Curtis Chin, author of the new memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant, grew up in the titular eatery, Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, in an area of downtown Detroit in the 1970s and 80s that was literally falling apart around him.
The family-owned restaurant was a buzzing, florescent-lit oasis amid the slow-motion demolition of the once-great Motor City.
In her new memoir, “In the Form of a Question,” Amy Schneider provides plenty of revealing answers about her life beyond ‘Jeopardy!’
There, Chin overheard and delivered the restaurant’s standard greeting – “Welcome to Chung’s. Is this for here or to go?” – thousands of times as he navigated life as a young gay ABC, or American-born Chinese.
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Where the third of six kids fits in — among family, friends, in American culture, and in the sprawling kitchen at the back of the restaurant — is at the heart of Chin’s story.
LGBTQ Nation: I love your description of the communal desk in the restaurant for you and your siblings, where you had two dictionaries “so we could get a second opinion.” How important were words and language to you growing up?
Curtis Chin: Because I grew up in a multilingual house, words were very important. I didn’t have a lot of literature around me. I read the newspaper and I did the crossword puzzles and things like that. Our customers, they would leave all the papers, like the Detroit News Free Press, the Metro Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal. And so you’re sitting around the back of the restaurant for hours, what were you going to do, except read them, literally, from cover to cover?
LGBTQ Nation: You share a funny and embarrassing scene when you’re 12 years old. One morning you’re in the dining room and the Diana Ross song, I’m Coming Out comes on the radio. So you start dancing and lip-syncing, with pink chopsticks as a mic, and a waiter walks in and discovers you. Describe his reaction, and yours.
CC: His reaction was to do that limp wrist motion. I don’t know if he actually was accusing me of being gay. Or just that what I was doing was being very gay, because he never brought it up again.
But it stuck in my mind, and I immediately tried to hide it. Like, I stopped doing any type of dancing or singing. I didn’t want to chance it.
LGBTQ Nation: You write about a “cute twenty-something with thick hair and a glorious tan” who started work as a fry cook when you were 13, and you fell for him. Tell us more about Mr. Mah.
CC: He’s from San Francisco. My dad had hired him, and even now I think of him. Just such a cute guy. Just such a nice guy. I think what really attracted me to him, first and foremost, is that he paid attention to me. I spent a lot of time with him just hanging around his fry station, just soaking in his vibe. It was my first sexual awakening. I had been attracted to other guys. I didn’t really know it was sexual. I just knew that I liked hanging out with certain boys, right? But with him, it felt like I wanted to actually touch him. Like, it’s a progression of attraction and what you do with that attraction. That’s what was happening with Mr. Mah.
LGBTQ Nation: For a while in high school, you went through an Alex P. Keaton phase. He was Michael J. Fox’s character on Family Ties, an obnoxious teenage Reagan Republican. Were you as insufferable then as he was, and how have you changed since?
CC: Hey, you’re knocking down my childhood idol there. He wasn’t insufferable, he was Michael J. Fox. He was so cute. He was great.
I was the Asian Alex P. Keaton. I was president of the National Honor Society. I co-founded the Young Republicans Club and Students Against Smoking. So I was a bit of a terror in high school, but I did grow, and that’s part of the book, right? Like, I do change. I do. I was the type of person that was willing to grow and learn. And that’s one of the problems these days that we have in this country, is we’re all stuck in our way of thinking. And we don’t like to listen and try to challenge our positions.
LGBTQ Nation: Describe your parents’ philosophy of mo yow siew.
CC: My parents’ basic philosophy was, “Work hard, obey your elders and be quiet,” but mo yow siew is a similar thing that means, “Don’t wave your hands walking.” In the restaurant, it had to do with working as a really good waiter, right? So they would say, if you’re walking back to the kitchen, your hands should never be swinging, like your hands should be doing something. So, go pick up a dirty plate and bring it to the kitchen, or fill up the water pitchers, stuff like that. It’s kind of related to, “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” Don’t just swing your hands. Make use of them.
LGBTQ Nation: In college, you say you “eliminated any social life” —
CC: (laughing) Yes.
LGBTQ Nation: — and “excelled in school.” Do you have any regrets that you never went to a frat party or got blackout drunk or made it with the swim team, just for research purposes?
