Angela Hui On The Lessons She Learned From Her Family’s Chinese Takeaway
“Oh, thank you sweetie. Here’s the £20, keep the rest,” one customer told me, handing me a clear over-the-counter note. “You are a good kid.” I put on my biggest smile and read the lines my parents taught me, “Thank you very much. Hope you enjoy the food and please come back again soon!” I am eight years old and I am standing on a small blue folding chair at Chinese takeaway in South Wales Valleys. I find it hard to reach the counter as I hand over two white plastic bags of Chinese food and a 2-liter Coca-Cola bottle. This taught me how to have better people skills and how to communicate with others in a calm, cool, and collected way.
I am now thirteen years old and old enough to operate a deep fryer. Dip the chicken balls in the hot, sparkling oil below. The puddle of amber liquid and spit oozes, sending specks of scorching oil flying into the air, causing my skin to hardly distinguish my eyes. This taught me how to put on a brave face, stand my ground, and be fearless.
I come home after a day of college lectures and it’s another busy Friday night; An endless stream of requests. Dad shakes his heavy frying pan back and forth over the flaming wok, scooping the crispy beef into a silver bowl with his spoon. Mom grabs a poly cap and squeezes all four corners. I get a white plastic bag hanging from the silver island and start wrapping it all up. My older brother takes the order to the customer, while my older brother brings more paper tickets to start the whole process over again. We are in a production line working around the clock, trying to fulfill back-to-back orders. This taught me to appreciate my co-workers, and the importance – and efficiency – of good teamwork.
These were the jobs done by takeaway kids like me, who lived and worked in the same building. We did it out of love and necessity, not because we wanted to. I’ve never had a job doing paper tours, a waitress, or – most enviable – working in retail. I was always so jealous of the adorable kids in plaid shirts, skinny black jeans, and ballerinas to work, navigating so easily around the new Topshop in town; She holds the hanger in one hand and answers the store manager with the other hand on the small radio attached to her hip. The girls at my school also bragged about the benefits – 25% off everything -While I have scars, work clothes stained with curry sauce, and an odd bag of free prawn biscuits (if My parents were generous.)
I never considered our family business to be a “virtual” workplace, it was just a home and that’s what we did. Truth be told, I’ve always realized that our Chinese takeaway is less than: not as formal as a chain restaurant, and not as legit as a coffee shop; Our store is a pokey project. I received my salary in cash, never on the payroll, not to mention benefits. I didn’t have a work email address, and we certainly didn’t have any parties at the office. But that was the case. We all put Chinese takeaways ahead of us and our own needs. I look back to those memories (even painful ones) with tremendous nostalgia. There were times when I hated my upbringing, hated the family business, and the dynamics of living and working together, but looking back now, I realize it taught me the most valuable life lessons of all. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning how to handle money and people, how to solve problems on the go, how to keep two steps ahead, while still being a team player. All the skills and experience I will need and rely on in the future.
I am just one of thousands of second-generation immigrant children who have grown up in their family’s food business. I can still easily list our most popular takeaway dish numbers. I can still feel all the rough, cracked wounds on my thumb from pressing the many multiple lids on the silver containers. I remember the pain of standing on my feet for 14 hours straight, my jellied legs threatening to give up on the road. But the thing is, our first jobs, no matter how silly they may seem at the time, will always be with us. My parents wanted us to know how hard it was to make money, and that opportunities weren’t easy for people like us. But the lessons I learned from takeaway also shaped the person I am today. I always felt our store was a burden rather than a blessing, but now I see it in reverse. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.