Not from around here: one story of a Chinese immigrant family working in the restaurant business

A couple of months ago, I mentioned Jennifer 8. Lee's book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, and included an excerpt about how very American it is to eat Chinese food. Chinese immigrants make up an enormous portion of the US Asian population; even so, I never really understood the extent to which these men and women have gone in order to land in America-- and start working at a China-1 or Happy China restaurant. Some Chinese immigrants pay upwards of $30,000 to various people or companies, leave behind families, jobs, and homes, and bet everything on the opportunities American life can offer. Some have quite successful businesses and have earned college degrees  in their homeland. In the chapter "Waizhou, U.S.A.," Lee describes immigration in all its aches and pains, and brings new dimensions to every Chinese take-out or buffet restaurant I have ever entered. These men, women, and even entire families, have started life anew, and in the United States, the best way for Chinese people to do this is the Chinese food industry. Lee introduces a family, and the mother has lived several years in the US without having learned English. Without the ability to communicate in English, this family (and many others) are limited to jobs in the food industry. And, as Lee points out, the Chinese food industry in the United States is hardly even the food with which these newly-arrived Chinese people are at all familiar.

Lee came to know this family while they lived in New York City, and subsequently wrote an article on their hardships; it was published in January 2003, in the New York Times (I recommend a quick read of this, to get to know this family). But this article is merely the beginning of a tragic tale: she recounts their hard journey of getting to the United States, and then the decision to move the family down to a small town in Hiawassee, Ga., where they bought a small Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. The tale that unfolds in the book is far more tragic, and scarily honest in its assessment of Chinese immigrants adapting to life in small cities across the country.

[It should be noted here, for lack of a better location, that "Waizhou" means, basically, "out-of-state" in Mandarin, and this is the term that defines all of the United States beyond New York City. Hence, Waizhou, U.S.A. is an appropriate term defining the locales across small-town American where Chinese restaurateurs end up.]

The family, Ms. Zheng and Mr. Ni (husband and wife) and their three children, Jolin, Nancy, and Jeffrey (nicknamed Momo), were living in chaos for awhile, apart while each Zheng, Ni, and Jolin was allowed entrance into the US. After living several years in poor conditions in New York City, Ni convinced his wife a relocation would be their best plan. But without much English, Zheng and Ni had a difficult time functioning in the rural Georgia community-- quite a far cry from the New York City Chinatown they had left. The family's money went farther, but at the expense of cultural misunderstandings and family dysfunction. Not long after arriving in Hiawassee, Jolin began acting out against her mother. Questions arose about the childrens' safety, after a report  was filed that Momo and Nancy had been playing outside the restaurant unsupervised; things went from bad to worse, and the children ended up in foster care. A strange case of domestic abuse followed, with Ni's arrest (although, as Lee points out, the entire situation is a bit debatable, and the real circumstances may be different).  Ni spent two nights in jail.  This second offense meant the children could not come back home. Zheng and Ni both took it very hard, obviously so; it was made that much worse by the language and culture barriers. "Difeh" began to consume their lives: DFACS, the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services, that is. All of a sudden, their lives were analyzed, personal, invading questions were asked, and DFACS controlled when and where the parents were allowed to see their children. This can all be read in much more detail in Lee's account of the unraveling; I am only trying to cover a tiny outline. But she does raise the issue of weakness in the child and family agencies system. "Newspapers are always filled," Lee says, "with accounts of how child and welfare agencies ignored the warning signs and failed to protect the life of some fragile [child] who ended up dead. It's less common to hear about the flip side, when the government intervention makes things worse." Ni even felt that the way he was treated was a violation of his human rights, and way beyond anything the authoritarian regime in China had ever attempted upon him. This family's hardships are worth considering; they are merely a few immigrants among hundreds of thousands sharing the Chinese-American experience.

Lee says on her Web site that this family's story was part of her inspiration for the book. The unraveling, and somewhat haphazard reorganization, of their lives, and the cultural confusion and destruction that took place between the Hiawassee community and this 5-person Chinese familial unit, sheds light on the larger issues facing Chinese immigrants today. There is great demand across the country for Chinese restaurants-- every little American city has at least one. And most often, they are run by Chinese people, who cook food that slightly resembles the food they were raised eating, and sometimes have trouble speaking English with you. Even if completely fluent, they speak English with an accent. I never took this to mean very much; to me, I would think, this person was obviously born in China, came over here, end of story. Turns out that is far from accurate. It amazes me to think of the stories behind the faces I have seen in restaurants and take-out joints, and of what these people may have encountered in order to have the opportunity to serve American-style Chinese food. Here, I do not mean "opportunity" to imply that any American is entitled to be served food by a Chinese immigrant; I mean it to suggest the imagined life, set against the reality.

This is one of the most poignant and significant chapters in Lee's chronicles of Chinese food. The humanity of this Chinese family and the pain, legal battles, fights, and cultural confusion that threatened their cohesion (and, indeed, inflicted permanent damage) allow a window into the life of Chinese restaurant owners and workers. For such a well-loved, hugely popular food institution in the US, Chinese food businesses seem to remain behind that impersonal veil.

Read Jennifer 8. Lee's book, for the full account of this family's bittersweet story. Their story is an important account of one aspect of modern America, juxtaposing the popularity of Chinese food in nearly every city across the country with the stories of the families who wake up every day to cook the food.