Growing up in a white suburban neighborhood, I often stayed in the small Chinese takeout restaurant my parents owned. It wasn't uncommon for many Asian immigrants to own restaurants or nail salons in America. These businesses reflect the American Dream for many immigrant families and the sacrifices they make for their children growing up in America. Working at my parents' business helped me in ways that I didn't even know it could help me with. Although my life was quite different from those of my peers in school, I don't think I could have asked for a more definitive, molding experience than the one I was given.
From the moment I was born to my senior year of high school, there was nothing else that defined my childhood more than the Chinese takeout restaurant my parents owned. "J & J Best Kitchen" was the name of it—the J's standing for Jade and Jack, which are the names of my parents. The restaurant was located in a small shopping center on a busy main road, near a Dairy Barn and a park. There were three other shops in the center, an Italian restaurant where many people came to celebrate communions and baby showers, a nail salon owned by another Chinese family, and a liquor store.
My parents brought me to their restaurant when I was still a baby in the carriage, and customers would pinch my cheeks and watch me sleep. Around my preschool days, my mom put a box of toys under the counter for me to play with during dinner time when the restaurant would get busy. At some point, there was even a small playground slide that we kept in the back of the store.
During elementary school, my mom picked me up and would bring me home first to do homework with me before heading to the restaurant. I had babysitters but always preferred to be with my parents instead. In third grade, I started to help out by answering phone orders and sweeping the floor. After school, I walked to the restaurant with my sister, and we'd stay there and do our homework together at one of the green tables and eat dinner that my parents cooked. (No, we didn't eat the food that we sold in my restaurant every day. We ate traditional Chinese food, as in fish, long leafy vegetables, and tomato with egg.)
Sometimes we'd get so bored and beg to go home early, but on other days, we'd be busy helping out. The summers were definitely the worst, as the air conditioning was drowned out by the heat and flames of the woks in the kitchen. My sister and I would head over to the park behind the restaurant and play on the swings. We'd sometimes stop by in the nail salon or the liquor store and chat with the people that worked there, as well as enjoy the cool air conditioning in the stores. We befriended customers and would chat with them while they waited for their food.
Working at the restaurant was an experience that helped me grow as a person. I learned the importance of hard work and sacrifice at an early age. The restaurant was a place for my family to bond and spend time together, and I often got lectured by my parents as they taught me their words of wisdom and life lessons during the times when the store wasn't busy.
I learned how to make wontons, cut string beans, and cook with woks. Working as a cashier helped keep my mental math skills sharp, and answering phone calls allowed me to interact with people and develop communication skills. In the comfort of my family, I was able to break out of my shell and get over my fear and social anxiety, as I would see many familiar and unfamiliar faces every day.
Sometimes, teachers and classmates would come in, and I would feel awkward and embarrassed, but over time, I began to feel comfortable about it. I owned the fact that I had a restaurant and felt proud of my parents for making their business successful.
I had friends who ordered from J&J and my parents would offer them discounts. (Sometimes, I think my friends liked my restaurant's food more than they liked me). My parents often catered for school events, graduation parties, and holidays.
Owning J&J helped my family assimilate into the community, meet new people, and form bonds with longtime customers. The restaurant taught me important life skills that I will always have, long after my family sold it in the spring.