Chinese Immigrants

Food for Thought @ taste of northern china 北方美食

In my experience, Chinese immigrants do not recognize your existence unless you speak Chinese. Since I’m Asian, they try to talk to me in Chinese, but as soon as they discover that I don’t speak it, their interest in me evaporates. My wife and I are used to it. So, it’s a shock to find a restaurant, in the part of Chinatown that primarily serves the immigrant community, where the wait staff wouldn’t leave you alone. The two ladies, who are always at this restaurant, barely speak English. They seem to love watching us eat, which reminds me of my mother’s gaze that made sure I ate well; that is probably why I don’t mind them standing right next to me while I eat.

When one of them noticed that I like taking pictures of their foods, she brought over a plate to my table before serving it to another customer, just so that I can take a picture of it. I don’t think she knows what food-blogging is about.

I know another restaurant on Allen Street where I get a similar type of attention. I wonder what creates this dramatic contrast. They are different from the Chinese people selling knock-off handbags on Canal Street who follow you around with English just good enough to achieve this objective. It’s not like they are proud of their knock-offs. The customers represent to them nothing more than a source of income—a disposable relationship.

These two restaurants are also different from the modern Chinese restaurants owned by second-generation Chinese Americans with MBAs whose customer base is also highly educated, second-generation Chinese Americans. There is a dramatic cultural divide between the immigrant generation and the second generation. It appears to be impossible to serve both.

I’ve read that Chinese immigrants in New York initially tried hard to be accepted by ordinary Americans, but the latter systematically rejected them. That’s when they resorted to opening laundromats. Perhaps that is what set the expectations for all the new immigrants since. But given that China has become much wealthier in a short period, the new immigrants are likely coming here for different reasons and with different expectations.