Many of us have nicknames. For some, it is simply a shortened version of a formal, given name. Rich for Richard and Bill for William come to mind. Others are tagged with a term of endearment given to them by a friend or family member. For Zhen Bin Li, going with “Jimmy” is a matter of practicality in his adopted home.
Jimmy grew up in Fujian province in its capital city of Fuzhou, China. Fuzhou is located almost due west of Taipei, Taiwan and about 400 miles northeast of Hong Kong along the coastline the East China Sea. It is a sprawling city of 7.1 million residents with a rich cultural heritage. Jimmy describes the area simply as “beautiful.”
Jimmy’s father emigrated from Fuzhou to New York in 1990. He found employment in a restaurant and established legal residency. It took him five years to settle in before sending for the rest of his family.
When 19 year-old Jimmy arrived in New York, he spoke no English. Like his father, he took a job in a restaurant. He took a class in English, but primarily picked up the language by practicing his skills in conversational settings
In the 1990s a family friend opened the Golden China Restaurant in Sparta Plaza. He asked Jimmy to come to Sparta in 1998 to run the store. Jimmy and his family have managed the business for the past 19 years.
When asked about the challenges in having a small business in Sparta, Jimmy voices many of the same concerns experienced by most local businesses: maintaining a steady, consistent stream of customers; adjusting to the seasonal fluctuations of customer traffic; and dealing with the occasional disruptions caused by weather. In addition to these work related challenges, he is faced with trying to maintain a work/family life balance. The store is open from 10:30 am until 9:30 pm six days each week with Tuesday as their only day off.
Jimmy’s family works alongside him in the restaurant. His wife, Biao Yun Cai (pronounced Be-Yow Unoon), and his sister pitch in by taking customer’s orders and helping cook. His parents also help out during peak times. Jimmy and Biao Yun’s daughter is a 4th grader at Sparta Elementary and can often be found in the dining area of the restaurant. Many in Sparta have seen Biao Yun zipping around Sparta on her pink scooter.
When pressed about why he has planted his family here in Sparta, Jimmy quickly runs through a list of attributes: the quiet mountain setting, good neighbors, low crime rate and a place where he fits in. Jimmy takes the mindset of fitting in and extends it to his customers. He has a strong base of Hispanic patrons, many of whom speak limited English. So, Jimmy has learned basic Spanish to help his Spanish speaking customers feel welcomed. It makes for an interesting lunch experience to hear Jimmy toggle back and forth from Chinese to English to Spanish while he juggles taking an order by phone, ringing up a customer and cooking the next dish.
When we think of international melting pots, our thoughts generally steer toward cities like New York or Los Angeles with their sprawling ethnic communities. Sparta doesn’t seem to remotely fit that category. But, a quick survey of businesses along Hwy 21 through town offers an alternative definition and viewpoint. Manuel Rivas Alvarez of La Mexicana Restaurant is from Spain and his wife, Janet, is from Bolivia. The Torres family of Mis Arados is from Mexico. Ofelia Killeen hails from Peru. Gill Thadani of Gill’s Jeans and Things is from India and spent time in Hong Kong. And Jimmy Li and family is from China.
On the surface, this international flavor challenges of stereotype of what it means to be Absolutely Alleghany. But a closer examination reveal these business owners plug in perfectly to our community. They bring their unique perspectives and skills, and integrate them with local residents. Jimmy Li words may best describe this group of residents: good neighbors with a longing to fit in.
Call in orders to Golden China can be placed at 336-372-6938.