The Chinese in North America 

The Chinese in North America

One of the many things that make me wish I could get to New York on a fairly regular basis: Slate refers to the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas. Specifically, Gish Jen discusses the current exhibit on Chinese restaurants.

There are reminders here of how the Chinese for some time were stigmatized--perhaps more than any other ethnic or immigrant group. I think about my own experience, growing up in a village on the Canadian prairie, with the one Chinese store/restaurant, "Woo's".

No doubt there were some townspeople who patronized the place more than my family did. For one thing, it was uniquely open on Sunday and in the evening. I don't think my parents were the only ones, however, who had little to say to, or do with, the Chinese family. How lonely it must have been to be the one Chinese family for miles around. Maybe the Chinese in these little villages became part of the community in Calgary, about an hour away by car.

When we moved to Calgary, when I was about 12, I was surprised to find myself running into one of the sons of the Chinese family, now grown up: Jim Woo. He was working as a carpenter. He knew exactly who I was, and he was very nice to me: "Hi Lloyd." I reciprocated, but I still remember feeling a bit guilty and awkward, even as I thought: great, now that we're in Calgary, and either grown up or growing up, we can put all that small town stuff behind us.

As the years went on, my parents came to quite like Chinese food--meaning, I guess Cantonese, lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork, deep fried stuff. Later the younger generation discovered Szechuan--spicier, and based on noodles rather than rice. I've experienced a bit of Thai food. In some ways that old Wasp-y world, with a few Scandinavians, Germans and Ukrainians, is like a lost civilization.

UPDATE: Jan Wong used to do pieces called "Lunch with Wong"--I don't know if she still does or not. She's very smart, with a biting wit, and she saw it as her job in these features to open up her guests in a somewhat unpleasant way. The guest got to choose a restaurant, and the famous David Suzuki chose a Japanese restaurant--I think he said he did not eat in such places all that often. In any case, the staff recognized him, and offered him his meal on the house. (The Globe and Mail was paying). Wong, a bit indignant, reported to her readers that in all her years in Toronto (and before that Montreal, I believe) she had never been offered a free meal in a Chinese restaurant. I repeated this to the folks I was working with, and a lady of Chinese ancestry said: there is more competition among Chinese restaurants than Japanese, so it's harder for the Chinese to offer free meals. A very matter of fact explanation.

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