A Different Bigotry
For most of a year, I was the assistant manager and bartender at a Chinese restaurant in Springfield, Massachusetts. The owners had bought a standalone building and renovated it into an upscale structure with white composite sides and pink trim. I started out in their service bar but, within a couple months, I was opening and closing the restaurant with the help of the cooks, who never left.
Like in most Chinese restaurants, the owners were Chinese-American. Unlike with most, the restaurant was not a whole-family operation. Everyone working on the restaurant floor was a local college student or dropout, usually not Asian-American of any sort. That was because the family had a problem with its sons. The boys had been each given a restaurant. But the businesses were gifts the boys didn’t want. They couldn’t make themselves do the work. These young, thirty-something men had been raised as princes. The family money was surrounding them, sitting everywhere they looked - like it always had. Yet they were expected to work like ordinary mortals. They died inside every morning when they arrived at the front doors.
The restaurants did well enough but that wasn't the point. They were created to give the boys something useful to do and they couldn't care about it. Most of the work fell to people like me.
"You again?" the head cook said as I walked through his kitchen. Ten minutes earlier, I had arrived to get the restaurant ready for brunch.
"Yeah." There was a stack of tablecloths waiting for the buffet table. I grabbed it and turned to face the cook. "The older son should be here soon."
"You want breakfast?"
"Heck yeah, if you're making it." What he served each morning might as well have been a bowl of monosodium glutamate and random meat, but I was young and poor. I always ate what he cooked. Also, I was conscious of how I was one of three or four anglos he bothered with.
"Eggs and squid," he replied.
"A bowl for me, please."
The Chinese-American cooks were such recent immigrants that most of them could not express themselves in English. This guy spoke some but with great effort. He had to plan his words. A middle-aged fellow, he had started paying attention to me for some reason - in two weeks I was going to get promoted to assistant manager, so that could have been the reason - and he clued me in on how things really worked.
He loved the restaurant's ruling family. He wasn't faking that. Maybe some of the younger men didn't care but this guy loved the wealth of the Sze clan. The Sze's had old money, probably as much as they could get out with them when they fled the Communists rising to power on the mainland. They were the right kind of people, according to the head cook.
Like the other cooks, he lived in a suite of tiny rooms above the restaurant.
"Our families, they live in Connecticut," he had told me the day before.
"Do you get to see them?" I asked. The kitchen staff worked thirteen days during each two week pay period. Their shifts were twelve hours long each day. It was not grueling work but still, it was work for a long day during an even longer pay period.
"Sometimes," he said with a nod. He didn't complain and he didn't let his countrymen complain, either. Every now and then, one cook at a time would get dispensation to go for a visit. Those were arrangements that us anglos didn't hear about. The kitchen staff handled them directly with the Sze family. All we knew about it is that sometimes a prep cook would be gone.
The weeks went by, spring into summer, and after I became an assistant manager I had to work longer hours. The head cook brought me into his confidence more often. We would set up the restaurant together, him in the back, me out front, and he would make me breakfast and sit with me as I ate.
Early that summer, I got a job application from a young, black man. He was well dressed, well spoken, and seemed generally to be a class act. He had already worked as a waiter. I wanted to hire him immediately. Since I was the bottom level manager, I didn't have enough influence to make it happen. The owner happened to witness part of the interview, though, and sided with me against the inclination of his sons.
"You and Mr. Sze, you like the black fellow," the cook said one morning. "Why?"
"He's slick. He's classy. He looks like he'll be a good waiter." I knew from the cook's face and tone that he disapproved. It was sort of astonishing since he never said anything against Mr. Sze and never ventured an opinion that differed with his boss until now. "Why don't you want us to hire him?"
"He is black. Black! They are no good people! They cause very many problems for the Chinese!" he yelled. "Mr. Sze should know better. You know better. Why you think they okay? Where you from?"
The last question seemed like a genuine plea. Slowly, I described my experiences with black people, mostly in Maryland. He stayed patient and listened carefully.
