Where I live, there’s never a shortage of Chinese restaurants to choose from. As a Filipino, if I’m not craving for Filipino food, my version of comfort food is Chinese. I’ve got Rice ‘N Roll up the street from my house, Little Szechuan which delivers the best lunch plates to work and Wing Lee, my go-to for dimsum in the morning.
But beyond my fill of salt and pepper fish fillet or the crispy hunan beef, I admit I’ve never thought so much about the stories behind my food. And of course just like any group of people around the world doing something together, there’s always a story, and/or a back story.
This is the premise of Lillian Li’s novel Number One Chinese Restaurant (Shop your local indie bookstore), a Chinese restaurant called the Beijing Duck House that specializes in carved peking duck and hotpot in Maryland. Jimmy Han struggles to run the restaurant under the shadow of his deceased father who opened the restaurant, and his older, more pragmatic brother Johnny currently overseas. As the youngest of the family, Jimmy has had his share of fuck-ups and have always sought to prove himself–to the Duck House staff, to his parents, to his brother, even to himself. But beyond Jimmy are even bigger players in Li’s novel–the two oldest servers of the establishment, Ah-Jack and Nan, who have carved and waited and served countless customers throughout the years.
Together, these three create the tapestry of the novel along with other characters, as Li weaves in and out of their lives centered on the Duck House. From the restaurant owners, staff down to the crew working in the kitchen, immigration also plays a central theme. But at the core is love–the kind between reluctant lovers, a mother and his son, and all of its other messy manifestations.
The voices of Nan and Ah-Jack are the most memorable to me, two wait staff who have spent decades of their lives in the restaurant. Each with a family of their own, their lives become intertwined when the older Ah-Jack takes a young Nan in under his wing at another restaurant they used to work at. They both live their respective married lives at home but at work, the two dance on the edges of unrequited love as they get older, wait more tables. Day after day, duck after duck.
Americans. They believed a strong marriage came from knowing their partner’s every shadowy thought. But it was knowing too much that killed love. A strong marriage came when the wedded stopped trying to plumb their partner’s depths. Life became easier when one passed the years with an amiable stranger and not a mirror that reflected back all of one’s flaws. Marriages were torn apart by empathy; to look into her eyes and find pity was to discover what she pitied in the first place. Intimacy was not to know but to wonder. Eyes that searched in their staring were the hallmark of every lover’s gaze. And if the search was lazy, unstructured–a slow, easy stroll rather than a rush to the finish–then in this stretch of time, forever might comfortably rest.
Jimmy is also trying to find love on his own, hoping that it will come from beyond a business relationship with his real estate agent. The youngest Han has dreams of his own, of making a name for himself. He has his eyes on another restaurant he wants to build, his own legacy that’ll maybe even surpass the success of the Duck House. Scheming, dreaming, cajoling for the kind of respect his father and older brother commanded.
The story that Jimmy has told himself is this: he is more than the youngest brother, more than the fuck-up in his family and he will do whatever it takes to rise out of it.
Jimmy knew then that he would pick up every check these cooks could think to make. Anything to be a part of this exclusive club of outsiders and freaks. To be able to nod at each of them in the kitchen the next morning, meet their bloodshot eyes with his and say, “Crazy fucking night.” To know he had paid for it to be possible. They, in turn, would teach him how to cook, to eat, to party, to hustle. How to carve an eel to shreds and burn his hand into an unfeeling piece of meat. How to fill a room with terrible snarling music and hear no shit from anyone. He would finally learn what it felt like to be untouchable. He would pay any cost.
At the same time, I feel like what Jimmy had to go through in his life was not just because he was trying to prove everyone around him wrong. It was because of ambition, the same kind that propelled his father to make it in his own terms. Although he was relegated as the irrational and/or impulsive Han sibling (in his older brother’s eyes), his hunger for from knowing that he too, had magic in his hands.
It wasn’t until I finished the book that I saw all of the pieces come together–Ah-Jack & Nan, Jimmy, even Jimmy’s mother whose role was minor, but which I loved tremendously. Number One isn’t a feel-good story, nor is it a story about the American Dream from the perspective of immigrants. What it is, is a story about the stories we tell about ourselves and other people. That even with factors like immigration status, class and age, it all really comes down to the way we write out the rest of our lives based on our stories of self. Jimmy’s mom, Feng-Fei said it best herself:
She’d taught him how to take advantage of coming from nothing, how to spin that nothing into mystery and play with the imagination of those above him in station. Most important, she’d taught him, or perhaps they’d taught each other, how to tell the best story. In a world without fairness, the best stories rose to the top.
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Number One Chinese Restaurant (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Lillian Li
Henry Holt & Company (304 pages)
June 19, 2018
My rating: ★★★
Note: Thank you to Henry Holt & Company for my copy of this book!