Welcome to “The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience”? It depends where you look.
Those iconic waxy, folded white Chinese takeout boxes have become so ubiquitous in America, they’re nearly as recognizable as the golden arches.
But these cartons are so much more than an emblem of Asian-American fast food. They are symbols of struggle, entrepreneurship, and the will to make it in a country far from home.
Behind these Chinese restaurants are families that are rarely highlighted ― the immigrants who put down roots in the country, desperate to achieve their own American dream. For many first-generation immigrants, working in those restaurants were a way to provide for their children in a strange land where the job industry felt almost impossible to crack without extensive educations.
However, amid the produce, fortune cookies and nights spent in front of the wok, these families ended up forging a sub-culture among Asian-Americans.
We chatted with two members of Chinese restaurant families who grew up in demographically different areas.
QingWai Wong, 25, grew up in working at her family’s restaurant in Manchester, Connecticut, and later Norwich ― towns without significant Asian-American populations. Wong noted that she often felt reduced to her family’s restaurant identity and had, at times, felt a sense of shame because of it.
Wilson Tang’s family entered the restaurant business in New York City’s Chinatown, an area rife with Asian-American immigrants. The 38-year-old said he has always felt an attraction to his family’s work and credits it with his choice to enter the field today as owner of several restaurants under the Nom Wah umbrella ― including the Chinatown institution Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a popular dim sum spot for both locals and tourists.
Despite growing up with vastly different types of people and contrasting glimpses of diversity, Wong and Tang’s experiences are united by childhoods defined by strong work ethic ― a pillar of the Chinese-American restaurant story.
Read more below on their reflections on growing up in the world of Chinese restaurants.
How did your family get into the restaurant business? Was it a dream of theirs or a way to ensure survival in America?
QingWai Wong (Connecticut): It was sort of a means to an end. My dad came over in the ’80s and worked in the restaurant business as a chef in Chinatown in New York City for a while. Finally, when my mom and my sister immigrated as well, they opened a restaurant. This is what they knew they could do to make a living. It wasn’t so much a passion for food as much as it was making sure they could provide for their family.
Wilson Tang (Chinatown, NYC): I think as first-generation immigrants, as my parents and my family were, you almost had to do that because there was no other option. For my uncle and my dad, there was no other entry-level position besides working at a restaurant. When they came to the U.S., their English was poor, and they’re not coming from a background of academics. So they were pigeonholed into doing restaurant work.
Did you feel that outsiders treated your family differently because of the negative stigmas attached to Chinese restaurants?
Wong (Connecticut): We used to get a lot of prank phone calls from people imitating Chinese accents. I didn’t really understand it growing up but as I got older, it made me really mad. And when we got older and started applying to college, customers would be so surprised that we were going off to college or succeeding in school. We were looked down upon in that sense. When customers found out we were going off to college ... they treated us differently because that’s not what they expected.
Tang (Chinatown, NYC): I think growing up, I was primarily sheltered from that. My dad’s side of the family worked so hard in the restaurant component that they wanted me far removed from it. They didn’t want me to see any of it. My time in the restaurant was sparse. They knew very early on, that’s not the path they wanted me to lead.
Did your parents ever have to adjust their cuisine to be more friendly to non-Asian tastebuds?
Wong (Connecticut): Most of the food we serve at the restaurant is not completely authentic in our culture. In Norwich, we had a bigger Asian-American population and we’d make special dishes and certain off-the-menu items for people who specifically requested it. But most of our dishes were pretty Americanized.
Tang (Chinatown, NYC): It was very much the Canton style of cooking. I do have to say that even today, our clientele is mostly American or Chinese-American. I look at food in a general sense ― food to me on many levels is a commodity, it’s a means of business. You want to be open to as many mouths as possible. The stuff that we serve at Nom Wah in particular is very diverse in a sense that if you were to look at 100 people and their eating patterns and habits, we’re trying to get as many of those people to like it.
In school, did you feel that classmates treated you a certain way because of your parents background?
