For some reason, I decided to write this as a story! Hope you enjoy 🙂
Saturday night. Tonight something feels different.
Tonight when I slip on that apron stiff with grime, I feel a sense of calm. The kitchen is still the same, the staff jabbering in a language I don’t understand as they fetch orders and prawns and onions and sauces in a bustle that doesn’t include me.
There is only myself, and that sink and mountain of dishes.
As usual the gloves are far too big, but I’ve taken to wrapping rubber bands around my wrists to lessen the amount of water seeping down to my fingers. I make sure the bands are not too tight, yet not too loose. It’s not nearly as effective keeping my hand dry as the small sized gloves I bought last week, but those had ripped by the end of the night.
I would manage. I had learned and brought with me a long glass of water, and Monica has made me a warm malt drink. The sugar there would be a lovely boost of energy in these four hours of washing.
After a week of despair, I was eager to test my new system. I fill both sinks with hot water, and make sure not to pour in too much soap.
First, clear the dishes brought in by the waiting staff, especially if these have already reached the height of your head.
Pour unfinished soups into a bucket, wipe rubbish into the bin. Then organise dirty dishes according to their own species, to make it easier for mass washing.
Chopsticks in one tub, Chinese spoons and utensils in another.
Ten types of plates, five types of bowls. An insane amount of bowls. I can never get rid of the bowls no matter how furiously I wash, so I’ve learnt not to panic when they pile up like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The trick is to first wash the ones they want.
“Christi-naaah! I need spoons!”
“Christi-naaah! I need this plate!”
The heat kills the grease, and I leave dirty dishes in the sink of water and detergent for the heat to work on it, while I wash other dishes in the rinsing sink. Then, in they go on one of two drying racks.
Time to clear the dishes off the other rack. That’s when I rip off my gloves, to give my fingers – swollen and white and soft from exposure to leaked water – time to recover. This way, my fingers won’t ache so much at the end of the night.
There’s a certain kind of pleasure in picking up dry dishes and feeling not a trace of grease on them. Every once in a while I come across a plate with grease spots I’ve missed in that ever furious pressure to get dishes done, and I use a dry cloth to do them in.
A drink of water, and then it’s off to the rest of the kitchen, delivering plates to their homes, somehow finding space for the millions of bowls that need housing. As I move around, the kitchen staff and I end up doing a tango in that narrow space we occupy. Every once in a while, I catch tantalising glimpses of a cook using a ladle to scoop up sauces and seasonings from a dozen bowls, tossing them like a wizard into a wok that sometimes spurt dramatic pillars of fire.
Heat and steam, soups and rice topped with vegetable gravy and spicy aubergines, other scents so much like home.
Then it’s back to the sink, and to my system. Clear, organise, wash, rinse, dry. Clear, organise, wash, rinse, dry.
Every once in a while, the restaurant or kitchen staff talk to me in a language I can communicate with, and for an instant I allow myself to hope that perhaps I can be a part of their world after all.
And then they hurry off, and I am left to myself. That’s all right. Sometimes it’s nice not to have too much expected of me. Nice to leave some things unsaid.
I sense there are things about me they don’t understand, and I’m not sure if it’s because I am not Chinese enough for them, or simply because I don’t let them in.
I can sense the growing acceptance, too, as they realise I am not going to finish my shift with the mess I left behind last week, when I was a flailing and panicky wreck. There’s touches of kindness, like when a cook offered me chocolate from a box last week. It’s kindness, however, with a sense of sadness; the gesture felt like an unspoken apology.
Tonight though, one of the kitchen girls gave me a mandarin orange, and I was touched.
Before I know it, I’ve survived the busiest night of the week, and they are reminding me to finish up. My system worked.
Every night, the cooks whip up a round of dishes for the restaurant staff to sit together and eat for supper. It’s tradition, but I’m used to eating hurriedly or declining as I have to hurry and catch the last bus.
This time it’s as if they expected me to join them, like family.
I sit down at the round table, even though I’m anxious about missing the bus. Someone passes me a bowl of rice, and for once, as they chatter with each other in their language, I don’t feel as awkward as I once did. It doesn’t bring back bad memories of school and misplaced crushes and hurt.
It’s a tiny change, sitting at this table as if I am one of them. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t ease this loneliness, but at least tonight was different.
I take up my chopsticks, and pluck up something hot and juicy. The first bite is heaven.
NaNoWriMo Report Card
20811 / 50000 words. 42% done!