The sound of the telephone echoes through the restaurant; I reluctantly drop my book and run to answer the phone. “Ting-Jiang, may I help you?” I say in a happy, bright tone. With an answer of “yes” on the other end, I lean over the pile of menus in front of me and begin to take another order. No matter how I felt a moment earlier, once I pick up the phone, I become the happy waiter. This small take-out restaurant, in Connecticut, is the place of my home and my past in America. It was the second building my sister and I visited after we immigrated to this new country. Two month after moving to America, I began working in this Chinese restaurant with my parents. I was only in fifth grade and knew just enough English words to serve my customers. Because my parents own the restaurant, my family spends more time in this little restaurant than in any other place in the world. My father, the chef; my mom, co-chef; my sister, helps around the restaurant; and I, the waiter; are the only four workers in this only Chinese restaurant of the town. My little brother just runs around in this playground of his and adds noise to the clatter of cooking, washing, and chopping. Ting-Jiang has become the beginning of another chapter in our family history.
My parents bought the restaurant from a Cantonese owner. The Oriental Bistro, a sit-down Chinese restaurant, had opened. The restaurant before the Oriental Bistro was called the French Bistro, owned by a French family for a year. My parents renamed the place the Ting-Jiang and changed it into a take-out restaurant. They also changed the old Americanized Cantonese food to more modern Chinese food. The Oriental Bistro looked nothing like the restaurant I know today. The soft carpets, that covered the entire floor, are now replaced by the jade linoleum tiles. The long mirror on the right side of the restaurant, where many customers and I often check our appearance, was installed by my father. The original ten white cloth covered formal tables are now reduced to only five booths. The wall that separates the kitchen from the rest of the restaurant was expanded three times by my father himself. The mini-bar that had increased the restaurant business for the Cantonese owner is now replaced by a large L-shaped counter, which I often stand on to answer the phone and operate the cash register. My parents placed a 24-gallon fish tank on the right end of the counter as a symbol of prosperity. Fish became our family’s only pet. The following year, my dad replaced the three dim antique lights with white fluorescent lights to save electricity. This past year, because of declining numbers of customers eating in the restaurant, and because of the increasing homework of my sister and brother, my father built a wall dividing the large sitting room into two rooms to create a study area for us. This study area, which now became our living room, is crowded with three computers, two office desks, an old sewing machine, and a large table that we eat our meals at. Frequently, my parents would get so angry at us for spending too much time in that room instead of helping them in the restaurant, that they would warn us they will one day take down the wall. The original large sitting room, where I had the only two birthday parties of my life, is now reduced to a much smaller room with only three booths.
From a dark, formal Chinese restaurant, Ting-Jiang has become a small, bright, take-out restaurant. Living there is an experience that I shall never forget. Our apartment has no meaning to us but as a place to sleep in. We not only work in the restaurant, but also eat there, meet our friends there, and play there. Instead of anonymous customers coming to eat food, most of our visitors are now like friends that come for a visit. Yet for those unfamiliar customers, we often have to wear a happy mask and become another person. Thus, the ringing of the telephone and the bang from the front door has sometimes become an annoyance. Not only must I stop everything I am doing, I also have to hide my feelings and prepare to serve the customers. On the other hand, this little difficulty is nothing compared to my parents’ work, working in the restaurant for seven days a week, twelve hours a day. To my parents, Ting-Jiang has become both their home and their prison because of the long hours.
Nevertheless, Ting-Jiang is our second home after the one my family left behind in China. When people ask for our mailing address or where we live, we give them our restaurant address. When they ask us for our phone number, we give them the one in our restaurant. On important holidays such as Christmas or Chinese New Year, we will decorate our restaurant with either Santa Claus or red dragons. To my entire family, Ting-Jiang is not only the place we are fond of and at the same time dislike, but it is also the foundation of our livelihood in this new land, America.