4 dollar day

I can feel the ground trembling beneath my feet when I walk to work each day.

Chinatown is a loud place.

I quietly pass through, keeping my head tilted down as I weave between pedestrians and rowdy vegetable sellers.

My boss is a loud woman.

“Yelling” in half-Cantonese as she takes orders, and half-Mandarin as she gives me orders.

I’ve been getting quieter and quieter at work lately. Mixing up ingredients, forgetting a topping, confusing one tone for another.

Overall, making more mistakes. Overall, getting scolded more.

“I’m sorry.”

I leave work feeling let down, having let down someone.

I walk out the door and head towards a shady parking lot tucked in beneath an underpass. I see the guy.

“How much?”

“Mm… 4 dollars.”

Parking usually costs 3 dollars a day but I’m starting to suspect the guy sort of just makes up his mind on the spot, depending on his mood.

I take out my meager tip money earnings of the day and hand it all to him.

I can feel the ground trembling beneath my feet.

On this side of town, the BART runs underground so I figure it must be the trains. It’s funny because normally, people would complain about the disturbance it causes. But this is the city, so no one complains.

Life on the surface is loud enough as it is.

I move briskly, weaving my way through the Chinatown labyrinthine and picking up syllables and words here and there. Catching fragments of meaning in passing.

One of the telltale signs that I’m emotionally shutting down is silence. I won’t always respond to you, even if I hear you loud and clear.

I keep my head down and work harder.

I have to get good.

I’m starting to understand a little more Cantonese now, enough to use context clues to fill in the blanks. There is just enough overlap with Mandarin to make close guesses, but also enough overlap to make embarrassing mistakes. Confusing one tone for another, and such.

“Sorry about that. I can make another drink for you.”

I only get 3 dollars in tips today. Seems about right.

I pray to the parking gods as I work my way through Chinatown and back to the underpass.

“How much?”

“Mm… 3 dollars.”

Whew. Close one.

I am Taiwanese. Or, a child of Taiwanese immigrants. Taiwanese-American? Something in between.

Traditional Taiwanese folk are a hearty and rambunctious bunch, so family gatherings are loud and rowdy. Sometimes, it’s real easy for me to just keep quiet and slip into the blurry peripherals of family photos.

I’m not like them,
yet I am,
just enough, to blend in.

I weave my way through the Chinatown labyrinthine, being careful not to get in the way of elderly Chinese people and their grocery shopping spree. Keeping my head tilted down, I quietly pass through and get to work.

I’ve been kinda sorta getting better at my job. I still don’t know how to make half the menu but hey.

I’m getting the hang of this customer service thing. You know, like making small talk and faking smiles. That sort of thing.

When my boss yells at me,
I am able to piece together the syllables, the words, the fragments of meaning,
to make the right drinks,
to do the job well,
to understand that yelling doesn’t necessarily mean she’s mad at me,

– at least most of the time.

If culture is a labyrinthine, I’m starting to draft a rough sketch of something that resembles a map.

Parking usually costs 3 dollars a day. But today was a 4 dollar day.

I can feel the ground trembling beneath my feet.

I could tell it was building up throughout the day,
no, throughout the week,
that something inside me was shutting down.

“I’m sorry I don’t speak Cantonese. I can take your order in Mandarin or English.”

So I get quieter and quieter.

I’m not responding to everything she’s saying. I keep my head tilted down, and work harder.

But she is very particular this day, because depending on her mood, she adjusts her expectations of me.

Today was a 4 dollar day.

The yelling grows louder and louder, only this time, she is definitely mad. This isn’t just yelling, this is scolding.

And the scolding leads to other things,
like mixing up ingredients,
forgetting a topping,
confusing one tone for another,

– overall, making more mistakes.

Which only leads to more scolding, and more mistakes, and more scolding. I get quieter and quieter, trying to shrink and retreat inside of myself where no one can hurt me and I can’t hear them yelling at me.

Then finally, a customer loses her temper and I set off her age-old, well-rehearsed tirade.

“I order green tea, not black tea, okay? Is there something wrong with your brain?
My god, why can’t you speak Cantonese??”

I am Taiwanese.

But there is enough overlap, I guess, to make some mistakes.

And my boss turns on me, takes her side, and shames me publicly.

“What’s wrong with you. Why can’t you get it right.”

Something inside me snaps. Shut down.

“I’m sorry.”

I leave work feeling let down, having let down a people group. Once again.

5PM comes and I walk out the door without saying goodbye.

I’m moving quickly, weaving in between Chinese grandmas and my inner demons, making my way home.

I’m adjusting to the fast pace of the city, but if I stop myself,
just for 2 minutes, just enough time for one red light,
I can feel something trembling beneath the surface,

screaming from within.

Chinatown is a loud place.

I quickly change out of my work clothes and into my regular clothes. I am breathing heavily.

It’s been about a month and I kinda sorta know my way around now. I know which sidewalks are less crowded, where to find the cheapest parking, and where to sit during lunch break without getting penalized for loitering.

If culture is a labyrinthine,
there have been days when I could draft a rough sketch of a map,
and there have been days when I felt hopelessly lost.

There have been days when I could hold a decent conversation in Mandarin, and there have been days when I worked in silence.

And though I am Taiwanese, there is enough overlap to make some mistakes, on both sides.

It’s been about a month now.

I finish changing and collect my things. I put my working clothes in my locker, one last time, and my boss hands me my final paycheck (which in Chinatown, is wad of cash).

She tells me to be careful on the road, take care of myself, eat more food because I’m too skinny, and thanks me for working at her shop.

“Thank you. Bye bye.”

I think I mess up the tones a bit, but close enough.

She’s not an evil woman.

She’s just… her. She grew up learning and living the labyrinthine, then plunged into another completely different one. Just like my parents.

I grew up trying to learn both, and only got half-good at each.

“Wait!”, she stops me. “Here’s something for you – ” 

She reaches in her purse, digs around for a few seconds, and hands me a red envelope.

“新年快乐!”, she says in Mandarin, with a smile.

She messes up the tones a little bit, but close enough.

You’re not an evil woman. But I can’t work for you.

So I leave the job.

No dramatic plot twists, no life-defining lessons learned. Just a sobering acceptance that we haven’t changed all that much and this isn’t going to work out between us.

Maybe our relationship would be best kept from at a distance.

I forgive her, and spend my evening commute trying to figure out how to forgive myself for letting them down yet again.

I’m walking through the loud and rowdy streets of Chinatown, weaving between grandmas and vegetables. I make my way to the shady parking lot tucked beneath the underpass.

“How much?”

“Mmm… 3 dollars.”

// originally published on the raconteur collective.

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