January 18, 2024

An Interview With Curtis Chin

About His New Memoir

Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant

Interviewed by Leonard Chan

Curtis Chin is one of the founders of the renowned nonprofit organization Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) in New York and was its first executive director. He went on to write for television, journals, and newspapers, worked on advisory committees for the Democratic Party and Barak Obama, makes social justice documentary films, and now is a published memoirist.

Welcome Curtis Chin. Congratulations on your new book and thank you for taking time out from your busy book tour to answer a few questions from us.

First of all, after reading your book and reading some more about you online, I was wondering why you choose to concentrate on your early life in Detroit and the Detroit suburb that you lived in, and your time in college? You’ve had an amazing career, but your book doesn’t have anything on it. Do you plan to write a second memoir? For those that want to know more, like me, I have a few questions pertaining to the rest of your story later in this interview.

Thanks, Leonard. Asian American literature is dominated by stories from the West Coast and East Coast, but my family has been in the Midwest since the late 1800s. I wanted to share that story and the unique challenges we faced growing up in America’s heartland. I also wanted to tell my family’s story. The book opens on the line, “Welcome to Chung’s, is this for here or to go?” It’s a phrase that my dad would greet all our customers, and one you would often hear at other restaurants, as well. I wanted to take that phrase and add deeper meaning to it. As the book starts off with my great-great grandpa leaving Canton, China for Detroit in the late 1800s, I thought it would be a nice parallel to end this book when I graduate college and leave Michigan.

For those that only know of your career, it may surprise them to learn that you were a Young Republican and Ronald Reagan supporter as a teen. The book covers some of your transformation.

I was struck by how your memories of a visit to a friend’s house and his post visit comment about how his parents said, “you were the first minority they’d ever had in their home,” upset you so much. You apparently took this to be a racist comment at that time. I didn’t see it that way. I saw it more as your being faced with the fact that people saw you as being different and you didn’t want to be. Do you think that was part of the reason for your early beliefs? It seems that when you began to get more comfortable with your differences, being Chinese and gay, your views on the world also began to change.

To me, it was clearly racist. The question, as I say in the book, is it the “mean racism” or “dumb racism.” Microaggressions, which can be seen as harmless, accumulate over time, especially in areas like the Midwest where you are in the clear numerical minority.

I was just thinking of the story “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin, the part where the main character wishes that everyone was the same color, gets his wish, and then decides that we’re actually better off just embracing and celebrating our differences.

What are your thoughts about this, how it relates to your life, and perhaps the bigger picture for all of us?

That’s a great quote. The city of Detroit is a very racially polarized city. We even have our own DMZ line called Eight Mile Road. Until the different groups can learn to accept one another for their differences, and embrace it, then we will continue to see more problems.

I hope the following reveal and question don’t dissuade anyone from reading your book, but a good portion of your memoir is about your coming of age as a gay Chinese American. I really think that books like yours are so important for people to read. It’s part of why we do what we do at AACP. People shouldn’t just learn about themselves, but should learn about others that may not be like them too. It’s how we humanize everyone and start to gain some compassion for others. Plus it’s very important for those that may be having questions about their sexuality.

Yes, I talk about growing up gay, but I also explore what it means to be Asian, Buddhist, and working class. There are so many parts of our individual identities. We aren’t just one thing. I hope my book can open up conversations. So many young gay and lesbian Asian Americans have thanked me for writing the book. Not only do they see themselves in the struggle, but it’s provided an opportunity for them to talk to their immigrant parents. I had a young lesbian Chinese American tell me that she is constantly fighting with her parents, but when she mentioned this book, they were very excited to come to my reading. (They are restaurant owners, too!) Hopefully, her parents will now have a better understanding of the struggles that their daughter has to go through.

However, the title may fool some readers into thinking it’s just about your life’s philosophy learned in a Chinese restaurant. Was that intentional? Did you have other titles in mind for the book and if so, what made you change it? Was your being gay and learning to accept that, an important reason for writing your book and did you want to make that part of who you are incorporated into a bigger picture so that it would be a bit more digestible for those that would not normally pick up an LGBTQ related book?

This is the one and only title I have ever had for the book. I think most kids grow up trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in. This is just my version of that story, the one with lots of great Chinese food references!

