Curtis Chin Interview
Curtis Chin’s memoir Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant was published by Little, Brown, and Company in October 2023. Shortly before the book was published, Judy Wu interviewed Curtis on Zoom; OutHistory is pleased to present the interview itself, a lightly-edited transcript, and some photographs and other images associated with the book.
Curtis Chin is a co-founder and founding executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, which was established in New York City in 1991. He went on to write for network and cable television before transitioning to social justice documentaries. Curtis has screened his films at over 600 venues in sixteen countries. He has written for CNN, Bon Appetit, the Detroit Free Press, and the Emancipator/Boston Globe. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Chin has received awards from ABC/Disney Television, New York Foundation for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and more. His book-related essay in Bon Appetit was selected for Best Food Writing in America 2023 and he recently produced an episode of America's Test Kitchen's podcast, Proof.
Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is a Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She also serves as an associate dean in the School of Humanities, the faculty director of the Humanities Center, and the inaugural director of the Center for Liberation, Anti-Racism, and Belonging. An OutHistory Advisory Board member since 2023, she is the author of Dr. Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: The Life of a Wartime Celebrity (University of California Press, 2005), Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Viet Nam Era (Cornell University Press, 2013), and Fierce and Fearless: Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress (New York University Press, 2022). Judy grew up helping her immigrant family run a restaurant.
Judy: Hi! I'm Judy Wu. I'm a professor at UC Irvine. I'm also on the Board of OutHistory and I have the great pleasure of talking to Curtis Chin today. He is an author, a documentary filmmaker, and the first executive director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop. So first of all, congratulations on your forthcoming memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant. I thought it was so hilarious and heartwarming and so I just recommend it to everybody. It's a coming-of-age story of you as a Chinese American growing up in a very black and white world of Detroit, both urban Detroit and suburban Detroit, living and working in a family-run restaurant and discovering your passion and vocation for writing, particularly at the University of Michigan, and also recognizing and accepting your sexuality as a gay man. So first of all, I just want to say (I emailed this to you) I'm a fellow monkey, also born in 1968. So I really appreciate all the cultural references in the book. I grew up far away from the epicenters of Asian America. I grew up in Spokane, Washington, and I also grew up helping my family run a restaurant. And so there were a lot of things. I just felt connected to you because of your story. Could you talk a little bit about the title of your book and why you chose to focus on your family and your family business? I imagine there's lots of really rich periods of your life that you could have focused on and it seems like it was a very strategic choice to focus on growing up in a Chinese restaurant.
Curtis: Well first, thank you for meeting, and thank you for those kind words about the book. I mean it really was a labor of love. I mean it took me ten years to write the book. So yeah, thank you, thank you. I've just been so overwhelmed with the response that the book’s been getting. I also appreciate the fact that you're a fellow restaurant kid, because I feel like there's a club amongst all of us. So anyway, the book is called Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant. And how the book came about was that my family had this long history in Detroit, starting from the late 1800s, and I always loved growing up there. But sadly, when my dad passed away, we all moved out. And years later, as my siblings started having kids, I really felt like I wanted my nieces and nephews to know about that history. And so I started thinking: “Well maybe I should write something down.” And I sent myself an email with that exact same heading, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant. Because that's what it was about. And I sent myself that email with a whole bunch of stories. I was just brainstorming. What are the stories that I thought would go in there? And interestingly, from that original email, probably only about ten percent actually makes it into the final book. So getting to your question of why did I want to choose this focus or the title and stuff like that: I always knew I wanted it to be about the restaurant because the restaurant was such a big part of my childhood. But what I originally thought was that the stories were going to be about my crazy family: my mean grandmother, my grandfather, who ran the Chinese Mafia. I thought that those were going to be the stories that people would be interested in, because I was a TV writer for a number of years and I did a lot of family shows. And I thought that, okay, well, I'll do a family comedy. But I had difficulty selling that book, right? I approached around ninety agents. About a third of them never wrote back. A third of them wrote back and said, "Thanks, but no thanks." And a third of them asked for a few pages or whatever, and eventually they'd ask for more, some of them. And then eventually I got passed on all of them. But the interesting thing that happened was that Covid came about and I had to shut down production on the film I was working on. And I was here in L.A., trying to figure out what to do. And I thought, “Okay, well, let me focus on the book.” At the same time, George Floyd is murdered, and the conversation in America seemed to be shifting, at least when it came to issues of race and identity. And so then I thought, “Okay, well, why don't I shift my book to cover that, to focus more on those things?” And so naturally the age range of the stories shifted. So instead of just being a story about a kid, mostly in elementary school and middle school, it now became a book that has three sections of eight stories each. Eight, eight, eight is good luck to Chinese people. There are eight stories in elementary and middle school, eight in high school, and eight in college. When I originally was writing the book, I was not thinking of covering those older ages. But that seemed to be what was interesting to people. And so once I shifted the focus, I had no problem finding an agent and it sold at auction in three weeks to one of the Big Five publishers. TIME magazine just named it one of the top thirty-six books for the fall. Publishers Weekly named it one of the top ten memoirs. Goodreads named it one of the fifty-five most anticipated books. So yeah, there's hopefully a lot of interest. So that's been the journey.
