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Writer Curtis Chin on what growing up in a Chinese restaurant teaches about life


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: Curtis Chin spent a lot of his childhood at Chung's his family's Chinese restaurant in Detroit. He was a waiter, the host and then as the neighborhood got grittier, he was security watching the door.

At one point he assumed that he like his father and grandparents would spend his life there. Instead, he became a writer and filmmaker, a founder of the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Chung's closed in 2000 after six decades of serving customers. It also provided Chin life lessons and shaped his worldview. He's written about it in his memoir, everything I learned I learned in a Chinese restaurant.

Curtis Chen, welcome. What did you learn?

Curtis Chin: I learned everything in that Chinese restaurant, not just how to cook, but how to deal with people. But I also learned about family history. The City of Detroit, it was just a really, really great place.

John Yang: Are there lessons you still live today or you use today?

Curtis Chin: Oh, yeah, constantly. I mean, I always say that the very first lesson was something my dad taught me. When you're a kid, oftentimes people say don't talk to strangers. My parents gave me the exact opposite advice. They said talk to strangers and who they were talking about were the people sitting in our dining room because my mom didn't have a chance to graduate high school. My dad went to community college for two semesters before he had to quit and work in the business again.

And so they didn't know what opportunities existed outside of those four walls, but they knew they had a dining room full of people that did. And so anytime my dad met somebody who thought he had a cool job, or just seemed really happy, he called all six of his kids to run over there and barrage them with questions of what do you do for a living? How did you get your job? How much money do you make?

And it just really taught me this idea of being able to talk to people that are different from you, not being afraid to ask for help. Not being afraid of asking questions in life. And so yeah, I -- so many fundamental things about the way I look at the world and how I deal with people came because of working in that restaurant.

John Yang: Detroit also was sort of a major character in the book.

Curtis Chin: Yeah.

John Yang: How did it affect you? How did Detroit affect you? And what do you carry with you from Detroit as you go through life?

Curtis Chin: Well, I think it's like the sweatshirt says Detroit vs. Everybody. I think that when you grew up in a city that is constantly picked on, you're like, you feel like the rest of the country was bullying us in a lot of ways.

And so we're very proud of who we are. And we stick to our guns about Detroit. I know there were a lot of challenges growing up in Detroit, particularly in the 80s. The car companies were struggling, there was crack cocaine, there was AIDS. You know, I knew five people murdered by the time I was 18 years old. But I always say I wouldn't trade my childhood for anything. I was a really great experience.

John Yang: Talking about the auto industry, the 80s and 1982, of course, there was a well-known case, a Chinese American named Vincent Chin was killed, beaten to death by to laid off auto workers who were blaming him for what happened to their jobs. How did that affect you?

Curtis Chin: That case probably changed my life in the sense of before that I was going to be a Chinese waiter for the rest of my life. I mean, it was a great restaurant, my family was out there, I got all the free food I wanted. But then that night that he was killed our families or friends, you know, my uncle was his best man.

And so you know, when we found out that Vincent had been attacked, and he was in the hospital, I immediately checked the newspapers, right, I didn't see anything reported then. I didn't see anything the next day, the next day after that, after that, it took the media 12 days before they actually covered it.

Meanwhile, everybody's coming to our restaurant asking for details about the case, what we heard had happened, that disparity between what the Chinese American or Asian American community wants to know versus what the mainstream media was covering, really made me think about, well, who gets to tell the stories, you know, and I think that when the judge only find these guys $3,000, and they never had to serve a single day in jail.

I really thought that if the media had done a better job of telling the stories of Asian Americans, that he probably would not have given that sentence. And so in that sense, I thought, like, I, maybe I could be one of those people to go out and tell the stories of our community.

John Yang: There was also the not just the media ignoring it. But there was also this wave of anti-Asian feeling in Detroit at the time. And I'm wondering if you found echoes of that during the pandemic, with sort of Asian Americans being villainized.

Curtis Chin: So my family has been in this country since the 1800s. And I think that in a lot of ways, the discrimination that my great, great grandfather felt when he first came to this country parallels the discrimination that I sometimes face, right, this perception that was Asian Americans, were not really loyal to this country, you know, with COVID, this idea that we were dirty, you know, that we had diseases.

If you look back at history, those are the same things they were saying about the first Asians that were coming to this country. And so yeah, I feel like there's a parallel. I think the main difference, though, is that how are we as Asian Americans responding to it. And I feel like that you can point to a lot of progress in the sense that we're much stronger community now.

We have a lot of infrastructure, we're able to stand up when people, you know, are perpetrating all this anti-Asian hate crimes, we're actually doing something about it. And so I think that has been really exciting for me, and why I'm very optimistic about the future.

John Yang: Why did you write the memoir and what do you hope readers will take away from it?

Curtis Chin: We live in a very divided country right now, right? We have these little silos where didn't talk to each other. But it feels like Chinese restaurants are one of those few places where you can actually see people from different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, religion, sexual orientation.

And if we just took the opportunity to just, you know, maybe lean across the table over us and just say, hey, what are you eating? Like, maybe those are the little things that our country, you know, as people that live in this country need to do, we just need to start being able to, like, engage with each other, and I feel like food, you know, and places we get food are places that are perfect for that.

And so, as I said to my friends, it's like, the book I'm pitching is comfort the egg grows, but stay for the talk on racism, you know, because these are very important topics for us to discuss in this country. I wouldn't want us to shy away from them.

But let's do in a way that actually brings us together that that heals our country that allows us to move forward and maybe having a nice plate of Chinese food, you know, will help that.

John Yang: The book is "Everything I learned I learned at a Chinese Restaurant." The author was Curtis chin. Curtis, thank you very much.

Curtis Chin: Thank you.

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