At the Miami restaurant where I worked part-time back in 1993, a hierarchy existed among the staff to serve customers in style. At the very top was the manager in suit. Waiters were next in line with their bowties and velvet vests. Down below were bus boys cleaning the tables after each meal. We, the four food runners in plain white shirts and regular ties, were next to last, just above the Nicaraguans cleaning dishes.
Our job was simple—pass the orders from the waiters to the kitchen, and carry the dishes out next to the tables for waiters to serve. However, it proved more difficult for me than cutting frog eggs under a microscope in the lab. I could never carry a tray elegantly over my shoulder; the one time I tried, several plates broke. In contrast, the other three could tumble in and out of the kitchen, yelling Cantonese while piling all the plates onto a huge tray, throwing it over their shoulder, and swiftly carrying it off to the dining area.
Ah Ching was the nimblest of all. He was about twenty and had ready answers to all my stupid questions—what sauce to go with fried wontons? How to cook rice with that gigantic aluminum pot? He also had sharp eyes for dishes left barely touched by customers. “Want some?” He was always generous.
Like the other Fujianese staff, a snakehead arranged Ah Ching’s trip to Miami—it was almost a rite of passage for young people in his village, he explained, to come to America seeking fortune. His group stowed away first to Hong Kong, then to Thailand where they boarded a plane to Costa Rica; during the stopover in Miami, they escaped from the airport.
Life seemed pretty smooth in America: the boss provided free lodging for all illegal workers, we ate free at the restaurant, and each day, a food runner could make 20-30 dollars for lunch, and 50-70 dollars for dinner. He was also getting his green card via political asylum under the pretense of forced family planning back home, much to my envy.
All around us, however, dreams were crumbling along the hierarchy. The Hong Kong manager was rumored to have opened several restaurants and failed. Mike, the head chef, bought his way to Hong Kong from Guangdong when he was fifteen, and then to the US; he had also tried to run restaurants but to miserable end each time. Steve, the bulky boisterous waiter, would brag about his one-year stint in medical school whenever drunk. “I could have become a doctor,” he would announce sullenly, “if only we had money.”
None of that fazed Ah Ching. He counted his pay carefully each night. He would get his US citizenship, buy a restaurant, and one day go back to China a proud man.
Only once, on a lazy Saturday afternoon peeling string beans, did he keep silent.
“Nothing,” he replied casually to my inquiry. After a while, he began talking about his past—riding motorcycle with his girl through his village, and stopping at friends’ places for drinks.
“I was happy then,” he said.
I did not probe further. I could imagine his routine—getting up at 10am, arriving at the restaurant at 11am and working until 1am; doesn’t speak English; no friend in a new country—no backbreaking work, just dreary days repeating endlessly. I felt embarrassed of my constant existential crisis when not busy at the restaurant.
“You are studying for your doctor’s degree. That’s a future…” His voice trailed off.
The last night I worked there, we had chocolate cake to celebrate. He packed one more for me to take home, padded my back cheerfully and said, “go get your doctor’s degree and have a good life in America.”
I never got my doctor’s degree, and I often wondered if he had achieved his American dream as well.