The harsh truth about growing up on Chinese takeout

"Oh, thank you for the love. Here's £20, please keep the change," one customer said to me, handing me a clear note on the counter. "You are a good boy." I smiled my brightest smile and recited the lines my parents taught me: "Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy your meal and come again soon!" I am eight years old and have a strange bowl shape hairstyle, standing on a small blue folding stool in a Chinese takeaway in the South Wales Valleys. I trudged to the counter and handed over two white plastic bags of Chinese food and a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola. This taught me how to have better people skills and how to communicate with others in a calm, calm, collected manner.

I'm thirteen now, old enough to operate a deep fryer. I dropped the chicken meatballs into the hot oil bubbling underneath. The amber liquid sputtered out, and hot oil particles flew into the air, leaving a mark on my skin and just missing my eyes. This taught me how to face things bravely, stand firm and be fearless.

I came home from a day of university lectures and it was another busy Friday night service; orders were pouring in. Dad rocked his heavy wok back and forth over the roaring, flaming wok ring and used a spatula to scoop shredded, crispy beef into the silver container. Mom grabbed a plastic lid and pressed down on the four corners. I grabbed a white plastic bag hanging on the silver island and started packing it all up. My brother handed the order to the customer while my eldest brother brought more paper notes to start the whole process over again. We work against the clock on the production line, striving to fulfill a succession of orders. This taught me to value my colleagues and the importance and effectiveness of good teamwork.

Provided by Anqi Xu

Provided by Anqi Xu

These are all jobs done by delivery kids like me who live and work in the same building. We do it out of love and need, not because we want to. I never had a paper round, waitressing, or most coveted job in retail. I was always jealous of the cool kids who wore plaid shirts, spray-painted skinny black jeans, and ballerina heels to work, effortlessly maneuvering through the new Topshop in town. He held a coat hanger in one hand and answered calls from the store manager on a small radio hanging from his hip with the other. The girls at my school boasted about the perks too - 25% off everything - while I was left with bruises, curry paste on my overalls, and a free bag of prawn crackers ( if my parents were generous) .

I never considered our family business a "real" workplace, it was just home and that's what we did. To be honest, I have always thought that our Chinese takeout is inferior: not as formal as a chain restaurant, not as legal as a cafe; our store is a pokey project. I had cash on hand and never had a salary, let alone benefits. I never had a work email address, and we certainly didn't have any office parties. But here's the thing. We all put Chinese takeout before ourselves and our own needs. I look back on those memories (even the painful ones) with great nostalgia. There were times when I hated my upbringing, hated the family business, and hated the dynamic of living and working together, but looking back now, I realize it taught me some of the most valuable life lessons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning how to handle money and people, how to problem solve on the go, and how to stay two steps ahead while still being a team player. All the skills and experiences I will need and rely on in the future.

Provided by Anqi Xu

I'm just one of thousands of second-generation immigrant kids who grew up in the family food business. I can also easily recite the numbers of our most popular takeout items. I can still feel the gnarly gash on my thumb from pressing too much of the plastic lid on the silver container. I remember the pain of standing for 14 hours straight, my legs giving out. But the thing is, our first jobs, no matter how ridiculous they seem at the time, stay with us forever. My parents wanted us to know how hard it was to make money and that opportunities didn’t come easily for people like us. But the lessons I learned from takeout also shaped who I am today. I always felt like our store was a burden rather than a blessing, but now I see it the other way around. I wouldn't have it any other way.

"Takeaway: Childhood Stories Behind the Counter" by Angel Hsu Black Feminist Bookstore

Takeaway: Childhood Stories Behind the Counter by Angela Hui, published by Orion, is out now