One refuge I found was a Chinese restaurant off the highway called “China-King Buffet.” The unlit, hand-painted sign was all that distinguished the plain square white building from the industrial uses of the identical row of buildings beside it; the windows out front were covered, and the first time I went I was a little scared of what I’d find inside. The space was vast, high-ceilinged and unpartitioned, so that the modest buffet which steamed constant clouds from the egg-flower soup tank looked comically small, and the old formica tables and cheap folding chairs seemed unreasonably distant from one another, each table its own solitary island even on nights when the tables were full, which usually they were not. There was a sense that it was a small operation striving to fill an overlarge space, an impression heightened by the attempt to fill the long walls with pictures of properly large scale: the entire rear wall was a twenty-foot by hundred foot color picture of the great wall of China receding into blue sky, splitting the restaurant in two down the middle, while on each adjoining wall hand-painted gold koi of monstrous proportions undulated across the otherwise empty space. One of the oddest features of the place was how on weekend nights the place often divided by race, with blacks on the left, on one side of the great wall, and whites on the other side; fittingly, I often ended up in the middle, directly beneath the great wall. In the furthest corner from the entrance was a desk and cash register and a single open door which was bright with the lights of the kitchen behind, and every time I entered a short, slight Chinese boy of fifteen or sixteen was perched on a stool beside the desk with a Chinese-language magazine or book in hand, and he would startle at the clang of the bells on the door and thrust the magazine under the desk and leap forward with a stack of menus, speaking broken, heavily accented English: “Welcome. Help to the buffet if y’all like, please!”
The first time I went in, I looked over the buffet and knew it was for a Delta pallet—everything was fried and thoroughly inauthentic for the Szechuan cuisine the menu claimed, shrimp and chicken and noodles and battered vegetables. When I called the boy over and asked to order off the menu, he brightened and nodded and said, “Oh yes, you are Asian!” When the steamed dumplings and buns came the platter was brought out by a small, kind-faced woman in an apron who I took to be the boy’s mother, and when she saw me her face lit up and she slid the steaming food in front of me and put her hand to my shoulder and motioned for the boy to come translate; through his translation, she indicated welcome for ‘Another Asian person!’ and tried to hide her disappointment at my questionably Japanese origins, and said several times just how welcome I was; finally, she retreated to the kitchen and let me eat and I was delighted to find the food good, fresh and flavorful and not fried. When I finished, the boy brought with the check a giant plate of dessert from the buffet, lime jello with whipped cream and white-cake and pudding, which he indicated was on the house and which I tried to move around on the plate so as to appear to have enjoyed. And so the pattern became set—whether I came with a group of other TFA teachers or alone, there was always a complimentary plate of desert, and always a warm reception, the only place in the town where I was not the only slant-eyed, brown-skinned fellow.
Over time, in conversations with the boy, Hao, on quiet days, I found out a little more: the family had come over not long ago to a family restaurant in New Jersey, and when relatives who’d run this restaurant decided to leave they’d agreed to come take over with no idea about what being Chinese immigrants might mean in the deep rural South. Hao went to the public schools, to the high school; he told me, in his broken English with his over-pronounced syllables and troubled ls and rs, that he had no friends, that he wanted to return to Jersey or to China, that America was not as he’d thought it would be. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it was for him at the high school—I knew from my experience of the streets the pointed fingers and the laughter, the taunts of China-man, China-man, show us some Kung Fu!
One day when I came on a quiet afternoon the Hao’s face lit up when I entered. He called out “Hey! I got something for you!” and gestured for me to find a seat, then he hurried back to the kitchen; moments later, the music, which had been new country, went silent, and then there was a crackle and first quiet and then at ear-splitting volume, the first notes of flute, and for a moment I didn’t recognize it and then I did: a vintage recording of “Sakura,” the cherry blossom song, that most common Japanese folk song so often used when teaching about Japan. I nearly burst into laughter, then restrained myself. Who knew where Hao had found the cd here, in a town without a record store—it certainly must have taken some effort.
Hao walked out of the back with a proud grin, the flute notes echoing loud from wall to wall, and called over the clamor, “I got this for you. Do you like it?”
I did the only thing I could: I told him I loved it, that it was everything I missed, and he nodded and nodded, beaming, imagining he’d returned home to me in a way that he himself must have longed for so acutely—a reminder of who he was, where he’d come from, that made him feel for a moment he belonged in the world.