Thu Interviews Lillian Li, Author of NUMBER ONE CHINESE RESTAURANT

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li meets our shelves today! I had the honor to interview her. We talked about many things, but mostly this gem of a book, so check it out and get a copy!

Lillian’s thoughtfulness, humor, warmth, skillful writing, and mastery of capturing the relationships between people with different backgrounds, barriers, and generations looped me through every corner. At Brazos, we joke about our go-to “feel good” or “happy” books; Number One Chinese Restaurant is one of those rare ones that doesn’t portray a perfect world, but un-weaves those mental knots in the way that a “normal” human being would, and makes you feel light and accomplished at the end.

Thu Doan: Why is the book set in a Chinese restaurant?

Lillian Li: I’ve been writing this book for so long. The first thought I had was not that I should set a novel in a Chinese restaurant. It just felt organic to me because I worked in one. I started on my MFA program right after college. I spent that summer in a weird relationship that ended, and I was heartbroken, so I decided a find a restaurant job. My mom found me this gig at a Chinese restaurant. It was super weird and stressful and terrifying and lonely. That experience stayed with me.

What’s really interesting is, I thought when you wrote a book and you were no longer allowed to change it, then it was done. You could move on with your life. But I found that there was more to it. I realized what I wanted to do with it and what I ended up doing with it. When I returned to this question of why a Chinese restaurant, I came up with a lot of other ideas that I wasn’t necessarily thinking about consciously when I was writing it, but that definitely came through in the book. Also, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have so many more ideas about it every time someone asks me that question.

But the main reason being: I’m a minority writer. I’m Chinese-American. As a minority writer, I am always thinking of the majority as part of my audience. Minorities like me, but also the rest. It’s a challenge that most minority writers have to think about. It’s one of the ways I wanted to claim this book as mine, for my sector of the world.

Have you ever heard of the saying, “the default character?” It’s basically our understanding of the default character as white. If the character isn’t identified as a race or ethnicity, they’re white. That’s it. I wanted to change the default character in my book to Chinese. There aren’t that many spaces in America where you can have that kind of default, but a Chinese restaurant is definitely one of those places.

This started making more sense to me after hearing responses to the title. I was surprised to hear that people thought it was a memorable title. "Such an eye-catching title." It’s weird and makes me a little uncomfortable.

I thought, “why is that title Number One Chinese Restaurant so provocative?” You wouldn’t necessarily blink at Number One French Restaurant or Number One Italian Restaurant. In fact, your original question, why not an Italian restaurant, it would have a lot of overlap. I thought, yeah, definitely, but also Olive Garden does exist. If you were to ask people think of what an Italian restaurant looks like. I’m pretty sure none of them would think of Olive Garden immediately. They would all have different ideas of what this looks like. There’s just so many different ways an Italian restaurant could look and still be considered Italian. Whereas I'm pretty sure with that same question about Chinese restaurants, that kind of richness and variety would disappear.

Most people would think of a takeout joint. I was just thinking, why is there such a narrow space for Chinese restaurants in the American imagination? How far does that extend? If there’s only a certain way a Chinese restaurant can be and that’s a narrow imagination, then there’s only certain ways that Chinese food can be, Chinese culture, Chinese people.

One of the engines of the book is that Jimmy wants his own restaurant, but what he’s really angry about is that he doesn’t want to keep making the Chinese food or having the kind of Chinese restaurant that is expected. It’s a really interesting tug-of-war of wanting that kind of respect and originality and cooking your own flavor, but also wanting to be successful and understanding that to be successful, you kind of have to fit in with what’s expected. A rich place for all of those tensions.

In many ways, his father pushes back on the expectations, and every generation was responding to that constraint, but in their own ways.

TD: I think that some of the challenges and problems that your characters encounter crosses over to many cultures and resonates with everyone. What are some motifs or subjects that are telling of Asian/Asian-American culture?

LL: That’s such an important question because it asks, what do I want to teach about this culture to people who don’t know? Interestingly, it prioritizes teaching of people who don’t know over the affirmation of ideas for people who are more familiar.

For a long time, I was thinking in that way: “What do I want to teach people?” When I wrote the book, for instance: “Oh, I want to show people that Chinese waiters are human!” That wasn’t exactly what I was interested in, but I did feel some kind of pressure. I am teaching people. But I’ve never once thought that Chinese waiters weren’t human. That was not a thing I learned for myself.

So in fact what it was, is that these are really interesting people who have been forced or had to choose and have now been in this position and job environment that is so punishing and rewarding, working six days, forced double shifts, 10-10... They don’t see their families, but they make enough to afford a middle class existence. They never get to be with their families, but there’s also other reasons they stay. They could get other jobs. So why this environment? What makes them stay? What happens after a couple years? A couple decades of staying in one place?

You’re serving customers that think you're foreign. Even the ones that are the same ethnicity as you don’t see you as totally there because you’re a waiter. Even being a waiter in general can be a really dehumanizing experience. So I was interested in what happens to a person, an immigrant, and what might happen, because my interest is of what people who aren’t familiar with Chinese-Americans, white Americans, will think about them. They’re just like us! And that’s kind of a side effect, not the intention. And that’s the thing I always want to remember for myself. My intention was never to educate or teach or make human. My intention was to follow my curiosity about how an environment shapes a person.

TD: It’s a great book and I do think it sparks many questions.

