People call me a Whitener. It’s just a nickname. I don’t like it much. Inaccurate and reductive. My job is cultural—national, even—civic, perhaps. Definitely not racial.
My official title is Foreignness Engineer of the City Council of Commerce. I inspect newly opened businesses and provide their proprietors Customer Experience Recommendations (CERs) that ensure the correct balance between our citizens’ natural desire for foreignness and an experience native to what we all have come to expect from living in America.
Ever notice that, in The City, the most successful high-end restaurants have white servers and maître d’s even when the cuisine is ethnic? I started that. Ten years ago. There was a Vietnamese noodle shop run by Chinese immigrants, and I recommended that they hire whites to serve their customers and increase prices by eighty percent, and it quickly became one of the most popular restaurants in The City, even winning a Michelin star. Diners want to feel like they’re included in the familiar and dominant culture, and most importantly, they will pay for that feeling. Thanks to my little innovation, the CCC made it a standard CER to issue small fines to restaurateurs failing to hire Caucasians for at least 75% of their staff.
Back before it became an official city function, it was called gentrification.
Today, I have been assigned Durwood Docks, a neighborhood that consists of boarded-up warehouses made of schist that have been converted into artist lofts and apartments right next to block upon block of low-income housing towers. The first proprietor of the day is Sonya Chou. Business name: Sun Chou Restaurant. Another Chinese lady selling buffet food with poorly lit, low-res photographs of plated fare in windows. The place is clearly designed to provide cheap lunches for the dockworkers across the street. Durwood Docks doesn’t need another Sun Chou. It needs a nice, sit-down restaurant that caters to The Young and The Upscale—twenty- and thirty-somethings making a little money for the first time. Several TV stars have just moved into the refurbished factory down by the pier with the great view of the bridge. Thanks to the new vintage streetcars that run from the docks to downtown, The Young and The Upscale flock here. The Outspoken like to point out that the vast majority of these young people happen to be white. Not sure any data backs that up. The Outspoken coined the aforementioned unfair nickname for those in my profession.
I park my City-blue cruiser outside the restaurant and riffle through my stack of four-by-six-inch brochures. “Broadening The Definition of Bespoke.” “The Handcrafted City.” “The Importance of Customers Standing In Line.” The one that seems most applicable in this case is entitled “Dining in The City: A Mayor’s Pride.”
Ms. Chou greets me in Mandarin, because it’s evident my ancestors are not from here. Before I can tell her I don’t speak her tongue, she asks if my parents are Taiwanese. I nod, because they are. They don’t live in The City anymore. They were forced to leave after City Hall ordered random culture-testing of non-white city dwellers over forty. The Culture Test (CT) asked them to diagram convoluted English sentences, accurately cite Biblical passages, and write an essay proving their loyalty to America. To prove a point, The Outspoken had a random group of white citizens (sympathetic to their cause, of course) take the test, and on average, they scored twenty percent worse than non-whites. My parents now commute two hours into downtown each day to their dry cleaning business. At first, like The Outspoken, I thought the CTs unfairly targeted people who looked like me. But then I saw that my parents actually preferred to be out of The City and closer to their people. They now live in H——, a suburb that’s predominantly Asian, with lots of strip malls anchored by Asian supermarkets.
I hand Ms. Chou the brochure and point to the Chinese-translated pages. Then I have a look around. Red plastic food trays. Shoddy tables and chairs. Florescent backlit menu. Fried rice, chow fun, and Kung Pao Nodles. How does one misspell “noodles?” Ms. Chou would never pass the CT. The walls are a shade of light blue that makes the place look rundown though it’s freshly painted.
“Wait staff?” I ask.
Ms. Chou smiles, but says nothing. She’s roughly my age—early thirties—and wears a thick knit cap and dark-rimmed glasses that magnify her eyes. Her gray windbreaker is too large on her, might be menswear. Her dark slacks could use an ironing.
“Waiters?” I repeat, holding an imaginary plate up.
“No,” she says in accented English. “We are fast food.”
“You should hire white people,” I say. “White waiters make the food appear cleaner.”
Ms. Chou looks embarrassed. I hate inspecting Asian places. The proprietors seem to expect something from me, and invariably they come away disappointed.
“I don’t want fancy restaurant,” says Ms. Chou. “I want good profit. Big profit.”
“The City wants what you want.” I point to the menu. “This is too foreign. People want brick walls or dark wood. Mason jars not plastic cups. They want to be served by pretty young women and bearded white men. That’s what the data shows.”
