Thirteen years ago, Winnie Chen and John Yeun opened The East, an Asian restaurant in Great Barrington that prides itself on serving the best of Chinese and Japanese cuisine.
"It was hard at the beginning," she recalled. "Imagine starting a restaurant in a town of 10,000 people with more than 50 restaurants already! But my husband's family had always had restaurants. We take tradition seriously. Continuity and community are important to us."
Not easily discouraged, Chen has long been one who looks ahead -- at least since she was 12, in the 1990s, when her parents brought her and her brother from Guangzhou, a large Chinese city in the southern province of Canton, to New York City.
"I don't remember ever missing China. We were all together, and my grandparents and great-grandparents had been in New York for many years," she said. "In some ways it felt a little like coming home. I'm a fourth-generation American citizen -- my grandfather even served in the military."
Her husband, John, grew up in Great Barrington, graduated from Monument High School and Berkshire Community College, and knew he would follow his father into the restaurant business. But after high school in New York, Chen, whose father is a contractor, became a full-time student at Hunter College, working two jobs and determined to find the right career path. After trying nursing and psychology she settled on accounting, a great asset for the restaurant, where she often spends 12-hour days.
"My days can be long, but I enjoy everything I do," she said. "Most important is our family. My boys, now 8 and 10, are at the age when we can teach them our values -- not just by telling them, but by what we do. In taking good care of them, they understand how much family matters to us. I remember watching my grandparents age and seeing, from how my Mom cared for them, how important it is to respect our elders. One day we'll be the older ones. My sons know that. It's all about recycling!"
Seeing herself as optimistic and cheerful, she is also wholeheartedly devoted to her family and her work. She visits her parents and grandparents in New York frequently and is determined that her children will learn about Chinese traditions and culture.
Each summer the boys spend two months with their New York grandparents, attending an intensive all-day Summer School program to study academic subjects and Chinese. A professional businesswoman too, she brings young Chinese men and women interested in learning the restaurant business to be trained at the East.
"And I can help them find ESL classes -- even teach them beginning English myself if they want," she said.
"A few years ago John spent six months working in a five-star restaurant in Hong Kong himself, in order to learn new culinary skills and recipes."
When Winnie and John bought their restaurant it was a used-car dealership.
"All that's left of that property is the glass in the front windows," she said, smiling.
Every few years they redecorate the East. Today it is a happy combination of bold, optimistic reds -- the traditional Chinese color for good fortune -- and handsome, dark wood latticework.
Their generously large menu changes only a little from time to time, but they always offer a special menu for people who want to discover traditional Chinese dishes cooked in new ways.
"Many people tell us they come to us because they know we'll always have their favorite dishes," she said. "And now, in addition to our specialties, we also offer Japanese cuisine. Our hope is that the East will be predictable, well-loved, and up-to-date."
Focusing on what's worked well in the past and what might make the future even better, she feels very fortunate, grateful for her family, her work and her community.
"In my family, nobody talked about the past," she said. "I never think about it. But I feel very lucky. While tradition and Chinese culture are very important to us, so are the hopes that my parents and theirs had in coming to America -- this big, free, fair, see-a-future country where we can find a good education and better life for the next generation."
On the Bridge
Multicultural Bridge and Berkshires Week have partnered to create a column and a blog that will share voices and stories from all corners of the county and the world.
Meet a professor of languages from South Sudan, a mother from Peru, a rancher from Becket and many more neighbors, at www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.