Take(me)away A True Story
am sitting underneath the counter with a long stick in my hand. My hands are sweaty and as I close my eyes, I hear the hum of the refrigerator and the clinging of the till. A low gruff voice laced with beer and smoke booms across the tiny area.
“Right, can I have one sweet and sour. One chicken chow mein with extra chilli. Three, no make that four spring rolls.Then, can I have three packs of chips with gravy.That will be all love. Here you go.”
Till rings, money exchanged, I breathe a sigh of relief.
My mother is safe! I won’t have to use my stick after all.
I don’t remember how many days I spent sitting on a stool underneath the counter. I was eight years old and believed by being there my mother would be protected. She thought I was going through some weird phase or playing an imaginary game.
But it wasn’t a game for me.
If any of the “bad” men had tried to hurt my mother, I would have used everything in my power to protect her. I would have used the stick and also the meat cleavers in the kitchen. You see, the “bad” men did things I was not allowed to do. They swore, they smelt of alcohol and when they were drunk they threw things at my Grandfather’s precious paintings of birds with green and pink flowers. My grandfather had carefully bubble-wrapped the art pieces and proudly shipped them to the UK to jazz up our walls. When I looked at the paintings, they took me to a place far away from the grit of the city. They were works of art that made our takeaway pretty. That was until two “bad” men angrily threw fried rice and chips at the paintings. Racial abuse, throwing bottles and stealing money – Chinese takeaway owners have seen it all. But just like thousands of takeaway owners, my parents did not report the crime to the police. Instead, they simply closed the shop early.
I remember a conversation one of the “bad” men had with my mother. She was and still is a beauty.
“Alright love. You’re beautiful. Can I kiss your hand?”
From sitting under the counter I heard wet, sloppy, kisses on my mother’s hand.
“Hey, can I see your pussy?”
My mother misunderstood.
“Sorry we don’t have a cat anymore.”
I remember feeling disappointed that the previous owners did not leave behind their cat. It was only years later that I fully understood the true meanings of the comments my mother put up with.
“Don’t tell your husband, I’d love to bring you for a drink. Come on! COME ON!”
“Chinese women always are so beautiful. Wanna f***?”
My mother would laugh it off and let them touch her hand all for the sake of supporting her three children. You see, my parents wanted us to have a better life. They cut potatoes until their hands were chapped raw; they wore old clothes with holes at the elbows; they scrimped and saved so we could attend good schools and make something of ourselves. But the world of the takeaway was a different world from the posh private schools we attended.
We all slept in one room – three mattresses on one floor, the five of us snuggled and happy. When someone snored, we had to get over it, when my brother kicked, I kicked him back and when I wet the bed, everyone got wet. Our family was and still is very close. Our bedroom / lounge / playroom was almost bare with just piles of clothes and bags surrounding our ‘beds.’ We did not live in a residential area – our neighbour was a petrol station. At night time, I could hear the cars passing by on the main road outside our window. I learnt to sleep through sirens and the humming of giant trucks as their filled up their large tanks with petrol.
When my grandfather came to help, he spent nights on an old narrow garden chair. It was the sort of chair that a rich person would lie on when they were sunbathing on holiday. Except, he wasn’t sleeping with sunlight on his face - instead he wore two coats and slept with an icy draft coming through the broken, back window. But my grandfather never complained and he channelled his energy into decorating the shop with the best Chinese words he could paint. I remember his face frowning deep in concentration as he painted each character like it was going to be displayed in the Tate.
My mother didn’t want me to invite my posh school friends to the store. She said they wouldn’t understand. Maybe she was right. How could I explain to them that we did not live in a house, but a shop? How could I say that all that separated us from drunks and yobs and drug addicts was just a glass front with a dodgy lock? At what point, could I share about how every evening we were sitting targets for verbal abuse and racist taunts? I was part of the “takeaway kids.” The hidden Chinese girls and boys who did their homework next to busy kitchens and counters with rough patrons. Children who lived in homes with the air smelling of chip oil; our personal lives hidden from the outside world by just a worn out curtain in the doorway.