Ms. Chou squints at the brochure.
“When a customer sits down, you should hand them a menu,” I go on. “Or write today’s specials on a sheet of paper over the table. That’s very popular now.” My voice becomes loud and unseemly. It isn’t clear Ms. Chou understands my recommendations. I’m going to have to detail them in writing and hope for the best.
I sit at one of the tables (the legs are, of course, uneven) and take my tablet out of its sleeve. She scoots beside me, while I type my CERs into our standard inspection form. Menus—do not provide a premium experience. Ambience—feels more like a public restroom than an eatery. Cleanliness—can be significantly improved and I haven’t even entered the kitchen. Service—self-serve negatively impacts potential revenues. Food—blank. Pricing—way too low. Summary: business will be re-inspected in sixty days, and if the CERs haven’t been implemented, the proprietor will receive a $500 fine.
“What’s your email?” I ask.
She shakes her head again.
“Are you serious?”
She smiles again. Her lower teeth are crooked and stained, probably from tea drinking. As her smile holds, I begin to wonder if somehow, the joke is on me. People love to ridicule Whiteners. Sometimes we’re even beaten up, though I haven’t been. One guy last year was bashed over the head with a wine bottle, stripped of his uniform in 20-degree weather, and the uniform was set ablaze. I tell Ms. Chou I’ll mail the report from the office.
“Would you like to try my food?” she asks.
I don’t like Chinese fare, so I refuse. Sonya Chou presses her palms together and lowers her eyes as I leave.
My next stop is easier. A few blocks away: Durwood Pilates. The fitness routine that uses that contraption with bands and pulleys originated from a German named Pilates, but there isn’t a single German attribute on display in this studio, which has hardwood floors and a nice, high front desk. The place is clean, and the teachers all speak perfect English. They pass inspection with ease.
“Good luck,” I tell the proprietor. Her name is Mary Ilyich. She is pretty and middle-aged, and I’m lonely. “If I’m ever in the neighborhood, I might even take a class.”
She chuckles like I’ve just told a joke.
When I walk back to my cruiser, I find that the front tires have been slashed, and the windshield has been splashed with a canister’s worth of white paint.
I unpocket my phone and report the incident so a CityTow can come get the car. With our CCC-developed app, I locate the nearest FE on inspection and click on the phone number. Bryan Rodriguez, who has been inspecting in North Durwood, agrees to give me a ride back to the office. Too risky to head back by subway because of our blue CCC jackets.
Back at headquarters, I say hello to a few colleagues and make a beeline to my corner office, to which I was assigned after a recent promotion. My colleagues treat my office like some sort of prize I’ve won, even though there are no windows and the walls are wood-paneled. The room wouldn’t even pass my own inspection.
I run a search on my next group of assignments. Another bunch of Sonya Chou businesses. She has four restaurants, five bubble tea cafes, one residential condo, three karate dojos, two multi-purpose indoor malls, and a hawker stand currently in the inspection queue. She’s a low-order magnate. Because proprietors tend to take their businesses rather personally, to protect the FEs, it’s rare to be assigned the same proprietor more than once.
I walk down the hall into my boss Devon John’s office.
“Did you assign me all these Sonya Chous?”
“Hey man, sorry, I was going to tell you, but I got sidetracked,” he says, his face just an inch from his screen. “I just went to this Vietnamese fusion restaurant for lunch and it’s going to be huge in Longway Meadow. We’re going to pull big rev growth there. The place had their act together. Vietnamese coffee, brewed with local fair trade beans, so not too Vietnamese, and French bread with an emphasis on the French.”
“Great,” I say, not knowing what else to. “The Sonya Chous?”
“Oh, yeah, she’s connected up,” Devon says. “Her family has lots of Chinese tycoon money. Make it tough on her, okay? Keep fining her the max until she goes away. Her businesses are exactly what we’re trying to discourage.”
“She’s really going to hate me,” I say. “Can’t these go to the other FEs?”
Devon sits back in his chair and sizes me up, perplexed. He’s never been an FE. Most of the FE managers are assigned by City Hall, and they’re usually Caucasians. They’re typically blind to the dangers of the job. The managers just think we’re meter maids.
“What can she do?” Devon says. “Poison you? Just don’t eat the food.”
