Takeaway: Stories From A Childhood Behind The Counter by Angela Hui is published by Hachette.
It was a Friday at 4pm. My brothers and I were still in our school uniforms with unbuttoned shirts and ties hanging around our necks as we sat on yellow plastic stools around a silver stainless steel island worktop in our family’s takeaway kitchen in Beddau, a small Welsh village.
Stacks of aluminium foil containers, poly lids, an industrial-sized fridge that was too big for the room and a heavy duty wok cooker range surround us as we have our family meal before service.
My parents had made an early dinner feast that could’ve easily fed eight instead of five: choi sum with oyster sauce, steamed egg, black bean spare ribs with green peppers, white cut chicken and steamed sea bass with ginger and spring onion that my parents had lovingly made in between their prep work all day.
The steam that gently radiated off the plates invited us to tuck in. During the meal, I asked if I was allowed the night off to hang out at a friend’s house.
“If you go out, who will help me and your poor mother?” Dad scolded while pointing his chopsticks at me. “This shop is what puts a roof over our heads and food on the table. Why are you so ungrateful? You don’t know how lucky you three got it!”
I sat there awkwardly trying to blink away my tears and picked at a lone piece of chicken in silence. The extractor fans hummed on low in the background, filling the heavy and uncomfortable air.
“Hurry and finish your food,” Mum advised me in Cantonese, tapping my bowl with her chopsticks to usher me along, “Go get ready for work and stop causing so much trouble.”
“But why can’t I go out with all my friends? Like a normal kid?” I replied in English.
“Tsk, don’t speak English back to me. We’re a Chinese family. We speak Cantonese,” Mum sighed, shaking her head. “You’re such a banana. You look Chinese, but you are white on the inside.”
I plucked up enough courage to say, “So what?”
“You want to be a gwai mui? A white girl?” Dad shouted, grains of rice shooting from his mouth in rage as his eyes honed in on me.
I am both Chinese and Welsh. I personally like to think I have the best of both worlds, my culture and my nationality.
I huffed loudly, bit my tongue, slammed my bowl down and stomped upstairs to put on my work uniform. I pulled on old joggers with holes and an oil-seeped stained top instead of jeans and a nice top. I so desperately wished I was going out with mates instead of being trapped working the weekend. Again.
I wished I had the balls to tell Dad at that moment that even if I wanted to be a gwai mui, no matter how hard I tried, I would never be one of them.
Outside of the takeaway, I was too yellow. Inside, I was too white.
That night, after another stressful 12-hour shift, I soaked in a bathtub upstairs. We lived above the Chinese takeaway. I tried to wash the smell of chip fryer grease combined with sweet and sour sauce off. I sat there until the water had gone cold. I scrubbed and scrubbed until my yellow skin turned red and the pads of my fingertips pruned, hoping if I scraped hard enough I might find some white skin underneath.
I’ve spent my entire childhood wishing I was white. Thinking life would be so much easier if I had a lighter skin tone. Trying to detangle my troubling and persistent thoughts about identity.
Who am I? What am I? When we had the takeaway I never invited anyone around because I was too embarrassed to see how we lived at home. I tried to hide my Chineseness for the fear of drawing attention to myself. I used to dye my hair every colour of the rainbow – from black to blonde to ginger to purple – and wear too much make up in school in an attempt to fit in with British society’s eurocentric beauty standards because I thought that would make me desirable and that my peers would be more accepting of me. I feared that living and working in a Chinese takeaway was my only defining trait: the quiet, obedient Asian kid who’s good at maths and smelled like sweet and sour sauce.
My parents were part of a large group of Chinese immigrants who arrived in Britain from the 1980s onwards. Mum swam rivers in the Southern region of China – Guangdong – to escape Chairman Mao’s regime while Dad had a scrappy childhood selling cart noodles in the streets of Hong Kong. They left their lives behind in Asia, relocated, lived and worked in the UK for 30 years. When they sold the shop in 2018, we were left figuring out who we were without this central pillar in our lives and trying to navigate life after it because working in the kitchen was all we knew.
I feared that living and working in a Chinese takeaway was my only defining trait: the quiet, obedient Asian kid who’s good at maths and smelled like sweet and sour sauce.
I look back on those times with a mix of fondness, nostalgia and sadness. All teenagers experience changes as they try to figure out who they are and find their footing in the world but, for me, there was often a feeling of being misunderstood. I think that was the nature of being a Welsh Chinese young woman living in a small village, working in a close-knit family team, dealing with racism and often being sexualised while I worked behind the counter during service by men.
I had that desperate urge of belonging but, instead, because of how I felt there was a lot of internalised racism that only took me further away from being able to accept myself.
Today I think about the dishes my parents served to their customers and for our family meals. I think about the implicit lessons contained within them. Our bestselling dishes like egg fried rice, chop suey and chow mein were all significant in forming my sense of belonging, identity and inclusion in Britain because they are what most British people think of when they think of Chinese food. Meanwhile, more traditional Chinese dishes steamed sea bass, choi sum and black bean ribs were a taste of a life I never knew in Hong Kong.
My parents adapted to their new environment and tailored food to customers’ wants, needs and tastes. They cooked food in order to survive and thrive and, them doing so, shaped who we are.
For too long, I felt like a person that is lesser than. Now, in a way, I’m thankful for my parents’ tough love. It pushed me onto a path of self-love, which led to the realisation that no matter how hard I try to change who I am, I should be comfortable in my own skin.
My parents raised us through their own struggles, worries, pain, unresolved trauma and fears. They did their best they could with what they knew and following certain cultural norms that they were surrounded with. I will not try to scrub out who I am. I will not be scared or ashamed of being who I am because I am both Chinese and Welsh. I personally like to think I have the best of both worlds, my culture and my nationality.
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