Currently reading John Jung’s Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants

john jung sweet and sour life in chinese family restaurantsI purchased the Kindle edition of John Jung’s Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants, as far as I can remember, a couple of years ago. While it isn’t difficult at all to read, I would get sidetracked and only got about a quarter of the way through before putting it down for over a year.

While this is a topic that is important to me, other books and novels of interest to me will never cease to come to my attention so I had to make a concerted effort to put other reading on pause while I finally finished this book.

When I was younger, I did not want to admit to my family background, that I was a “restaurant kid”. It was drilled into me that my parents come from a higher “class” in Hong Kong than the other restaurant-operating folks in Halifax who came to Canada straight from a village with grade school education and – since no one will check – claim high school matriculation. But as my parents chose to immigrate and found difficulty securing jobs in their fields, working in a restaurant was an “easy” option. Over twenty years ago, when I was 12 years old, my parents opened their own restaurant and by doing so, could finally make themselves proud. That, in a nutshell, is my story.

Being a “restaurant kid” is a sort of demographic since so many Chinese people open restaurants. I don’t find in Asian-American literature – except for Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Cafe and Kim Wong Keltner’s I Want Candy – that this demographic is well represented. Being a restaurant kid gets into your very fabric but it makes for a poor community because everyone desperately wants out. These days, I am proud to be a restaurant kid because it is inspiring to me how my parents literally tough it out every day, into their sunset years.

This is the book I wanted to write (but from more of a food point of view but not exactly like Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles either).  John Jung is a retired professor of psychology. Just reading his Life After Retirement bio, I realize how similar our Chinese-American/Canadian paths have been. He grew up a “laundry kid” in Macon, Georgia where his family was the only Chinese in town (I grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the eastern end of Canada) and then he moved to San Francisco where there are plenty of Chinese but he still didn’t fit in with San Francisco Chinese who lived with so many Chinese all their lives (ditto, I moved to “Hongcouver”/Vancouver, British Columbia). I love how John Jung has the ability to pursue his interest during his retirement and I hope to do that as well.

John Jung’s first published work was a memoir of his family life and was followed by an in-depth book about Chinese laundries. His third book focused on Chinese grocers in Mississippi in a time of racial segregation. To round out the work on occupations available to Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, he published Sweet and Sour in 2010.

In the preface, in the first sentence, Jung writes, “the focus of this book is not on Chinese food.” It is a sociological study of the Chinese restaurant, how it was a major entrepreneurial option for immigrants and how it introduced an initially strictly American-food eating public to other cuisine. It is about the families as well because strictly quoting statistics of numbers of restaurants is dry. And because progress in Canada mirrored that in the United States in so many ways, Jung gave nods and provided Canadian examples.

There is one chapter consisting of in-depth interviews or essays with people in restaurant families. In their own words, the children of restauranteurs describe their family histories and their world growing up in a kitchen or dining room, surrounded by family and restaurant folk. In their stories, I saw my own history and my parents’ as well, even though my parents opened their restaurant and I was born about 10 years later than Jung’s interview subjects. I read a passage to NPY who thought it was my writing and about my father.

It’s true – Jung writes about the family Chinese restaurant as an ode because it’s all changing now. Formerly small towns with just one Chinese family and restaurants evolved into small cities. Nearly everyone has tried Chinese food and the public has moved and the current fascination in small cities seems to be Thai food. In the Internet age, everything changes.

None of the restaurants described were as new as my parents’ restaurant, established in the early 1990s. By my age, Chinese women had been arriving the in the Americas for generations, broke out of traditional gender roles and pitched in equally in the kitchen. People don’t so often live above their restaurant – we didn’t.

You hear that behind every great man, there’s a great woman. Sometimes the woman is leader of the family. More often than the case studies or examples and interviews would suggest, often people who start in the restaurant business are not suited to run a restaurant. In the 80s and 90s, there is a lot of competition as the number of family Chinese restaurants per capita skyrockets. What about price wars? What about unethical practices? It’s not all rosy but that is also not part of the scope of Sweet and Sour.

I was so mad at my parents for making us a stereotype. What I realized reading the interviews is that our family had the unique privilege to work together for years. We spent time together in a truly special way, in the pressure cooker that is the kitchen. It’s small consolation right now when they continue to be tied to the restaurant and I see them just once or twice a year.

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