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What I Learned Working the Family Restaurant During Christmas

"Once I started working, when I was 12 or 13, it totally changed the way that I wanted to celebrate. It made me like the holiday a lot more. It was a combination of me also being old enough to realize that it's okay that different people celebrate things in different ways and it’s okay that your family is different."

There are more than 41,000 Chinese restaurants in America. And while plenty of people love Chinese food, they really love it on Christmas Day. In fact, delivery service GrubHub reports that Chinese food is 152 percent more popular on December 25th alone than any other day through the year. That’s because, while a large portion of Americans are at home celebrating, there are other hungry masses of citizens looking for open restaurants. 

Christy Chang is a child of Chinese restaurant owners in Evansville, Indiana for nearly 27 years. Chang, who now teaches in the San Francisco area, spent a lot of her childhood in and around the store, which was open nearly every day of the year with the exception of July 4th, New Year’s Day, and Thanksgiving. Here, she talks about how she learned to love her unconventional in-restaurant holiday — and why being with family is more important than a Christmas tree. 

I grew up in Evansville, Indiana. I didn’t realize until after I went to college and after I left that town how much of an impact it made on who I am today. The way that I see the world was totally formed by not just being Asian-American in a predominantly white community, but also the fact that I grew up in a restaurant, basically. That was my childhood.

I have really vivid memories of being really little and I wasn’t old enough to work in the restaurant. My parents would put me and my brother, who is three years older, in the back office. It was not really an office — it was a storage space for all the soy sauce and rice and non-perishable stuff. There were no computers. There was paperwork. A stapler, because I remember stapling my thumb and crying a lot and my brother was freaking out. There was no one to take care of us because my parents were in the front.

As you probably know, at most Chinese restaurants in the United States, there are a couple of Chinese people actually cooking the food, but there’s a lot of Mexican and Latin American immigrants. Imagine: a bunch of these dudes that don’t speak English or Chinese trying to help little kids that stapled their fingers and they’re bleeding everywhere. 

We would play in the rice. We would stick our hands in all of the rice, and play in the rice buckets. Of course, we would get in really big trouble. I remember that whole sensory experience: all of the smells in that storage room, my brother locking me in the walk-in freezer.

For the 27 years they owned the restaurant, the only days my parents closed were random holidays: July 4th, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day. Only three days a year. I remember my dad would work from 10 o’clock to 11 o’clock every day so I barely ever saw him. My mom would work most every day too, but shorter hours.

Before I started working, I remember — and I think about this almost every holiday season — I remember sitting on my couch and watching commercials for those cheesy diaper commercials or those stupid Kay Jewelers diamond ring commercials, about how sweet it is to be home for the holidays and sharing a meal. Having a Christmas tree and the snow falling. All that stupid cliché commercial stuff. I’d think: But that’s not what my house looks like, and it doesn’t feel like Christmas. We went to church sometimes and we would exchange gifts but I thought: This is bullshit. This isn’t Christmas.

I remember looking out the window, and I could see the silhouettes of other families sitting around a fire and drinking hot cocoa and seeing all the Christmas trees in their windows and being really, really sad that that wasn’t my Christmas. I felt lonely when I was young. Especially on those holidays. Looking back on it now, it’s like, that’s so messed up. Also, I was feeling alone because my brother was older. I was old enough to know Santa’s not coming. But I think there was just this weird part of me that was like, of course Santa Claus won’t come, he doesn’t even know that it’s Christmas in my house because we didn’t put up a Christmas tree. No one’s here, no one’s singing. I remember playing Christmas carols by myself on the piano, singing by myself.

Once I started working, when I was 12 or 13, it totally changed the way that I wanted to celebrate. It made me like the holiday a lot more. It was a combination of me also being old enough to realize that it’s okay that different people celebrate things in different ways and it’s okay that your family is different. It all kind of lined up together, just maturing in that way.

I remember that families would come in and be like, “Oh my gosh, thank you so much for being open.” It’s a super Protestant white community. There were maybe a couple of Jewish families. A lot of people did carry-out. They’d have families in the hospital or a sick member at home. They didn’t have time or wouldn’t be able to cook and they were really grateful.

Christmas was actually the busiest day of the entire year. I started to realize how wonderful it was to be with my family then. It was really, really special to finally celebrate with them even though it was totally not in a traditional way. Because it was the busiest day, we couldn’t even talk to each other. We could barely look at each other. Everyone is running around, and at the beginning of the day, we would have huge lines out the door. One year, it was snowing and we couldn’t close the door because the line was so long. We’d have a 30-minute break between shifts where the restaurant was still open. I remember my mom would buy us a bunch of croissants and cold-cut meats and the whole restaurant would take turns eating bread and shitty sandwiches in the kitchen. It was just taking turns to eat for like 10 minutes and then going back to work.

To me, now, that is the best Christmas ever. I don’t really want to eat cookies or sing carols or whatever the hell you do. I have no interest in that anymore. My memories are of these really wonderful Christmases of being super tired and being exhausted. My perspective completely changed.

When I was 23, I moved to China for three years. I couldn’t make it home for Christmas. I would celebrate with other expats and we would do super traditional things. I remember kind of hating it. Everyone was a little bit sad, because everyone was homesick, so they did all these traditional things to comfort themselves, but I didn’t feel comforted. I was like, this isn’t what I want. This doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t feel right. It made me realize, Oh, wow, I really value this tradition in my family. I really like that we have this. Our way of spending time together is not a Hallmark movie way of spending time together. It’s just unique to our family. I don’t care that we’re really tired and I don’t care that we have to work all day and be exhausted and not talk to each other because at least we get to be together. That was the best part.  

As Told To Lizzy Francis