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Curtis Chin recounts coming of age as a Chinese American gay kid in his new memoir

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You know when you're walking around looking for a great Chinese restaurant, and you spot one that is filled with mostly Chinese people? I mean, take it from me, that is usually the sign of where you want to eat, right? But one terrific Chinese restaurant in Detroit called Chung's drew a very different-looking crowd.

CURTIS CHIN: It was one of the rare places in the segregated city where everyone felt welcome. Black or white, rich or poor, Christian or Jewish, the restaurant, we took anyone's money.

CHANG: For Curtis Chin, Chung's wasn't just a family business. It was a worldview. He grew up in that restaurant and watched it offer anyone who entered its doors not just mouth-watering almond, boneless chicken or sizzling beef. What it really offered was community. In his new memoir, "Everything I Learned, I Learned In A Chinese Restaurant," Chin reminisces about growing up in 1980s Detroit, a gay Chinese American kid who was very much searching for his own community. Curtis Chin joins us now. Welcome.

CHIN: You made me hungry just by that introduction.

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh, my God. I was hungry reading this entire book, Curtis. You write so lovingly, like, so proudly, about how it didn't matter who you were, that you would have a seat at the table at Chung's. And I want you to tell me more about that - like, how a Chinese restaurant essentially became a safe space in Detroit.

CHIN: Yeah. You know, it's an interesting story because I grew up in Detroit in the '80s, which arguably was one of the worst times for the city, right? We had the struggling auto industry. We had crack cocaine. We had AIDS. I personally knew five people murdered by the time I was 18 years old.

CHANG: Wow.

CHIN: But despite this, we had this fabulous Chinese restaurant in the inner city which welcomed everybody. And I felt safe there. I really would not have changed or traded that childhood with anybody.

CHANG: Well, early on in your childhood, when your family was living in Detroit, you talk about how you grew up around more people of color than white people. You know, because Detroit was a mainly Black and white city, how did being Chinese American specifically feel in that mix?

CHIN: Well, obviously, I knew that I was neither. And, you know, because I knew that I was neither, I was really forced to choose sides early on, and I tried to play middle ground. And I think that's what a lot of Asian Americans do, right? You know, there were challenges moving out to the suburbs. We did face a lot of discrimination, which I talk about in the book, not just passive microaggression but also actually violent physical stuff, I mean, you know, and vandalism to our house.

CHANG: Right.

CHIN: But, you know, I do feel that I was lucky because I grew up in that Chinese restaurant, and our Chinese restaurant had a very diverse clientele. And so anytime my dad met someone who was - you know, had an interesting job, not just white-collar jobs but even blue-collar jobs - anyone who had an interesting life or a different background, my dad would call all six of us to run over and barrage these customers with questions of, like, you know, how did you get your job? What do you do at work? And because of that, I just was always curious about meeting people.

CHANG: I love that you brought up your dad so much in this memoir. I love the descriptions of him. You refer to him lovingly as Big Al (ph). He would stand up there at the front of the restaurant like he was the emissary to the world, and he would find something he could relate to with any customer, any stranger. And you say in that book that he showed you there are many ways to be a man. Tell me why you said that.

CHIN: You know, my dad was really incredible. I mean, he just loved his job. He just loved being a Chinese waiter. And I actually say that these days, like, even though I don't work in a Chinese restaurant anymore, I still feel like a Chinese waiter a lot of times in the sense of...

CHANG: What do you mean by that?

CHIN: ...I'm always just trying to please people. I'm always asking people, how are you doing? You know, do you need something? And I feel like that's something I've, you know, picked up from him is just I'm always trying to solve problems.

CHANG: Well, as much as you love your parents, you know, one of the hardest things that you talk about in your story is how you once feared that if you came out as a gay boy, you would be banished from your own family. And there was a period of time when you wanted to, as you put it, de-gay (ph) yourself, to somehow forcefully change your sexual identity. Can you talk a little bit about that time?

CHIN: No matter how confident you are that your parents are going to love you and accept you for who you are, there's always this 0.001% chance that you might be wrong, right? And you just don't want to take that chance. You don't want to risk it. And so even though, you know, my parents always exhibited, you know, positive feelings towards gay people, and they had gay friends - we had gay customers - you know, and they never said anything homophobic, I just couldn't take that chance.

CHANG: Well, speaking of taking a chance, what I noticed is that although this book is so much about learning to embrace your sexual identity, you don't include in this memoir any moment where you are coming out to your parents. It never happens in this book. I presume that you have come out or you did come out to your parents. Tell me why you didn't include that moment in this memoir.

CHIN: (Laughter).

CHANG: You're laughing.

CHIN: I'm wondering, do you need to say that's a spoiler alert (laughter)? No. It's...

CHANG: No, because I'm talking about something that ended up not happening in the book.

CHIN: You know, it's interesting because I think that a lot of times, the coming-out process is so much focused on the outside world, right?

CHANG: Yeah.

CHIN: But I really think that the most important thing about coming out is just coming out to yourself. That's the biggest, most important hurdle that we face. So the fact that as long as I knew who I was and I accepted myself, that's probably the most important thing.

CHANG: Yeah, yeah.

CHIN: You know, my parents have been great. You know, my dad is no longer with us, sadly. But my mom has embraced, you know, me for who I am. And I actually think she is more fond of my husband than she is of me sometimes.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: That happens so often (inaudible).

CHIN: He's much more attentive than I am.

(LAUGHTER)

CHIN: And my siblings all call him, too...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHIN: ...Because I think they - their excuse is that I'm always on the road, and they never know what time zone I'm in. But I think they just...

CHANG: Call the husband. He'll know.

CHIN: Yeah. Yeah. I think they just like talking to him better.

CHANG: Well, Curtis, when you say everything you learned, you learned in a Chinese restaurant, what do you think is maybe the most important thing that you learned?

CHIN: I think it's just a general thought of - you know, I don't know if it's related specifically to the restaurant or just being my family, of just being kind, right? That's probably the thing I think about the most is - how can we be more kind to each other? And I think that one of the beautiful things about the Chinese restaurant is that it is one of those few places where you can go in and, you know, be seated next to someone from a different racial, you know, socioeconomic, religious, you know, sexual orientation background. And maybe if you just took a time to just, you know, talk to the person sitting next to you and maybe have a conversation, even if it's just as shallow as, like, oh, what did you order? Do you know what I mean? Like, even if you could just have these little moments where we connect with each other, that maybe our country, you know, wouldn't be fighting so much.

And I feel like that's something I'm hoping to do with this book. And so the way I sort of mentioned this to my friends and, you know, to my agent was like, you know, come for the egg rolls, but stay for the talk on racism because, you know, there's some very important issues we're dealing with. I don't want to skirt them, but let's do it in a way that actually brings us together instead of, you know, drives a wedge.

CHANG: I couldn't agree more. Curtis Chin's new book is called "Everything I Learned, I Learned In A Chinese Restaurant." Thank you so much, Curtis.

CHIN: Thank you. And I look forward to sharing a plate of almond boneless chicken or something with you someday.

CHANG: You are on.

CHIN: Great.

CHANG: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kira Wakeam
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.