I am 16 years young. I hate the term “years old.”
“I’m old. Thirty years old, to be exact.”
You’re not old! I can’t wait to be that young! Thirty years: Count them!
The year I was born, my parents opened up a business. It’s called Great Wall (how wondrous!), and it’s a Chinese eat-in/take-out restaurant in the south Bronx. And what strikes me about it is how old it is. The metal thing (that covers the store before it’s opened every day at 11 a.m.) is more graffiti than metal, the store window is slightly cracked, the floors look constantly dirty, the seats are set up the same way as they were a dozen years ago, the walls and ceilings are chipped, everything’s decaying and falling apart…
Just kidding. It isn’t that bad.
But what’s even worse, the worst: I’ve seen teenagers grow into adults, into a different familial role; I’ve seen adults meet the sad reality of their American dreams; I’ve seen people age sixteen years, all behind the invisible “Employees Only” line. And this restaurant, which provided the bread and butter to my life, isn’t just sixteen years old. It’s sixteen years ancient. It could be classified as an antique. Every time I think of it I can see myself, ten years ago, scampering around in it without a care in the world.
After my parents started Great Wall, they decided to ship my brother, Sammy, and me to our grandparents in China. It would be a great opportunity for us to meet them and love them and learn about our culture, especially since my parents needed to focus on the restaurant. During those two years in China, my older-by-20-months brother and I happily absorbed childhood and flourished under our grandparents, who taught us how to speak Mandarin (although our parents speak Cantonese—this seemingly contradictory motive was never explained) and how to be respectful and open-minded. Our sponge-like qualities continued to be sponge-like even after we floated back, across the world, to our hometown—drumroll, please—Chinatown. We lived on the sixth floor in a building on Hester Street. The apartment was small, consisting of a kitchen/living room, a bathroom and two bedrooms, all for six people (two adult roommates, and the four of us). But it was enough, since Sammy and I had babysitters and no one spent much time at home.
Jiu Jiu was one of Great Wall’s first workers, and its oldest. He played a dozen different instruments. “Bu ke yi,” Sammy and I exclaimed when we first learned of his hidden talent. No way.
“Ke yi,” he responded. Way.
And the next Saturday, when we went to the restaurant again, he played the flute, succeeded by the Chinese flute, for us. Through his yellow smokers’ teeth and cracked lips came such striking, melodic notes that Sammy and I could barely restrain ourselves from interrupting him. When Jiu Jiu finished each piece, we erupted into applause.
We have a genius back here, chopping meat and cooking vegetables! He should be famous!
Can anyone hear us? Does anyone care?
Jiu Jiu’s daughter, Jaime, immigrated to America when she was 16. There was space for her to work with her father at the restaurant, and so she did. She finished her schooling, worked full-time, and started college down the street at Hostos Community College. She became an essential part of the Great Wall workforce—another Mother, the manager—because she learned to do all the tasks (besides delivery) and because her youth invigorated the older workers.
I had always wanted a sister, and Jaime had no problem squeezing herself into that role for me. Like her father, she adored Sammy and me, the boss’s little children who did nothing to bring in the money, but were still constantly present. She laughed at our shenanigans, patted Sammy, bought me clothes, and gave us stuff to do when we were bored.
“We’re bored,” we would say.
“Fold menus!” she would say, teaching us how to do so with one long, double-sided, red-inked paper, then handing over a hundred for us with one simple instruction. Mimic.
Five minutes later, a soft whisper would arise from our work corner: “We’re still bored…”
But rocking out and entertaining us, although commonplace, did not constitute most of the workers’ days. There were usually eight of them, including my parents, and to keep the place running the phone had to be picked up, the food prepared (washed, cut and ready to be cooked), the food cooked, the deliveries delivered—oh, you would never understand how hectic it got sometimes, the restaurant packed with screaming families and screaming teenagers and college students, the cooks’ spatulas rapidly darting under, flipping over, mixing, the food in the woks with the seasoning they added with their other hand; no time to lose, deliveries stacking up and flying out the door, as Sammy and I, still bored, all those years ago stood around chatting it up with south Bronx seven-year-olds.
As a little girl, I was torn about teenage-hood. Teenagers had boyfriends, and I wanted a boyfriend. Teenagers had freedom and hung out with their friends all the time; their peers weren’t immigrants five times their age. Teenagers were strangely and indescribably beautiful, loud and confident and humorous about everything. But teenagers were also almost adults. Teenagers had responsibility, and I couldn’t picture myself as old and productive as Jaime was. I would never get there. Besides, I liked being little, and I liked having people adore me because of my pigtails, baby cheeks, and small stature. I decided being itsy bitsy was okay.
