Making students feel at Home

Photo by Emily Mentzer. Mandy Kuang, co-owner of Sing Fay, welcomes WOU Chinese students to the community with open arms.

Polk County Itemizer-Observer
By Emily Mentzer

MONMOUTH — When you first step inside Sing Fay Chinese restaurant, its looks are unassuming.

But upon closer examination, you may see more Chinese faces sitting around the tables and hear the Chinese language spoken more.

Sing Fay is a gathering place for the more than 150 Chinese international students at Western Oregon University. Part of that is because owners Mandy Kuang and Ming Xun Kuang go out of their way to make food familiar to students. Part of that is because the Kuangs have taken students under their wings and helped them adjust to American life.

Students refer to Mandy Kuang with the term of endearment, Auntie.

“They come to her like she’s their mother,” said Terri Gregory, owner of MaMere Bed and Breakfast and the one who nominated the Kuangs for the Monmouth-Independence Community Awards’ Small Business of the Year honor, presented earlier in 2013. “It’s a home base for them.”

Kuang is honorary family to these international students.

“They say, Auntie, will you make this for me?” Kuang said.

And she does. It means she has to keep extra ingredients on hand to satisfy both American and Chinese palates.

“Sometimes they are homesick,” Kuang said about WOU’s international Chinese students. “They want what their mom makes homemade.”

What she does for these young adults, many of whom are in the United States for the first time, goes beyond making their taste buds feel at home.

“A few years ago, there was a really young student, just 18 years old,” Kuang said. “Sometimes they stop by here to talk to me.”

Kuang helps them open bank and utility accounts, find furniture, and even phone home.

She keeps $10 prepaid phone cards to China on hand for students to use to call home.

“She really provides us with a card we use for making telephone calls to China,” said Qingzhi Xia, a senior at Western. “This helps us a lot. It saves us a lot of money.”

She doesn’t expect to be compensated, either, Qingzhi added.

“When they come the first time, they need to call their parents in China to let them know they’re here and OK,” Kuang said.

When Yang Gao arrived from Shanghai as a student at Western, he had never studied abroad before.

“I really missed Chinese food,” he said. “Then people recommended Sing Fay to me.”

American Chinese food is generally sweeter. Authentic Chinese cuisine also involves less frying.

Kuang has run into a few students from her city, Tai Sang. One student graduated and took a job in New York. Others attend Oregon State University.

Robert Troyer said that although Sing Fay has no official affiliation with WOU, it is an integral part of the community of international students.

Troyer, WOU’s director of International Student Academic Support, and his wife, who is Chinese, are regulars at Sing Fay.

“I’m sure that she does far more to accommodate the Chinese international students at WOU then a typical small business owner,” he said.

“She’s so good-hearted,” Gregory said. “I don’t think she even knows there’s anything exceptional about her.”

Indeed, Kuang said what she does is “not too special.”

“I’m glad to help them,” she said.

When she first arrived in America 11 years ago, she lived in Portland with other members of her family. She said she struggled with the language the most.

“I took a class at Portland Community College,” Kuang said. “I got help from people. American people are really friendly. I went to church, and they helped me to learn English.”

When she opened her restaurant in Monmouth, she said the first year was really hard.

“I got help from the customers,” Kuang said. “They were really nice to me. So I get help from people. I feel if I can help somebody, I will.”

Kuang is the kind of business person people talk about wanting to be: giving to the community and involved, Gregory said.

“She’s industrious and very appreciative,” she added.

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