Montgomery County native waitress writes critically-acclaimed debut novel

Montgomery County resident Lillian Li, author of "Number One Chinese Restaurant."  COURTESY PHOTOSNorth Potomac native Lillian Li, author of "Number One Chinese Restaurant." COURTESY PHOTOS  Listed as one of the best books of the summer by Time Magazine, O Magazine, Buzzfeed, Star Tribune, and Toronto Star, the novel “Number One Chinese Restaurant” by Lillian Li, became a hit after being released last month. Critics call it “insightful,” a “beautifully evoked multigenerational narrative.” Kirkus Reviews dubbed author Li a “writer to watch.”    

The story, set in the fictional Beijing Duck House of Rockville, Maryland follows the intergenerational drama and struggles of the immigrant families, who own and operate the restaurant. The novel discusses themes such as “family vs. individual ambition,” parent vs. child expectations, and “family vs. business in general.”

Li, a native to North Potomac, thought of this story after she quit her job as a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant. She describes her experience there as being “new” and “outside of the realm of what [she] had experienced before” but at the same time “painful.”

Not only was the job physically taxing, in less than a month it made Li feel “lonely” and “alienated” and she wondered “what it took” for her coworkers, who had worked there for “years, sometimes decades” to keep going. In planning for her story she asked herself what her coworkers had “given up in their outside lives, in their family, to have that connection with where they work.”    

The story comes “about 95 percent” from imagination. Li used her experience as a waitress to help her make the book feel real, especially when it came to accurately portraying the relationships between different workers and describing the physical labor that her characters perform.

Li’s early life in North Potomac, which she described as “sheltered” and “great for writing” involved writing fan fiction with her friends nearby about the “Harry Potter” fantasy novel series and the anime television series “Inuyasha.” These experiences helped her to hone in on character development skills at an early age which gave her the necessary skill level to create realistic characters for her novel.  

When asked what she wanted her readers to take away from reading her novel, she said at first she wanted them to understand what “it’s like to work at a Chinese restaurant” but she remembered that there are so many family-owned Chinese restaurants, especially in Rockville, and each one has a different dynamic. Instead Li decided to focus on “what it’s like to be in a workplace that feels like family” and wants people to come away with a different “understanding about themselves and their lives.”    

Feeling satisfied with the turnout of her debut novel, the author says that she “would love to have one more book” about a Chinese restaurant in her hometown, but it is “too early” to decide definitively. Writing “Number One Chinese Restaurant” showed her details she “hadn’t noticed” about her hometown which she discovered is actually quite a unique place.


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