Story About Yong Chen
Chen’s older sister had married a Chinese-American and moved to the U.S.; her parents followed. Chen was asked to join them, and that’s how, at age 26, Chen, artist and chemistry teacher, became a clerk in a Chinatown supermarket in Boston.
“So this is a time I had to just work, work, work,” Chen said. It was 1989. He made a little money and learned the correct techniques for lifting boxes, he mentioned, laughing: “How to hold on one corner, and the other corner at the lower corner, and you lift it up, it’s really easy,” Chen said.
Eventually, a good friend and coworker told him, “Yong, you should not bury yourself in the supermarket. You should do something better.”
Chen giggled. “But at that time...it makes sense to me,” he said. He could start by cleaning floors, then chopping meat and washing dishes, learn to make chicken wings and chicken fingers, “and you’ll probably learn how to be a cook, eventually,” she told him.
Cooking in Maine
So Chen gave it a go — his brother-in-law, a cook at a Boston Sheraton hotel, found Chen and his younger brother positions at a Chinese restaurant in Portland, Maine.
“I was homesick terribly,” Chen said. He dreamed almost nightly that he was still going to his old classroom to teach, to his home in China, still meeting with his old friends and colleagues and Amanda, “a sweet girl that I love in China.” He’d wake up feeling lost each morning. “So every day I ask that question, why [am I] here?”
He did return to China during that time, and married Amanda, although it took about two more years to secure a visa for her to join Chen.
Chen and the restaurant owner had a heart-to-heart on a slow night and talked about art.
For some, the restaurant industry is a passion. “But for me, I’m feeling that I’m just wasting my time,” Chen said. He hoped something would come up — otherwise he didn’t see any point in staying in the U.S.
The restaurant owner said, “What you really need to do is learn the language,” and then figure out his next step. He told Chen he could have his old job back anytime he wanted.
ESL at Bunker Hill
So Chen was back on the bus to Boston and, with some help, got himself enrolled in Bunker Hill Community College’s ESL program to work on speaking English — he’d studied written English in China.
It was there that he met Betsy Mariere, who remains a great friend.
Mariere was his student advisor and one of his teachers. The way she tells the story, she told Chen he must enter his artwork into Bunker Hill’s student art show in order to pass her ESL class.
Chen says her tale of the threat was an exaggeration. But he won first prize for drawing, and second place in the watercolor category, which gave him the confidence to start thinking he could do something in art in this country.
View Yong Chen's Story with Paintings.