This Encore Devotes Her Time to West Michigan's Asian Community
For several decades, Yili Bonarski balanced her life between work and family, careful to put the latter first, which included caring for her sick mother until her death in early 2016.
But her Encore years might best be described as balancing her life on behalf of her family, which includes immersing herself in a handful of business enterprises that help train a kind and gentle spotlight on Grand Rapids’ Asian community.
A native of China, Yili came to the States as Yili Jian (her last maiden name means “among the bamboo”) when she was 23, shortly after earning a degree to teach English in her homeland. She was motivated to move here because “I just wanted to make my English better,” she says.
She enrolled at Northern Michigan University, where she met her husband, Ted Bonarski, who hailed from Hastings. After marrying, they tried their luck in California, where they had their first of two daughters, eventually growing homesick enough after two years to return to West Michigan.
While on the West Coast, Yili landed a job for a Chinese investment company and “learned all aspects of the business,” which included roles in purchasing, payroll, communications and more. In essence, she says, “I spoke for the owner,” who didn’t have a mastery of English.
Back here, Ted focused on building a business specializing in financial strategies, and Yili tended to daughters Frances and Serena while trying her hand at a handful of ventures.
After working in office accounting for a local manufacturing firm, she helped establish and grow the Chinese language program at Grand Valley State University, where she served as an adjunct professor for three years.
She then worked as an agent for New York Life, ascending to the role of sales manager before resigning to care for her mother, whose journey with Alzheimer’s lasted some five years.
At one point several years ago, Yili worked as a substitute teacher of Chinese at Grand Rapids City High, where both daughters once attended. She augmented language classes with a smorgasbord of offerings that focused in on Chinese cooking, history and culture.
Four years ago, Yili landed a job as in-language editor for the Amway Corporation, which she loves in part because it allows her the flexibility to manage a host of family-owned initiatives all located in the 4000-block of South Division Avenue, just north of 44th Street SW.
That’s where you’ll find Yili or Ted or daughter Serena and their employees working at Café Boba, an “Asian fusion” attraction where smoothies are a hot item, along with everything from spicy shrimp rolls to Korean dumplings to Udon noodle soup. It opened in December of 2013.
Right next door is the entrance to Ted’s office, “Dedalus Financial Strategies,” and adjacent to that, the door to Bamboo Studio, where individuals and groups gather for painting classes and parties.
One more door to the north is the Bamboo Place Cultural Center, headquarters for the West Michigan Asian American Association, Inc. (WMAAA). And finally, there’s Serenity Hair Studio, yet another Bonarski business.
“To me, I feel as though I raised my kids, and now it’s my time to do what else I like,” Yili says, emphasizing that her heart is for the Asian community, which in ways both subtle and demonstrative, is an integral contributor to the overall culture of West Michigan.
She’s especially active in the WMAAA, which surfaces in high fashion at the annual Festival of the Arts on the Calder Plaza each June, and through a variety of ongoing service projects.
Yili also chairs the board of the Grand Rapids Chinese Language School here, where she spends virtually every Saturday afternoon teaching Chinese to both youngsters and adults.
In what little spare time she has, Yili enjoys ballroom dancing with her husband, along with engaging in Chinese group dance, yoga and Tai Chi.
“I love people, and I’m there for them, especially in this community,” says Yili. “The trust is there, and I appreciate the opportunities where we can all grow together.”