An American life, Please. To go, and fast
The New York Times
July 18, 2004

by Thomas Staudt

Auto repair shops, landscaping companies, clothing boutiques, grocery stores: many county businesses have been living evidence of family ownership - as in children - helping on the premises or driving the truck. The presence of offspring, after all, is mutually beneficial: They learn life lessons and the parents get extra assistance.

But how many poor immigrant children working in their parents' shops grow up to hold high-powered positions at I.B.M., as Peggy Chan does? A 28-year-old financial analyst who now lives in Pittsburgh, Ms. Chan spent her youth at the Magic Wok in Pleasantville and recently took 10 days off work to run it during her parents' absence.

Although she described working for her parents, Alice and Man Keung Chan, as a great exercise in learning self-discipline, Ms. Chan said: "I also feel like I missed out on part of my childhood. I started really helping out at the restaurant when I was in sixth grade, and was there about 30 hours a week by the time I was in high school."

Conversely, how many shopkeepers - even fairly recent immigrants - do business here without even a rudimentary knowledge of English, as Zihe and Huizhen Zhang do? Owners of the New China Kitchen in Ossining, the Zhangs came to America 16 years ago but still rely entirely on the translation skills of their three children, Emily, Steve and Kevin - without whom there would be no customer contact, and certainly no orders for General Tso's Chicken.

Through his daughter, Emily, who interpreted from the Fukienese dialect, Mr. Zhang explained recently: "It's expected that our children would be here to help us, and there's really nothing else we can do, because we have to make a living. If we had to hire more employees, we wouldn't make enough to stay open."

In the Chans, the Zhangs and other Chinese immigrant families serving up food at the more than 200 restaurants and takeouts throughout the county, experts see the American Dream of upward mobility being achieved more rapidly than in other groups, yet with a greater degree of interdependence.

The business's very survival may depend on the involvement of the children, for example, demanding long hours and years of personal sacrifice. Yet these children end up with the benefit of a disciplined work ethic and, often academic success and a promising career - backed, of course, by proceeds from the restaurant.

"The kind of discipline and work ethic that Chinese children develop when they participate in the family business will always help them later on, no matter what field they go into," said Bob Chow, past president of the Westchester/Mid-Hudson Valley Chapter of the Organization of Chinese-Americans and a former board chairman of the Chinese-American Academic and Professional Society.

"There are no clear statistics," Mr. Chow added, "but when you look at the top high school graduates in the county, you probably see a lot of Asian faces, and these kids are then going on to selective universities.

"Or look at the number of Asians in the Westchester Youth Symphony. Parents are pushing their children at a very young age because they see a lot of opportunities here in the U.S. compared to where they've come from, and they want their kids to have the right attitude to succeed from the start." But a wish to give the children the right attitude isn't the only reason Chinese immigrant parents have them at work.

"The competition in this business is never ending," Ms. Chan said, "and the margins just aren't that great. You make all your money on turnover - lots of takeout, and table after table."

And because Chinese restaurants stand as popular family dining destinations, she noted, normally big profit generators like wine and liquor don't contribute much.

"Having to hire someone who can speak English means paying a larger salary, and that's what keeps these kinds of business family-run for the most part," explained Ms. Chan. "Parents take an attitude that they work hard to raise their children, so the children should help them in return."

Another factor in the equation is that so many young would-be immigrants in China, born into grinding poverty, are trained as cooks for lack of any other saleable skill. Both Mr. Zhang and Mr. Chan followed that path, the latter calling it "the best way for an immigrant to find a job over here."

Both families work at that job 364 days a year. They have Thanksgiving Day off. And their similarities don't end there.

Each has three children: a daughter followed by two sons. Both daughters have prestigious careers, Emily Zhang's as a software developer for Morgan Stanley.

The Chan and Zhang sons have followed comparable achievement patterns as well, although the Chan family arrived 13 years earlier so has had more time to thrive.

That prosperity is borne out in the fortunes of Wei Chan, the youngest child. The salutatorian of Pleasantville High School's class of 2002, he attended classes at the Northern Westchester Chinese School every Saturday for 12 years. Two years ago he was accepted at Harvard (for a while, his acceptance letter was on the restaurant wall).

But he instead chose M.I.T., where he studies chemical engineering and physics. This summer Mr. Chan, 20, is taking part in a 10-weeklong internship program at Merck Pharmaceuticals in Philadelphia.

In a telephone interview, he said he enjoyed working at the Magic Wok, even though he had never been paid for his efforts, which "took up most of my free time" and left him without much social life.

He pointed out that his parents are paying the bulk of his college tuition, "and that's a lot of money."

"We're a pretty close family, and probably would have been still even if we hadn't owned the restaurant," said Mr. Chan. "Along with the expectations that were placed on us children came respect; we were treated like young adults early on."

