Since I can remember, my parents have wanted me to work in a restaurant. “You need to build character,” they would tell me, usually when we were eating out, and always unprompted. “We raised you too soft.”
My mother had worked in a Chinese restaurant when she first moved to the US and felt that her experience had toughened her up. When she remembered how wimpy she used to be, her blood pressure would rise. “I made your dad fly from Colorado to Los Angeles to pick me up from the airport. We were dead broke for months, because I couldn’t handle a simple connecting flight.” This was, by the way, not only the flight that had delivered her from Beijing to the US, but also the first flight she’d been on.
So the summer after college, I got a job waiting tables at a Peking duck restaurant outside Washington DC. The place was incredibly popular, though less with Chinese people than with their suburban neighbours. It specialised in Peking duck – which was carved tableside and then wrapped by the waiting staff – but also served a mix of northern Chinese and Americanised Chinese food. When asked if I could start the next morning, I said yes without hesitation. I wanted to be tough like my mother, a woman who had started her own business in her 40s, and who regularly scolded her own clients until they apologised to her. The manager gave me a blazer to wear and told me to buy a clip-on bow tie and nonslip shoes.
I soon realised that my desire to be tough was fuelled largely by the delusion that I already was. While I was still in training, I overloaded my tray with drinks, ignoring the bartender’s warnings. I managed to wobble the tray over to the table and hand over two drinks like a pro. Then I promptly dropped the third drink down a customer’s back. He leapt up as though a scorpion had crawled under his shirt. My trainer apologised for me and sent me away to another table.
Everyone at the restaurant had years of experience. I was the youngest employee by at least three decades and, though my co-workers tried their best to guide me, as the “little sister” of the group, I was always putting myself, and my tables, in harm’s way. I often burned my fingers on hot plates and hot-and-sour soup, and dropped boxes on myself in the walk-in fridge. One night, overwhelmed by the dinner rush, I placed a boiling hot order of duck-bone soup on a table, not realising that the tureen dish was inches from a child’s face. Another waitress snatched the soup away. I apologised to the family, but, in that moment, I wasn’t sorry at all. That child and her mother had been a nightmare, sending back dishes for no reason other than the child’s pickiness. Such a person might benefit from a little light scalding. Clearly, I was both physically and mentally unprepared for this high-pressure environment.
After 12-hour shifts I would drive back to my parents’ house, where I was staying for the summer. I would come in through the garage door, as stained and crumpled as the tips in my pocket, and my mother would be waiting in her pyjamas. While I counted my tips in bed, she would force me to talk about my day. For the first few minutes, I would feel too tired to string a sentence together but, invariably, once I remembered a slight from a customer or a nasty comment from the manager, I had energy to burn. And to my surprise, my mother had her own stories to add to the pile; stories I had not heard before that gave me an idea of what she was like at my age.
When I talked about customers who’d leave barely a 10% tip after a three-hour dinner, my mother remembered a regular who was so stingy that she would compete with another waitress to see if they could get him to leave a single cent. How they wooed and pampered him, until one day, voilà, he slipped my mother an entire quarter.
When the head cook yelled at me for messing up an order, my mother told me that the cooks at her restaurant groped her every chance they got. “And if you didn’t let them ‘eat your tofu’, good luck getting your dishes on time!” she scoffed.
I enjoyed our nightly chats, but I didn’t exactly look forward to them. I was exhausted and demoralised. I’d expected a certain level of mistreatment – I knew how terribly people could act towards waiting staff – but I had not expected them to look right through me and my co-workers, even when they were talking directly to us.
One day, during the lunch shift a few weeks into my waitressing stint, I waited on a table for two from hell. They both ordered kung pao chicken, a spicy chicken stir-fry coated in chilli sauce, but they asked for the sauce on the side. After checking with them twice, I fulfilled their strange request and brought them two plates of naked chicken.
“What is wrong with you?” one asked. They insisted that they had asked for extra sauce on the side. Then they asked for a small plate, but the plate I brought them didn’t have tall enough sides. When I brought them a bowl instead, they asked me if I was stupid. By the time I gave them their bill, they’d clocked my name from my tag and started using it as a synonym for screwing up. As in: “There she goes, another Lillian.” The entire time, they talked about me to one another as if I couldn’t hear, or understand.
But I won’t pretend that I experienced the same treatment as my co-workers. I was the only server born in America, with English as my first language, while my co-workers spoke English as a second, third, sometimes fourth language. After I’d spoken a few times to the people I was serving, some of them would start to warm up and actually look me in the eye. This confirmed what I was beginning to realise: that having a Chinese face in a Chinese restaurant added an extra level of alienation.
But the end was in sight. This was not a for ever job: I would be leaving at the end of the summer, when I moved to Michigan for graduate school. I could do anything for one summer, even if it meant never seeing my family or friends, even if the job exhausted me so much that I slept through my one day off a week. Surely, I would improve.
