Wait, You’re Not Chinese?
May 30, 2002
By PARI CHANG
I RECENTLY married and took my husband’s name: Chang. I am
white and I am Jewish and now I am Chinese – at least on
paper. I grew up on 1970’s feminism; I went to law school,
became a professional, and always imagined I would keep my
birth name to celebrate my selfhood. Yet when I married a
Chinese man, I realized that I could support our marriage
best by changing my name to his.
Hyphenation was an option, but hyphenated names often
create a cumbersome jingle. In my case, Berk-Chang. It
sounded like a stomach ailment (“I’ve been in the bathroom
all night with the Berk-Changs”). I thought of keeping my
birth name but did not want the burden of repeatedly
explaining, “My husband is Chinese, you know.” As my
wedding day approached, I decided to take Chang as my last
name and, by adding “Asian” to “woman” and “Jew,” represent
three groups at once.
People sometimes take offense when they discover that I am
not Chinese, as if I were engaged in a form of false
advertising. Friends recalled the “Seinfeld” episode in
which Jerry speaks to a woman named Donna Chang after
dialing a wrong number, asks her out and is disappointed to
find she is a white woman from Long Island. She had
shortened her name from Changstein.
When a group of women friends from out of town unexpectedly
visited me in Manhattan, I called a popular Chinese
restaurant and asked if it could possibly seat eight people
that evening. “You need to call further in advance for a
party that large,” the hostess told me. “I have only 11
p.m.” I asked to be put on the waiting list and gave her my
name. Then I heard the rustling of pages. “Well,” she said,
“I could squeeze you in at 8:30.”
When we arrived, I announced my name. “Chang party? You’re
the Changs?” the hostess said. I imagined her in front of a
mirror, rearranging an awkward ensemble. Open the button?
No. Belt it? Still wrong. “That’s us,” I said. I felt
guilty as she begrudgingly led us to our table, but what
are we Donna Changsteins of the world to do? Should I have
interjected on the telephone that afternoon, “Incidentally,
ma’am, I am not Chinese – but my husband is”?
I also unwittingly confused the personnel department at the
law firm where I practiced at the time of my wedding. After
I notified it that I had changed my name from Pari Berk to
Pari Chang, a switch was made in the company directory and
on my office door. I quickly learned that this meant the
assumption of a completely new professional identity. I
received the following e-mail message from a work friend
the next day:
1. Who the heck is Pari Chang?
2. Does she count in the firm’s minority statistics for
3. Do the Asian attorneys now view her as competition for
During recruitment season, people in the personnel
department, not having met me, must have assumed I was
Asian, and asked me to interview anyone who was of Asian
descent. No doubt some of the candidates I interviewed were
perplexed. I noticed a few sidelong glances that suggested
“Is she half?” I steered the conversation toward the tired
matter of balancing a legal career with a personal life so
that I might interject that I was recently married and
offer a clue to the mystery of a white girl named Chang.
I do not blame people for assuming that I am Chinese – my
name is Chang; it is a fair assumption. Responses sometimes
go beyond surprise, however. Acquaintances often boldly
announce their approval of Geoffrey as my husband. “I think
it’s wonderful,” they comment. Then they add that he is
handsome and “so tall!” Those of the more boorish variety
shout, “Pari Chang!” when they see me, as though my name
were some kind of verbal high-five.
As time passes, I feel emboldened by my new identity.
Losing my birth name, ironically, has been for me a matter
of self-definition. I am tickled by the irony of having
made a modern decision by doing the most traditional of all
things wifely: taking my husband’s name.
We were lucky, because both sets of parents approved. They
met for the first time before the wedding at an authentic
Chinese restaurant chosen by Geoffrey’s dad. My dad thought
he would wow them with his affinity for moo shoo chicken,
his confidence in the wisdom of fortune cookies. My mom
asked me if Geoffrey’s parents were aware that Jews love
Chinese food. But I couldn’t help wondering what my father
would say if the duck was presented with its neck intact.
He is a steak-and-potatoes man, a Hebrew Tony Soprano
without the mob, owner of a wholesale meat business in
Brooklyn. Geoffrey’s dad, Julius, is a physicist.