Judy: Congratulations! You deserve all those accolades. It's really wonderful. And I did not pick up on the eight, eight, eight structure. I noticed the chapter titles, which replicated elements of a menu, right? The appetizers, the soups, the main course. I just thought that was really clever. And I did not pick up on the fact that your grandfather was in the Mafia. Did you decide to save that for something else, for another book?
Curtis: Yeah, all those stories got left on the cutting room floor, as they say, and I jokingly said to my agent: “If this book does really well, if these twenty-four stories do well, I have another twenty that didn't make it into this book.” I said we could sell another book called Leftovers.
Judy: That's fantastic. I love how you begin the book with this note to diners. And you write, “It's how I remember and believe things happened. Please be kind. It was a long time ago and my Cantonese was never very good.” It was really funny. But I'm curious: who are you concerned about that might dispute your memories. And then also, I just noticed the presence of Cantonese in the book and I just want to find out a little bit more about why it was so important for you to have that. Did you have negotiating discussions about how much to translate, how much to keep in?
Curtis: So wait: what was the first part of that question?
Judy: Who did you think would dispute you on your memories? Who were you concerned about?
Curtis: My siblings. And they did. I mean because everybody has a different memory, right, because you remember different parts of it and different angles. And so I got into a fight with one of my siblings about this, because I announced it on a family Zoom session that I sold the book and everybody was happy for me. And as soon as we hung up the Zoom call, he texted me and said, “You made me the villain in your book, didn't you?” And I said to him, or I thought to myself: “This is exactly why I would make you the villain, because you have to turn every happy moment into something about you.” And I did eventually have to have these discussions with him and just said, “Look, it is my memoir. I am the hero of this book. It is my journey and so inevitably I'm going to pick and choose the things that provide a story arc. I mean there's so many things that happen in those twenty-two years, right? Because that's the age range that the book covers. I could have chosen so many different stories. Why did I choose these? Because that's the path that I was on. And so yeah, I think that's partly to cover that. But I don't know. I just didn't want to be that type of writer where someone comes out afterwards and says, “Wait a second. That wasn't true.” And I'm like, “Okay, fine. I'm telling you this is my memory. I hope I got it right. So that's the best I can do.” As for the Cantonese part, I think that I only use Cantonese mostly when my grandmother talks, because that's how I would hear her and and maybe some of our cooks. But for everybody else it's English. So it's a sprinkling of of Cantonese, but there's not a lot, right?
Judy: But it seems like it was really important for you to have that.
Curtis: Well I mean yeah. I mean not important, but just natural, right? I don't think it was a conscious decision, like, “Okay, I'm going to include Chinese words or Cantonese words in the text.” I was just literally sitting back and trying to pull from my memory what were the sounds that I was hearing. And those were the sounds that I was hearing in the back of that kitchen, so it would have been false to not have that.
