When my mother first came to America over three decades ago, she waited tables for five years at a restaurant called Forbidden City in Ann Arbor, Mich. She quit when she became pregnant with me, but I grew up hearing stories about her time as a waitress. Stories about stingy customers and cooks she tried to avoid — and the busiest day of the year: Christmas.
“I always got my pick of the big party tables,” she told me. “Entire families, including grandparents, would come for dinner.”
I knew that Christmas was a busy day for Chinese restaurants, and I assumed that she hated that shift. But I was wrong.
“All the customers were in happy moods,” she corrected me. “And gave us blessings.”
“And,” she added, “we could make good tips.”
As most Americans know: Chinese restaurants almost never close on Christmas. Early Chinese immigrants were not Christian, and losing an entire day of sales for a holiday they didn’t understand did not make economic sense, especially when Chinese restaurants occupied a tenuous position in America. It’s hard to imagine now, when there are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States (McDonald’s, for scale, has just over 14,000 restaurants), but before Americans were crowding into Chinese restaurants for Christmas dinner, they were more interested in crowding these restaurants out.
In “Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine,” Andrew F. Smith explains that Chinese restaurants proliferated during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, catering to Chinese miners and railroad workers. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed as a result of worries that Chinese immigrants were stealing jobs from white men, labor unions set their targets on Chinese restaurants. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, published a pamphlet in 1902 subtitled “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism.”
Labor unions even organized boycotts against Chinese restaurants, according to research by Gabriel J. Chin and John Ormonde. These boycotts rarely succeeded in their aim of driving the restaurants out of business. As one union organizer lamented, “A lot of union men seem to have, I am sorry to say, a fancy for chop suey.”
The unions next attempted to get a law passed barring white women from Chinese restaurants, exploiting public fears that the Chinese were a kind of “moral contagion.” White women were flocking to these so-called dens of iniquity in part because they were a way to escape rigid racial and gender expectations. Chinese restaurants may have allowed white women to smoke opium, but they also employed them in a time when only around 15 percent of women had jobs outside the home.
Jewish and African-Americans also patronized those early Chinese restaurants in noticeable numbers. As one newspaper from 1892 put it so delicately, “Whites, blacks and Mongolians mingled without sign of prejudice.”
Chinese restaurants used to be one of the few public places that welcomed African-American diners, according to Yong Chen’s “Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America.” In “A Kosher Christmas,” Rabbi Joshua Plaut writes that Jewish customers were welcome in Chinese restaurants because “Chinese owners and waiters had no history of prejudice toward Jews.” It makes sense that Chinese restaurants were a destination for Jewish families on Christmas — they were among the only ones open, both literally and metaphorically.
The summer before I went to graduate school, I got a job waiting tables at a bustling Chinese restaurant. Lines sometimes went out the door and parties of 10 to 15 packed my tables. The restaurant was known for its Peking duck, carved tableside and then wrapped in flour pancakes by the servers. My first week on the job, in a sweltering July, one of my co-workers caught the terrified grimace on my face and said, “You think this is bad, wait until Christmas.”
I didn’t make it until Christmas. I barely made it until the end of July. And after I turned in my name tag, I avoided Chinese restaurants for almost a year after. My brief time as a Chinese restaurant waitress illustrated the perpetual foreignness I’d always felt as a Chinese-American, the foreignness I’d seen my parents, as immigrants, struggle with even decades after they’d received citizenship.
The customers I served saw me, and my co-workers, not so much as people as the furniture of the restaurant, and talked about us as if we couldn’t hear, or understand, what they were saying. My experience as a waitress was one more glaring reminder that to be Chinese in America is to be always on the outside looking in.
But the Christmas crowds now make me think of something else. Chinese food on Christmas has become, according to Rabbi Plaut, an acceptable alternative for anyone looking outside the usual holiday celebrations. Google Trends has found that more people search for “Chinese restaurant open” during the week of Christmas than any other week of the year.
It seems like proof that Chinese food and culture is finally part of mainstream America: Chinese restaurants have managed to become as culturally American as milk and cookies for Santa.
I used to feel lucky to have avoided the dreaded Christmas shift, but now I wonder if I might have actually enjoyed being a part of everyone’s celebration. And my mom was probably right about the tips.
Lillian Li (@ZillianZi) is the author of the novel “Number One Chinese Restaurant.”
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