I have occasional bouts of conscience about my work. Who am I to tell Sonya Chou she can’t make a good business out of feeding dockworkers cheap food? Whiteners only drive up the cost of living in The City, businesses and consumers alike. Our existence has helped spawn numerous Outspoken groups, lots of protests, and now you can’t read your City NewsFeed without a daily story about how The City has become one of the most expensive places to breathe on the planet. The CCC wants all City establishments to target The Young and The Upscale but how many young and upscale people are there, really? By The Young and The Upscale, doesn’t The City really mean the sons and daughters of the rich, most of whom are likely to be white?
On the weekend, I drive out of The City to surprise my parents, and check the box on the annual visit to H——. When I appear, I feel like an intruder. My mom scurries from the entrance to her armchair, where she watches Chinese soaps for hours on end, while my dad remains in the kitchen, stained apron over his front, sleeves rolled up. He’s constantly making food, because he believes that one can avoid every health problem by eating small, fresh meals frequently and with a handful of steamed ginseng. The TV my mother commandeers is new and massive. Two giant clear-faced Chinese female heads face us. They’re arguing and the volume is turned way up, so I can’t help but be distracted.
“Do you have a girlfriend yet?” my mom says huskily.
“When was the last time you had a girlfriend?”
Not since college. She left me for a white guy. “I’m too busy,” I say.
“What about that Chinese one?”
When did I have a Chinese girlfriend? I scan my memories. “In junior high?”
“That neighborhood girl,” my dad says.
“What was her name?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Ya-song?” my dad says, wiping his knife before chopping celery. “Song-ya? I remember her last name was Sun.”
I shrug, continuing to draw a blank.
“I got this new knife in The City from the center that just opened by the Chinatown gate,” my father says. “Only five dollars. I didn’t know they were opening new places for Chinese people in The City. Lucky Chou Center. The Chou family is good people.”
“That was her name!” my mom shouts over the clangor on TV. “Her last name was Chou. Chou Song-Ya.”
The plastic grocery bags on the counter have a red-lettered logo that read Chou Center, the large Cs threaded by a dragon. The bags are an off-baby-blue color. The same color of the walls inside Sun Chou Restaurant.
Sonya. Chou. I compare my memory of Sonya at Durwood Docks to those of my junior-high girlfriend, with whom I took walks in the parks of Chinatown, looking for tadpoles in the nearby creek. We speculated whether they’d turn into toads or frogs. We wrote each other’s initials on our hands. Joined by an ampersand, enclosed in a heart-shape. Back then, we spoke Mandarin to each other. We met at Saturday Chinese School. It’s been twenty years, but I still feel an emptiness that reminds me how lonely The City can be.
The next week, I inspect a butcher shop and recommend that the Mexi-hiree stay in the back when customers are in the store. The guy retorts he’s from the Dominican Republic, and his boss tells him to shut the fuck up.
“Outspoken,” says the boss, shaking his head.
At an Italian submarine sandwich shop, I ask the server to tone down the fake Italian accent. I fail a Ukrainian place because they insist on using Ukrainian flags as tablecloths. In the afternoon, Sonya Chou’s businesses rise to the top of my queue. A hawker mall in one of the warehouses down by the docks.
I drive to the New Long Lucky Chou Center, arrive early, and wait for Ms. Chou. From the outside, the mall’s hanzi-charactered neon signs indicate the type of business that, if allowed to stay, would brand Durwood Docks as a borough the city does not want—an ethnic enclave.
A white SUV pulls up with Ms. Chou in the passenger side. She kisses the driver, who is Caucasian, and gets out. She looks significantly richer than the last time we met. She wears a light-colored fur jacket, dark sunglasses, white pants, and orange wedges garlanded with a shiny golden buckle. I exit my cruiser and call out her name.
“You’re my Whitener,” she says.
“We don’t like being called that.” Not exactly true. Some of the FEs even call themselves that. “Do you remember me?” I ask. “We went to school together.”
Sonya removes her sunglasses and squints at me.
My uniform begins to feel tight, too warm for the sunny, but chilly day. She doesn’t remember me. “It’s been a long time,” I say.
The corner of her mouth elevates. “I’m not surprised that this is your job now,” she says to me in Mandarin. “Even in school, you were always so concerned with making the whites happy.”
“Was I?” I say in English.
“You didn’t pay attention to me at school,” Sonya says. “We were only friends because I lived on your street.”
I feel small, exposed. We want to live like ethnicity doesn’t matter. But when you want to hurt someone, it’s the largest vulnerability at which to aim. “I’m sorry the way our first meeting went,” I say. “I probably came off as rude.”
