When I was about kindergarten age, I would bring my feathered pink pen to restaurants and hotels to express my opinion of the atmosphere and service that I had experienced. I critiqued restaurants on whether hostesses armed me with enough crayons to draw a portrait of my sister, who would often insist that I draw her with bangs, and left hotel reviews based on whether or not I received my own bed — never did. It made me feel important to express my opinions, even if most reviews would go unnoticed.
At restaurants, I would routinely ask to sample everyone’s dish, make some unsophisticated mental notes about texture and taste, and then focus on the crux of my review: the time with my family. If my dad voiced frustrations about work or if my mom felt overwhelmed with housework, my reviews would pale. Somehow, my chicken nuggets would taste dry and lackluster. On the other hand, if my sister got a good grade on a test, the chicken nuggets became extra juicy and delicious.
Somewhere in my mind, I also began to imagine that the hostess would see my ratings on a crumpled napkin and share it with coworkers. Maybe the hotel’s owner would catch a glimpse of my writing on the desk’s notepad. I liked to think that my reviews mattered to employees and business owners despite the misspelled words and unfair criteria. Now, I realize that the reviews mattered because it was a record of the time my family and I spent together.
My propensity toward expressing my opinion never vanished. Now, instead of using crumpled napkins and hotel notepads where my reviews would often go unnoticed, I take my talents to Yelp.
When I moved to Berkeley, I explored the cafés and restaurants near me. It became almost ritualistic to pop into a new café after my Wednesday philosophy class and order an iced chai or venture out to a new Thai spot to try Pad See Ew. Although I never found a café that made chai like my parents, and never found a restaurant that made Pad See Ew like my favorite spot in Georgia, I made sure to always explain what fell short in my Yelp reviews. Not enough cinnamon or cardamom; the noodles are too short and stuck together.
In my journey of Yelping, I began to notice that something was always amiss, that something would always be amiss. The iced chai from 1951 Coffee Company was really good, and yet I wanted to convince myself that it was too sweet, that it actually tasted like chocolate milk. I just couldn’t give a perfect five-star review. The barista had been kind and offered to substitute oat milk for regular milk at no additional charge and even served up the drink in a fancy mason jar. But when my fingers hovered over the keyboard, I struggled to recall my positive experience, and instead, the review became muddled with how long the line was and the lack of empty seats. In the back of mind, I knew that my reviews were disingenuous, but I convinced myself that every business had something to improve upon.
When I read the reviews from my freshman year, I am reminded of my loneliness that seemed endless. Studying alone in a barren library for my political science midterm with only a cup of coffee from the Free Speech Movement Café to keep me company crippled my Yelp review with a mere two stars. In that moment of time, my anxiety from catching up on coursework made me write about how the coffee tasted burned.
I remember the times when I crawled out of my bed and walked to Berkeley Thai House after realizing I had no Friday night plans. I watched Instagram stories of folks from my dorm who had attended frat parties as I stood in line and waited for my Pad See Ew. As I shoved noodles down and sat at my computer to complete my review, I’d get frustrated that I didn’t have chopsticks when I had never asked for them in the first place.
Now, I have a hard time judging the veracity of the reviews from my freshman year because everything was somehow tasteless. At the time, I thought that returning home for Thanksgiving would be the solution to my dull Yelp reviews.
When I got home, I was in charge of cooking all the food. I tried making pineapple salmon, but I burned it. My sister waved her fork around and picked apart the burned pieces before she jokingly asked, “So what would you rate this dish?”
It was the worst thing I’ve ever made, almost completely inedible, but all I could think to do was laugh about it. Maybe it was a result of all the meticulous prepping that goes into cooking a huge meal, but I said, “I wouldn’t even give it one star.” As we continued to laugh about how fruitless our hard work had become, I realized that poor reviews didn’t always have to be a reflection of how I was feeling. I felt a huge rush of relief to know that they could exist separately.