The March 15th anniversary of the novel coronavirus lockdown loomed over me. It came, it passed, and I said nothing. The very next day, eight horrific Atlanta murders were committed, and six victims were women of Asian descent. It was unspeakable.
I am an Asian-American restaurant owner, a woman in America, a small business owner, a community leader, and an advocate for equity and kindness. It is both my job and my passion to speak up. But in a year when all of who I am—a restaurant owner, an Asian-American, a woman—have been threatened, tested, and at risk of being extinguished, I can hardly collect my thoughts, much less words.
I was suddenly overcome with a landscape of emotion: reliving the past 365 days of tumult in vivid detail. In the past year, I closed two restaurants— places of love built in neighborhoods that nurtured them and culturally rich enclaves with menu offerings as diverse as their clientele. I furloughed 100 employees, including myself. I sold every single one of our perishable goods in a fire sale — and was criticized in media comments for not enforcing enough social distancing outside our doors during this sale.
This crisis is a landscape shared by thousands of restaurant owners across the country—passionate small business owners serving vastly different cuisines, but with the shared mission of creating community through food.
On the anniversary of the start of the pandemic, I thought: I’ll share my reflections the next day. I’ll speak on the real one year anniversary of when the world went deftly on pause. I told myself, it’s important to tell these stories — to be both a student of my own memories, but also more loftily, to educate.
Then the horrific murders in Atlanta happened. First, I thought: That’s where I grew up — an only daughter of two Vietnamese refugees living in plain sight in the heart of the South. Then it hit me: Wait, that could’ve been my mom. My auntie. Women who worked long hours in the self-care service industry to earn a deserving tip. Small-business owners, which I would later grow up to be. Asian women who had endured a lifetime of untold racial misogyny, and most recently, four years of an administration in Washington that exacerbated it, condoned it, and mocked it.
The kind of blindly inciting authority that would directly provoke violence and exercise a void of condemnation. In the eyes of a certain young white male, that provocation was still ripe for inspiration; to him, it seemed acceptable to simply “have a bad day” and take lives.
So I know I must speak up. I will speak not just for me but for the Asian-American restaurant owners and all restaurant owners who have lost a year at best, and everything at worst. I will speak for the AAPI community enduring prejudice and hate that was not born with a new hashtag to #StopAsianHate, but is ingrained into the fabric of this nation. I will speak for the women who still cannot use their voice. I will speak up for my community, my staff, my extended family of colleagues, my friends, and our customers who share the dream of coming together again over a delicious dish to share our stories.
As a restaurant owner, I am acutely aware that I walk into the world as a leader. This is my privilege. I have just a small corner of the world: one restaurant still standing, a labor of love that I assembled together like a 3-D Lego set without instructions. I keep it together with the help of a fluid partnership, valuable employees, and a necessary community. I am their leader, and it is quite literally my job to inspire: Inspire good work, inspire a sale, inspire word-of-mouth support.
In light of horrific circumstances in which the victims look like me … well, it’s easy to default to despair, helplessness, or hopelessness (or a cocktail of all three). But the privilege of leadership is coupled with the burden of not resting: It is not lost on me that my job is to (still) get up and achieve. If not for myself, then for my dependents (my staff, my investors, my family). The pressure to constantly achieve greatness is real (I remember all too well what it was like to grow up in my household with high expectations), but achieving (just) goodness is not only acceptable, it is welcomed. And it is doable by all.
But what could I do? Sometimes as a leader, you have only your gut to follow, and it led me, first, to consider my community. Every single person was managing the upfront social reckoning of racial injustice, and as a community leader, we offered opportunities for the public to have a tangible way to contribute: visiting our bake sale in support of Black lives.
Purchasing our apparel, for which we donated all proceeds to NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund for an entire month. Introducing a not-corporate-at-all bottled water, Aqua Equity, on our menu — a local Black-owned business that gave back to their own community. And with the help of a non-profit called El Nido Family Centers, we made it possible for our guests to donate dollars so we could cook and deliver meals to food-insecure families in Watts, a historically Black Los Angeles neighborhood that is increasingly integrated with Latinx, Asian, and immigrant communities. Our restaurant was slow then, and this task not only kept us employed, but allowed us to contribute where it was most needed.
Supporting Woman-Owned Restaurants During COVID-19
Along the way, I educated myself on local and national government structures so I could help amplify our struggles with the very leaders whose job it is to care about us. I wasn’t going to default responsibility to anyone—I made it my job to grow empathy beyond the four walls of our restaurant.
The disappointment and shame I felt and still feel from losing a restaurant was eclipsed by the urge I felt to birth a non-profit organization to support women-owned restaurants. Women, disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to carrying the burden of childcare and schooling, were forced to choose between their families and their jobs, and millions tragically left the workforce. For me, I co-founded RE:Her to uplift the kind of courageous women who do the very work that I do — and to help prevent another woman-owned restaurant from falling.
The struggles of this past year have illuminated what I believe to be my biggest achievement of all: When pushed to the brink of almost losing everything, you get creative. And you wiggle your way out of it to survive. Looking back, this was the strategy of my ever-brave refugee parents. They wiggled their way out of Vietnam. And quite unbelievably, they wiggled themselves into a redefined life of earned success. I am honored to work off of their legacy. And to amplify my role as a minority voice in a major way.
How to support AAPI restaurant owners
We can all do our part to support AAPI restaurant owners. Below are some resources.
- Follow, support, and hashtag your favorite spots with #SaveChineseRestaurants.
- Order from a restaurant on #TakeOutHate, which offers a list of Asian-owned restaurants near you.
- Donate to #EnoughIsEnough, a campaign to raise funds for food donations to NYC shelters supporting Asian, Black, and Latinx communities.
- Join Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, a chefs’ group raising awareness and funds to donate to Stop AAPI Hate.