"You from DC?" It penetrated with him that Maryland was part of DC in its way. "You know PG County?"
"Yeah, I grew up there. Well, for a lot of my life."
"Blacks okay there." He sighed. For a moment, he relaxed. "A month I lived in PG county. Little, just a very little while. Blacks not so mean to Chinese there. Not thugs. Okay people. But PG County is very different. Not like here."
Now it was my turn to breathe easier. This man had a lot of pull in the business. He realized it, too. It was a relief to see that he didn't have a comically exaggerated view of black people. His hatred of them in general, wherever it came from, could come down to a single incident. I thought I could work with it. We didn't shake hands but we came to an agreement of sorts. He dropped his objection and supported Mr. Sze over his eldest son.
For a while, our restaurant had a black waiter.
But in less than two weeks, that waiter quit. He handed in his resignation to the eldest Sze son. As I tried to find out why, I heard from some other staff that it was because of the cooks. They had gotten his orders wrong, probably deliberately, and had given him the sort of hard time they reserved for staff they didn't like. (They behaved that way for all staff who they considered rude. Some waiters had to piece together their own side salads, trudge down to the supply rooms when they were missing things, and run the dishwasher to get clean glasses. But the cooks acted like our only black waiter had been rude from the start and I was sure he'd been nice.)
One by one, I let the cooks know that I disapproved. To my surprise, they seemed ashamed of their behavior.
"He was okay," he head cook admitted. "My staff, they not helpful. I thought maybe this could happen. But we can do better next time."
Some of the ethnic hatred from the cooks didn't seem to be based on anything. They just as blatantly loved upper class whites in a way I had trouble comprehending. Their opinions on race seemed to come down to their perceptions of social status. After I individually berated them for treating the waiter badly, they didn't retaliate against me. If anything, they were nicer.
My main problem in the next couple of months was that I liked the cooks. That meant I treated them well - probably too well in their view, which lowered their estimations of me. I didn't demand enough from them.
In late summer, the eldest son hired a Chinese-American waiter. He soon promoted the young waiter to assistant manager, like me. This time, he did it over the objections of the cooks.
I'm not sure what was going on aside from racial preferences. The oldest son acted like he had something to prove. He demanded that his commands must be as respected as his father's (although they clearly weren't). He wanted the restaurant to have a Chinese-American assistant manager. But the cooks hated this new guy. Eventually, I understood why. He was the wrong kind of Chinese.
This poor guy was tall and good-looking. He wasn't particularly competent as a waiter or as a manager but he would have learned in time. He was smart. But the cooks hounded him. Apparently, they were all from Sichuan province. The new assistant manager wasn't aware what province his family had come from. He was American. He didn't speak a word of Chinese. That didn't matter. In fact, his ignorance made his presence in management even more intolerable. The Sichuan cooks had recognized his origins an instant. This guy was racially Gansu. They despised the Gansu.
Once again, I found myself sitting down in the mornings with the head cook.
"He is not a good Chinese!" the cook shouted with venom.
"Don't care! We. Don't. Care." He pounded the table. "The eldest son, he is spoiled. He doesn't do his job. He thinks we respect him? Hah! I will talk with his father."
The son who managed the restaurant was thirty-five. I was twenty-three. To the cook, we both looked like children but I understood why he thought the playboy, princeling son was not a good person - and was beyond hope of becoming one, maybe. The cook was probably right.
But his attitude about lower-class Chinese-Americans reminded me of my childhood and all of the old European hatreds crammed together in my suburban American neighborhood. Clearly, it wasn't only the Europeans who hated each other. It wasn't only the slavic people hating other slavs, Turks hating Armenians, Tutsis hating Hutus, Hindis hating Tamils, and so on and on and on but apparently also in China there were ethnic groups who hated one another. It was everybody, everywhere. Every group hated some other group.
People learn to hate others. Sometimes it makes no sense and otherwise decent people, while admitting it makes no sense, still act with hate.
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