Judy: As you were mentioning, Detroit is such a major part of the story, and you talk about your restaurant, which I think was located in the area called Cass Corridor. But your family eventually moved into a more white suburban area and you were confronted pretty early on about where you positioned yourself: “Are you black or white? Where do Chinese Americans fall in?” And of course Detroit is famous for the killing of Vincent Chin and that's something that is also very present in your memoir. I was wondering if you wanted to say a little bit more about how you think that location shaped your racial identity, what that says about the ways in which Asian Americans are positioned within black and white America.
Curtis: Well for me, Detroit is a very polarized city, racially, and as I mentioned in the book, one of the first things that I remember from school is just the kids chanting “Fight, fight, between a black and a white,” which was almost a daily occurrence, right? And as a Asian person, I didn't know which side to choose, and I know that both sides sort of looked to me and wondered which side I was on. And so I've always had to think about that. But I think also being closeted as a gay kid at that age and also being of a religious minority, being Buddhist, and being of a lower economic background compared to some of the other kids. There was plenty of things for me to hide, plenty of things where I had to be really, really conscious of how I was presenting myself, right, to fit in, because that's what kids do. And so I think that race was just one of those things that I just sort of factored in. And that's why, even now, when as I’m an adult I think about some of these issues, I understand that Asian Americans shouldn't have to choose one or the other. We should be able to have a fully realized sense of an Asian American experience, but also an Asian American agenda, an Asian American culture, that works side by side with these other communities.
Judy: Your comments about having different elements of your identity to hide or express really was a very strong theme, I think, in your book, and just how difficult it is to fully express your intersectional identity. And I'm thinking in particular about an episode in which a trans woman comes into your restaurant and there's kind of difficult interactions in which the person is making racist comments. And in retaliation you make kind of transphobic comments. So I just wondered if you wanted to say a little bit more about some of those challenges, of being both Asian and gay and how you find affirmation from various communities.
Curtis: Yeah. Our restaurant was located in the red light district, the Cass Corridor. It was the most crime-ridden drug-infested area and we also had a large number of gay people. We had a bar that had female impersonators, which was like three doors down from us, but we also had a lot of prostitutes, drug dealers. I mean it was a really tough neighborhood. As I said before, it's like the eighties and Detroit was all about crack, AIDS, high unemployment. I personally knew five people murdered by the time I was eighteen. I couldn't even fit all those murders in the book, right, because it would have been too many. I had to pick and choose which ones I put in there. But in terms of that intersectional piece and the difficulties of it, yeah, I mean as a kid who's trying to figure out who they are, you're looking for allies, right? And sometimes you look at somebody and you think that they're going to be a friend. But they don't necessarily see you that same way and I think those are the most heartbreaking moments when you're a kid. The book is set in the eighties. It was the start of AIDS, right, and I really thought that I'd be dead by the age of thirty. I didn't think I'd have a very long lifespan. And so when this gay couple or this this couple comes in and they're laughing and having fun, I get really excited. I'm thinking “Wow, maybe being gay isn't a death sentence.” Right? But then, when this person started, spouting all these racist things at me, I realized that well, maybe, I think the line that I have in the book is “just because we were both different didn't mean that we were the same.” And that that really broke my heart because it's going from that high of feeling wow, I found a friend, to oh shit! This person's even worse than my other enemy. You know what I mean?
Judy: Yeah, it's a really powerful moment in the book. I don't know how much you want talk about the ending, and if you want us to edit this part out, that's fine. But I'm curious about the narrative arc of the story, because you end by deciding that you're going to leave your family. And you did before at the University of Michigan, but it was not too far away, and you had siblings there, and you had family ties in the state. But you decide that you're going to leave the state and there's kind of a beautiful moment when you have a chance to express your sexuality. But you don't come out to your family. I mean that's not the endpoint of the story. I'm just curious: were you thinking about other endpoints? Were you thinking about the story of you coming out to your family? And what that interaction was going to be like? Or did you always know that that was not going to be the ending.
