Giant Panda isn't just a Chinese restaurant in downtown Duluth, it's a small bite of Chinese culture in a community lacking abundant varieties of other cultures. But for owner Yi Zhong, it is a place of salvation for herself and for other Chinese people here in the Duluth community.
Being rootless in this nation, Zhong and her husband, Qihui Li, become each other's ground to grow, and they make their restaurant a place for Chinese people to comfort one another and have a taste of home.
In 2002, Zhong and Li sold their old Chinese restaurant in West Duluth and opened the Giant Panda in downtown Duluth. The Sichuan cuisine restaurant is named after the pandas living in the Sichuan province in China where both Li and Zhong grew up.
The interior of the restaurant represents non-Chinese people's general concept of China.
It has black tables, red chairs, warm yellow paint on the wall and traditional Chinese paintings on carved wooden lamps.
During weekdays and Saturdays, Giant Panda is a Chinese restaurant open to the public. One Sunday a month, it is a place for Bible study for the owners and their friends.
In 1995, Li first came to America as a visiting scholar along with his family. One and half years later, Li was supposed to go back to China, but in the 1990s, a period of high unemployment started in China.
For more job opportunities, Li decided to stay in the U.S. Zhong then took their younger son and went back to China, waiting for her husband to get a United States Permanent Resident Card in order to permanently stay in the U.S.
"Five years," Zhong said. “I waited for him for five years without any regret.”
But things didn’t go on as well as they expected. Li's legal identity was delayed because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Finally in the year of 2002, Li received his United States Permanent Resident Card and Zhong came back to her husband in the U.S. to start their business in Duluth.
Li and Zhong both considered themselves spiritual but not religious people.
"There was one thing that put me together during the five years," said Zhong. "My belief in God."
Their belief helped them through all the hard times they experienced. For more than 10 years, their business went through its ups and downs.
Their competitors had much bigger families to help run their businesses in comparison to Li and Zhong’s four-person family.
The stable footing of the other two restaurant owners was something Zhong envied the most. Being in Duluth alone with her husband and two kids, Zhong relied on the help from her family but needed to make more friends in the community for emotional support. To make this happen, she started a Bible study group on Sundays in her restaurant. People with the same beliefs can join.
"I feel lucky," Zhong said. "We are not making big money, but we still survive the pincer movement of the other two big families."
When things were extremely hard for Li and Zhong, they thought about giving up more than once.
"I thought about shutting down this place several times during these years," said Zhong. "But I knew the students and other Chinese people need this place."
Haitao Shang, a senior at University of Minnesota Duluth, is one of those Chinese students that depends on Giant Panda as a cure for his homesickness.
"It's where I take a break from stressful school work," said Shang. "And a place reminds me of home."
Giant Panda now is experiencing its steady phase. Customer composition is about half Chinese people and half local Duluthians.
"It's getting better," Li said.