At first, my dad spoke slowly and clearly when addressing
Julius. Had I not popped a sedative before dinner, I might
have snapped, “Dad, he speaks English.” (Geoffrey’s father
moved to the United States in the 1950’s.) My parents
relaxed as Julius told stories of his teenage years around
the Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Ill., where he went to
high school. They even tasted the whole-fish soup with
enthusiasm. We drank wine and discussed pop culture,
gossiped about celebrities.
“So, who is Chinese in Hollywood?” my father suddenly
blurted. “What about Mista Miyagi, from `Karate Kid’ – is
Julius, bless him, answered my dad with grace. “Miyagi?
“Oh! How about Odd Job, from James Bond – is he Chinese?”
“Odd Job? Supposed to be Korean, but it’s a Japanese
In his unorthodox way, my dear father was trying to cozy up
and learn. Julius knew this; he could feel the effort at
connection beneath the impropriety. In fact, both of my
parents and my extended family have welcomed Geoffrey (and
embraced my decision to change my name) – and vice versa.
Still, they try to weave tapestries from stray threads. It
so happens that Geoffrey’s first cousins are half Jewish.
Their name is Gottlieb. My grandmother, during our Sunday
telephone chats, never fails to ask, “And the Gottliebs,
how are they?” The Gottliebs, Grandma, are agnostic. “Doing
well,” I tell her.
The Chinese are not unlike us, my family likes to say. They
joke that Chinese and Jewish women both play mah-jongg. And
they think of Chinese and Jewish families as close-knit.
Don’t they both value good educations and have children who
are diligent students, superstars at math?
When Geoffrey laughs, his eyes are smiling moons. When he
sleeps, his lashes are like caterpillar legs, straight and
stiff. I hope our children will have caterpillar-moon eyes
and will know Jewish culture.
We had a Chinese banquet for a rehearsal dinner, and a
rabbi officiated at our wedding. We live on a continuum,
hovering between East and West. I took Chang as my name to
honor this blend, and our choices.
0 thoughts on “My NY Times Archives”
It’s a great and very funny story. Definitely one of my favs. I think in terms of identity, it’s a hoot. What makes this particularly humorous to me is the fact that something seemingly so innocuous as a name could so discombobulate (sp?).
Running flak with people who so dislike one of my other handles “Chinkmeister”. Hehehe!
Sorry F C if this is not part of the fair use or whatever as I comb through my saved NY Times archives over the years.
Being that NYC is a small city (truly), I was pleasantly surprised to read about my old deli neighbor. Danny started his first deli underneath my roach and mice infested apartment (the quintessential NYC abode) in the West Village, called Hudson Gourmet.
Danny is a remarkable man. Good father, caring husband and warm honest success story. We’ve had numerous late evening talks and am fortunate and blessed to enjoy his confidence, not so easy for Koreans to do so toward non-Koreans.
Passing the Torch
May 26, 2002
By ANNE HEMMETT STERN
New Yorkers take for granted the essentials of city life:
takeout, MetroCards, yellow cabs, all part of the daily
thrum. For decades, New Yorkers haven’t thought twice about
waking up at 3 a.m. with a longing for kiwi or popcorn
because they know the Korean-owned delis are there.
These beacons of convenience have brightened the slate-gray
streets since the late 60’s and 70’s, when waves of Koreans
stepped in to replace the city’s aging Italian and Jewish
greengrocers. Whether white-collar or working-class, the
newcomers struggled to find jobs and often wedged their
ambitions between narrow store walls, much like the grocer
father in Chang-rae Lee’s acclaimed 1995 novel “Native
Speaker,” a quintessential member of the first generation.
They labored mightily, pioneering the all-night grocery,
and in the process creating a now familiar imprint around
the city. Chris Choi, secretary general of the Korean
Grocers Association, estimates that Koreans own 2,000
grocery-delis in the five boroughs.
More than 30 years have elapsed since the first generation
of Koreans began tempting New Yorkers with their wares.
Many have already retired. Who is minding the store now?
The expected answer – those immigrants’ children – is
almost always wrong.