Curtis: Well, I need a book two. No, to be honest with you, I didn't see this as a coming out memoir. At least definitely not when I was first writing it, right? To me, the book really is about my relationship to my family and my relationship to my hometown of Detroit, right? So those things were more important to me in terms of coming to some closure and understanding, because the opening lines to the book are “Welcome to Chung's. Is this for here or to go?” That has always been a struggle that I had growing up. I love my family. I love being here. I love eating the free food, but at some point I felt like I'm going to have to make the decision to leave. Because I want to come out of the closet. I want to figure out what I want to do with my own life. And then, when like you said, I go off to Ann Arbor, which is not totally leaving, but it's partially leaving. It's the guilt that I felt leaving my family back in Detroit in a very potentially violent neighborhood, right, and that struggle that I constantly have. And so I feel like that's a very Asian American thing, where we think about our family a lot more, like when we make these important decisions in our entire life. We think about how it's going to impact them. And so I feel like that's the arc for me, coming out as a person with my own identity. You know what I mean? And I felt like because I had come out to myself, and I'd come out to my friends in college and stuff like that, I felt like I did come out. I mean in terms of my family, I felt like I had reached a place with them that we were both okay with the paths that we would be taking. And I think that that was the message that I was trying to talk about instead.
Judy: Now just as you were speaking I was thinking about two moments, one when your grandmother becomes pretty ill, and you had to give up this kind of summer fantasy plan of going to San Francisco. And you had this beautiful line, like you could still make your family happy, even if it means sacrificing something for yourself, but that you really want to commit to that and to prioritize that. I thought that was just such a really beautiful moment. And then the other moment I was thinking of was when you decide to get your ear pierced, and you're trying to show your parents, and they just refuse to see it. So it seems like it's like a two-way process, not just of you stating who you are, but whether they want to see who you are.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, yeah, you can be as out and honest as you want, but people have to be open to accepting it, too. And still to this day I've never confronted my mom about that, because she won't. She'll say, “Eh.” But yeah, I just remember it being really awkward. It's like I have my ear pierced. Come on, say something. You know what I mean? But they just refuse to say anything.
Judy: I mean I'm not completely surprised, but it was still very shocking when you recounted this interaction with the writing instructor at the University of Michigan, who basically said, “Why are you focusing on race? And did you plagiarize this story because it's too good for something that you had written?” And it's such a powerful set of interactions. And I've wondered if you wanted to say a little bit more about how that might have inspired you to form groups like the Asian American Writers Workshop and why it's important to have space for authors of color to affirm each other and talk about stories that that maybe white Americans don't want to hear.
Curtis: Yeah. Starting off, so I finished writing the book, and I haven't actually looked at it since February, right? Like the actual text. And for the last six or seven months now, I've been going around talking about the book. And it's actually interesting, because I started thinking, “Oh, maybe I should have hit certain points a little bit harder.” You know what I mean? But with that said, I think back to my own journey of how I became a writer and why I wanted to pursue it, and tell me if this comes clear in the book or not. So prior to when I was a young kid, I always thought that I would just inherit the family restaurant, because it's a business that my great-grandfather had opened, and it was a great place to grow up. I got lots of great food and my family was there. But it really was only when I was about to enter high school when our family friend Vincent Chin was murdered. And I don't go into too many specifics, but what happened was that we found out the next morning that he'd been murdered. And so I kept checking the newspapers, trying to find out stories about him, but there was nothing. No articles about Vincent Chin appeared until like twelve days later, right? And then one article appeared, and then nothing appeared for another ten months. Meanwhile, throughout all this time they were writing all these stories about the white auto workers and what difficulties they were having, etc., etc., etc. So I started writing letters to the editor, asking them about the case. “Why are you not covering stuff like that?” But none of them ever got published, because I'm not a very good writer, because I'm fourteen years old. But that really was why I started writing, because I wasn't a writer before that. I mean that was the case that sort of got me interested in telling stories, because I do think that if the media had done a better job, I don't think the judge would have come up with the sentence. If the media had done their job of covering this guy who is literally in the hospital, fighting for his life for four straight days. That's not worthy of an article. You know what I mean? I don't know the exact term, but when the lawyers reduced it from second degree murder to manslaughter, that's not an important thing? I don't know. I just feel like had the media done a better job, then we would never have had gotten to this point. And so that's why. And then, when I went off to the University of Michigan, being a first generation college kid and going to a predominantly white institution, there were challenges going there and then also getting into the creative writing program, definitely. So that is why I wanted to move to New York and found an organization for writers of color, because I've just always, from high school on, I've always just understood the importance of the narrative, right, the community's narrative and wanting to make sure that it's out there and that it's seen authentically. So yeah, definitely. So I hope that's what you got out of it. Because you know my background post that. But now anybody who's ever gone to this group called the Asian American Writers Workshop, this wonderful organization in New York City, they can be like, “Oh, now it makes sense that he would want to do this and why it was important for him to have a group like the Writers Workshop.”
