Friday, October 24, 2008

First Job - Chinese Restaurant

My father was a firm believer that hard work - an antidote to too much television watching- solidified the human character, although he probably hated his job more than he openly admitted. As well as being a presumptive promoter of danger_opportunity_crisis_mandarin_word_meaning_chinese the American work ethic, he also believed that I felt that everything was going to be handed to me on a silver platter and it wasn't. You had to work for it. Somehow I gave him the idea that I felt that the world owed me living- I never quite understood this phrase which probably made it true- and buddy, I was headed for a rude awakening one day. Very soon.  I was told I had better stop and smell the coffee. A few days after my 16th birthday, my father gave me plenty of opportunity to smell the coffee by waking me up every morning at 5 a.m to ask me if I had found a job yet.
That was his way and it took me a long time and a lot of growing to understand my father and for him to understand me.

I have had an unusually wide range of employment and very few of them I actually enjoyed. My very first formal job was a part-time position at Pagoda Chinese Restaurant when I turned 16. My boss' name was, I kid you not, Harry Wong. He was a pretty nice boss but a nervous man who had a tendency to avoid eye contact and say, "Yeah, right." for every question. His wife who was always pregnant in the time I was there- like some perpetually ripening melon- and worked in the back, cooking and chopping cabbage and onions.  Assorted relatives added the appropriate Oriental complexion to the establishment with Harry himself doling out the Mai Tais with umbrellas and coconut flavor cocktails.

Pagoda was a popular place and at that time, my neighborhood did not have much in the way of international cuisine. It was ideally located near a large shopping mall, a MacDonald's and a quasi-ritzy hotel. The decor of  a Chinese restaurant, if it is worth its stuff, must be  dim and slightly strange, Tassles hang from lights, Dragons on walls, Reliefs on the doors, and nearly recognizable songs which turn out to be sung in a twangy Chinese female voice. Initially I started out as a waiter. I was given a butterscotch color jacket that constantly seemed to crawl up my back all night, black clip on bow tie, black polyester pants and a white shirt. Harry was rather fussy when it came to the appearance of his staff.
Waiter training was covered in about 3 minutes my first day. It was not hard work, but you had to stand on your feet all day and keep your eyes open for empty glasses and plates

My career as a waiter did not last long however. After accidentally pouring jasmine tea down a poor child's back, I was hastily demoted to the position of dish washer. Dishwashing was hot and steamy work and not a lot of fun. The waiters found inordinate pleasure in withholding the trays of dirty dishes and glasses and such as long as possible and then bringing them all at once.
The washing equipment was just barely functional and it was often rough going trying to keep up with the traffic. Steam would fill the room when the doors of the dishwasher were flung open. The trays holding the newly cleaned dishes were scalding hot and had to be stacked and plates had to be double checked and returned for further use.
The conversations between the kitchen, if not in Chinese, usually interesting enough and nobody seemed to take things very seriously but amongst the waiters arguments and peeved looks and hissed remarks were commonplace. It was the effect of having to smile and be polite all day for minimum wage plus tips.

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