But even as I got incrementally better, the job wasn’t getting easier. I still couldn’t balance a tray with more than four dishes. I still didn’t know enough Chinese or Spanish to talk to anyone I worked with. I still wrote my orders in English, which only one cook could understand. And I was no tougher than I’d been on day one. One dinner shift, I was so overwhelmed that I told a table of four to hang out for as long as they liked after they’d paid their bill.
“You’re sure?” they asked; they’d already been hogging the table for two hours.
“It’ll make my shift easier,” I said, even as I saw my manager giving them the evil eye.
Finally, I hit breaking point. Not a huge accident or a blowout fight with my boss, but quite the opposite: I received a slight promotion. I had finally proven that I was a reliable enough waiter to participate in the daily section lottery. Before that, I was assigned the same section every lunch and dinner: a group of booths and tables that I could barely handle on a good day. But now I would have to draw a number with the other waiters during the afternoon meeting. I was eligible to serve the private party rooms that seated 40, and the banquet tables, too.
“Imagine the tips!” my co-workers told me.
I imagined spilling beer down the backs of 40 people. Even barring an accident, I would have to, at the very least, wrap duck pancakes for every person sitting at the banquet table or in the private party room. A veteran waiter could wrap a pancake in 10 seconds. I sometimes took well over a minute. I didn’t have to imagine myself moving slowly around a giant table as everyone watched and waited; I’d lived a miniature version of that nightmare every night.
For the first time, I wondered why was I still working at this restaurant. Why had I said yes to mandatory double shifts and no breaks on Saturdays and Sundays? Why hadn’t I got a job at a different restaurant, with more tolerable working conditions? Or a job tutoring high school kids? I didn’t need the money, and I didn’t need the work experience. With a shattering burst of clarity, I realised that nothing was stopping me from quitting. I decided gleefully that this night would be my final one.
Except, there was something. Driving home from work that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I would tell my mother. My mother, who had put up with evil cooks and bad customers and backstabbing co-workers. Who had quit only because she’d become pregnant with me. Our weeks of commiserating had been one of the first times I’d felt that we were talking as equals. Now, I would return to being her soft, spoiled daughter. That night, after hours of hand-wringing, I went to her. I told her I was sorry, but that I didn’t think I could work as a waitress any longer. I asked her if it was OK to quit.
“Why are you asking me?” was her bewildered reply.
“Because I need to know that you won’t think less of me,” I said, and started to cry.
“Why would I think that?” she asked. “The only people who do this work are the ones who have to. You don’t have to, so of course you don’t want to.”
Why else had she come up to my room every night to ask me about my day? Because she was my mother, yes, and her heart ached to think of me shaking under the weight of my big tray. But also because she knew that the only way you could feel like a human being in that job was if you had someone to talk to.
At the end of the summer, my parents came with me to Michigan to help me move in. In return, I accompanied them to lunch with a woman I’d never met, a woman who had once worked at the same restaurant as my mother. My mother called her Ah-Ping. She had reconnected with her through social media, around the same time I’d started working at the restaurant. As we drove to her house in Ann Arbor, I didn’t understand why we were going out of our way to see this person.
“She’s done well for herself,” my mother said, as we approached a big, two-storey house. I heard pride in her voice. We rang the doorbell. Suddenly a tall, thin woman with glasses flung the door open and yelled my mother’s name. They embraced, shouting, a reunion that surprised me with its joyfulness.
Then, I understood. Ah-Ping had not just been a co-worker, or even a friend, but a lifeline. “I don’t know if I would have lasted if it weren’t for Ah-Ping,” my mother said, once we were inside the house. “She was my only friend at the restaurant.”
All the horror stories I’d heard, Ah-Ping had heard first. My image of my young mother started to shift. I saw her struggling to clear her tables during the dinner rush, and Ah-Ping, just as busy, suddenly appearing to grip the other end of the dirty tablecloth. I saw my mother battling the freezing Michigan winters when her car wouldn’t start and Ah-Ping would drive her to work. I saw the nastiest of the cooks withholding the food for my mother’s tables as punishment, and Ah-Ping cursing him out until he was sullen and sorry. I saw that before my mother was tough, she had been as soft as me, and she had needed someone as tough as she is now.
During that lunch, my mother and Ah-Ping would become nostalgic.
“Remember how they were too cheap to hire table clearers?”
“Remember the manager who timed our toilet breaks?”
Ah-Ping had covered her dining table with plates of food – roasted peanuts, steamed fish, spare ribs and lotus roots – and she kept getting up to bring more from the kitchen.
“Stop that!” my mother finally shouted. “You’re not a waitress any more.”
Ah-Ping stuck her head out of the kitchen and grinned.
“Today, sister,” she said, “I am.”
• Number One Chinese Restaurant, a novel by Lillian Li, is out in paperback on 26 September (Pushkin Press, £8.99). To order a copy for £6.99, go to guardianbookshop.com.
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