I'm back after all these years. Back to the basics. Back to square one. My life always seems to come back to food. Hell, I was almost born in a restaurant.
I see myself as a semi-failure millennial. I feel like I should have some of my shit together or something. But noooo. Sigh. At least I'm not homeless. My parents are happy I moved back home, so I guess that's good.
My parents were born and raised in Vietnam. They came to Oklahoma as refugees from Vietnam after the war. But they have Chinese blood so they consider themselves Chinese, not Vietnamese. However, they speak Vietnamese to each other and eat and cook mostly Vietnamese food. But they only speak Cantonese or English to their “Chinese-American” kids.
My grandma hates it when I try to speak Vietnamese because she’s kinda racist to Vietnamese people. She refuses to cook Vietnamese food. But my she found refuge in Vietnam with her family when she was young. Confusing right?
It's easy to say I had an identity crisis. I wasn't sure what I was, what language I should speak, or how to fill out those “select your ethnicity” forms. But outside all of those questions about who my people are, I knew one thing for sure: I am a restaurant kid. I love food and what it means to each person.
My family owns a restaurant called Hunan Garden. I have no idea where the name came from, but I’m positive we were not from the Hunan Province in China. We sold Chinese-American food and did the all-you-can-eat buffet. I worked every position in the restaurant I grew up in. When I was six, I’d stay up until 10 p.m. snapping the tips off the green beans. At 10 I washed dishes on the weekends. When I was 15, I waited tables after school.
Any free time I had was spent at the restaurant, but I was happy to help. It took me away from home and it felt good serving people. I loved the smile on their faces when I brought them their meals. For some reason, it reminded me of our big Sunday family dinners at my aunt’s house. Everyone would gather in the single family home to eat together. We had around 50 people every time and we always had leftovers. I looked forward to those Sundays the most.
My cousins were my first and only friends until I got into high school. I had other friends, but none I was super close to because of my responsibilities. My cousins worked at their family’s restaurant and had almost the same responsibilities as I did, but their home life was different from mine.
When I was 8, my mother had a stroke that left her disabled. I had to grow up fast and take care of my family. It wasn’t a choice at this point. I had to do as my parents said. My childhood stopped. Everything was on hold. My aunt, who held the big family dinners, passed away and the dinners stopped. It was such a tough time. I tried so hard to be the perfect daughter my parents wanted.
But as I got older, I realized that wasn't what I wanted. I started to resent my parents when I finally got my driver's license. I couldn't hang out with my friends when I wanted; work always came before play. My brothers had more freedom than me. I didn't get an allowance. I worked a whole day for $40 plus any tips I got. I dealt with some rude and demanding customers who made me cry.
The resentment grew every time I had to work at the restaurant. I didn't know who I was and what I identified as — am I an American? Or Vietnamese? Or Chinese? I argued with my mom so much (still do, but it's not as bad). Why did I have to work? I wanted a “normal” childhood and school life. Why could my brothers have people over and I couldn't? Why couldn’t you come to my vocal music concert? Why couldn't I sleepover Stephanie’s house? Why don't we live as most Americans do?
“When you live in this house, you still live in Vietnam,” she said. “You are a girl and you shouldn't argue back!”
I hated her. I shouldn't have, but I did.
I ended up moving out with my boyfriend Jordan on my 19th birthday. I thought, “I’m in college now. I’ll do things my way. I’m never working in a restaurant again.”
“Arrested Development” narrator voice: But she would.
Not three months later I ended up working at my aunt’s restaurant, Park Harvey Sushi. That lasted for the next three years as I saved money to study in Italy for a semester. When I came back, I served at Whiskey Cake, Sushi Neko and Nhinja Sushi while I interned and graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a public relations and journalism degree. Somewhere in there I broke up with the boyfriend and started a job in the advertising sector.
This was my first “adult” job out of college. Not an internship, either — a real job. And I...absolutely hated it.
I was always on call and the work environment was so toxic. I wanted to leave as soon as possible. The only good part of the job was how I became the food stylist. It made me so happy to be around food. I left that position after seven months and started in the energy sector. I stayed there for two and a half years; not really hating the work, but not loving it either. It wasn't where my heart was, but that’s okay! It was a paycheck and it paid the bills and rent.
I was living alone and was happy, but I felt the hunger to do something good. Something that would make my city a better place. I sometimes missed serving, but I really missed the happiness in people's faces from our food. Food is such a common connector. It's a language that knows no barrier. It didn't matter what ethnicity you are, food is food. I already have the foodservice industry background, and I know how precious family dinners are, so I decided to start a project that focuses on that.
The news at the time largely centered on the refugee crisis happening in Turkey and other surrounding countries. I wanted so badly to help, even to be there in person, but my parents were absolutely against it. They didn't understand how I saw our family in this nonsense of a war. How so many people were displaced without their consent — this made my heart wrenched.
So I turned to food. I launched the Refuge Supper Club. It combined the big family dinners my family would have with other cuisines and cultures. We sold tickets to help our new neighbors from Burma, Iraq, and other countries conflicted with war. The project helped our community open their minds and hearts to the unknown. Food is the best way to have a stranger become a friend. Sharing a meal created by love, makes a lasting impact on a person’s perspective. This is what I learned and what I wanted to create.
Working in a restaurant made me question my own purpose for my life, but it taught me about the power of food. It's been such a long journey, but it has been worth every hardship.
I’m not Chinese, Vietnamese or American; I am all of the above. The percentages don’t matter. But more than any of that, I’m a restaurant kid. My family are restaurant people. That’s who we are.