In summer of 2014, my family and I took our first trip to Gold Coast, where we went on a tapas cruise and managed to visit four theme parks without getting sunburnt. A total success, it seemed. But we soon found our lives capsized when we returned to Sydney to the news that Dad was going to be made redundant in three months.
Dad finished the last weeks at his corporate job with an odd level of calmness, while Mum began to search for jobs for the first time since becoming a stay-at-home parent 10 years ago. Meanwhile, I stayed quiet from my inability to help as a 14-year-old with no work skills and started going to bed earlier to save the slightest watts of electricity.
Our luck shifted when a family friend offered to sell us her takeaway business. While my parents had no experience in the food industry, they jumped at the opportunity as our lifeline to shore. Soon, they sealed the deal and began memorising the menu, and I became their go-to for tricky pronunciations like ‘schnitzels’.
On a typical day, they would rotate between preparing ingredients, restocking fridges, calling suppliers and cleaning utensils - an unending checklist.
My parents were quick in learning the ropes of the business. On a typical day, they would rotate between preparing ingredients, restocking fridges, calling suppliers and cleaning utensils - an unending checklist. When there’s a stream of customers, some coming from the train station across the road and others from trucks that are resting their engines off Pacific Highway, Mum cooks the burgers at the grill while Dad tends to the deep-fryers.
Even when he’s juggling several orders, Dad still likes to chat with customers. He’s a total natural,calling them by their name, asking how they are and adding freebies if it turns out they’ve had a hard day. “When you talk to [people], it’s not for the sake of talking. There’s always something to learn,” he likes to say.
Other times, when a customer tries to discreetly take a soft drink or argue against Asians selling burgers, it’s Dad who gives the lesson. “If you don’t like my food, just don’t come back,” he once told a man who thought our burgers weren’t “Australian” enough.
Seeing the way my parents wear an armour of strength while working at our tiny takeaway, I’ve never found myself worrying about them — or us. Until now.
For almost the first time in six years, I fear our family life might capsize again — this time, not by a sharp turn of fortunes but by the very real financial aftershocks of the coronavirus outbreak. As xenophobia takes hold and the fear of the virus turns potential customers away from many food businesses owned by East-Asians, I realise the takeaway that’s been keeping us afloat may not always guarantee a stream of living.
Mum isn’t one to get emotional, so I know better than to ask how she’s going. Instead, I’ve become a skilled reader of the cartography of her face.
Mum isn’t one to get emotional, so I know better than to ask how she’s going. Instead, I’ve become a skilled reader of the cartography of her face. These days, I see her brows furrow as she searches for hand sanitisers for the shop or thinks of new food ideas to keep the takeaway going. The same ridges that lined her brows as she found herself job-searching upon my Dad’s redundancy in 2014.
Whenever my parents do talk about the outbreak, it’s never to indulge in fear or self-pity for being Chinese; they’d say we’re lucky to be home and have our basic needs. And every night, they still talk about their day, from the firefighter who made a bulk purchase for his colleagues to the worker who craved fries after a terrible train commute.
“We have our regulars who aren’t scared of us,” Dad jokes.
While some of the customers may have dropped off, watching my parents’ pragmatism, I’m learning to channel fear into more gratitude and commitment towards our loved ones, our jobs and, perhaps most of all — the community we work for. To savour life’s small moments, from the smell of patties sizzling on the grill to the rare, sweet banter with our customers and the fact that I get to return home to my parents, night after night.
Charmaine Lau is a freelance writer.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Voices supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_