When I was four years old, my uncle dropped a bowl of pho on my head.
It was the lunch rush at my family’s restaurant. I was walking from the dining room towards the door to the kitchen. At the exact same time, my uncle was walking through the door the other way and collided right into me while carrying a bowl of pho for an unlucky customer.
The tray carrying the soup slipped out of his hands when I ran into him. Before I knew it, steaming fragrant pho broth, freshly cooked rice noodles, and tiny superheated flecks of flank steak began to rain down on me like fire and brimstone. It felt like I just stuck my head into the mouth of an angry dragon.
Imagine Splash Mountain, but instead of getting a fun souvenir picture at the end of the ride, you got second degree burns covering the top half of your body.
The weird part is I don’t remember anything before the soup touched my skin — this is just what I was told later after a trip to the hospital. But as my body registered the searing pain of the pho, my consciousness ignited. It was like my brain came online at that moment and I began to register real memories for the first time ever.
I remember feeling pain. I remember being scared.
But, more than anything, I remember feeling that I really hated my family’s restaurant.
My family owned a Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant called “Da Kao” in Sioux City, Iowa — a town deep in the corn-choked guts of the Midwest. It’s a massive red-brick building with a big green sign and yellow lettering loudly announcing the name and phone number of the restaurant to a busy thoroughfare. While we weren’t the only Chinese place in the city, we were easily the biggest and most successful.
As such, I grew up as a breed of child I’m sure many of you have seen before — especially if you’ve ever been to a immigrant family-owned Chinese, Vietnamese, or even Hispanic restaurant.
They’re the kids you see just hanging out at the restaurant when you go there. They’re never eating. There’s typically more than one. And the workers at the restaurant never speak to them or even look their way like they’re ghosts in a Victorian novel.
In fact, when you see one, you might become a little unsure of yourself.
Does anyone else in this place notice the three kids sharing a tiny corner table right now? They were here when we came in like 30 minutes ago and no one’s brought them drinks or food the entire time. Am I the only one seeing them? Are they … ghosts? The lost spirits of kids who died here waiting for their order of crab rangoons to be fried?
No. They’re not ghosts. They’re Restaurant Kids. I know because I was one too.
A Restaurant Kid spends entire days in the natural habitat: Sitting at the smallest table of their family’s restaurant. There they do homework, read, draw, or, if their parents really wanted them to be quiet loved them, play on their Gameboys or laptops.
But if their parents are anything like mine and my cousins, they’re being put to work. After all, child labor laws don’t exist to immigrant families. Not when there’s food to be served, drinks to be poured, and money to be made. My first words ever were “bố” and my first sentence ever was, “Would you like white or fried rice with your order?”
Family-owned restaurants are actually a big reason a lot of Vietnamese kids learn English. You needed to learn pretty quickly if you wanted to wait tables and collect tips.
As a Restaurant Kid, you learned all the essential phrases to get by in America:
“How are you today?”
“It was great meeting you and I hope to see you again!”
“Sorry, we only carry Pepsi products.”
Restaurant Kids also got collegiate level schooling on mathematics. I learned division calculating how I’d split the tips with the waitresses. I learned multiplication when calculating tax into a customer’s check. I learned subtraction when my parents took away my earnings to “save for college.”
So when we weren’t in school, my brother, cousins and I spent our time at the Restaurant. While my friends spent their summers at camp or learning programs, I was at the Restaurant. The Restaurant became more than just how my family made money. It was a daycare, workplace, library, study area, nap area, and hangout spot all rolled into one.
And…I hated it.
Because for every one good memory of being a Restaurant Kid, there were a dozen not-so-good ones.
Like the sounds of your family fighting with each other in the kitchen. The shouts from your uncles as they argue over one another’s gambling problems, or for totaling another delivery car, or for getting an order wrong. The screams of your parents as the stress of raising two children while managing a restaurant in a country that’s not their own boils over like a pot of egg drop soup at rush hour.
The same noises that howl in your skull through restless nights years later.
Order up. Two number twelves and a Won Ton soup to go. Delivery for three egg rolls and a small fried rice. Remember to bring change for a hundred or you’ll have to find an ATM.
