Behind the counter: Restaurants and the immigrant narrative

Restaurant work is central to the often-heard immigrant narrative, but the hard work is often a means to another end — their children’s futures. Read how this next generation, dubbed the “takeaway kids”, are forming their own narrative

“I made egg rolls and that should make you want more.”

KeeHup Yong recalls stories from his childhood and personal experiences growing up around parents who owned and operated a small Asian takeout store in Kentucky. His experiences and sentiments echo through a number of different narratives from children who grew up around the food industry.

Dishes of takeout food on a table
Photo credit: Getty Images

In looking back at the occupations of first-, or even second-generation immigrants, a pattern often emerges. Many of them worked in restaurants or hotels, mostly because those were the jobs available to them at the time. While certainly not a universal experience, this narrative is common enough that many an immigrant tale can be found among stacks of Styrofoam boxes and faraway flavors.

It was xin ku, or “exhausting, tireless work”. It was life. For many, opening a restaurant in America was their American Dream. For just as many others, it was a means to an end, and perhaps another chance at remaking their lives — not for themselves, but for their children.

Fast Food, Slow Earnings

Restaurants are common workplaces for migrants, even those with degrees and higher education. “[Restaurant workers] were not precious,” journalist Jennifer 8. Lee says. “These people did not come to be chefs; they came to be immigrants, and cooking was the way they made a living.”

A cook named Mr. Chen mans the wok in the kitchen at Happy Wok in Crown Heights.
Photo credit: Katie Salisbury

Though his parents closed up shop when he was young, Yong still recalls the lasting impact the business had on his family and himself. “[My parents] were really hyper-realistic about what two immigrant Asian people could do,” Yong notes. “[The] takeout store is really interesting because [as an Asian restaurant based in a predominantly white community] it was a resource that other people couldn’t give, and my parents really took that to heart.”

Today, immigrants account for roughly 31% of hospitality workers and 20% of food service workers, despite making up only 13% of the U.S. population. And immigrant entrepreneurs show up in even higher percentages, making up 43% of owners of small hotels and motels and 37% of small restaurant owners.

Restaurant work is notoriously difficult. There is no opulence and filigree gold to be found in thirteen hour workdays, early morning prep work, and sloughing off grease and fat at midnight, only to repeat the process again the next morning.

The “Takeaway Kids”

While the demanding work hours in a restaurant have been well-documented, less has been said of the intergenerational impact on the children who grew up around and worked at their parents’ restaurants.

Dubbed the “takeaway kids,” these children familiarized themselves with the routine work of taking orders, working at the fryer or wok, and knowing the best prices for bulk vegetables at grocery stores. Behind the scenes, they grappled with the big-picture questions: “How has restaurant life impacted me growing up? How do I really feel about the work I’m doing?”

Work often spilled over into family life. Even after the restaurant closed, Yong recounts fond memories and the shop’s impact on both his community and his family. He remembers late nights “with [his] mom making huge jars of kimchi, frying dumplings, folding dumplings.”

Cooks preparing takeout food in a kitchen
Photo credit: Tom Hollyman

There was this sense of community that happened around food and in restaurants that bridged the gap between cultures and generations. Yong’s parents were familiar with the community they served, right down to their usual orders.

For some kids, being so deliberately tied to their parents’ restaurants made them feel ashamed or different. They resented being chained to the restaurant, frustrated that it left no room for anything else.

Still, many reflect on their childhood experiences with no shortage of gratitude. For them, working alongside their parents allowed them intimate glimpses into their parents’ lives, as well as the fierce determination, perseverance, and love that propelled them onwards.

A Chance for Change 

Studies of Yelp data by the Chinese Hospitality Alliance Tea Talk show a consistent decline in the number of open Chinese restaurants over the past decade, though interest in the cuisine isn’t faltering. Across the country, many owners of Chinese American restaurants are ready to retire but don’t have anyone to pass the torch on to. Their children, educated and raised in America, are pursuing careers in areas beyond the restaurant business.

“It’s a success that these restaurants are closing,” said Jennifer 8. Lee, a producer for the documentary, The Search for General Tso. For many immigrant parents, the coveted American Dream was for the generation after. They toiled day and night for their children to do great things with the abundance of opportunities offered to them.

“They never wanted to teach me a lot of cooking stuff,” Yong remembers. “My dad would never let me use any equipment, because I think he knew I cared about it a lot, and he didn’t want me to work in a restaurant.”

But rest assured, America’s vibrant food scene isn’t shrinking any time soon. Bon Appetit’s “Generation Next” collection celebrates a dynamic collective of restaurants run by children of immigrants.

Hand with chopsticks reaching for
Photo credit: Lauri Patterson

Unlike his parents, Yong currently does not work in the restaurant industry. And yet, the lessons he learned as a “takeaway kid” still apply, and the struggle is still the same. “Man, that’s just the hustle. That’s what I’m trying to do a lot.”

“For me, they fostered this idea that if you don’t have something, then it is your responsibility to get or understand said thing. [So] every step feels like a little victory. I get to share my story.”

Featured photo credit: Arthur Fellig on Getty Images

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