Judy: That's fantastic. Those are most of my questions. Is there anything that you want to talk about that we haven't had a chance to talk about?
Curtis: I'm interested in your perspective and the group’s perspective, the other potential listeners, because you guys are historians and I'm not a historian. I have a poetry writing degree. But at the same time, I do feel like this is history. This is our community's history, and so I hope that it has a place in the conversation. So I'm curious as to what historians will find interesting about my book. And whether they will add it to the the canon of of queer literature.
Judy: I think it's so rich. I mentioned that there are so many things that resonated for me, and I think it's because we were born in 1968. We came of age in the seventies and eighties.
Curtis: You were a Republican, too?
Judy: I was not. Well actually, no, I think I had a strange conversation when I was supposed to talk about politics with my class in maybe sixth grade, and I think I might have talked about Ronald Reagan. But I did become politicized in college as well, to become an advocate for Asian American Studies. But I mean the cultural references, the music references, the references to AIDS and what was happening in the 1980s, and very specifically what was going on. Detroit. I think these are things that will really resonate with other historians. And then also, it's just such a funny, warm story that I think, beyond historians, a lot of people are going to find this to be such a fantastic read.
Curtis: I want people to pick up the book because they think they're learning about a Chinese American kid or a Chinese American family, but really they're learning about Detroit. And they're also learning about America in the eighties. Because if you think about a lot of the issues that we're dealing with right now, a lot of that division, a lot of this was set in motion because of Reagan: the ideology, the bringing in of the religious right into politics. And I say this in the book: I was an active Republican, but once these people started bringing in these ideas of right and wrong, evil and good. You can't have a political discourse with these people, because they think the other people are all going to hell or sinners. Democracy requires a debate. It's about compromise, right? And these people do not want to compromise. And so that's one of the reasons I could no longer be a Republican, because I just didn't like that approach. And I feel like that's what really all these viewers on the far right, they have a real--what's the terminology we would use in terms of how they perceive other people now?
Judy: Very polarized, right.
Curtis: It’s a very religious, a very Christian way of looking at things. Do you know what I mean? I mean my family's Buddhist. We're more apt to see both sides of everything. Everybody has value type of thing.
Judy: Well this is something I gleaned from one of the lessons you learned from growing up in a Chinese restaurant is just how friendly and open your dad is, that he greets everybody, he welcomes them, he wants to know how their day has been. And I think at one point in the book, you say people might just react to you, but you don't know what the context of their reaction is. And so you give them a grain of salt, right? You gave them some compassion. You give them some empathy and you move on and you don't take it personally, and I think that's a really beautiful lesson.
Curtis: Yeah, compassion is really important. I mean to me, and I think to our family, and I think Buddhism embraces compassion. That's why, when the Republicans rolled out compassionate conservatism, I’m like “Yes.” But then, when they don't really practice it, you’re like “What?” This is bait and switch. This is like total false advertising. You have no compassion whatsoever. You guys are jerks. But yeah, definitely, I think it's important to have compassion. One of the ways that I pitched this book to my agents was that I said, “We live in a very divided country right now, right? We have these little silos where we don't talk to each other. But Chinese restaurants are potentially one of those places where you can see people from different racial backgrounds, economic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, sexual orientations. And I want to take that opportunity to sort of have these important conversations. I don't want us to shy away from talking about racism, homophobia, stuff like that. But maybe there's a way that we can talk about it with humor and understanding, and, most importantly, compassion towards each other.” And so the pitch is: “Come for the egg rolls. But stay for the talk on racism.” That's the pitch.
