My friend H told me this story and H heard this story from her colleague Chung, who grew up in a town in the Midwest, somewhere within 200 mile radius of Chicago. Chung’s parents run the only Asian restaurant in town, which serves a range of items from Vietnamese rice roll, Mongolian BBQ, to General Tso’s chicken. And the only other Asian immigrant family is from Korea, who run the only laundry service in town. They have a boy Chul. Chung and Chul are of similar age. They become friends both by choice and by circumstances. Eventually the two boys came to the East Coast to attend college. This story is about Chul and his girl friend Jool. It all started when Chul started to talk about his roots.
“Roots? What are you? A tree? Well, even for trees, I mean, you don’t think of roots when you think of trees, do you? You think of branches, leaves, and flowers. Roots are brownish, knotty, and unseemly, which is why they are naturally underground.” Chung said to his friend.
“That’s not true. I like roots. Not all roots are ugly.”
“I agree and retract my insults. Still if you want roots, eat yams or carrots. That’s my advice.”
“Chung, you are so cynical. I want to know something about my culture.” Chul said.
“Your culture? You don’t even know how to say ‘culture’ in Korean, do you?” Chung said.
“No, I don’t. And you don’t know how to say it in Vietnamese.” Chul said.
“So? Why do I want to know how to say ‘culture’ in Vietnamese? Give up. Let’s do something fun together and forget about your roots.” Chung said. “You know my mother’s side migrates from Thailand and Myanmar to Vietnam, and my father’s side comes from Northern China and Mongolia. If I really want to find my roots, I have to dig …”
“Is that why ‘Asian Star’ has so many different entries?” Chul asked. “Asian Star” is the restaurant Chung’s parents were running.
It’s a recurring topic between them which the two couldn’t agree on.
“The Vietnamese dishes, you know, are from a lush tropical area. The Mongolian BBQ–that’s like in Gobi Desert close to Siberia. General Tso’s chicken–that’s created in America, which has more connection with deep fried chicken here than with any real Asian dish. Anyway, these things can’t be more different from each other. I mean in style, flavor, location. How could your parents put them in one restaurant and in one menu? Also how could a chef master so many different cuisines so different and so unrelated?” Chul chuckled.
“The chief chef is my father, OK, with two assistants and my mother pitching in from time to time. He’s an Asian chef and of course he masters all Asian dishes. For once, common misconceptions work for an Asian. You are not who you are; you are what other people think you are. Plus how do you think my parents can survive in that town if they only sell Vietnamese food? You have to sell all kinds of dishes so that whenever any Midwesterner around us wants to eat something Asian, he comes to us.”
“I really like the pickled radish from your restaurant. You said your mom make batches of it.” Chul said.
“You are into roots, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am going to take a Korean course.”
(To Be Continued later)