Your book also covers the Vincent Chin murder and your connection with him and his family. I thought I read that you even worked a bit on a documentary about him too. Can you fill in our readers about your connection and the impact that Vincent Chin’s death had directly on you and your community? For many of us, the incident was a bit distant and may not even know of it, especially for those that did not live through that time period. The racism that AAPIs have experienced of late is not something new and some AAPIs living in big cities on the West Coast may not understand the waves of hate through time and the differences by region.

Yes, I made a documentary called, “Vincent Who?” which has screened at over 600 universities around the world. People can watch it for free at my website: curtisfromdetroit.com. I hope your readers who are not familiar with the case will either watch my film or my book. It was a pivotal case for me, but also for so many Asian Americans who are fighting for our community’s civil rights.

I found your depiction of growing up in a slummy and deteriorating Chinatown in Detroit and the racism that you faced there and in other parts of Michigan very interesting. For those that are not familiar with Detriot’s Chinatown, many Asian American communities are also going through the hollowing out and vanishing process. On the one hand, they’re ghettos that people were forced to live in and on the other hand, they were supportive cultural islands that various ethnic groups sometimes cherish. Since your book leaves off with you moving to New York in the early 1990s, what has happened to Detroit’s Chinatown? Do you get back there often? Are you missing it? What happened to your family’s restaurant which seemed to be one of the last remaining holdouts for the community?

Sadly, our restaurant was the last one in Chinatown. The area has been abandoned for years. However, with the recent gentrification happening in Detroit, the area has seen some recent activities. There is now a new Chinese restaurant and a Thai restaurant on the street. The building which housed our restaurant is also being renovated and seeking Asian restaurants to move in. It’s bittersweet to see all the changes. I am happy Detroit is being revitalized. I just wish I could play a bigger role, but it’s hard when I live in Los Angeles.

I like reading books where I understand some of the non-English words being used. My very minimal Chinese language skills are getting even rustier now that all my elders that could speak my dialect are gone. I particularly miss listening to my elders’ stories and gossip told in our Hoisanese dialect. Did you enjoy recalling things like your grandmother’s insults and writing them down? Maybe enjoy is the wrong word, but your Chinese skills and you weren’t so mo-yung (useless) after all.

When I write, I often listen to Canto pop because it helps bring me back to my childhood. I also recorded the audiobook which was a new and strange experience for me. Like you, I am also losing some of my skills, so I like to brush up when I can.

Okay, so what happened to your family members? When did you finally come out to them about being gay? Your book mentions your coming out to friends and kind of leads up to your finding the courage to tell your family, but you don’t cover that in this book. Did your family accept your being gay? Was it difficult for some of them? For those that don’t read your acknowledgment, it sounds like you finally got together with Jeff, the Yale graduate that went to the University of Michigan’s law school that you met in passing. If it’s not too personal, could you tell us more about this?

Ha ha, you will just have to read the next book to find out the next chapters in my life!

I also read that you wrote an award winning article for a culinary journal. Does that mean you got better and more confident at cooking? Your first attempt at cooking something for Thanksgiving for some guest at the restaurant sounded pretty brave for someone that was as young as you were (was it 12?). I’m glad your grandmother’s terrible reaction to tasting your dish did not permanently keep you from trying to get better. Obviously food played and still plays an important role in your life. Tell us more.

The essay appeared in Bon Appetit Magazine and it was selected as a Best American food writing in 2023. Sadly, I still can’t cook. However, the essay is not about offering a recipe. It’s about an interaction we had with some of our customers. For me, good food is a big part of a restaurant’s success, but so is service and that is where I felt I excelled. Eventually, in the book, I do come to a better understanding about food though and that’s an important part of my journey.

We’d love to read more about your work experiences. If you’re not saving it for another book, feel free to tell us more about founding and working with AAWW; your documentary work, such as your recent film on photographer Corky Lee, and even about your other writings and projects. Do you still write poetry? Any plans for a poetry book?

Anticipation is a good thing! Hopefully I will be able to continue writing another book. As for the short film I made on Corky Lee, I have just signed the contract and it is being licensed by a program on PBS. Hopefully that film will also have a wider audience.

Are there any last takeaways that you would like people to know about what you learned in your family’s Chinese Restaurant and your book?

I want to honor the families who own Chinese restaurants and to shed light on our experience. Hopefully, others will also have fond memories of growing up in their family’s Chinese restaurants, too!

Thank you again for doing this interview with us.