Photo by Melissa Hom Courtesy Lydia Chang

Restaurant DiariesWashington D.C.

What It’s Like to Be an Asian American Restaurant Owner Right Now

By

Lydia Chang is the restaurant operator for her family’s group of restaurants, which includes Peter Chang in Arlington, Va., Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda, Md., Mama Chang in Fairfax, Va., and NiHao in Baltimore, Md. Her words follow. 

***

This year alone, two of our restaurants were broken into. The first time was in January at Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda, Md. The second time was just this week, at NiHao in Baltimore.  

I ask myself: Could these have been just simply robberies? Why did this happen to two of our restaurants? Is it because we’re Asian-American operating? I look at the security cameras and everything, and the truth is I don’t have enough to say this is not a simple robbery. I also don’t have enough to say this has nothing to do with how we are being targeted. 

Looking at the loss, luckily, it’s not too much. The most damage is just replacing a door. That’s the physical damage. But emotionally, I’m worried for the people who work at our restaurants. You know, like what happened in Atlanta … could that happen at a restaurant? Could that happen at one of our restaurants? 

A friend of mine, who is Chinese and owns a tea shop near Dupont Circle, has told me that at least every three to four weeks since he’s opened his store last February, he’s had someone come in and harass him. Someone almost always comes in and shouts at him to go back to his country. One time, someone came in with a weapon and tried to harm him. 

I don’t know how to process if we’re just random targets, or if we as Asian Americans are being targeted. The emotions are so strong, but I’m trying to make sense of all of this, too. 

When people ask me, “How do you know it’s anti-Asian?” I want to say to them: “Do you know what it feels like to be an Asian American right now?” If we look at every incident on its own, whomever you are talking to could say, “Oh, this could happen to anyone.” 

I’m constantly wondering, am I being too sensitive? How do you actually prove a hate crime against Asian Americans? In a lot of these cases, you can’t. But we do see a pattern here; a lot of the victims are Asian, so how do you explain that? How do people around us not know that that matters? 

I try not to focus on the why so much, like why are we being targeted? Instead, I ask myself how do we change it? How do we stop it?  

*** 

Photo Courtesy Q by Peter Chang

I’ve had these feelings of being scared and having anxiety, just in my day-to-day life, since the start of COVID-19. My family is originally from Wuhan, China, the same city that had the outbreak first. I was worried for all of my family in China last year. After three months of lockdown, they went back to normal and then, they started to worry about us. 

I keep thinking, what if my grandma were here in the U.S. with us? What if she just wanted to go for a stroll outside to grab coffee or go to the convenience store? How do I protect her safety when she’s here?  

I know this has been with us even before COVID, but knowing what happened to my friend, and knowing everything else that’s happening in this nation, in Oakland, in New York, in Atlanta, maybe we were not raising enough awareness. Maybe we were not speaking up enough about what’s happened. That’s something we’re trying to change. 

Like with what we’re doing with the Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate dinner series, we want to bring awareness to it. It’s a good start and with more people getting aware and being involved, I hope we can do something.  

Because food is something that’s so close to every one’s day to day, I feel like this is one way we can start to raise awareness. Asian food has provided a lot of comfort to people throughout the pandemic. We can bring a lot of our audiences together and help one another and the community. Sometimes, though, I do find myself asking: If you like our food so much, why not us, too? 

I do get asked now, how can we show our support for the AAPI community, besides making donations? And I tell people, go to your local Asian restaurant. Support local Asian restaurants in your communities. We are part of your communities. We’re your neighbors.  

I also want to say, be aware of what’s happening and question less about whether we know Asians are being targeted. Look at the facts, the trends, the overall picture.  

To my fellow Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, I want you to know, we’re in this together. We’ll stay strong. We’ll stay hopeful. And to everyone, please, stop AAPI hate. 

***

As told to Deanna Ting.

Lydia Chang spearheads the growth of her family’s restaurants, beginning with Arlington’s Peter Chang, followed by Q in Bethesda, and Mama Chang in Fairfax. As the company doubled in size in a period of 5 years, she maintained her focus on financial growth, from fundraising, management, while keeping operation issues such as talent sourcing, construction, design build, legal resolutions, and also culinary consistency in check. Follow her on Instagram.

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