Dad holds down the horn of his Ford E-150 as my two brothers and I jump into some work clothes and hop in the van. We pull into the parking lot of our Chinese restaurant. Dad hits the curb as always, and the clock reads 10:30am – thirty minutes until opening time, forty-five minutes until the lunch rush, and ten and half hours until we get to go back home. We left the keys to the door, so now we are lifting Steven, the youngest and smallest of us, into the window so that he can unlock the door from the inside. Once we get in it’s a race against the clock. In forty-five minutes, we cook over thirty dishes for the buffet, make eight gallons of tea, roll a load of silverware, and get everything ready for the lunch rush at 11:15am. We do all of this without uttering a single complete intelligible sentence to our father, because we cannot. He does not speak English, and we cannot speak Chinese. We communicate using hand gestures, context clues, made-up words, and Chinglish (a mix between Cantonese Chinese and English). My name, a tap on a dish, and a thumbs-up lets me know that the dish is ready to go out to customers. There is a sort of telepathy developed with my father that makes working in the restaurant more efficient and frustrating than it needs to be. I think it trains me to think fast and empathize with people who get misunderstood. The customers try to talk to Dad sometimes, and he just laughs and smiles and says “OK, OK, haha.”
By 12:30pm, Mom finally gets back from her classes at East Mississippi Community College, and the customers have been waiting for her. She chats with the regulars and laughs at their jokes, but I can see through her unbreakable smile and recognize the determination that allows her to seem energetic when she is running off less than five hours of sleep every day. As her children hustle to clean off tables and refill drinks, she facilitates customers who otherwise would become disgruntled. As we sleep, she studies to earn a degree that will secure a better future. As we telepathically execute Dad’s commands, she works as the liaison between our illiterate father and the rest of the world. Mom inspires me to never give up. Sometimes when the customers tell her to take a break, that she is working too hard, she just smiles.
We keep working, cooking, refilling drinks, wiping tables, thanking customers and wishing them a wonderful day. We get a break when it slows down, but there is no energy for conversation. I walk over to the window to watch cars passing our little restaurant, and I wonder where they are heading and why. Under my breath, I wish that one day we can all go too, and I mutter a prayer to a God I never fully believed for the abilities to grant my wish.