Culture

Scenes from a Chinese restaurant

A photo essay exploring what it’s like to be raised in a family business.
Culture

Scenes from a Chinese restaurant

A photo essay exploring what it’s like to be raised in a family business.

As an Asian Canadian, I’ve always been interested in how racial minorities and immigrants understand their identities when they’re surrounded by an unfamiliar culture. I often think about this when I drive through rural New York and Pennsylvania to visit my husband, becoming more aware of my own racial difference whenever I get out of my car. I recognize that I am quickly passing through these communities and naturally wonder about racial minorities who live in them. Do they maintain their traditions? Do they feel welcomed by their neighbors? How do their identities evolve over time?

The sun falls in the empty dining area of a Chinese restaurant in central Pennsylvania. The town is home to around 2,500 people and this is one of the main restaurants.

The sun falls in the empty dining area of a Chinese restaurant in central Pennsylvania. The town is home to around 2,500 people and this is one of the main restaurants.

To explore these questions, I decided to locate people who looked like me but lived in these smaller towns. I noticed many work in the restaurant industry, so I reached out to Chinese restaurants in small-town Pennsylvania. I came across one located in central Pennsylvania, in a small, predominantly White town with no more than 2,500 people. Originally from China, the owners moved to Pennsylvania from Albany, New York, with the hope their four children would have better opportunities for their future. They purchased the business from another Chinese immigrant, a friend, who actually wanted to leave the restaurant industry.

The kids spend most of their time after school at the restaurant while their parents work.

The kids spend most of their time after school at the restaurant while their parents work.

It isn't unusual to see the kids playing in their restaurant. This is where they can play, study, and spend time with family.

It isn't unusual to see the kids playing in their restaurant. This is where they can play, study, and spend time with family.

If they finish their homework, the kids will often watch videos on their cellphones.

If they finish their homework, the kids will often watch videos on their cellphones.

The first time I stopped by the restaurant, I noticed that the dining room was splashed with quiet reminders of China — a framed image of the Great Wall, a Chinese fan hanging on the wall. The restaurant was usually empty in the afternoons, as customers seemed to prefer takeout to dining in. The kids were hard to miss. They sat at the counter with their homework and peppered me with questions about where I was from, if I was Chinese like them and what I was doing in Pennsylvania. The restaurant is a place of business just as it is a shrine to the kids who spend their time there. The walls were covered with awards the children got from school, colorful drawings of family members, and art decorations.

Often, the siblings will watch Kpop music videos together to stay entertained.

Often, the siblings will watch Kpop music videos together to stay entertained.

The kids help when it gets very busy; otherwise, the mother tends to phone calls and cooks.

The kids help when it gets very busy; otherwise, the mother tends to phone calls and cooks.

The children spent most of their days after school at the restaurant — at ages 11, 9 and 5 they’re too young to be at home alone. If they weren’t doing homework, they were watching YouTube videos of K-Pop stars and Asian dramas or running around the restaurant. For dinner, they would eat a simple steamed fish with a bowl of white rice or a fish cake soup. Often, the kids said they wanted to only eat “American” food — pizza or burgers — but their mother told them it wasn’t good for them.

The mother of the family said this isn’t her dream life, but something she has to do. “It’s for my kids,” she said, in between phone calls and cooking the next order. “Their education and their future. I don’t think about mine.”

The kids have to find ways to entertain themselves while the parents are working.

The kids have to find ways to entertain themselves while the parents are working.

Instead of eating the food they serve to customers, the mother prepares vegetables and fish for her kids to eat.

Instead of eating the food they serve to customers, the mother prepares vegetables and fish for her kids to eat.

The oldest daughter is usually responsible for helping out the most since she is old enough.

The oldest daughter is usually responsible for helping out the most since she is old enough.

The popularity of American Chinese food has created a set of shared experiences among Chinese American children growing up in local Chinese restaurants. According to the book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee, there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than there are McDonalds, Burger Kings, Wendy’s, Domino’s, and Pizza Huts combined. Instead of lounging at home with TVs and toys, many children growing up in these restaurants spend a considerable portion of their childhood working alongside their parents.

The restaurant is decorated with various plants to keep it lively.

The restaurant is decorated with various plants to keep it lively.

The walls of the restaurant are covered by the children's drawings, awards and decorations.

The walls of the restaurant are covered by the children's drawings, awards and decorations.

What I found most remarkable about these children’s lives were the tensions created by overlapping spaces; the restaurant is both a place of connection and isolation, home and work, playground and business. At times, the children feel trapped and obligated to be at the restaurant, but also recognize the need to help their parents. The majority of their time is spent here, making it the cornerstone for their life now and for the future they dream of.

The children will make use of the restaurant as if it is their own home, hanging out wherever they please.

The children will make use of the restaurant as if it is their own home, hanging out wherever they please.

The kids use the dining area to do their work since they don't have their own rooms or space at the restaurant.

The kids use the dining area to do their work since they don't have their own rooms or space at the restaurant.

Homework is always completed independently after school. The parents are too busy to help so they often will use Google for help.

Homework is always completed independently after school. The parents are too busy to help so they often will use Google for help.

Hannah Yoon is a freelance photojournalist based in Waterloo, Ontario. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Wilfrid Laurier University and a college diploma in Photojournalism from Loyalist College. Hannah’s work has appeared in various Canadian and American publications, and she was the 2014 recipient of the Tom Hanson Photojournalism Award from the Canadian Press. She has documented a variety of subjects including cultural and social Otherness, social isolation, mental health, and collective memory. Recently, Hannah has been exploring her own identity as a member of the Korean diaspora and how her upbringing in Canada has shaped her as a person and her work.
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