Writer reflects on life lessons in new memoir

Book cover of “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant”
(Rainbow flag background image: Adobe Stock)

When you think of Chinese food, do you think of Detroit, Michigan? Asian filmmaker and writer Curtis Chin does as he reflects on his new memoir, “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant” ahead of his Oct. 20 book talk at the Asian Arts Initiative.

The memoir, which is already a Top 10 memoir on Publishers Weekly, started off as a project to preserve familial history but it ultimately became a longer story about Chin’s journey through Detroit as he navigated rising xenophobia, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the Reagan Revolution. 

“After my dad died, my family moved out of Michigan. When my siblings started having children, I felt really sad that this next generation in my family wouldn’t know anything about our family’s long history back in Detroit. I started writing these stories as a way to share that family history with them.” Chin said. “As I started progressing, I thought maybe there’s a bigger detail here. That’s beyond just about my family. I could say something more about that time period about Detroit, or even about the country that we live in now.”

The title of the memoir is already intriguing enough, let alone Chin’s stories. There lies authenticity in these seemingly small parts of Chin’s life, like learning life lessons in his family’s Chinese restaurant.

“The book deals with a lot of serious subjects. I also wanted it to be fun. Structuring it like a Chinese menu, talking a lot about Chinese food and ’80s culture and Motown music was important to me, because I wanted people to enjoy the experience of reading the book, while at the same time, making them think,” Chin said.

In his memoir, Chin unpacks growing up being a queer Asian Buddhist from a working-class background and his struggles to fit in. Some of these identities conflict with each other, and it’s especially challenging as a child knowing who he was and seeing the world around him. Throwing in the AIDS epidemic, Chin longed for representation just to know that he wasn’t alone.

“We didn’t have any role models. There was nobody on TV, there were no celebrities. And it was really challenging, particularly with AIDS, coming about where it just seemed like anybody who got the virus was dead within months.” Chin said. “It was a particularly challenging time period to be a young gay person. It really made coming out really scary.”

It’s not that his family couldn’t be his support system, but as described early in his book, Chin really felt pressured to make his family happy and proud.

“Well, my family was Buddhist, so they never espoused anything antigay,” Chin said. “But there was still this pressure to make the family happy or to have kids and extend the family line. So, it wasn’t a real homophobic background.

“But there was still this societal pressure to be straight. And I think that’s what it was, for me. A lot of the reasons I stayed in the closet was not because I feared being kicked up by my family. But more because I feared disappointing my family.”

The heaviness of this particular point in Chin’s life required a lot of reflection, but he said was still a worthwhile experience to learn about himself.

“When you write your own memoir, you spend a lot of time just reflecting back on incidents that happened, and then understanding why you remember them, right? Because so many things happen in your life. You definitely learn a lot about yourself,” Chin said.

Something Chin wants readers to take away from his memoir is the insight into growing up queer in the previous generations. 

“I think it’s gonna be a really great conversation — being able to talk about that journey of being queer Asians and giving insight to that,” Chin said.

Discussions about Chin’s “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant” will take place at 6 p.m. on Oct. 20 at the Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St. Visit https://bit.ly/45hH8kF to register.