Sonya lets me into the soon-to-be-opened hawker food court. She swings an open palm toward the cafeteria-style tables. “You may inspect me now.”
I search her face. Our eyes meet for the first time in over two decades. I feel a twinge, like I moved too quickly and pulled a muscle. She was my first love. We had placed our initials inside a drawn heart on our hands!
She waves down to an old hairnet-wearing Chinese lady working behind one of the steaming counters. Sonya says she wants a bowl of beef tendon noodles in Mandarin.
“Do you want anything?” she asks.
I remember Devon’s warning. “No thanks.”
Sonya looks me in the eye and says, “Are you sure?”
The old lady returns with a bowl of noodles. Typically, I wouldn’t eat at a place like this. But today, the aroma hits me hard, reminds me of my childhood when I loved Chinese food. Sonya’s gaze continues to search me, so I ask the old lady in Mandarin for a bowl of wonton noodles. My Mandarin is broken and flat like slashed tires.
“Not bad!” Sonya says.
“You’re making fun of me now.”
She giggles. A giggle that reminds me of that early-life happiness that’s impossible to duplicate later.
“Do you enjoy being a Whitener?”
My eyes drop. “It’s a controversial job, I know. I do feel bad about it sometimes.”
“If you live in The City, your whole life is pleasing the whites,” Sonya says. “It’s the same for me. It’s the same for you. It’s the same for her.” She points to the old lady behind the counter. “It’s the same for all of us. You may not believe this, but my whole business is to please the whites. Most of my days, I think first about what the whites will want.”
My bowl of noodles arrives. Is that all we are? Just conduits for white comfort? I slurp the first chopstick-full. Salty, chewy, savory—the noodles remind me that there just isn’t a lot of good Chinese food in The City and that’s the real reason I say I don’t like Chinese fare. The noodles relax me, and I imagine myself doing anything other than my job. I’m a blank slate and it’s okay, and my foreignness isn’t something I’ve inspected out of my life.
“How’s the inspection going?” Sonya asks, finishing her noodles, leaving the spoon submerged in the soup, and resting her chopsticks on the lip of the bowl.
“These noodles are amazing,” I say.
I don’t feel like leaving. I could eat noodles and listen to Sonya speak Mandarin to me all day. I reach across the table and trace a heart with my index finger on the smooth, pale back of her hand and ask if she remembers.
The next day, Devon calls me into his office, wanting to know why I passed Sonya on all of her inspections. I reply that, in my judgment, her businesses aren’t that foreign, and they have a good chance to do very, very well in The City.
“‘Aren’t that foreign,’” Devon repeats.
“The food mall concept is very bespoke,” I say. “They have a place that serves all kinds of noodles, but ‘noodle’ is artfully misspelled, in a typography that reads artisanal.”
Devon appears skeptical. “Do they have white servers?”
“Some,” I lie.
“Do you have pics?”
“Why would I?” I say. “I only document those who don’t pass.”
My peppy indifference is evidently displeasing Devon, who shifts in his seat. “I’ll put her back in the queue,” he says finally. With the backlog, I’ve bought Sonya at least another sixty days.
A month later, a tall, broad-shouldered, fifteen year-old Mexi-boy named Jason Nicasio from the Durwood Docks West housing projects is shot and killed in broad daylight by City PD after a neighbor—allegedly from one of the newly converted warehouses—complained about a man behaving erratically on the street. Mr. Nicasio was unarmed, and seemingly overnight, The Outspoken organized a massive march to the docks in protest of police brutality and, of course, the whitening of The City. The Nicasio shooting became a campaign issue, and the mayor dissolved the CCC and reassigned FEs to health inspection work. The City didn’t have the budget to offer us any training, and the mayor couldn’t get rid of us fast enough, so the majority of the Whiteners, including myself, are let go.
During the turmoil, I knew I would have a place to land, because Sonya offered me a job running the branding and communications of her businesses. She decided to start a fast food restaurant and hawker mall in Durwood Docks because her research showed that, despite the CT relocations, the neighborhood was still 30% Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean.
One day after work, we’re walking through a nearby park, talking about our marketing plans, when we pass a creek, and in the water, there are tadpoles. I bend down and cup some of the water and catch two frog larvae and show them to Sonya.
“Should we name them?”
She suggests we give them our Chinese names. I agree, and I let them back into the water, pondering their coming metamorphoses. Will they grow up to be toads or frogs? Or will they just end up eating each other or becoming someone else’s food, existing only to please an unseen consumer?