Judy: Well, one of the moments I found really powerful is when you talked to your family about what happened with Vincent Chin. Your dad said “I was at that rally.” He was there to protest and it didn't seem like he was a political guy, but that he thought this was important and that he needed to take a stand. And you mentioned that you never even see him take time off, but this is the priority for him to fight that fight. And I thought that was a really powerful moment as well in the book.
Curtis: Yeah, yeah. And everyday heroes. I think I mentioned in the book that before that, I'd always learned that civil rights leaders were all different types of people. I didn't think a Chinese waiter was a a civil rights leader or activist. But there he was, my dad, stepping forward, and that was a moment that made me feel like, “Oh, maybe I could do that, too.” I mean if my dad could do it, why can't I do it, which is nice. So my dad taught me a few things here and there, which is nice.
Judy: I think your affection for your family really comes across, even when you have those really negative interactions with your grandmother.
Curtis: Yeah, I'll share a funny story with you again. I'm starting to teach these workshops about writing about family because this is so much about family. And one of the questions I always get is: “How honest can you be about your family?” And so I share this story. Several months ago I was in Austin doing a presentation. And on the Sunday that I'm leaving, the organizers asked me to come down early because they're at the restaurant early. So okay, I go down early, wait for my Uber on the street corner. There's a Chinese woman standing there stretching. She turns around and sees my shirt, which says “Detroit versus everybody.” So she asks me, “Oh, are you from Detroit?” And I'm like, “Yeah.” And so we get to talking. And it turns out that her mom was best friends with my grandmother. And so she just started talking about my grandmother. And as you noted, my grandmother is not the nicest person in the book. And this woman is telling me: “Your grandmother was the nicest person ever.” And I was like waiting for my Uber, but also just saying, “Well, no, that's not my memory of her.” And this woman would just not take no for an answer. She felt like she wanted to convince me that my my grandmother was great person. I finally just said, “Hey, look, you may have these wonderful memories of my grandmother, but I don't. I perfectly accept that she was kind to you, but she wasn't to me.” And I just sort of left it at that. And then, a couple of days later, it occurred to me like, “You know what that was. That was my grandmother sending a emissary from the grave to tell me that I've written her wrong.” So it's like no matter what you think about your family, they're going to have an opinion, and they're going to argue with you, even if they're dead. You know what I mean? There's nothing going to stop them from doing this.
Judy: I think that's also why your decision to stay and be with her and feed her, these everyday acts of kindness and love are so powerful. Even if you have very tense relationships and maybe negative overall impressions, she's your family.
Curtis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No I mean that's your family. This is what you gotta’ do. So yeah, family is very important to me so. I really hope so. My family actually hasn't read the book yet. I hope they like it.
Judy: I think that will be a great article to follow up: your family's reactions. Thank you so much, Curtis. It's been great to meet you virtually and hopefully we'll get a chance to do this in person.
Curtis: Yeah, sure, and I love sharing, and I love hearing other stories. And again, I encourage every Asian American and people in general to just write your stories, right? Your family stories. There's probably a lot that other people can learn from, even if you think that you just had an average life, because I feel like I've had a pretty average life. But hopefully I can share a few words of wisdom with people. So thank you very much. Shameless plug: the book comes out October 17th. I don't know when this comes out. I'm going on a thirty-city tour. So hopefully I'll be in your city if your college is interested in bringing me out there. I mean I'd love to organize and set something up. I can come and give talks on this. So yeah, people can reach me at my website, CurtisfromDetroit.com.
Judy: Okay, yeah, I definitely want to arrange something. And would you prefer that we not post anything until mid-October? So that's around the time that the book comes out. Or do you want us to do it like in early October? Do you have a preference?
Curtis: I know some people have already started posting things. I mean like podcasts that I've been doing and it does help. Because, for instance, I've gotten several invitations from people who listened to the podcast, not necessarily when the podcast first came out, but maybe months later, right? Because that's the beauty of podcasts, right? So if you guys release it now, someone may not listen to it until September, October, anyway. Right?
Judy: I just want to make sure that the timing would be okay with you.
Curtis: Yeah, it's fine.
Judy: Okay, thank you. Thanks.