We humans

To be Asian in America is to keep a list of places where you know you’ll be seen as more than a visitor

Apr 20, 2021 /

Leaving a restaurant that my parents had chosen to go to delights me because they always somehow know the owners and all the waitstaff, even in the cases when they told me this restaurant opened just a few weeks ago.

It’s in the leaving that this fact reveals itself, when everyone from the kitchen and the back room comes out to make conversation, to ask if everything was delicious, to say goodbye, to — if this is a restaurant we’ve come to for years — say how much my brother and I have grown, or — if this is a restaurant that just opened a few weeks ago — to say how lovely it is that my brother and I finally were able to come and visit and eat, that they had all heard so much about us from our parents.

All in all, a joyous, boisterous exit.

My parents have a way of knowing every time a new Chinese restaurant opens in Toronto, and will — it seems to me — have tried them all by the time they open. They will have decided on a detailed review of each of them (“very good” or “too oily” or “too salty” or “better, but a higher price,” or “worse and a higher price”), and then will exclusively go to the ones that they deem their favorites, until they are friends with the owners, chefs and entire waitstaffs. (It seems to be that their favorite restaurants are often the ones where all three roles are held by the same person.)

Every time I visit, there will be a new dumpling house, or a new dim sum place, or a new noodle place that they have to take me to, because they became friends with the owner who is also the head chef. And I’d get annoyed with how, if the restaurant was open and running but that person wasn’t around, they’d turn around and leave and come back later when they were.

I used to think it was because they wanted to show me off: “Look at our kids!” “Look at my son!” But I think there is a part of them that is also showing themselves off to me — “Look, your parents are people of the town. We are people who people know! And people like us!”

I am certain, too, that there is an element of “This is someone who I can talk to, to support, to bring my business to.” My parents often like to go to Chinese restaurants (this includes the variety of sushi restaurants in Toronto with Chinese owners), and I used to think this was related to a dietary pickiness, but I am learning that they just want to go places where they know they will be interacting with and supporting people who will talk to them like people, who will treat them and see them as whole.

To be Asian in (North) America is to keep a (short) running list of places where you know you will be given the gift of being seen as more than a visitor.

When I see my parents laughing and catching up with the people who run these restaurants, I think about their insistence that they are friends with them. I have always imagined that being regulars at a restaurant would be described more as patronage, but it feels like my parents occupy something that is more than that, and I find myself wondering what the bounds are that would slip that relationship into what could be safely called a friendship. A now-distant friend from high school had a longstanding fantasy to be able to go to their local burger place and say I’ll Have The Usual and have everyone working there recognize them and greet them and know them by name and know their order and know what The Usual meant (in their case, a hamburger with the toppings they liked).

In retrospect, perhaps this was one of those desires that we have when we are younger that we don’t really understand the meaning of until we grow up — at that age, perhaps, we’d already absorbed and found a way to articulate one of the more enticing promises of capitalism — of buying, or spending, your way into belonging. And this friend was very excited about the ability to do so, which meant that they were very cynical or very shrewd or very naïve. And I understand now that this came from being young and wanting to be seen, remembered, perhaps to feel some tiny grasp of a little bit of control, but mainly to have one more place on the (very) short list of places where you feel you might belong.

And is it friendship or patronage that describes what that is between someone you make an effort to see whenever you can, who makes you feel welcome and seen, who you feign joyousness with even on joyless days, who you catch up with and want to support as best as possible? “You’re not friends, you’re customers,” I said once to my mom. “We can be customers anywhere,” she says back after a long moment of thought, “but we choose to go back to the same places for a reason.”

My brother lives in Cambridge now, which is where I once lived too, in my basement — sorry, Garden-Level — apartment, though I had moved away before he moved there. The last time I visited him in Cambridge, we lined up for 30 minutes at a restaurant I missed dearly — a little udon spot in the back of a college food court, which made the most perfect bowl of spicy cold niku udon I’ve ever had. I was excited.

We reach the middle of the line when Sara, the marketing manager who runs the front of house recognizes me. We talk and catch up. They run the restaurant’s account on Instagram and we follow each other so they know what I’m up to, I tell my brother after clocking his surprise as Sara asks me very specific things about my life. “How is LA? What are you cooking? How are your plants?”

The udon place is an open concept stand where you can see the cooking happening from the seats and Sara seats us in the back row. I crane my head to see if the head chef, Tomo, is back there. I want to wave to him and tell him that I love his udon and because last time I was here I came by myself for a quick bowl in between meetings and we talked as I ate and he gave me extra hot sauce for my udon, and told me how they make it in-house and how I can always ask for more and I do.

“Is Tomo around?”

“Oh, he just stepped out.”

We finish our meal and Tomo still hasn’t come back and I leave feeling a little disappointed.

As we step out of the food court building, I send Tomo a message on Instagram because we follow each other too: “I came by with my brother! I just missed you!” and he messages back, and I stop and smile and say “A ha!” and my brother sighs in a way that I recognize as the exact same sigh I make whenever my parents make sure they talk to the owner and the chef before they leave a restaurant, as I show him my exchange with Tomo on my phone, as if to say to him, “See, I’m a person who people know, and people like me.”

Excerpted from the new book Goodbye Again: Essays, Reflections and Illustrations by Jonny Sun. Copyright © 2021 by Jonny Sun. Reprinted by permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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