Family, identity, Detroit, getting published, getting famous, coming out, serving eggrolls flavored with Jif peanut butter, and the textured meanings behind the question, “For here, or to go?” All of it found its way into a lively conversation with Curtis Chin, author of the memoir “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant,” on Wednesday evening inside the Higgins Lounge at Dana Commons.
Every seat in the lounge was occupied, as Chin, who was visiting Clark as part of a national book tour, engaged in a free-flowing discussion about his life and work, prompted by questions from Dean of the College Betsy Huang and members of the audience. Chin’s memoir details his experiences during three distinct phases of his young life — the elementary and middle school years, high school, and college — all of them centered on the family business, Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, which his great-grandfather opened in 1940 in the heart of Detroit and where he and his five siblings worked while growing up.
Wearing a gray University of Michigan T-shirt (he is a Michigan alum), Chin described his journey from waiting tables at Chung’s to writing a bestseller, touching on key themes during the conversation.
Chin described a difficult early life for his mother, Shui Kuen — as a girl, her family was imprisoned and their home seized by China’s communist regime. She arrived in Detroit with no knowledge of the city or the country; her ethos was “work hard, keep quiet, and obey the adults.”
Shui Kuen insisted her children be educated, a path she had never pursued for herself. “I saw her frustrated in her life,” Chin recounted. When Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” became a sensation, Chin’s mother was inspired to have her own stories published and expected her son to chronicle them. By that point, however, Curtis was establishing his writing voice, and wasn’t interested in being the conduit of his mother’s biography. His resistance disappointed her, and she waved off his apologies. “In our culture, apologies are never spoken. Only deeds bring about reconciliation,” he said.
His late father, affectionately known as Big Al, was a different breed. Gregarious and charming, he talked to everyone, always on the hunt for common ground with his customers. “He loved to talk to people about their jobs, because he and my mother really didn’t know the economic opportunities that existed outside the walls of the restaurant,” Chin recalled. “He’d call all six of us over to ask them questions. Of course, he also knew that people gave bigger tips when talking to children.
“He taught us not to be afraid of talking to strangers or people different from us; and not be afraid to ask for advice, or, most importantly, for help. That was a gift he gave to me.”
The city with its unforgiving edges never frightened or intimidated him, Chin says. The realities of violence, drugs, crime, and an automotive industry in freefall were part of the fabric of his childhood. “By age 15, I knew five people who had been murdered,” he recalled. “It had become normalized for me.”
“As kids, we have the childhoods we have,” he continued. “Someone was always getting killed and murdered every few years; favorite buildings were burned down. So my childhood was one of loss, but it also led me to look at the bright side of things.”
Chin recounted recently speaking at a New England prep school and being awed by the trappings of wealth and privilege, but he also concluded he would never have swapped his own childhood for this one. “I would much rather have the life I’ve had, and the happy childhood I had with my family inside that wonderful Chinese restaurant.”
“For here or to go?” is one of the most common questions in the restaurant industry. Are you going to sit down and eat here, or take your meal home?
Chin extrapolated the question by referencing the dilemma faced by his great-great-grandfather, Gong Li, who, in the late 1800s, stood on a pier in Guangzho and had to decide whether to remain in China in impoverished circumstances or pursue a future with his young family in America. “Here” or “go”? They went.
Chin recalled that as a closeted gay man during the AIDS epidemic, he never expected to live beyond the age of 30. But his mother’s insistence that he attend college “may have saved my life” because it kept him in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when he was considering a move to New York or San Francisco, where, he said, he would have been more likely to contract the virus (Chin noted his book is also an AIDS memoir).
Chin later asked the same “For here or to go?” question of himself as he pondered whether to stay with his family in Michigan post-college or finally make the move to New York — which he did.
After approaching 90 agents with the original manuscript of his book, with no takers, Chin made alterations to the narrative. He added stories from his high school and college years, which forced him to revisit and process some difficult passages in his life.
Today, Chin is surprised by all the accolades for his memoir, which has earned him coverage in major media outlets, from NPR to CBS to TIME magazine, and a crowded slate of speaking engagements, many of them on college campuses.
His family, he noted with a laugh, has been less impressed. His mother refuses to read the book, and other family members have acknowledged no need to relive the Detroit years. “And I’m okay with that,” Chin said. He hopes the memoir will become a gateway for a younger generation of Chins — his nieces and nephews — to learn about their family’s history in Michigan.
At speaking engagements, Chin said he often counsels young people to have more compassion for their parents. “Try to find similarities between your journey and theirs,” he suggested. “You’re probably not as different from your parents as you think.”
Wednesday’s event was co-sponsored by the Dean of the College, the departments of Asian Studies and English, the Center for Gender, Race, and Area Studies, the School of Professional Studies, the Office of Identity, Student Engagement, and Access, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the Higgins School of Humanities.