I MADE myself a promise when I was 19 years old, while putting on suspenders and an absurd straw hat to go to my summer job as a waitress at T.G.I. Fridays. The vow was to never go back to working in food service. No one, I decided, deserved this kind of humiliation, not even a broke university student. What’s more, I was always bad at it; a mess of mixed-up orders, forgotten drinks and broken dishware. The lifelong waitresses who worked alongside me viewed me with both irritation and pity.
But with unemployment reaching frightening levels in my home country, one should never say never. That’s how I ended up working a shift with Van Narin, staff supervisor at the Soup Dragon – and the kindest restaurant employee I know.
It usually takes about a month for Narin to train a new waiter, but I would attempt to master it in a couple of hours.
Most of Soup Dragon’s 40 employees come from the countryside, and it is often their first job. A gentle and devout Buddhist, Narin doesn’t even get angry when her employees use her tutelage to get a higher paying job at another restaurant. “This is like a school,” she told me soothingly.
Nevertheless, as I waited for the next group of customers to saunter in, I was filled with dread. What if they ordered hot pot, the house specialty, and I spilled scalding liquid all over them? What if they were the rude ones Narin had warned me about, who would bang their chopsticks on the table to get my attention or lace their food with their own hair to get it for free? What if they stared at my ass the way those coarse truck drivers used to during the year I had made the misguided decision to work at a restaurant called Big Boy? My ass isn’t 18 years old anymore, which made the possibility all the more horrifying.
Standing by the hostess stand and staring at the growing crowds on Pub Street, I was miserable and drenched with sweat.
Thankfully, none of these things came to pass. My designated table was full of tank-topped blonde tourists, who were polite and, if anything, slightly concerned about my mental wellbeing as I hovered over them, ready to refill a water glass at a moment’s notice. In fact, nothing at Soup Dragon seemed similar to my old restaurant gigs. The kitchen staff didn’t bungle my orders or yell at me when they couldn’t read my handwriting. The other waiters were prepared to help each other if one person’s section got too busy, instead of jealously competing for tips. Even the customers were a different breed; relaxed vacationers who gave me polite bows on their way out, rather than irritable families who had just pulled off the interstate ready to murder each other.
“I think you are very clever,” Narin said, as I joked with a group of tipsy tourists and told them to come back soon. This was something that no one had ever told me during my lamentable days at Big Boy.
My stint as a Khmer waitress was infinitely more enjoyable than my American experience. Even so, it’s not an easy career. Had I been a paid employee, I would have made about US$1.50 for my day’s work. A sum I spent on beer to unwind at the end of my shift.
Let’s just say the economics weren’t looking too promising. So, for now at least, I’ll stick with writing – though I’ll be sure to tip generously whenever I see a waiter who looks as nervous as I felt.