Dishes falling. Gas burning. The clang, clang, clanging of a million plates and spoons and knives and forks. The mood and the temperature heating up alongside the burners underneath the woks.
Where’s the order for table four?
What do you mean “Where’s the order? I never got a fucking order.
I put it in half an hour ago.
The fuck you did.
What did you say to me?
Long evenings after school working on my homework at my corner table, and desperately trying to ignore the shouts of my parents and uncles in the kitchen.
The Mayflower arrived at Plymouth in 1620.
I SAID THE FUCK YOU DID.
The first Thanksgiving happened in 1621 when the colonists honored their first harvests with a three day long celebration.
OH FUCK YOU. YOU THINK YOU’RE SO TOUGH NOW?
Joining the pilgrims were 90 Native Americans from a local tribe who helped them survive their first winter in the New World.
DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH ME. DON’T YOU DARE FUCKING TOUCH ME.
So when my mom called me to say that they finally sold the restaurant after 20 years of business, I didn’t know how to feel. It was the exact definition of bittersweet.
How are you supposed to feel, though, if the very reason that your family was able to live and succeed and thrive in this country was also the reason your family fought and didn’t speak to each other for months on end?
So I decided to make a trip back to my hometown. Though I told people I went back to visit my parents and ba ngoai, it was more to say goodbye to the Restaurant. So in 2019, a time when social distancing and quarantine were concepts as foreign as pho without lime, I flew back to Sioux City from my home in Chicago to say goodbye to the place that raised me.
I remember pulling into the parking lot outside of the building. I stepped out of the car, looked at the building, and expected to feel disdain for it — but instead felt a small pang in my chest. It was the way you’d feel if you saw an old friend you hadn’t seen in years. The sights, sounds, and smell are familiar and yet so different.
As I stepped out onto the parking lot — the same parking lot where my dad taught me how to ride a bike, and my cousins and I would try to light weeds on fire with a magnifying glass — that pang deepened into an ache.
The restaurant and this building I was about to go into for the last time was where I learned to walk. It was where I learned to talk. And now I had to say goodbye.
I remember walking through the kitchen, greeting the workers there that I knew and had grown up knowing. The surrogate mothers and fathers and uncles and aunties who were always quick to smile and make me a meal if my parents were busy. I made my way through the door where I bumped into my uncle so many years before and had a bowl of pho dropped on my head.
I remember standing in the dining room for a moment to just take everything in—the waitresses and waiters serving customers their orders, the near constant ring of the telephone for deliveries, the shouts from the kitchen.
This was where I spent long evenings watching the sun melt into an inky darkness out the window while waiting for my mom to finish the dinner shift. It was where I learned to read from hand-me-down chapter books from my cousins — The Magic Tree House, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Harry Potter. There were bad memories here, yes. But there were so many happy ones too. Their alchemical mixture formed me into the person I am today, for better or for worse.
More than anything, though, the restaurant was a place that I learned to love and hate the same way you would your family — where the love is unconditional but the hate is anything but. As my eyes swept through the dining room, and I fought the lump building in the back of my throat, that’s when I saw it: My old table. The one I used to sit at with my brother and cousins.
The table where I spent my days drawing, studying, reading, and waiting for my turn to bus tables. Our little pocket of the universe back when all that mattered was your family around you and what you were going to have for dinner. And there was a kid sitting at it.
She couldn’t have been any older than 11. Judging from her backpack at her feet and the stack of folders on the table in front of her, she just finished school. But if she had homework, she wasn’t working on it. Instead, a sketchbook laid open in front of her as she concentrated on a picture she was drawing. I went to a table where one of the waitresses sat folding napkins and asked, “Hey, who is that kid?”
She looked up from her napkins and quickly glanced at the table, “The dishwasher’s girl. Just finished school down the block. She’s waiting for her dad to finish his shift so they can go home.”
I smiled, because I knew the truth about that little girl sitting at the table, sketching and letting her dreams run away with her: She was already home.
Tony Ho Tran is a writer and former restaurant kid whose work has been seen in Huff Post, Playboy, Narratively, and wherever else fine writing is published. He currently lives in Chicago where he regularly calls his mom for advice when cooking Viet recipes.