Our takeaway continued to do well and my parents earned the most money they had made for years. But they funnelled everything into our education. They would work long hours, only pausing to make sure we did our homework or to cook our meals. My mother never bought presents for herself. When we went to Pizza Hut for my brother’s birthday, we scoffed our faces with the all you can eat buffet and wrapped up extra pizza to put in our bag for later. I remember going to sleep that night replaying the taste of the wonderful, icy coke with the fresh lemon - wishing I could have packed it into my bag too. If I close my eyes now I can still taste it on my lips. Forget champagne or dry martinis or Stella Artois, that coke with a small piece of fresh lemon was the tastiest drink I ever had.
Going on middle classed “mini breaks” was out of the question. I remember being annoyed when some family friends asked us to go on holiday and we had to turn them down. They kept asking and because we said no over and over again, they stopped asking. My mother was ostracised from the ladies group. They thought our family was doing well because my brothers and I went to private schools but they didn’t know the truth. Many people thought we were doing well – especially our relatives in Asia. They threw scorn and sarcasm at every turn.
“You live you London, your children go to private schools, you have own business… you must be rich.”
“Pah, why you never go home for your mother-in-law funeral. Why your husband only go back?”
I had a dream…
“Ma, in my dream it was my birthday and all my friends were there. We went into the kitchen and we had lots of cake. Then we went to the front area after the shop had closed and we played with our toys. It was my birthday and it was great!”
When my mother heard it, she had shattered look in her eyes. She was very Chinese in that she did not want me to “lose face.” If my Caucasian friends knew that I lived in a takeaway they would look down on me. It did not matter that my father had a Masters from a well-known university or my mother used to teach secondary school English. My mother feared that once my wealthy Caucasian friends linked me with the takeaway, they would immediately see my parents as illiterate, bad Chinese stereotypes. The sort of people they could turn their nose up at – refugees with broken English, broken teeth and broken dreams.
She sighed and replied, “Maybe your dream will come true.”
And it did…
For my ninth birthday, I had four friends over. We wore lovely party dresses and ate black forest gateau. Later, we played the imaginary game of “takeaway.” We took turns to use the till and pretended to ring in orders at the counter. It was one of the best birthdays that I had. There were no more lies or pretending. This was the real me on display for the world to see. These were my friends who finally accepted ME – the Chinese girl from the takeaway.
I had just got use to being a takeaway kid when my parents decided to close up shop and move house. It all happened so quickly I did not pause to ask why. I was ecstatic that I would be moving to a proper house and in my mind that was all that mattered.
We settled into a small, rented house in Wembley. With the garden full of weeds and the ugliest dirty moss-coloured carpet you would ever see, it was no palace by any means. But it was a place where the water did not become ice-cold fifty percent of the time; it was a haven without “bad” men and, most importantly, a place where I could finally feel safe. I remember playing cricket with our Asian neighbours and the satisfying feeling of real grass instead of concrete underneath my feet. Time moved on and the takeaway became a memory that almost felt like a dream.
It was only recently that I found out the reason why we shut the takeaway.
My mother told me she was driving us back from school one day. She was exhausted from peeling potatoes at 5 am in the morning and fell asleep at the wheel. The car almost crashed with my brothers and I sitting in the back. She said she would never have forgiven herself had something happened. That was the day my parents discussed shutting the takeaway once and for all. They decided that no matter how much money they were making, they could not put us children in jeopardy. Also, they felt they were too tired to give us the attention they felt we needed. They loved us so much that they let their business dreams go. But my mother always said, “No regrets, I had to listen to my heart.”
When I think back at the time in the takeaway, tears fill my eyes. I picture all the vivid memories. The loud drunks who swore and threw their food; the Chinese tutor who gave me lessons on a rusty metal table; the student from Malaysia who slept under the stairs; the many hours of playing with my skipping rope in the front area and the laughter my brothers had when we played detective and found some mice.
There are tears of joy and tears of pain. But I am proud of my short time in the takeaway. Proud that it taught me the significance of loving your family, proud that it taught me the value of hard work and most importantly proud it taught me how to listen to my heart. BW