“Teenagers are stupid,” was one of my mother’s philosophies.
“Why aren’t these kids working?” she would murmur, watching as they carried out their strange quarter-life crisis antics. “They are so stupid. And they don’t even know it.”
Teenagers had a tendency to eat very quickly, talk very quickly, do everything very quickly; yet, they seemed to never want to leave. They clogged up space and fell over each other in chatter and laughter, and played with their phones until the warning sign started flashing.
My mother, although not even middle-school-educated, has an innovative way of thinking that usurps book smarts in most practical situations. Her red flag for the loitering situation came in the form of a broom. (Remember, we’re talking about people who care about their looks—especially about their fR3$h kicks.) Once the sweeping commenced and the dust and dirt began to travel across and away from the floor, the hyenas almost instantly disappeared.
“They are so stupid.” —Mother
In a way, like those teenagers, I was a gilded butterfly. But for me, for everyone who was part of the production of The Restaurant Show, there was no broom that could brush away the gold and make flight possible. Sure, a worker could quit if he or she found a better job, but my family couldn’t quit a successful business. Working fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week, wasn’t up for compromise; long hours meant more money. Cutting fingers, burning oneself, constantly standing, constantly running around when business was high—all of this was inevitable. There was no heat or air conditioning. Although winters weren’t so bad, summer was hell stuffed into a store. Temperatures climbed to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the kitchen, and sweat poured down everyone’s bodies from noon to midnight. It softly massaged our temples, to no therapeutic avail, and trickled down the sides of our faces, slid past our spines, our arms, our legs; it soaked our clothes and skin, made us exhausted and irritable—as if we weren’t irritable enough already—and everyone washed their faces five times an hour and suffered in silence.
Another unescapable thing: Babysitters. As a baby, I was an angel. I was quiet, obedient, and sweet. I liked to laugh that delightful baby laugh, and I liked to watch things like grass, as it grew. You might be thinking that that isn’t so special: Maybe you also liked to observe photosynthesis as a wee lad or lassie. But compared to my brother, my behavior was extraordinary.
Actually, he was the extraordinary one.
Born in the year of the monkey, Sammy diligently took on ancient primate-like qualities including, but certainly not limited to: jumping around, running in circles, playing practical jokes, and claiming innocence no matter what. Now put that sequence on repeat and fast motion, and keep in mind that he never threw fits, never meant to be obnoxious (just a little mischievous), and was a very clean child who never left the scene with a thing out of place from how it was when he entered. He was a monkey with good intentions.
Every day after school, Sammy and I went to our respective babysitters (I liked mine, but she didn’t like him, hence two separate ones). My parents came back to Chinatown either very late at night or very early in the morning, picked us up, brought us home, and slept with us. But it was obvious they were out of our loops. My dad could instantly match a number on Great Wall’s menu to the plate that it stood for, and my mother remembered the orders and addresses of people who called often for deliveries, but they forgot important dates at school and they forgot to monitor, to even ask us about, our social lives.
My dad grew up in rural China, where he had nothing but two sets of everything essential—notebooks, pencils, jackets, underwear. Although we were living in something that could almost be classified as a modern tenement, he wanted us to havestuff. I had my imagination and grass and needed nothing more than picture books and stuffed animals. But when Sammy asked for a Gameboy Color and Pokemon games, Daddy readily complied. The Gameboy was teal, a magical box of moving images and exciting sounds. Sammy quickly became a Pokemon master, skilled in every other game too, and you could tell his prowess simply from watching him play. He took the game cartridge gently but firmly into his palm, blew into it with the perfect amount of force, inserted it into the Gameboy as the dust scattered, powered on the mechanism with a flip of his pointer finger, and hunched over slightly as if getting into a sport’s ready position. A swan could barely match that grace. He became absorbed into the game, his poker face impeccably in place as his thumbs worked the buttons. Hours upon hours were put into his games, and they became all that he and his friends talked about.
One evening at the restaurant, I was five and Sammy was seven, and I was bored and he was not. Business was light, so I was lounging in the front, people-watching while thinking of something I could do. Sammy was in the back, in the employee area, playing his Gameboy on the chest freezer. Suddenly, familiar shrieks of laughter became audible, and then filled the restaurant. Teenagers.
Two black girls sauntered in, saw me chillin’ like a villain, and bounced over. The customers were usually very pleasant to Sammy and me, but teenagers never initiated conversations with us. These girls were different; they immediately asked me for my name and age, and transitioned without transition into translation questions. How did I say hello in Chinese? What about thank you? I quipped the answers effortlessly, and they were delighted. I found them adorable. They could be my new best friends! Sammy was my brother; he should meet them too! So I told them to hold on, and dragged him from the back to meet them.
