As American as Chinese take-out
November 6, 2009 § 4 Comments
My buddy Robby’s birthday is coming up, and the least I can do is give him a free meal pass to the Golden Bowl Chop Suey, my family’s restaurant. He has mentioned interest in going for years. But I can be pretty flaky when it comes to making and sticking to plans, so I still have yet to treat him to a Golden Bowl experience. For one thing, it can be out of the way. Forty minutes is quite a commute just to get some Chinese take-out (considering that Panda Express is two minutes away). Sometimes friends would assume that my family’s restaurant is located in Downtown Detroit–perhaps a nice place to get dinner bef0re a show at the Fox, or lunch before an afternoon at the DIA. But we are located in the part of Detroit that is cut-out from the VisitDetroit.com maps. Some people would call the area a wasteland; some people refer to it as the “bad parts”, the ghetto.
What I’m trying to say is most places, especially Detroit, cannot be appreciated without context. So although friends may expect that a trip to the Golden Bowl would be quaint or light-hearted fun, without context, it comes to nothing more than a 40-minute car ride just to spend a total of 15 minutes placing and waiting for your order in a cramped lobby with green folding chairs and two random lawn chairs lining the walls, and blown-up menus (with some infrequent spelling errors). Its Chinese take-out in Detroit, you go in and get out. …But that depends a whole lot on who you talk to because to our loyal customers, neighbors, to my mother, my father, the Golden Bowl can mean many different things.
A former professor of mine (who happens to be one of two Republicans I not just tolerate but like) gave an interesting first assignment to our class (Political Campaigning 423). Before talking political strategy, he wanted us to tell him (in 600 words or less) what we believe in. He said matter-of-factly, if you don’t know what you believe in, what are you doing in politics? Good point. Well lucky for me, I believe in something. The following piece is what I turned in, and I hope that it provides a little bit more context to the Golden Bowl for those that are interested.
This I Believe
I believe in Chinese take-out. Few things are as quintessentially American as Chinese take-out, not even apple pie–once you take into consideration that Americans, on average, order Chinese take-out far more often than they do a slice of pie. I am not a particular advocate of the greasy, often fried food served at many of these establishments–though admittedly, I have my occasional cravings. My relationship with Chinese take-out, however, extends beyond the whims and fancies of my stomach.
It is within the Golden Bowl Chop Suey, a Chinese take-out place located in Detroit’s Westside–where my family’s American dream story takes root. Like many immigrants, my parents came to the United States in search for a better life. In China, the Cultural Revolution halted their formal education. My parents were sent to work in the farms. My mother did not complete middle school, and my father was not able to graduate from high school. Coming into the US as asylum seekers–not yet able to speak English–my parents’ skills were limited to farming and cooking. There was little question in their minds that any employment opportunities would be found within the food and restaurant industry. After three years of waiting tables, my parents opened their own restaurant.
The Golden Bowl–now in its 28th year–is the inescapable backdrop to my life. During my teens, I saw the Golden Bowl as a burden. Countless times I have tried to argue my way out of working there, often with no success. “Why do I have to work today?” I would ask my parents demandingly, “But I have homework…” My protest was in part symptom of typical teenage laziness, but my resentment toward the Golden Bowl ran deeper.
Though managing a small family restaurant my appear ‘quaint’ to onlookers, it’s not. The work is physically and mentally tiring, more so for my parents–who have been working seven-day weeks for nearly thirty years–than for me. There’s always something to worry about–endless paper work, new city codes, rising costs, employee shortages, building maintenance… Safety isn’t a guarantee either. Since the Golden Bowl’s establishment, we have experienced multiple break-ins and three armed robberies. The American dream doesn’t come easy.
I resented the fact that so much of my family’s livelihood is dependent on a run-down restaurant. The Golden Bowl is a source of day-to-day stress on my family. It was also the reason why my parents could never attend my high school track meets or theater productions. Yet all the thing that I most value can be attributed back to my family’s restaurant. The Golden Bowl is the reason why I grew up comfortably in a two story home, the reason behind my siblings and my education, and the reason why I am a US citizen. Despite my resentment toward the Golden Bowl, I could never evade from feeling a sense of obligation toward it–however grudgingly–because there is no denying that this run-down Chinese take-out place is how my family got a foothold in this country.
The opening day of the Golden Bowl was the biggest turning point in my parent’s lives. They see Chinese take-out as a blessing, made possible by the unique opportunities available in the US, and by their hard work and dedication. They have long understood that the American dream is not so much about the self-made man; rather, it is interdependence that makes the dream real for so many people. My parents act with the awareness that their success would not be possible if not for the country they live in, and the friends that they have made here. Golden Bowl was a gift to them, and they believe in giving back. In the 28 years that they have spent in Detroit’s Westside, they have fostered an affinity toward the community. Every year, they donate to the local fire station. Every winter, they help Mr. Kwinkle–our neighbor at the shoe repair store–shovel his snow. Just as my parents make an effort to remember how they have gotten to where they are today, I am learning to do the same. I believe in Chinese take-out because it is my family’s American dream story. It is my story.