“There’s no desire on the parents’ part to have their kids
take over the stores,” said Fred Carriere, vice president
and executive director of the Korea Society. “They want
their kids to go to Harvard and become doctors and
As a result, today’s Korean delis are typically managed by
more recent Korean immigrants. Some of these later arrivals
belong to what is known as the “ilchom ose” or “1.5”
generation, born there, raised here. Others came as adults,
on student visas or sponsored by relatives. But regardless
of their roots, today’s city greengrocers differ markedly
from their predecessors.
To the customer hurrying in at the end of the day for the
makings of dinner, the faces behind the counter may look
the same, if younger and less careworn. But few of the new
breed plan to make careers of running groceries, as their
Some pursue the business reluctantly, looking for ways to
branch out or escape entirely. Others long for a 9-to-5 job
and time with their children. Still others echo the earlier
grocers in energy but have transformed the business to
offer products far beyond the labor-intensive fruits and
vegetables favored by their elders.
For all of them, the economics of running a small business
in the city have grown more complex, especially after Sept.
11. Here are the stories of three members of the new
Chang Hwan Han
In a rare quiet moment one recent afternoon, Chang Hwan
Han stole a little time from his workday to read a few
pages of a biography of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan.
With his beard and long ponytail, Mr. Han, 36, looks like
the laid-back graduate student he was a decade ago. He
seems almost perplexed to be a grocer, as though he is
still puzzling out how he made the journey from scholar to
convenience store owner.
The journey began in 1976, when his parents arrived in New
York with three sons under 11 and 300 hardcover books, “all
mine,” Mr. Han said. His father got a job at a friend’s
grocery on the Upper West Side and, within a year, opened
his own store, the Han Family Market, at Broadway and West
93rd Street. Financing came from a “kye,” the Korean
version of the rotating credit club whose members
contribute equally to a communal pool.
The Hans lived in a one-bedroom apartment near the store.
Though the family practiced Confucianism, the boys attended
St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s, an Episcopal school in
Like just about all Korean grocers of the day, Chang’s
parents were on duty 18 hours a day, seven days a week. By
age 11, Chang was helping out after school and during
vacations. He made a game of wrapping heads of lettuce.
“I used to be able to package one case under eight minutes
or something,” he said. And he would tell himself, “I’m
just as good as these grownups.” He liked being with his
parents. But he never imagined he would one day own a store
In 1984, when Mr. Han was still in his teens, his family
bought a house in Englewood, N.J., one of the suburban
communities that attracted many of the city’s successful
Korean grocers. Mr. Han went on to receive a bachelor’s
degree in Asian studies and political science from the
University of Michigan and began a master’s program at
Stanford, much to the delight of his mother.
“She wanted me to be a professor,” he said. “She figured
I’m not going to be a lawyer, so she thought, you know,
professor’s not bad.”
But he took a leave in 1992 to nurse his father, who was
dying, and never returned. Borrowing money from relatives,
he took over a lunch place in Philadelphia, sold it two
years later, and used the proceeds to put a down payment on
an uncle’s grocery on Broadway near West 79th Street.
Despite the name, Sirius Vegetables, vegetables are a small
part of the inventory. Rows of flowers bedeck the sidewalk
beneath the store’s blue awning. Under the gleaming silver
ceiling, the nearly 2,000-square-foot space is stocked for
every household need.
In some ways, Mr. Han is retracing his parents’ footsteps.
When his mother died in 1998, he moved his family into the
house in Englewood. His two sons, 5 and 7, go to his old
But there are differences. Unlike most of his father’s
generation, who turned to kyes because borrowing from a
bank was almost impossible, Mr. Han has been able to secure
Running a grocery in the current economic climate is a
challenge, and individual grocers are intensely private
about costs. But Harry Chun, founder and executive director
of the Korean Produce Association, which represents
merchants in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut,
estimates that the average Manhattan grocery takes in
$80,000 a month. Most of this, about 60 percent, goes to
merchandise. Nearly 30 percent goes to wages, rent, taxes
and utilities. The remaining 10 percent, about $8,000 a
month, is profit.
Although 2,000 people pass through Mr. Han’s store daily,
individual sales are modest. In January, when he renewed
his lease, the rent jumped 50 percent. Because of the
uncertainty he has been “desperately trying to get out of
that grocery business.”
