I have a scar on my forearm close to my elbow. It has faded over the last 24 years. You can barely see it, but it carries a sweet memory.
Chinatown, New York. Summer of 1994.
After paying a 100-dollar bill to the work introduction agency, I got a piece of paper and a handwritten telephone phone number handed to me through the barred window. The face behind the window was somewhat indifferent. But I was excited. Finally, I was in the Big Apple, a city that I only read about in magazines in China.
This paper gave me three opportunities to be hired in a restaurant. On the first job, I found myself, a native-born Chinese not understanding any of the names of the Chinese dishes yelled out from the other end of the telephone line. “Wow, the New Yorkers speak so much faster than people in Illinois! Everyone is in a hurry?” That was the only thought that I could get out before the very pregnant boss lady gave me $5 and sent me out the door. I had lasted five minutes. The Big Apple wasn’t very sweet on our first date. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and defeated.
By the time I got to the Happy Restaurant, I had already been fired twice. I don’t remember the actual name of the restaurant. When I think about it now, the feeling comes up as happiness. So let’s just call it Happy Restaurant. The second job had lasted about an hour and a half. So I was making progress and hoping the third time would be the charm.
If I fail the third job, I would have to pay another $100, which I didn’t have. Though raised as an atheist, I was hopefully sending prayers out. “I really, really need this job. Whoever is up there and listening, please, please help me.” And somehow, my prayer was answered. I spent the next three months working at Happy Restaurant, an Italian restaurant owned by a Hongkongese man. I learned how to deep fry chicken wings to perfection, tender and juicy. I learned all the tricks and got faster and faster.
In the kitchen, there were metal nails on a wood beam where white slips of orders would hang under. Orders were taken on carbonless copy paper, a kind of paper that transfers writing from the top green-colored paper to the bottom white-colored paper. After writing down an order, I quickly walked to the kitchen, tore out the white copy from the bottom, and stuck it on the nail. The assistant cook on the other side would rip it off to read the order and cook the meal.
Every day before opening, I would take a deep breath and embrace myself for battle. There were three guys in the back, a cook and two assistants. None of them spoke English. I was the only one out in front to face the customers.
“I can’t make any mistakes on these orders,” I told myself. “It would mess everyone’s job up in the back.” They relied on me!
There were walk-in customers. Customers on the phone. Customers coming to pick up orders. The rush hour usually lasts about two hours.
One day when I was in the battle zone, I was leaving an order on the nail and pulled back too fast. My right forearm caught on the nail and instantly started to bleed.
“Ouch!” I yelped, but I didn’t have time to feel the pain, the customers were waiting. I quickly assessed the damage. Not a deep cut. Good. I grabbed a napkin and pressed it on the wound, just long enough for the blood to be blotted away. And I went right back to the front.
After the rush hour and all the customers were gone, the kitchen staff in the back helped me dress the wound. They told me to be extra careful after that.
Though coming from different parts of China and of different ages, we became teammates. Me, the cook, and his assistants. We were a team.
The restaurant opened at 11 am and we would get there two hours prior to get the place ready. We turn the neon sign off at 10 pm and go home shortly after that. The next morning, the same routine starts all over again. I worked there six days a week for three months.
I only had one goal during those days and I achieved it. That summer, two of us combined, Samuel and I, were able to make just enough money for his graduate school tuition for the upcoming year. That was a bloody victory!
So it was not a deep cut, but it left a two-inch-long light-colored scar. Maybe just a souvenir for those simple and beautiful days at the restaurant. Those days were happy as they afforded me an opportunity to make a living. Scars can be gifts by reminding us of memories that have helped create who we are.
We all carry scars. Some are physical, some are emotional, some are psychological. They are signs that we have lived. Some scars are new and some are old. Some are inflated by others while some are caused by ourselves.