Tuesday, January 26, 2010

All Roads Lead Back to Home

Well, you guys have read enough about my parents' restaurant on this blog enough that it became an inevitability that it eventually made it into print. It's with great pride (and honestly, a pretty significant amount of trepidation due to anti-Asian sentiment on Long Island and my awareness of potential backlash) that I present to you my first New York/Long Island print article!

This article was a really ambitious piece, and honestly, one of the toughest ones I've ever had to write. First off, it's a little controversial, which as a soft news writer, I haven't yet dabbled in. Normally, I'm not too scared of controversy, being a rather opinionated individual, but race and my personal roots have always been a sensitive topic for me, and a hard one to write about since it forces so many years of stifled anxiety and insecurity to bubble back up to the surface. I've grown a lot since I was a teen who was made ashamed by her classmates of her family's stereotypical, blue-collar living, and have grown to be very proud of the background such an upbringing has given me. Unlike some, I know the value of a dollar and hard work; I know what I stand to gain by consistently reaching for ambitious goals; and I know what I know about food because I grew up immersed in that world.

It wasn't until I became a food writer in New Orleans where I realized that being in the culinary industry, no matter how humble or lofty the establishment, was a positive thing, and for that, I cannot be more grateful. Going to Tulane and getting to know world-renowned chefs and award-winning professionals like Tory McPhail, Tariq Hanna (congrats, Tariq, for getting on TLC for the Ultimate Cake-Off!), Mike Stoltzfus, and the countless other names and faces that have given me pride in having a heritage based around cooking.

However, it's always hard to come back "home," to return to a place where attitudes about food aren't the same. In New Orleans, chefs were celebrated and elite; on Long Island, real ones are few and far between in the suburbs I grew up in, and franchise restaurant line-cooks were looked down upon with the same disdain as Chinese takeouts, Italian pizza parlors, and et cetera. Kids took jobs making sauce at pizza places -- Boy was one of them in his day -- and this occupation wasn't considered something that needed extensive training when you could just do it after school.

It's with this perception that I began writing this article, "Scenes From a Chinese Restaurant: Behind the Counter of a L.I. Accidental Icon." I wanted to show the people of Long Island that those people that man your local takeout are people, too, people with families, dreams, and far more intelligence and skills than the average customer assumes. All my life, helping out at the restaurant, not only was I discriminated against and disrespected, but I had to watch my parents be treated like worthless scum because negative misperception still exists in the suburbs of Long Island -- all while the whole family worked tirelessly through injury, personal grief, exhaustion, and severe weather just to scrape by year after year.

This article's purpose was to give outsiders an inside view of a life spent in a takeout, not from the point of view of the kids there, but the adults that make it so that the kids don't have to spend their adulthoods at the the takeout as well. I wanted to make people on Long Island think twice about how they treat the people at their local takeout, to spur them to perhaps even ask them, "What's your name? How are you?" Often, these questions are never asked, and the Chinese-Americans are treated as "help" and never as humans.

The blame doesn't lie wholly with the outside community, though, and I hope that my article (although it might piss off some Chinese-Americans) can also serve as a call to action to this, the most invisible of minorities in America, to speak up and stop trying to stay under the radar and out of trouble. After all, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the oil, right?

Now I'm not trying to get all Reverend Al Sharpton up in here at all -- that's not my style. But maybe, just maybe, if people realize that these "immigrants" behind the counter are more than that, but brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and beloved family members just trying to make a living, individuals with hopes, dreams, and potential, the world can be a little bit of a better place.


  1. Happened to chance upon your website when looking up Sucre in NOLA (recently visited on vacation, soo cute!). Well, glad I did becasue I loved reading your articles! Not to sound totally self-involved, but it might be because it felt like I was reading it as if I were writing it! Also growing up 'jook-sing' on LI (Dix Hills), I felt it really touched upon so many things I've seen/experienced as well.
    I somehow ended up in the culinary world in nyc, however my parents were not thrilled to say the least - didn't matter I was working in some of the best restaurants, to them it was almost the same as if I was working in my uncle's old chinese take-out restaurant (and they def didn't want that life for me). RIght now I'm back in school and still working in restaurants, so we've made some sort of compromise .. I did get a nyc apt out of it.
    Anyway, Thank you for writing Su-Jit! =)

  2. Haha, that's a great story! I know what you mean, my parents felt the same way and are resigned that food will always be a major part of my life.

    Well, congrats on making it in NYC, the epicenter of culinary accomplishment, and the apartment! :)

    Thank you so much for the great compliments, and I'm glad you loved New Orleans.