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.

haunted house – the Kid, pt. 2

My personal journey of finding my ethnic identity as a second generation Asian-American has been a turbulent one, to put it lightly.

It would take me a generous portion of distance and time for me to just understand the sheer magnitude of damage that was dealt to me as a child. Writing the Kid, pt. 1 was one of my best efforts at trying to decode and interpret my scars. (Read part one first! Don’t be that guy.)

While I am, by no means, at the end of this windy maze we call redemption, these past few months have been important. I have been jumping into difficult conversations with my family, particularly those of reconciliation and relational healing. Conversations I never imagined possible.

This past week, I talked to my parents. At last.
If you are not 2nd-gen Asian-American, this can be a pretty big deal.

I never thought I would be writing this, but here it is.

The Kid, part two.

We traded stories. And poorly-translated scripture.

He told me a story of a boy who was born into a culture that didn’t fit him. Born into the wrong culture. Turns out we have more in common than I thought.

He started last place.

Born last into a family of five other siblings, he had a lot to live up to. Competition for a game he never signed up for. And the cards were already stacked against him.

He started last place.

While his close friends seemed to have no difficulty playing this game, the boy thought more of how to keep up with them, rather than actually playing the game well. As the boy grew older, he realized he no longer wanted to play the game. Perhaps the game was not meant for him anyways.

Everyone else made it. They attended the prestigious universities and flaunted hopes of a future as bright as their titles and accomplishments. They did it the “right way”.

The boy never made it past high school.

Never passed a math class after elementary school.
The boy ended up on an assembly line at a manufacturing plant.

The boy left church, running away from a community that he thought could never fully accept him.

He was thrown on a path and expected to trace footsteps he could never follow. So he carved his own. His defiance was forced. He had no choice. They labeled it rebellion. Disappointment. Failure.

The boy was misunderstood.

Though he found his own way, remnants of his past life still stuck to him, like thick blood. He only wished better for his children.

Who was this boy?
Had his story become so lost that it was nothing but a faded memory? Had no one ever stopped and listened to the boy’s story that even the boy, himself, stopped believing it was worth telling?

Turns out we have more in common that I thought.

My heart softened.

She told me a story of a young girl who knew how to play the game.

Her mastery was near unparalleled. “Top of the class” was no unfamiliar phrase to her. It was as if she was meant to follow this path.

I don’t think I would have been friends with this girl.

She made it happen. She did it. She was accepted into the best university in the nation.

And yet, it turned out that even she, of all people, had her imperfections.
P.E. class.

She seemed to be able to impress everyone with her academic prowess except for the person that mattered the most – her father.

“What is this? Why do you still have a C? Why are you so skinny?”

Despite her otherwise flawless report card, her stern father seemed to be unable to see past her one glaring C. Her accomplishments, he could not affirm her for. Or perhaps, he did not know how to.

It is striking how one person can change your world entirely and skew your vision forever – for better or for worse – if you let them.

“Wow. That sounds… awful. Did that not anger you?
What did the girl feel in the moment?”

“Oh, she was furious, alright.”

“But didn’t she do anything about it?”

“She wanted to… We all wanted to. But we were too scared of him. He would hit us if we forgot to do our homework. Or if we failed to meet his expectations.”

She told me how the girl used to help her unscholarly, less-than-studious little brother by doing his homework for him. The chilling sound of her father’s motorcycle rolling into the garage would send her into an episode of frenzy. She’d burst into her brother’s room and start filling out his empty homework sheets. Maybe this time, I can save him the beating.

One day, the girl was caught in her benevolent, clandestine activities.
Her father found her out. He struck her across the face.

“We were all scared of him”, she told me.

My heart melted.

Who was this girl?
Had her story become so diluted in a twisted effort to save face? Why is it that all we remember of her story is the picturesque, scholarly, and well-behaved daughter?

Had no one listened and validated her complete story, even the dark and messy parts?

Turns out we have more in common than I thought.

For the longest time, we were just ghostly figures floating lifelessly past each other in the hallways and dining rooms. We could only see the faded silhouettes of each other’s past selves. Our relationship was as blurry as our memories. Together, we shared a haunted house.

But something happened.
They met the Kid. And they had storytime.

For the first time in years, we shared this strange, yet oddly-familiar feeling together. One of being seen. Heard. Known. One of those songs that are so old that they are like new.

It was something like love.

I suppose the Lord, indeed, does perform miracles.

I forgive you, mom.

I forgive you, dad.

We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

UPDATE 3/9/2017 – Read the Kid, part three here.