Update 6/12/19: An earlier version of this story misstated that Chongquing is in Szechuan province, China. The error has been corrected in the article.
Dingkui Feng has been working 12-hour days in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. since he was 17, but he only started making his own money this year.
He left his home in Henan, in northeast China, to work in the states after his family acquired a large debt. Since then, he’s scrubbed dishes and bussed tables in more than 10 restaurants all over the U.S.
While working in Washington, he nearly passed out from working when he was sick, worried that he would get fired if he rested. Another time in California, he was fired at the end of his first day for not working hard enough.
But he persevered and finally paid off his debt last summer, after three years of hard work. Now 20-years-old, he’s working in Eugene, saving for his next move.
Feng is one of over 2 million Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. between 2000 and 2015. And he’s one of many who wound up working in Chinese restaurants in Eugene, which have been popping up all over town.
The people involved in these establishments are all from the same country and live in the same town in the U.S. Even so, they came from different regions with distinct cultures. Their reasons for coming to the U.S., the varied experiences they’ve had here and the flavors in the food they serve all reflect China’s diversity.
Some Chinese immigrants in Eugene, like Feng, simply came for a job, but others came here for education or to be with family and loved ones.
John Li, 28 years old, owns Spice N Steam restaurant. He’s a driven man who strides confidently through his restaurant as he gives orders in fluent Chinese and English.
Li and his family moved to the U.S. when he was 15 so that he could earn an American education.
He said he was scared about living in a new country at first, but now that he’s opened his own business, he’s happy he came to the U.S. Li was pursuing a business degree at UO until he took a break from school to work on his restaurant, which he opened in 2017.
He believes coming to the U.S. has given him more freedom to follow his passions, compared to his friends who stayed in China, who he said are often limited by social expectations.
“America gives a better opportunity to let you be more creative,” he said.
Victor Huang, who waits tables at the Legend of Szechuan restaurant, moved to Eugene to be with his girlfriend who studies Japanese at UO. A slim young man with round glasses, Huang often works wearing a light denim jacket. He’s the only English speaker in the restaurant. Although he said he’ll follow his girlfriend out of Eugene when she graduates, he’s starting to make a home in town.
“I’m very happy here,” he said.
The owner of Legend of Szechuan, Tiejun Su, also came to Eugene to be with somebody he cared about.
Su bought the restaurant in July after coming to Eugene to be with his son, who graduated from UO and now works in Portland. Su is a burly man with buzzed salt and pepper hair, a restaurant-industry veteran who’s been in the business his whole life.
He hasn’t been here for long, but he said he likes the clean air and the weather in Eugene, which is much warmer than his hometown of Harbin in northeastern China. He said he plans to establish his life and business in Eugene.
“It’s nicer to work here than in China. The pay is better,” he said.
China’s people live in regions with distinct languages and food: Chefs in one Chinese restaurant in Eugene might not be able to talk to chefs in another, and they couldn’t cook each other’s dishes.
Xiaoti Sun is the owner of Uniquely Chengdu restaurant. He was born in Chongqing, a city in southwestern China. But he lived in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and his restaurant’s namesake, for 10 years.
He’s been cooking Sichuan food, known for its spice and the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn, for 27 years. His chefs are all from Sichuan province; they make fiery noodles, stir fries and other regional specialties with expertise.
Li and his chefs at Spice N Steam, on the other hand, came from Guangdong province, on China’s southeast coast. In the kitchen, they banter in Cantonese — a dialect that’s completely unintelligible to the Mandarin speakers at Uniquely Chengdu.
Guangdong cuisine is also distinct from Sichuan. It focuses on base ingredients — simply seasoned vegetables, meats and seafood — rather than spicy chiles and peppercorns.
The dishes Sun and Li serve at their restaurants reflect their roots. They contain flavors from home.
The experiences of these chefs, servers and business people are as diverse as the food cooked and served by people in Chinese restaurants in Eugene.
Sun, a small energetic man who can often be found sitting and talking excitedly with customers at his restaurant, has lived the life of an ambitious restaurateur. He said that he’s had several establishments in the U.S. and that he drives to Portland a couple times a week to work on a restaurant he’s opening there.
Sun doesn’t speak much English, but that doesn’t stop him from interacting with everybody who visits his restaurant. By using the few words he knows, by smiling and gesturing and by typing phrases into a translating app on his phone, he’s able to communicate with all of his restaurant’s patrons.
After years of hard work, he’s found success and a place where he likes to live. He said he plans to use Eugene as his base to build restaurants all over the country.
“The air is fantastic here,” he said. “The customers are nicer here.”
But others, like server Feng, are still far from success and contentment.
He works from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week and spends most of his one day off sleeping, buying groceries and taking his dirty clothes to the laundromat. He’s had this exhausting schedule for nearly four years.
But he said he appreciates the lessons he’s found in the U.S. During his long hours at work, Feng has had plenty of time to reflect on the different ways of living that he’s encountered here.
“You just keep your body busy, but your brain is free,” he said.
Feng plans to move back to China within a year once he’s saved enough money to give himself some time to think about what he’ll do next.
“The different culture inspired me a lot,” he said, speaking about his time in the states. “I think it’s good for me.”
Note: some of the interviews used for this article were conducted with the help of interpreters Albert Heidecke and Linlin Choy. Sources were referred to by their legal Chinese or chosen English names based on their preferences.