The titular eatery in documentarian and activist Curtis Chin’s charming and contemplative debut memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant, is Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, which Chin’s great-grandfather opened in 1940. Until its closure in 2000, the restaurant was a beloved fixture of Detroit’s former Chinatown. Even as the city’s fortunes shifted and changed, Chung’s persevered as a place to get delicious food (especially their famous almond boneless chicken), play a rousing game of mahjong and mingle with people from all walks of life.
With a straightforward writing style and appealingly conversational tone, Chin leads readers through the early years of his life, beginning with “Appetizers and Soups” and ending with “The Fortune Cookie.” After all, he writes, “The important lessons that guided me through my childhood came served like a big Chinese banquet . . . a chorus of sweet and sour, salty and savory, sugary and spicy flavors that counseled me toward a well-led, and well-fed, life.”
Achieving that well-fed life was initially challenging, thanks to Chin’s feeling that he didn’t fit in anywhere: at home as the middle child of six; at the restaurant, where he felt overlooked amid the high-energy hustle-bustle; and at school, where he contended with racism. And for many years, he was hesitant to come out, noting, “No one in my family ever said anything anti-gay . . . but no one said anything positive about being gay either.”
Readers will root for the author as he moves along his journey of self-acceptance, which was, he notes with dryly humorous empathy for his former self, not without missteps: His eighth grade New Year’s resolution was “not to be gay,” and in high school, he “became the Asian Alex P. Keaton” to show that he was “as apple pie as anyone” in school.
Ultimately, Chin finds a community of kindred spirits at the University of Michigan who help him assert his identity as a liberal gay man, discover his writerly talents and gain new perspective about his parents and the family business. Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant is an engrossing chronicle of a city, a restaurant, a family and a boy’s path from anxious uncertainty to hard-won confidence.