by Amy-Xiaoshi DePaola, AsAmNews Contributor
It was freshman year in high school when Curtis Chin raised his hand to answer his teacher’s question.
His teacher pointed at him and said, “Yes, Vincent.”
“I wasn’t upset, more like taken back,” Chin recalled in a phone interview with AsAmNews. “I was constantly being misidentified,” often with his older brother, Chris.
But Vincent wasn’t just the name of another Asian American kid in school—it was the name of a man who had been brutally murdered in his hometown of Detroit.
Chin’s Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant is full of startling anecdotes like this. Published by Little, Brown and Company, the coming-of-age memoir focuses on Chin’s years of growing up as a queer Chinese American in 1980s Detroit among flashpoint events such as the city’s economic downturn, the AIDs epidemic and the murder of Vincent Chin.
Chin is no stranger to sharing intimate stories as a documentarian, but reflecting on his own history was a bit of a challenge.
“I’m definitely more comfortable behind the camera, asking the questions,” Chin admitted. “It was weird being on the flip side of the spotlight.”
Chin’s family has a long history in Detroit, tracing back to his great-great-grandfather in the 1800s. Originally from Canton, China, he chose Canton, Ohio, as his destination in hopes of finding more immigrants like himself.
Needless to say, that was not the case, and he eventually found his way to Detroit, where he and his two oldest children opened Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, with its signature red roof, and serving up classics such as egg rolls, sweet-and-sour pork, shrimp egg foo yung, hot-and-sour soup and yee mein noodles.
Chung’s has since closed, and after Chin’s father’s death, the family moved away from Detroit.
“Now that my siblings are having kids, I wanted to capture that time, so they would know that part of our story,” he said.
Chin pays homage to his restaurant upbringing with chapters named after menu sections (such as “Appetizers and Soups”), writing unflinchingly—peppered with humorous asides—about the often-complex people who shaped his life, calls to activism and the isolating feeling of not belonging in the communities that should accept you.
For instance, Chin said he wonders how young queer people will react to the tense, often furtive experience of growing up in the midst of the AIDs epidemic.
“Hopefully [the memoir] will strengthen the community … We’ve been through worse before and have gotten through it,” Chin said, as anti-LGBTQ legislation and hate crimes rise nationwide, spurring Canada to issue a travel advisory to queer people visiting the U.S.
As the executive director and co-founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, he’s familiar with the importance of telling stories, sharing that a young queer woman is planning to bring her parents to one of his readings.
“She feels that it would be a great opportunity to show these AAPI parents that they’re not marginal, that their stories matter, that they should be celebrated. … That encapsulates why you write because you want to open people’s eyes to different experiences, to become more empathetic,” he said.
As for his own family, they have not yet read his book.
“I hope they like it,” Chin laughed. “We’ll see!”
Chin’s 40-city book tour begins Oct. 17, starting with an official launch at the Strand Book Store in New York.
That’s not the only item in his jam-packed agenda: He’s currently working on a collection of stories centered around his grandparents that didn’t make it into Everything I Learned, as well as producing an upcoming episode of America’s Test Kitchen. The podcast will feature one of the signature dishes from his memoir: almond boneless chicken, a local favorite found primarily in Detroit.
“My grandma used to say we invented it, so I’ll be getting to the bottom of that,” Chin said.
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