I always have a conversation with my boyfriend about what I'm reading. What really fascinated me about the book was the writing style, in general. For these the main characters, their first language is Chinese. I immediately noted to him that it was the first time I had seen such a seamless transition between their thoughts and when they’re speaking aloud. You can actually tell when they’re talking to each other or when they’re talking to their kids. Talking to their kids is different from talking to their co-workers, who are also immigrants. It becomes so seamless and you don’t get those gaps. Did you have to look back and check for consistency? Did it just work itself out?

LL: Language was a top priority for me, something I really wanted to get right. I don’t know exactly know how I made the transitions so seamless, except only through being aware of the context and who was speaking to whom. The hardest thing was the different context between how you speak English and what you think. All the way that language works in a person’s life.

In your original email question, you mention how the thoughts really feel like thoughts. I think that it’s a real challenge to think about how to communicate to the reader that the character is communicating in multiple languages, when you can only write in English. At least for me, I couldn’t write in any language besides English to express these things. I was just thinking, what else can I do to express it, if not through language? I thought, effort! Effort is a way of sort of queuing you to the language that’s being spoken. What language is native, what language is learned...

Nan is a really good example because she has so many different relationships to language. When she talks to her son Pat, she speaks in English, but it’s not her native language so it becomes non-standardized and grammatically incorrect. Also, she doesn’t have a close relationship to her son. It's already more of an effort to speak in English in order tell him, somehow, that she really wants to connect with him. That’s already so different from the English she uses in the restaurant. When she speaks to her co-workers, it's even less effort.

Even when we’re speaking in our native languages, there’s some effort there depending on whom we're speaking to. At the end of the spectrum, the most effortless thing is your own thoughts. I really wanted to communicate that spectrum of effort to let people know how language works, and to have more overlap with people who not only speak English and Chinese, but other languages too. I wanted to show a way of making the experience of language feel relatable.

TD: Do you feel like you had to study the way an immigrant would speak in English without making it seem cliché?

LL: Oh yeah, absolutely! It’s so interesting. The lovely and frustrating thing about fiction is that you can tell people exactly how it happens in real life, but people will be like, “we don’t care, this is not real life.” When you have a coincidence happen, in real life it’s amazing, but in fiction it’s just lazy.

Similarly, when I was writing the English that they would speak in the restaurant, or with their American kids, the English was much more... not necessarily stereotypical, because I was trying to remember the way that my parents spoke, but also I work at the university. Part of what I do is help people who are non-native speakers. They will come in with their homework assignments and I’ll help them with the grammar and clarity, and we’ll work it through.

I was able to learn a lot of grammar rules that I didn’t learn in school. For instance, why do Chinese people always drop articles? Well, they don’t exist in Chinese, so it’s something that’s easy to forget whenever you’re speaking English. I would bring that knowledge in and it would come across as stereotypical, like I was making fun of them. When I showed it to my mom, she actually said, “well you’re actually speaking better than they normally do.” Even so, it comes across as if I’m cutting them down. I made it so it was only the slightest affect.

I realized that you don’t have to be so true to make the illusion. Fiction is so full of illusions and tricks. I see the ways in which I didn’t have to be completely accurate to show the affect... And again, the effort is there. But to show it full-hog ends up undermining it.

TD: How do you manage an array of characters?

LL: For certain groups, there’s no reason for them to get along. But because the time elapses, it grants them a secret language and an extra understanding that is impossible to replicate. That was something I really wanted to have come through, even as there were so many clashing personalities. So even though it was difficult to make up all these characters and have them clash with each other, I felt like it was one of the easier things to do. I always know why something is hard, but I can never figure out why something is easy so I can make it easy again. It's frustrating. If I had a theory, I think it’s because I didn’t really think of these people so much as individual characters when I was coming up with them, but rather as relationships that I wanted them to have and explore.

TD: I left this comment at the end so I could cut it off if it revealed too much, but... Do you feel like there isn’t a bad person in the book? At first it was so obvious who might be the "bad guy." But by the end of the book, the person that I thought would be the only iconically bad character was not. How did that come about?

LL: Novels take forever to write, and you inevitably grow up and change the way you think. For me, I’m always thinking about theories about society and people that I’m volunteering even if no one wants to hear them. But I had a theory, when I began the book, that nothing is inherently good or bad. Everything is neutral –– and that extends beyond people and character traits. Even good traits, like generosity, when used in excess turn in on themselves and can be as destructive as they are productive.

For example, Jimmy’s anger can at first seem destructive, but keep in mind its energy, strength, and passion.

TD: Yeah, that anger almost seems like something that even his mother is proud of.

LL: Yeah! That culture and context changes what we think of good and wanted. It’s interesting! There’s that fable in the book and that, for me, that was the heart of it: There’s nothing wrong with you unless you try to be that thing that you’re not supposed to be. You are born with traits to use to your strength. That created what I wanted to express. When you have such a clear-cut idea of what you want to say when you’re writing, then your characters can turn into mouthpieces and I didn’t want that. After a certain point, this is a personal belief that I have here; however, let’s not let it take up so much room, because I do think everyone has had a lot of hurt and served hurt. I wanted to change the reader’s dialog with the characters so it wasn’t who is bad or who is good, but rather who is hurt and let's try to understand why they are acting out this way. Does that excuse them? No. Does that explain them? A little bit, yeah, and that’s what I wanted to happen. That’s what I believe in the real world. Do you ever feel that way? You just think, who hurt you?

TD: Well yeah, I work in retail.

LL: So true.

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