about cooking. At one point, she became so famous in the Asian community that a friend from Hong Kong, who was planning to open a restaurant in the same area, asked if she would be interested in being the head cook. It was a great opportunity for her and our family. She almost did it, until we realized that since her cooking skills were mature enough now, we could open a restaurant of our own. By then, we had decided to stay on in the United States, as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China made us feel scared to go back to our homeland.

We opened our first authentic Sichuan restaurant in 1991. The restaurant was very successful for a long time, but it took a lot of hard work. The restaurant demanded long hours and all my energy. I got so busy and tired with work that I never actually had a chance to finish my Ph.D. dissertation that I was working on at the same time. I loved the academic research and my field of study, but I had a family to provide for. I could no longer balance both and had to think of someone other than myself.

Over the next 20 years, we ended up owning several restaurants before settling into our current location in Mason, Ohio. We have been here for 11 years now, and our restaurant, Sichuan Bistro, has been very successful. My wife still does the cooking, of course. We work at the restaurant six days a week, 12 hours a day. My daughter lives in California now with her husband and daughter. Once we finally retire, we plan on moving there to be with them.

Standing in front of my restaurant, 2017.
Standing in front of my restaurant, 2017.
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Sometimes I regret not going into academics, where my passion lies. I have always wondered what would have happened if I had moved back to China to teach instead of owning a restaurant. If the Tiananmen Square protests hadn’t happened in 1989, we probably would have gone home. I would be able to see my family, and maybe I would have lived a life doing what I love. But as life would have it, I have found solace while walking a different path. Though I did not think my life would take this course, I am happy that it did, as I am contented and able to do something I enjoy.

This is my journey. From a childhood of poverty and societal toil, to the pursuit of academics and travel, to finally settling into a happy life of entrepreneurship, I have lived it all. People see me and think they know my story, but there is more to me than just being the man behind the counter.

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This is the story of Yujian Zhao.

Yujian currently resides in Mason, Ohio where he continues to run his restaurant, Sichuan Bistro, with his wife. Yujian tells a story of looking beyond the person you see behind the counter of a restaurant. He didn’t always have a dream to run the bistro. He had other aspirations. His journey is an interesting one full of speedbumps, most notably the halting of his education because of The Cultural Revolution in China. Yujian and his wife have been running Sichuan Bistro for the past 11 years.


This story first touched our hearts on  June 7, 2017.

| Writer: Sean Link | Editor: MJ |

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