He added, “If Victoria’s Secret wants to come in, you’re
out of there.”
Another departure from the pioneering generation is
expansion into related businesses to help a merchant escape
from pure greengrocering. Mr. Han has branched out into
restaurants and now runs two. Two years ago he opened
Emo’s, on Second Avenue near 81st Street, featuring
fledgling actors as waiters and music from the Beatles to
Alicia Keys. Emo’s has a decidedly American flavor, and the
spicing of traditional Korean dishes like kal bi, succulent
marinated short ribs, is muted to accommodate a Western
palate. At Rice Bowl, which Mr. Han opened last fall on
Broadway near 71st Street, a staff of friendly students
serves a variety of ready-made Asian foods in a trendy,
cafeteria-style setting with décor heavy on wood and
For Mr. Han, the restaurants are the next step. “All I’ve
done is small businesses,” he said. “Am I going to go work
for AT&T all of a sudden? So what do you do? You’ve got to
Daniel Yang once dreamed of directing movies and
television shows. Today, at 44, he is unexpectedly
committed to his grocery businesses, though his sense of
purpose is tinged with disappointment.
Mr. Yang came to America in 1982 after studying theater
design at the Art University of Seoul and completing three
years of compulsory military service. He was 25. His goal
was a degree from the University of Wisconsin.
But tuition and living expenses ate up his savings in less
than a semester, and he couldn’t find a job. At a friend’s
suggestion, he moved to New York, where he soon shared a
fifth-floor one-bedroom walkup in Jamaica, Queens.
For the next three years, Mr. Yang studied communications
at York College, part of the City University system, and
earned the money to pay the modest tuition by working
12-hour days on weekends and during vacations at a Korean
deli on Second Avenue. It was there, in 1985, that he met a
young Frenchwoman named Collette Rouille, who managed an
uncle’s restaurant a few doors down. The couple married six
months later, and at his wife’s request, Mr. Yang renamed
himself Daniel. She said his real given name, Dong Kyu,
sounded too much like “thank you.”
When he graduated in 1986, his uncertain command of English
limited his options.
“I had to open a little eye on finding some strengths for
my life,” he said. “When I graduated from school, you know,
it was very hard to get a job for the field that I studied
for. Because English is my second language, I cannot
express and communicate same as American does.” He
considered returning to Korea but thought it too much to
ask of his wife. “Steadily my dreams faded away,” he said.
For a few years, he managed a Korean grocery on the Upper
East Side, and in 1992 he and a partner bought Hudson
Gourmet, south of 10th Street. While the first generation
dealt primarily in labor-intensive fruit and vegetables,
the sandwiches, salads and packaged goods favored by their
successors require less menial work and yield a higher
profit margin. At Hudson Gourmet, fruits and vegetables are
only a tenth of the inventory.
Within a year, Mr. Yang arranged to buy out his partner for
$210,000. For three years, he worked 13-hour days, seven
days a week, to pay off that expense. The hard work gave
“It was like marathon running all day long,” he said.
“Sometimes I felt like I had fire on my feet.”
His attitude stands in contrast to that of members of the
1.5 generation, who are generally discouraged from
greengrocering even though some make it their life work.
Its members speak fluent, if gently accented, English, and
they see themselves as American as well as Korean, and thus
as having more options than those who arrive as adults. Mr.
Yang’s perspective seems closer to that of the first
“I still feel like I’m sitting in somebody else’s chair,”
he said, “like I’m renting the chair.”
In an effort to expand his options, last fall he opened
Kaffe Deli Market Place on Remsen Street in Brooklyn
Heights. “I had the `grand opening’ on Sept. 10,” he said.
“The next day there was a lot of smoke.” But he is sanguine
about prospects for the Brooklyn store, despite its tough
“I can handle it,” he said the other day, hands clasped
over one knee of his carefully pressed jeans as he sat in
the tidy back dining area. “If I’ll be dying on the floor
in one of my stores, I’ll be happy, because I did my best.”
His goal is to open a megastore specializing in organic
produce. He wants to move from his apartment in Astoria,
Queens, to Long Island for the benefit of his son and
daughter, 8 and 15, who he hopes will work in what he calls
“fancy jobs” when they grow up.
