Ah, the good old days and people I'll never see again

By Xiao Hao ( China Daily ) Updated: 2009-04-09 09:01:56

At the Miami restaurant where I worked part-time back in 1993, a hierarchy existed among the staff to serve customers in style. At the very top was the manager in his suit. The waiters were next in line with their bow ties and velvet vests and next were bus boys, who cleaned the tables after each meal. We, the four food runners in plain white shirts and regular ties, were second to last, just above the Nicaraguans cleaning dishes.

Ah, the good old days and people I'll never see again

Our job was simple: pass the orders from the waiters to the kitchen, and carry out dishes for waiters to serve. Sadly, it proved more difficult for me than cutting frog eggs under a microscope in the lab. I could never carry a tray elegantly over my shoulder - the one time I tried, several plates fell off and smashed. In contrast, my three colleagues could at one time tumble in and out of the kitchen, yell out Cantonese instructions, pile all the plates onto a huge tray, throw it over their shoulder, and swiftly carry it off to the dining area.

Ah Ching was the nimblest and although he was only 20 could instantly answer all my stupid questions: What sauce to go with fried wontons? How to cook rice with that gigantic aluminum pot? He also had sharp eyes for dishes barely touched by customers. "Want some?" he'd offer generously.

As with the other Fujianese staff, Ah Ching's trip had been arranged by a snakehead (people trafficker) - it was almost a rite of passage for young people in his village, he explained, to go to America to seek their fortune. His group first stowed away to Hong Kong, then to Thailand where they boarded a plane to Costa Rica; during the stopover in Miami, they escaped from the airport.

Life seemed pretty smooth in America. The boss provided free lodgings for all illegal workers, we ate free at the restaurant and each day, a food runner could make $20-30 for lunch and $50-70 for dinner. Ah Ching was also confident of getting his green card via political asylum under the pretense of forced family planning back home.

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