What Working at My Family Restaurant Taught Me About Summer

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Su-Jit Lin)

Fireflies caught in Mason jars, chased barefoot. Cornhole played on plush lawns or basketball on your neighborhood net, the games ending only when the street lights came on. Hours spent shaping sandcastles on the beach, or digging holes just to watch with satisfaction as they filled with water from the bottom up.

And the food — oh, the food! Laid on tablecloths and served outdoors on picnic tables, summer barbecues are the ultimate joys of the season. Close your eyes and remember the tantalizing scent of charcoal as hot dogs blistered and split their skins on the grill. Burgers sizzling on the grates, flipped by someone wearing a “Kiss the Cook” apron. Ears of fresh corn, growing sweet inside charring husks as baked beans simmer equally slowly. The smacking of lips as rib meat is torn off the bone, then again as thick sauce is licked off the fingers. Then, finally, a hollow thwak as a ripe watermelon is broken open so that seed-spitting contests between cousins can commence.

Do you remember all of that?

I don’t. Although my experiences may have held vestiges of this American daydream, the details were a bit different.

We owned a Chinese takeout in a middle-class suburb on Long Island, New York, and had a whopping staff of one to help keep it going every day of the year but Thanksgiving. Summer was no break for me and my siblings; rather, it was a time of year that my parents could sneak off for a quick nap or errands while one of us minded shop. During the lulls, we zipped through our summer reading lists, escaping into worlds better than the harsh fluorescent lights and whirring exhaust fans of real life.

Our summer breeze came from one lonely fan at the front counter. It smelled like the exhaust of the cars from the street, wafting through the open storefront doors. Nonetheless, we’d gather around it, a relief from the hot rising steam of the soup station and the open flames the woks rested on.

But come evening, between the insistent ringing of phones, whirring of the adding machine for receipts, and boxing orders for customers, my parents did their best to create that image of the idyllic American dream, what they thought summer in America looked like. When the night haze settled in and the crickets started to chirp, it was family time — same as everybody else.

My dad ground cuts of beef and shaped them into what would puff up into fat discs. They didn’t have burgers before coming to the States; didn’t know the thumbprint trick.

While others grilled frozen burger patties outdoors, we stood on empty crates to watch our own version of the same sizzle on the salamander. My dad ground cuts of beef and shaped them into what would puff up into fat discs. My parents didn’t have burgers before coming to the States; didn’t know the thumbprint trick.

My mom liked to dice fresh onions into the meat — one of many details we didn’t appreciate as children craving “normal” burgers — and cooked them on grates that held the scent of red Chinese barbecue sauce. Its unmistakable sweetness seeped into the beef and the soft Martin’s potato buns they’d toast just as the Kraft Singles started to sizzle.

We ate watermelon, too, and spit out the seeds. We shot them through our teeth onto the asphalt loading docks behind the store as our chef laughed between drags of cheap cigarettes. During the recession, there were no other stores in our shopping center, so nobody cared.

When nearby streetlights flickered their signals to other kids to come home, that was when we went outside. It meant the dinner rush was over. As other families came together to eat, we played badminton beneath the storefront signs in our strip mall. As kids pedaled home to their cul-de-sacs, we rode our bikes in the empty lot.

Afterwards, we sang, but not the songs you’d hear around a traditional campfire. We had Beijing opera songs, the words now long forgotten and the meanings never known. We told and listened to stories of distant cousins who cycled in and out of our restaurant as summer apprentices. They came sporadically to learn from my father before they endeavored to become restaurateurs themselves or used a hard summer of hard work as motivation to continue on to college and leave this hard way of life to the last generation.

(Image credit: Su-Jit Lin)

The latter is exactly what I did. And so, 20-odd years later, my summers are more like the first picture than the second.

Today, I sit on Adirondack chairs sipping wine in red Solo cups as mosquitoes feast on us. I own a Weber charcoal grill and eat copious amounts of bagged potato chips; toast marshmallows for small children fighting sleep as they beg for sparklers to light up the night.

Every summer, I am grateful for it. I’m thankful to finally be able to experience in real life what my family always imagined American summers to be like. After the hot, laborious summers of my childhood, middle-class Americana is still a luxury to me. To grill by day and eat my hot dog before the sun sets feels like freedom.

Entire days off for leisure and laughter. Peace and quiet, uninterrupted by the demands or requests of strangers. Unwinding after a hard day’s work instead of stolen moments during it, and the reward of knowing instead of merely hoping that rest follows work. Time to sit down together around a table instead of eating in shifts or on our feet. The liberty to indulge in the present, in private and without dependencies and closing times to worry about. These everyday simple pleasures, to me, are monumental symbols of the dream of a better life my parents fought so hard for.

And now that my family has sold the restaurant I was raised in, being able to show my parents what this other Americana looks and feels like when it’s not cobbled together between deliveries is sweeter than any post-barbecue sundae.

Yet, as classic or makeshift as they are, both visions of summer are equally American. To me, what makes America American is the diversity of traditions between our borders. The many different, non-homogenous experiences that constitute what summer vacation means across the country and across cultures. The fact that my summers at a carry-out counter are just as typical as others’ at the ice cream parlor.

Any summer here is an American one, be it blessed and beautiful or improvised and unprivileged. Both have been mine. And both give me reasons to be thankful and excited for what the next one might bring.

(Image credit: Su-Jit Lin)