The youngest Zhang son, Kevin, 22, behaves with similar motivation but has in some ways had a harder time. At 17 he dropped out of high school to help his parents at the restaurant. Three years later he went back and earned a Regents diploma. Now studying conveniently nearby at Pace University in Pleasantville, he has recently shifted his major to accounting from computer engineering.

"I don't see that I have any choices for myself until after graduation from college," Mr. Zhang said, adding that even then, if his parents needed him, he would continue helping them at the restaurant.

The middle sons in each family have seemingly been less driven. Jason Chan never liked coming to the restaurant when he was younger, said his mother, who added, "He always wanted to stay home and play instead."

Mr. Chan, 24, studied graphic design and took some community college courses. He is now weighing whether he should make a career of managing the Magic Wok for his parents.

"I haven't decided what I'm going to do yet," he said with a wry smile.

As for Steve Zhang, he is awaiting the results of the New York Police Department officer's test, which he took on June 12. An admittedly lackadaisical student at Ossining High School, Mr. Zhang, now 24, spent more time helping his parents than attending classes. He never graduated, but at 18 received his G.E.D.

IT has been 10 years since Peggy Chan regularly worked at the Magic Wok; what was hardest about her high school years, Ms. Chan recalled, was being at the restaurant when "everyone else was dating and hanging out."

Nonetheless, she said: "I saw my parents working so hard, and it felt perfectly natural to want to help them. That's part of the old-fashioned Chinese values ingrained in me, I guess. A sense of duty to my family."

She cut back her involvement at the restaurant once she began her business administration studies at Pace -purposely close by so she wouldn't be gone too long with the family's lone sedan.

On a recent evening, though, as she was heading out to dinner with a friend from I.B.M., she stopped by the Magic Wok to say hello to her parents. When her mother stepped away momentarily from the command module at the front of the restaurant, Ms. Chan, without missing a beat, answered the phone and took a takeout order, which she sent via computer back to the kitchen, and then rang up a customer's dinner check on the register.

At the New China Kitchen in Ossining, the Zhangs' day begins about 11 a.m., although Mr. Zhang usually walks over earlier to begin making the sauces he uses to prepare the meals. The family works until around midnight.

Early on a Saturday evening when many of her professional peers at Morgan Stanley may have been dining out, Emily Zhang was unconsciously showing off her multitasking skills behind the counter.

A takeout order was ready. Ms. Zhang was loading the containers of food into a small shopping bag and double-checking the order while totaling it all up on the register - all while talking on the phone with a customer and filling out another order on a printed menu sheet.

Two men walked in and approached the counter to order their dinners; Ms. Zhang spun around and, in Fukienese, sharply called out the main entrees of the phone order to the restaurant's two cooks, her father and a family friend named Chung.

As if on cue, Steve and Kevin Zhang appeared at the counter to lend a hand. For the next several minutes the three siblings, in close proximity, executed a ballet sequence of tasks.

Steve, just back from making a delivery across town, jotted down one of the men's orders and slid it over to his sister, who was filling yet another brown bag with food and condiments - while Kevin, having heard the orders, rolled back a few feet to drop chicken into the frying baskets and check on pork spare ribs sizzling under the broiler.

Kevin then returned to the back of the kitchen to help prepare food for his father, as Steve scooted out to the family's badly dented car for another delivery. Four diners at one table finished their meals and disappeared out the front door, and suddenly, like an apparition, Huizhen Zhang was there to clear the trays and dishes, wipe tables clean and refill napkin canisters.

Another customer walked in to place a takeout order: egg rolls and dumplings; Szechuan Beef, Moo Shu Pork and General Tso's Chicken. Emily yelled back the customer's order over the din of noise from the kitchen's ventilation fans.

What else would she be doing on a Saturday night? These are siblings who have never had a weekend off, let alone been to a beach or a camp.

"No boyfriends," Ms. Zhang explained in answer to a question. "I haven't found anyone who can keep up with me yet."

Ms. Zhang's success in the business world has enabled the family to buy a house in Ossining, and she is also paying the boys' college tuitions.

"They probably think I'm too bossy," she said of her brothers, whom she trained over the years to run the front of the restaurant.

ON the rare half-days they have off from school or the restaurant, the Zhang brothers take turns traveling to the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, for special pastries and other delicacies as well as videotapes of Chinese television dramas. (Flushing is much more appealing than Chinatown in Manhattan, which they described as "smelly and too crowded.")

But it's not often that anyone feels like watching television at the end of the night's work, according to Mr. Zhang.

As for Mrs. Zhang, when she was asked how she would feel when (or if) her children embarked on careers away from the restaurant, she answered, through her daughter, "It's too far away for me to think about it."