He also hopes to feel less as if he is renting another
“I would like to settle down,” he said, “try to feel like
home in every way.”
Planted firmly behind the checkout counter of Bear Farm
on Broadway near 105th Street, Elizabeth Lee, 34, is a
whirlwind of activity. Swiveling from register to counter
and back, she weighs produce, rings it up and bags it,
processing each customer’s purchases as quickly as a
pieceworker on an assembly line. “O.K., how are you?” she
asks an elderly woman who struggles to convey her shopping
from basket to counter. “I got it. Just let me take care of
Nearby, her husband stands on a milk crate, restocking
shelves. As laconic as his wife is loquacious, he carefully
places one apple atop another as if building a pyramid of
Despite the couple’s immersion in their work, Ms. Lee hopes
they will leave the grocery business soon.
“My question to myself is, `Do I want to work 13-hour days
for the rest of my life?’ ” she said. “Do I want to throw
$100 at my kid and say, `Go play with your friends because
Mommy doesn’t have time to be with you?’ I want to suffer
here for a few years and then get out.”
Ms. Lee’s path to Bear Farm was anything but direct. She
was born Young Oak Doe just south of the boundary between
North and South Korea. In 1968, her mother fell in love
with a Mexican-American G.I. and followed him back to the
United States, leaving behind her husband and infant
daughter. Seven years later, married to the soldier, the
mother reappeared, scooped up her daughter and whisked her
to the largely Mexican-American city of Salinas, Calif.
“What’s that language you’re speaking?” the mother asked
when her daughter came home from school speaking Spanish.
“This is English, no?” the child replied.
But she quickly adapted to her new homeland. At 19, she
changed her name to Elizabeth and became an American
citizen. At 25, she moved to New York, and six years later
she met a Korean immigrant named Sing Lee, soon to rename
himself Tommy Lee, at a friend’s wedding. They married two
At the time, Ms. Lee was working for a Flushing importer,
her husband was employed by a Manhattan wig wholesaler, and
the couple had no intention of going into the grocery
“We wanted to live a 9-to-5-job life and try to save some
money together,” Ms. Lee said. “To live a very moderate
life, go to movies, have dinner together. Not all the
headache of running a business.”
They acquired the store a year after their marriage simply
to help out a relative; the owner, Mr. Lee’s sister, was on
the verge of bankruptcy. As part of a continuing
investigation into wage practices in greengroceries, the
state attorney general’s office had ordered her to pay her
six workers $62,500 in back salary. To make the purchase,
the Lees borrowed from a friend – how much, they wouldn’t
say – and hope to be out of debt by year’s end.
The hours are less grueling and more flexible than those of
the first generation. But the going is still as hard as the
concrete floor on which the Lees stand 13 hours a day, five
days a week. They leave their Flushing apartment at 7 each
weekday morning and return after 10 at night. Except on
weekends, when Ms. Lee stays home and her husband works
half days, they don’t see much of their 7-month-old son.
“Right now me and my husband are in that kind of hard
stage,” Ms. Lee said. “But the American dream doesn’t
happen overnight; white picket fences, you know?”
Like most second-generation grocers, the Lees use a
distributor, saving themselves the previous generation’s
daily grind of predawn drives to the Hunts Point wholesale
market in the Bronx, not to mention the discrimination that
confronted their predecessors. Harry Chun of the Korean
Produce Association tells stories of bleary-eyed
first-generation grocers who were told by wholesalers that
prime parking spaces were reserved for whites. Now that 60
percent of the buyers are Korean, the market is more
The Lees are not certain that their lease on Bear Farm will
be renewed when it expires next year. As rents throughout
the city continue to rise, commercial leases are getting
shorter. “Everything is at the whim of the landlord,” said
Song Soo Kim, president of the Korean American Small
Business Services Center, a 16-year-old organization in
Flushing. “The landlord is king.”
Ms. Lee has recently become a distributor for Market
America, a company that sells consumer products. She dreams
of supporting her husband while he spends time with their
son, studies English and computers, and plays tennis. “Me
and my husband are thinking about a lot of things,” she
said. “Right now it’s kind of, you know, scary.”