Wong (Connecticut): Definitely in middle school, a lot of the kids lived around the restaurant. Whenever they saw me in school they’d ask, ‘Why don’t you come bring me some egg rolls?’ At that age, I was just trying to fit in so I just laughed it off, but looking back, it made me feel a little angry. I saw a lot of my classmates work at different restaurants or the grocery store but no one would ask them, ‘Why don’t you bag my groceries?’
Tang (Chinatown, NYC): Growing up, as any minority kid, especially as an Asian minority, there was a lot of prejudice. And I think that’s part of every Chinese-American or Asian-American as a child. Even living in the melting pot of New York, that was always the reality. I always took the high road. I didn’t have a choice that I was Asian-American or Chinese. ... I don’t dwell on the past but I try to make the future better as the parent of two Chinese-American kids. And try to make sure that doesn’t happen. What Chinese kid anywhere in the U.S. doesn’t have a story of discrimination? But what are you going to do about it?
Did you find that your upbringing was immensely different from others?
Wong (Connecticut): I remember I used to have this fight all the time with my mom. I’d say, ‘Kids are supposed to have fun, but I have to work in the restaurant. I have to come to the restaurant every day. That’s just not fair.’ And my mom would say, ‘Dad and I have to work every single day. It’s not like we have someone to care for you at home, so you have to come work in the restaurant.’ It was an added duty to my other responsibilities. In hindsight I was absolutely happy to help out but at the moment, it really felt unfair.
When I was applying for colleges, I didn’t have much help from my parents. I know my friends, they’d tell me their parents would help them out with FAFSA. I was just trying to sift through my dad’s tax returns, trying to figure out what to put where. ... All of the college application process was on my shoulders but a lot of people, they at least were given the time and space.
Tang (Chinatown, NYC): Even though we were living in Queens, going to a private Catholic school, my dad was a hustler. My dad would work Monday through Friday 9 to 5, as a salesperson for a Chinese distributor of foods to Chinese restaurants. On the weekend evenings, him and his brother had a Chinese restaurant that he would manage. And on weekend days, he would work at a travel agency that he co-owned. So at a very early age I knew the importance of hard work and paying my dues.
From what I remember from my classmates back in the day, a lot of their parents had those 9 to 5 jobs. Their dads were bankers, their moms worked in other offices. That was a typical American dream. ... My parents were a little different from that. My mom and dad didn’t fit that mold. If I think about class trips and extracurricular activities, my parents were the ones who were never there because they were working. Tom, John and Jerry ― their parents were always at their events, at the softball game, at the yard sale.
Were you ever ashamed of what your parents did?
Wong (Connecticut): I don’t think as much growing up, but I remember in college, I didn’t tell my friends for a while about what my parents did. Everyone’s parents were doctors or lawyers. Halfway through college, I really started embracing it. But I definitely remember feeling ashamed that my parents didn’t have some swanky office or fancy letters behind their name.
Tang (Chinatown, NYC): No, absolutely not. My dad had always been in the restaurant business and I didn’t have a chance to be embarrassed about it. It was all I knew. The only thing I felt embarrassed about was that we had a really old, shitty car growing up and I got made fun of because my dad drove a crappy car.
Did your childhood experiences in a Chinese restaurant family influence your career choice?
Wong (Connecticut): It definitely influenced me in that I don’t want to work in a restaurant. I see my parents work so hard but I definitely want a living a little more comfortable where I can give back to my parents and at the same time I can spend a little more time with my kids.
Tang (Chinatown, NYC): Yes, the restaurant business is hard work. But that hard work being normalcy for me has made me really excel in the profession.
Has being from a Chinese restaurant family become a core part of your identity?
Wong (Connecticut): As much as I didn’t like it growing up, it’s where I did a lot of my learning. My mom would make dumplings and teach me the times tables. It was an activity we used to do every weekend. Growing up I was really shy and quiet, and I think in certain instances of micro-aggressions, I learned to really stand up for my family. It’s a core part of my identity and I definitely came to appreciate the experience. Also, knowing that my parents work so hard makes me want to work a little harder too.
Tang (Chinatown, NYC): If restaurants weren’t such a big part of my livelihood growing up, I wouldn’t have developed this hospitality piece in me about always wanting to take care of people. ... I think coming from a family with roots in customer service and hospitality has made me who I am today.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.