“One, two, three. No more. No less. Face up. Even size.” This is how Ayi and I spent our free time on the weekdays when the restaurant was empty — packing metal dim sum trays of shrimp dumplings. She’d reach deep into the kitchen freezer for a weeks’ worth of frozen dumplings, prop the bag with her knee for support before finally clunking it onto the table space where we’d work side by side for the next hour. The trays had little dents and bumps in their lips, a testament to the abuse they had seen over the years from dropping them vigorously in the dishwasher or steaming them past searing temperatures on the steamer. We would later sell these dumplings over the weekend, where my job was to maneuver down tight aisles with unwieldy metal carts stocked full of dim sum delights. I would then entice customers into ordering based on the aromas of steamed rice, pot stickers, and stuffed jalapeño peppers that wafted freely. Every dim sum dish reveal was like a glamorous unboxing, one that requested the full attention of the audience. They’d look over the cart like kids peering down a wishing well. Dim sum was a special occasion for Ayi. She used to make the pastries with her family back in her home town. But I could tell, the magic had worn.
My senior year of high school, my mom got me a job as a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant. She believed that my upbringing in America had well-removed me from the 9 to 5 labor she endured in order to have a fighting chance in this country as a Chinese immigrant. Out of college, she had spent some time working in Chinese restaurant herself. At the time, it was a house for her cuisine, her culture, and a microcosm of home in a foreign country where she barely spoke the language. Conversely, I call America home. My native tongue is English. I was born here. I attended school in Suburban Ohio. I was one of two waitresses who spoke fluent English. My English was fast but my Chinese was slow. So slow that I couldn’t even jot down orders in real time from Chinese customers. I’d write the phonetic spelling of the ordered dish, shuffle my way back behind the counter top and with a menu and pen in hand, work as my own translator before I handed off the order to the chefs in scraggly and unpracticed Chinese characters. Worse off, my Chinese was not the same dialect as the chef’s dialect. The only lick of Cantonese I knew was, “I don’t speak Cantonese”. And yet we playfully tossed half-baked translations of English, Cantonese, and Mandarin back and forth. Every element that made America feel like home to me before was replaced with a foreign language jangling in my tongue and peers I did not share much in common with. Like a fortune cookie, I was a poor Americanized translation of my tattered Chinese origins.
General Tso’s Chicken
Seat. Order. Food. Drinks. Refill. Check. Wipe. Although I picked up Chinese slowly, the restaurant moved quickly with a constant influx and efflux of people. There was the anti-socialite that would clock in around noon with a routine order built up in his mind, the Friday night first date, the two-year-old toddler in a high chair that would fling rice from one end of the restaurant to the other. And worst of all, and unassumingly so, the 40–50 year old women with their clunky luxury bags that came in on their lunch breaks. These were the types of women who clutched their scathing iPads and were ready to pierce the Yelp reviews into the ground, typing with same fervor as an artist applying paint to his canvas, as if it were their civic duty to comment on the cleanliness of the china and the relevance of the light fixtures. I swear, one bad review and the restaurant was quiet for a week. They would stare at the plethora of menu options with simultaneous awe and disgust towards the exoticism of foods they had heard of but never tried before. Then, they would hail me over, ask me to decipher between a pan-seared beef with mixed vegetables and beef with hot pepper sauce.
“The beef with hot pepper sauce is much spicier.”
“Like, how spicy?”
“It depends on your spice tolerance but I think it’s significantly spicier.”
When all was said and done, they’d say, “I’ll have the General Tso’s Chicken, please.”
“That’ll be right out for you.”
I knew why they resorted to the General Tso’s Chicken. It showed up enough in American popular media to be considered standard repertoire of an authentic Chinese dining experience so it was a common denominator amongst Chinese restaurants. The better the General Tso’s Chicken, the more “authentic” the cuisine. Without it, their review held little credibility, almost like a cellist who didn’t play Bach’s Suite no.1. Little did they know that all of the chicken was pre-breaded, pre-fried and that any option on the menu was indeed a romanticization of an authentic Chinese diet. I admit I am just as ignorant when I order chicken tacos from El Rancho Grande and call them authentic Mexican cuisine.
We fought tirelessly to upkeep this authentic dining experience, giving up parts of what we knew as Chinese culture to appease our customers. Hot and cold water options, forks and chopsticks, even we grappled with what was authentic anymore. I learned from the pastry chef, if you over-kneaded the dough of a pork dumpling, it becomes exhausted and cannot rise. I’d watch him at work on my route to the kitchen sink. He’d stand over the long wooden table, intermittently poke the dough to test its resistance, and assess the dough’s preparedness to be shaped. His workspace was a bit isolated from the other chefs but nevertheless, they made themselves one family. The other chefs spent most of their hours jostling pans over the burner which was in different part of the kitchen. They found common ground designating a phone in a cup (acting as a speaker) in the middle of the kitchen so that they could all sing along to a tune in Cantonese while they worked. After rush hour, they’d all go out back for a smoke with Styrofoam cups of diet coke and come back to smell of shrimp and cigarettes on their smocks. I was never invited to such gatherings, but I imagine they gossiped about our boss while they flexed their tired wrists.
I was, however, invited to lunch. After the general lunch crowd had left, we’d usually celebrate our midday victory with rice, steamed vegetables, and fish for special occasions. The chefs would pick a round table in the back of the restaurant with a view of the entryway in case any customers came in and we needed to serve them. To me, the chefs were considerate in the small ways, the same ways a Chinese family knows how to show affection — never particularly outwardly but masked in questions that concerned basic health like “Have you eaten yet?” and “What are your allergies?” We weren’t necessarily family, but we were collectively placed in the same location, at the same time, and found it more meaningful to be in each other’s company than to be alone. One chef told me about his brother in New York, his sister in Tokyo, and his parents back in China. I learned his favorite pastime was watching Southeast Asian cooking shows. I presumed he had grown tired of all of the General Tso’s Chicken orders he had gotten in his lifetime. He thought they were a great degradation to the authentic cuisine of Chinese food and that watching cooking shows was a way to live vicariously through other cuisines and other lives to escape such a displaced taste palette. One of my other coworkers, AJ, originally from Malaysia, was working to save enough money to go to college. He only came in on the weekends because he had job during the week at another restaurant. He said he could make more money that way. With their family trees displaced, they had no network, no social standing, no American education. As I was headed off to college, they told me “good girl,” “go get your education,” and “you don’t want to end up like me.” I used to wonder why these men wouldn’t go to night school or invest their money in things other than cigarettes. But restaurant fatigue was real, and by the end of the night, the dough was overworked, and we all wanted our own version of a smoke break.
Between the fortune cookies, the tattered oriental wall prints, the sapped lanterns that strung outside the sulked exterior, the restaurant lacked an authenticity that simply could not be steamed, seared, or cooked, but like the food itself was synthetic, a temporary patch for the real ailment — missing home. At home, they felt acceptance, comfort, and connection, all things they had given up in pursuit of a better life. It came at the cost of isolation from both their real home and their new environment. But we forget that distance is relative. With everything we distance ourselves from, we grow closer to something else. The dance of distance and closeness sways to the beat of complex greys. Without working at the restaurant, I wouldn’t have grown closer with my mom’s identity as an newfound immigrant to America. I wouldn’t have learned the mixture of cultures, like carrots, peas, and shrimp tossed in fried rice that could exist in Chinese restaurant. Stories upon stories upon stories.