Sammy sheepishly waved hi, still holding his Gameboy in his other hand. The way the girls became transfixed on the Gameboy was akin to the way playful kittens zero in on catnip.
“Can I see that?” one of the girls asked.
“Sure,” Sammy said.
She grabbed the Gameboy, looked at her accomplice with one eyebrow raised, and before anyone could say “ni hao” (hello) or “xie xie” (thank you) or “ting” (stop), they had fled.
My jaw was probably the closest to the ground that it had ever been, and that record still stands.
Sammy had turned around and retreated to the back before my jaw had snapped back into place. My mother came hurriedly out from behind the counter towards me—I could see Daddy from the corner of my eye ambling after Sammy—and I cringed in fear that she would kick me in the face or rip my hair out or punish me somehow for being so, so, so stupid.
“Do you know what you just did? Do you know you did something wrong?”
“Yes,” I replied, tears rapidly chasing each other down my chubby cheeks, my chin, my neck.
She told me to go to the back and resumed her spot at the counter.
Daddy was sitting next to Sammy at the chest freezer. He looked up when he heard me coming, and then looked back down at Sammy. He’s ashamed of me. I’m so, so, so stupid. Sammy’s head was bowed into his hands. When I completed my three-meter walk of shame to stand next to them at the chest freezer, it became obvious that he was crying. Deep, shaky, silent breaths sputtered through the spaces between his fingers. I had never seen him so sad. I had never seen him so tough. I wanted to say that I was sorry, that I owed him a million billion trillion sorries—but that still wasn’t enough, because the Gameboy was gone.
I went outside into the darkness. I walked down the block, hoping they had dropped it. I walked up the block, eyes straining to focus on every shape on the ground. I wanted to walk around the block, but there was a bar further down and a parking lot on the other side. I went back to the restaurant. Jaime was at the counter now. She smiled sympathetically at me.
“We don’t call them hei gui for nothing,” she said. Black ghosts.
“I’m going to divorce him if we don’t close the place in two years,” my mother proclaimed, gesticulating with her chopsticks as Sammy and I ate dinner and listened to her speech. She made the same one two years before, and two years before that. Great Wall was just too profitable; the work was hard and the people sucked, but money was always money.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Sammy’s not graduating, but you”—she pointed to me with a chopstick—”will have enough money to go to college. And then I’ll be free. Free! Working from 14 to 45 is enough for me.”
They hated the business. They hated getting up every morning to drive to Chinatown to pick up the workers and the food; they hated trying to pretend to be happy all day while the workers gossiped about each others’ pitiful, useless lives and the customers and Bronxites shitted on them; they hated feeling pathetic in the face of darker-skinned people because they didn’t know how to retaliate; they hated cooking and standing to the point of exhaustion; they hated the blazing summers and egg-filled Halloweens; they hated not having any time to relax, to have for themselves; they hated the fact that they weren’t fluent in English and couldn’t express themselves, even after all these years in America; they hated the opportunities they could have had if they had been born a generation later, in different places than their hometowns; they hated that Sammy and I had these opportunities and yet didn’t make good enough uses of them; they hated that they couldn’t understand our struggles and that we didn’t comprehend their difficulties; but most of all, they hated that they couldn’t act on any of their hatred and had to keep every shriek crushed and folded up into a little whisper, deposited into a jar of other insignificant comments that knocked into clear, elastic sides and fruitlessly demanded to be released and heard.
Daddy was the smartest boy in his village. Chinese children go to vocational school after middle school, but he was selected to continue with academics for high school. He was a scholar. He could have gone to a great college in China. He was good at math. He calculated that he could make it bigger in America. He became a busboy.
My mother wasn’t the brightest girl, but she was street-smart and grateful for her education. She lived in a small apartment in Hong Kong with her mother and two of her five siblings. Wai po—Grandmother—was constantly working, so my mother did all of the cooking, cleaning and caring. Wai po pulled her out of school when she was in the eighth grade to work with her at the sewing factory. She went to America and sewed at a sweat shop for another ten years.
I have it so fucking easy. I’ve suffered—really suffered—maybe once, twice, in my whole life. I try to make sure that I’m educated about the atrocities going on in the world, and I strive to be a positive influence and to make positive change. I dream of being like Mulan; I want be able to save a nation when its defense finally fails. I want everything to be okay with or without a Great Wall.
And yet, I can’t help but realize how absolutely terrible I am for never experiencing any of the things that make me want to cry.
But I have time for experience and time to change. For I’m forever gloriously young.