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The Story of an Immigrant Family 

People have asked me about the name of my restaurant, Lin and Daughters. The name is inspired by my dad, a retired chef, and my two amazing girls. I dedicated it to my dad because he’s dedicated to us his entire life. I’ll share his story and our special relationship in the next few posts

The first real memory I have of my father was from when I was 9 years old. He wanted to make a better life for his wife, daughters, and son, and so left our home in rural China when I was only 5 years old. I was too young to even remember him leaving.

I did have many memories of longing for his return after he was gone. Every month we would wait eagerly by the phone at our town center (we didn’t have our own phone back then) for his call. As a 5 yrs old, I didn’t have the vocabulary to put into words the feeling of “losing” your dad so suddenly or making sense of the changes. My mom was left with the kids on her own, including a newborn. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized how deeply it had impacted my development.

 

After a while, I got used to not having my dad around but I never stopped holding on to the promise he’d made to me - that he’d come back to bring us to the United States or as we called it “Mei Guo” which literally translates into “the beautiful country”.

As you could see in all of the pictures (the ones taken in China), my middle sister was never in any of them. To digress, she was given up for adoption because of China’s one child policy and back in those days, it was a must to have a son, especially for families in the rural area. My parents had me first and then 2 more girls after. They had no choice but to give the other daughters up for adoption. We were lucky to be able to get my middle sister, Lili back when she was 9 years old but we never get to meet the younger sister. I also wanted Lin and Daughters to pay homage to all the daughters who couldn’t be with their parents for the reasons above.

When I was 9 years old, my mom told me one day that we were going to the airport with my extended family to pick up my dad. I was ecstatic to say the least.

When we got there, I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up, the car felt a little extra full and lively.

I asked my mom if we were getting close to the airport. Everyone started laughing and told me that we were actually on our way home. I started crying because I thought my dad didn’t make it home but then I heard the familiar voice saying “baba is here”. That was when I finally realized the person sitting across from me was my dad.

To my surprise, he looked nothing like the dad I remembered. He had lost all his hair and grown a big beer belly. He looked bloated and tired but cheerful. He was so familiar yet he was a stranger to me. I was happy that he made it back home but sad that the dad I had constructed all these years looked nothing like the person in front of me.

I found out later that my dad was able to come back because he had just been granted the legal status by the US government. For the few weeks that he was there, my parents began preparing their move to the USA and part of that was to relocate their lost daughters. My middle sister, Lili, came home soon after. My younger sister whom we have never met was located but the adoptive parents at the time refused to meet. We heard later from a mutual family friend that she was well loved and living a good life.

Three years later, I found myself preparing to leave my hometown for the USA. Before I got in the car to leave, my cousin started crying and said “I won’t see you for at least 10 years.” As we drove past green fields of sprouting rice plants, I knew I was heading for a new beginning, and at the same time saying goodbye to an entire life - everyone I knew and had ever known.

We arrived at JFK the next night. I was mesmerized by the lights in the darkness, but New York also felt oddly cold, sterile, and foreign. Once we arrived at our apartment at sunset park, the reality of a difficult life began to hit me and I cried myself to sleep that night. 

The next day, my dad took us around Manhattan, including a stop under the Manhattan bridge on Canal St to shop for cheap groceries to celebrate our first dinner together. The dinner turned out to be a feast. 

As we crowded around the table having this amazing dinner, my dad told us this was the kind of food he would make at a fancy Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown when he had worked as a chef. This was the first time I realized he had been a chef. 

The food was somehow entirely familiar, yet like nothing I had ever tasted. In that dark basement, I knew we were poor. I knew I couldn’t speak the language. I knew the road ahead would be hard. But with my family reunited around the table, I felt whole, I felt like I belonged, and I felt rich.

 

After a year in Brooklyn, my parents took a leap of faith and bought a small takeout restaurant in a little quaint town on Long Island.

None of us spoke English and besides my dad, none of us had stepped inside a restaurant kitchen. The school we went to was populated with a lot of immigrant children like myself. We weren’t interacting much with anyone outside of our little Brooklyn Chinese circle.

There wasn’t much communication about how we were going to do it or how much I would be involved. A cousin who spoke English came to help for the first month as the cashier/phone person and after that, it became my job for the next 5 years. It was a huge responsibility but I never questioned why we were doing it. It was either that or continue living in our rat infested basement apartment.

When we arrived, we were the only Chinese family in town and no one spoke our language. It was as immersion as you could get. Altho for first few months, I had to do a lot of signing and use context/body language to help understand the customers, many of whom were kind and understanding.

For the next five years, I would go to school, work at the restaurant, study, sleep and repeat. Like my parents, there wasn’t one day I wasn’t working. Thanksgiving became my favorite holiday because it was the only day we closed the restaurant.

As many of my classmates started to go through their rebellious phase by partying and drinking, my outlet was studying as hard as possible. It started when my mom, in an effort to comfort me, told me not to care too much about my grades because they expected me to get married soon after high school, have kids and help the husband with his restaurant. Unknowingly to her, that was my worst nightmare. So I tried to get out the only way I knew how - by going to college.

The experience of a restaurant kid, combined with my perfect rebellious grades, paid off and now I have the privilege of being a Dartmouth College alumni :)

During the senior year of college, my parents were presented with an opportunity to open another restaurant. They had the concept of a Chinese and Japanese asian fusion place and it would need to be built from scratch. Since I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue medical school as originally planned, I agreed to graduate early and help them for a couple years and use the time to figure out my career path.

My dad took charge of the kitchen while I managed the front of the house. I resumed the schedule of working 7 days a week and learned a tremendous amount from both my dad and my Japanese chef/friend, Donny. The cleanliness of Japanese food and the balancedness of Chinese food has since become the main guiding principals of my cooking.

While the restaurant was a huge success, I didn’t make any time for myself or figure out what’s next.

After a while, my mental health started to deteriorate and I stayed awake many nights anxious of being trapped in a life I didn’t want and asking myself why I went to college if only to come back to my old life. My relationship with my family started to deteriorate as I sank into depression and insomnia.

In 2008, my parents and I finally came to the agreement that it was best for me to leave the family business. I moved to NYC and tried different jobs, eventually falling in love with teaching Chinese to kids. With my parents’ support, I bought a language school called Lango and ran it for almost 10 years, until it was shuttered by the pandemic.

For the next two years, I stayed home to care for my newborn and toddler, and rekindle my love for food and cooking. When an opportunity came to sell my homemade food online (via Shef), I jumped on it. After hundreds of meals and positive reviews, I was ready to take it to the next level.

In the spring of 2022, I finally gained enough courage (thanks to my @ordershef experience and the support of family and friends) to open a restaurant.

Although I left the family business, I never left behind my passion for food and cooking. Even as an education director, I would still find ways to incorporate cooking into the lessons.

I, however, underestimated the commercial real estate game in NYC. Many calls were left unanswered. Brokers didn’t know what to make of me. Many were nice but skeptical, some were blatantly sexist and racist. For example, one of the landlords had an experience with another Asian tenant where they obtained the lease just to reassign to someone else for a profit and was so convinced that I would do the same that he refused to proceed after we spent weeks discussing, agreeing to the final terms, and signing the lease on our end.

After months of searching, failing and restarting, we finally found the perfect space to open Lin and Daughters, coincidentally represented by a friend’s friend I met many years ago. The renovation was a whole different game as well. I wouldn’t go into details, but let’s just say some tears were shed in the process.

Thanks for reading! 

Best, 

Becky Lin 

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