I should have remembered word travels fast.
The only person I’d told was the restaurant manager. But it didn’t take long for the kitchen staff to wander in my direction while I hovered somewhat uncomfortably over the too-low sink, my hands flying over dishes that hectic Saturday night. My last night there, for a while.
It started with: “Would you like this pancake?” one of the girls asked me in Mandarin, by the grilling stove. “I’m afraid it’s a little burned but it should still be good.”
I smiled. I’d love to have it. This was the same girl who’s passed me a mandarin orange and once a Hershey chocolate – both welcome little surprises in the midst of intense dishwashing.
Then one of the cooks passed by my sink and chirped, “So where are you going?”
I said I had a temporary Christmas job at this supermarket. When I told them the name, they said, “Wah! Can I still apply?”
“Any more jobs for me?”
“I should apply!” one of the newer cooks said, a lanky handsome bloke peering in on the chicken in the deep fryer.
“That place has long hours, you know!” the girl at the grilling stove agreed.
Lanky sighed, stirring the chicken. “Ahhh, all I know is cooking anyway.”
I’m used to being in my own little world when I do the dishwashing. While my mind passes the time lately by replaying Skyrim theme music over and over, I’d be conscious of the cooks bustling around the kitchen and bantering with each other in Cantonese.
During less hectic moments, more than one would always burst into song. I can never understand the words, but I could tell by the way the boys poured emotion into the soft, wistful words that it would be something about love, about finding that Someone to end their loneliness. The best Chinese ballads usually are.
Then when I had about an hour to go on my shift, one of them again wanders in on me. Alan is a longtime restaurant staffer who usually does waiter duties. When the orders come flying in however, he’s been known to step into the kitchen and whip up a mean stirfry. He’s also cocky and cheeky, and I’ve learnt to take everything he says with a pinch of salt.
Two weeks ago, he must have seen how much I was struggling with the dishes, back when I had yet to develop a system for doing it efficiently. He’d said in English, “Aiyah, come! I help you! Very easy! Very fast!” And he proceeded to demolish the mountain of dishes while I watched…and learned.
That night when I was about to leave, Alan had said, “Hey! You owe me ten pounds! I helped you!”
“I’ll give you a foot massage later!” I’d retorted, playing along with the jest to the amusement of the kitchen staff.
But the next week I baked brownies for Alan and other restaurant people, as thanks and also to spread some goodwill among the staff. The manager – who’s worked in an Italian restaurant and baked cakes for them before – paid me the highest compliment when he said the brownies were beautiful and evenly cooked.
Alan, however, said: “Your cake, ah, not good! Not enough chocolate! Put milk in next time. You still owe me ten pound, ah, I help you!”
“He’s just joking,” the manager told me later. I nodded. It’s how Alan is. Alan, in my mind at least, exemplifies what many Cantonese are like – rough and gruff but actually possessing deep layers of kindness inside.
Last night, Alan again said, “Come, I help you!”
I didn’t really have many dishes left to wash, but I let him anyway. He did the soaping while I rinsed and put away the drying plates. And he fell to talking. Boy, could he talk, jabbering in an amusing spatter of English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Malay.
“My Malay not very good, let’s practise!” said the boy from Seremban, Malaysia. I wandered away to put away the dishes and came back to find him reenacting how he might order something in a typical Malaysian coffee shop. It translates to something like: “Hello, I’d like to order your roti canai, kopi ping and–what’s chicken wings again? Can you give me discount? Thank you, good bye…”
“You are very funny,” I said in English.
“I not funny, but I’m funny! You know what I mean?”
“That you’re kay poh chee?” I deadpanned. I don’t think he heard me calling him a busybody.
Then for some reason we got to talking about his time in school, which made me realise that I knew very little about him or even what age he was. He looked like a teenager but acted like a world-weary veteran of the restaurant scene.
“My Malay teacher, ah, I ask him if I can pass this test. He say, Caaaaan! I can pass with flying colours! Flying colours all red down the paper! Then when exam time came, I got 100 percent mark. You know what I do? When I pass up the papers, I put ten ringgit money there for the teacher, all pass!”
Then he started giggling and chatting with the other cooks in Cantonese, saying certain choice (and I suspect raunchy) words that made one nearby waitress – who was from China – blink and quickly tell me in English, “You don’t need to know what he said!”
Alan, back to me while he heaped in another pile of dishes, “In my school, there was one Indian girl. She, ah, the most beautiful girl in class! Everything she do, she do better than me. I get B, she get A. I get A, she get A plus! My school got a tennis team and we only need her, one!”
My leaving was with relatively little fanfare. The kitchen staff had whipped up some “really nice” dishes for supper, said the restaurant manager, which I suspected was because of me. However because I was given some extra greasy grilles to wash, I didn’t have time to sit down at the table with them. They made sure however to pack me a takeaway before I had to rush for the bus.
“Keep in touch,” the manager said to me. “Just give us a call if you want to come back.”
43000 / 50000 words. 86% done!
To recap: my mission this month of November – to do NaNoWriMo novel by day, my other Malaysian novel by night, and blog about something vaguely interesting every day of November.