CC: I didn’t know making it with the swim team was an option. I do think I worked a little too hard. I didn’t want to graduate college with any debt. Because that’s just the way I was raised is like, to not have debt, and so I worked full time. But I think that maybe I worked a little too hard. Like, particularly over the summers at the restaurant, we’d work 80 hours a week, literally seven days a week from open to close. And so that was just the habit I was into. So I work and then go to school at night and just the idea of playing or just not being productive, was just not something I was trained to do.
LGBTQ Nation: How important is karma in your life?
CC: I’m pretty superstitious. I do a lot of things to generate good luck and positive energy, like eating noodles for long life or avoiding the number four. Bad luck. This book is three sections of eight stories each. It’s 8-8-8, that’s a good luck number to Chinese people. So if you’re equating karma with superstition, yeah, I do think it’s important to generate positive energy.
LGBTQ Nation: For all the sturm und drang you bring to coming out, I thought the wording, when you finally did tell a close college friend, was a pretty brilliant construction. You said to her: “You know I’m gay, right?” I read that and thought, wow, what a great way to put you in a position of power, making it a question like that.
CC: Oh, that’s very interesting. You’re very right about that. Because the onus is on them to deny it. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Because I expect her to be okay with it. I expect her to embrace it as a normal thing, right? “You know I’m gay, right?”
LGBTQ Nation: It’s like you’re manifesting a good reaction from her.
CC: Yeah. And it did work out.
LGBTQ Nation: When you do make some gay friends in college, you’re shocked when one of them calls you “a baby f*g.” Do you still find the term as offensive as you did then?
CC: No. I had not come out fully yet at that point, had not gone through the AIDS activism stuff that I did in New York City, where you really embrace terms like queer. I hadn’t gone through that phase yet. So to me, just the idea that you would say, “You’re a f*g,” it’s like, “Oh, my God. I thought that was the word that we were taught to avoid,” right? Like, you didn’t want to be called that, and for someone to actually be calling themselves that, on top of it, I was just really taken aback by it.
LGBTQ Nation: One of the funniest terms that you share is “banana.” Please define.
CC: A banana is really an Asian on the outside, or a yellow person on the outside, and being white on the inside. And so that’s a derogatory thing that we call people who we feel haven’t embraced their Asian heritage. It’s like Oreo. I think black people call themselves that, or brown people calling brown people coconuts. Any food with white filling, I think, qualifies for these terms.
LGBTQ Nation: Tell us about “sticky rice.”
CC: Sticky rice is a term when Asian guys date other Asian guys. I haven’t heard lesbians really say that term. A lot of Asian guys oftentimes dated white guys. And so, it almost seemed like it was an oddity when Asian guys dated.
LGBTQ Nation: Why is that?
CC: People would say — and sometimes this also happens with heterosexual situations, where they’ll be like, “Oh, it’s like dating my brother,” “it’s like dating my sister.” It’s a little too close to home. I think that part of it’s just because if you were raised here in America, especially at a time when there were so few Asians, and there were no images, sexual images of Asians, and particularly Asian guys, that it just seemed really weird. I don’t think that’s as common anymore, because there are more positive images these days, particularly the last three to five years, where you see Asian males, sex symbols. And so hopefully these terms will go to the dustbin so that people can date whoever they want, and we don’t really classify it. Because I feel like labeling people as having sexual types, that’s not the future.
LGBTQ Nation: You use another one of my favorite terms, l’espirit de l’escalier, which literally translates to “staircase wit” and describes the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late.
CC: When did you learn that term?
LGBTQ Nation: I don’t know. I guess I’ve known it for a while.
CC: Do you beat yourself up?
LGBTQ Nation: (laughing) Yes!
CC: Growing up I wish that I was quicker in terms of having a comeback. In particular, the time in the book where this drag queen in our dining room had said something racist to me, I wish that I could have said something to her. But I was just shocked, I guess.
I think part of it is just being free to listen, really just making sure you’re paying attention.
LGBTQ Nation: You write that your parents lived by the adage, “It’s better to have leftovers than to leave the table hungry.” How does that apply to this book, and is there a sequel cooking?
CC: Did I tell you this? Because you sort of nailed it. There are lots of stories that didn’t make it in this book, and as I said to my agent, we should sell a second one with the 8-8-8 format that’s called Leftovers.