Whether they are in Manhattan, Paris or London, the most authentic ethnic restaurants are usually anonymous, unnoticeable and inadequately designed. They emerge by word-of-mouth and are often packed with diners of a specific ethnic group – an exact portrayal of Spicy Asian restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y.
“We never did any promotional events, just distributed menus once at Cornell University,” Liu Chunhua, the co-owner of the restaurant, said in Mandarin Chinese. She smiled shyly. Having been in the States for almost 11 years, she still struggles with English.
Earlier this fall, she and her husband opened this authentic Szechuan restaurant on Elmira Road, right on the path to one of the two Asian grocery stores in Ithaca. On the white exterior wall of the building, a banner in red Chinese characters reading “Authentic Szechuan food” and a black “Spicy Asian” logo on a bright yellow background were the only indications that draw Chinese diners every night.
When Liu first entered the United States in 2001, she had never imagined owning a restaurant. As a girl growing up in a rural and backward county in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, she wasn’t expected to achieve academic or career excellence.
“People like us had no future in China,” Liu said. So at the age of 20, she joined her mother, who was then working at Super Panda, a Chinese restaurant in Greensburg, Pa.
Chinese immigration to the United States had revived in the 1990s. Unlike previous waves, when the majority came from Guangdong region, the mass migration this time stemmed from Fuzhou, a coastal city in southeastern China. In the January 2004 issue of City Limits, Kenneth J. Guest, a sociology professor at CUNY-Baruch, wrote about this new wave in his article “Amazing Grace.” He noted that nearly 300,000 immigrants from the Fuzhou region were then living in the United States – 70,000 of them in New York City along, where Liu’s mother had arranged a work permit for her daughter before her arrival.
With geographic proximity to Taiwan and Japan, Fuzhou has a long history of sending immigrants overseas. This new wave, however, derived from the economic disparities between urban and rural areas, as well as social changes in Fuzhou.
Although the average GDP of Fujian Province equals the Chinese standard, the rural areas – where the majority of Chinese immigrants come from – are underdeveloped. Zai Liang, a sociology professor at the University of Albany, noted in a case study of Fuzhounese immigration in 2001. Over time, however, those who’d immigrated to America for opportunity in the past have returned to their hometowns. Their successes inspired more Fuzhounese – instead of making money in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, they have since been encouraged to voyage overseas and invest in a future in America. For some of them, such a future also involves the right to have more than one child.
As with most Chinese immigrant laborers, Liu’s biggest challenge at work was communicating in English.
“I was a hostess but I couldn’t understand anything,” Liu recalled. Her supervisor, a Korean who gave commands in heavily accented English, also doubled Liu’s pressure. “He was always yelling at me and nit-picking on things I did,” she said. “But I also didn’t understand what he wanted me to do.”
But on the bright side, Liu met Huang Xinju, a cook at Super Panda who shared the same hometown, language and a love for spicy food. They became a couple and got married in 2005.
Contrary to popular belief, English is not an essential skill for Chinese immigrant laborers living in the United States. A survey conducted by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in 2010 reported that three of every five Chinese immigrants spoke limited English. This is largely because Chinese immigrants tend to live in their own communities – with New York City and San Francisco being the hubs that provide the most complete facilities for the Chinese, including healthcare and social services.
However, as convenient as living in these communities can be, many Chinese immigrants desire to escape. As a mother of a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old, Liu feared that by living among the less-educated Chinese immigrant laborers, her children would pick up bad habits and speak inadequate English.
“The rent was also so expensive,” Liu said. “And as an outsider, it was hard to find a job in a family-owned restaurant there.” So in September 2012, her family moved to Ithaca, a college town with fewer and better-educated Chinese that is also close to her sister – a restaurant owner in Binghamton, N.Y.
In the United States, Chinese immigrants almost always run restaurants within their families, a model aimed at protecting their sense of security. At Spicy Asian, Liu is a waitress and Liu’s husband, Huang, is the chef. Huang’s two brothers are assistant cooks, and his mother sits at the front desk every day and pays attention to customers’ needs when everyone else is busy.
Before Liu and Huang opened Spicy Asian, Huang’s family was in Fuzhou. The couple applied for work permits and provided their family members with housing and salaries when they arrived in the United States. In return, they devote their time and work to the restaurant.
In China, such trade among family members is considered fair and beneficial for everyone. As the MPI survey noted, “more than half of all Chinese immigrants receiving lawful permanent residence in 2009 were admitted as family-based immigrants.” People come from all kinds of backgrounds in the United States; trust is hard to build. So operating a business with family members is a way to guarantee trustworthy and dedicated employees.
Liu and her husband are very happy with their relocation and their growing business today. “Most diners are Chinese students,” Liu said. “And as long as nothing unexpected happens, we are planning to stay here permanently.” For Liu, the priority now is the education of her children, and being surrounded by two colleges “is best for the kids.”