There is a lot of emphasis on learning through play here at Imua Family Services. I am a believer. But what about children and work?
I use to always say that my father invented “Chinese Child Labor.” He put me to work the moment I could do anything. When I started to walk he made me carry things, when I could talk I had to answer the phones in our restaurant and take Chinese food takeout orders. When I could write I had to help make menus. I swept and mopped floors and I scrubbed pots and pans.
Growing up in a Chinese Restaurant in China Town, it was all I knew growing up, hard work and the food business. I watched my father work night and day then day and night. He was up before dawn, prepping for the breakfast crowd, baking pies, prepping the dinner menu. He worked through lunch cooking every meal. I remember that he often took a break in the day between 2 and 4 pm, so that he could greet me coming home from school, we’d work on menus together as I had better English skills than he did. By 4pm he was back in the kitchen getting the dinner menu together. In Chinatown the restaurants were open late, often crowds coming in until midnight and sometimes later. My father cooked every meal and greeted guests at the table. At the end of the night he stayed after hours and counted money, paid bills and balanced the books. By 2 am he came upstairs to our apartment and went to sleep for 3 or 4 hours before repeating the routine.
So it was no shock that he put me to work as soon as he could. I never complained because the times I worked in the kitchen with my dad were the only times we could be together. He made all kinds of stools for me at various heights as I grew. Sometimes I stood on a milk crate, other times a step stool. I use to knead dough and then roll out dough for pies. One of my jobs each week was to make hundreds of egg rolls and wontons every day. The work in the kitchen came with stories both funny and scary. I can remember getting locked in our walk-in fridges because I wasn’t strong enough to open the doors to get out. One day I sat in a fridge shivering for over an hour, eating cheese until someone finally opened the door. Another time I opened an oven door and was engulfed in flames, my father acted quickly and carrying me to the sink. In those days butter was a burn victim’s cure. I remember I had no eyebrows for some time. When I was old enough to work it the “front of the house” I got to dress in long sleeve white shirts, black pants and vests. I finally got to help serve guests something I really loved doing.
When I look back at my most embarrassing memories as a child it was when my father would make me wear traditional Chinese costumes and walk in the parade to represent our restaurant. Call it what you want, it was work, I was doing PR for the business!
As much work as it sounds like I had to do as kid, it paled in comparison to how hard my father worked to make a life for us. So I never felt that I could complain or resist. My father only knew work, from when he arrived from China at age 11 he had to work to survive, to create a life for himself which did not come easy for a young immigrant. So I knew that no matter how hard I worked it was nothing compared to what he did to get us where we were. The question is, is this now even truer for my son? At what point should I introduce him to a life of hard work? Today people say if you really want something you have to work hard for it. But for my father, and for myself work was not for the “things you wanted” but for the ability to live and support yourself, your family and to create a better future.
I actually got paid for my responsibilities, from an early age. I received $1.00 for a job per week. A job was something you did every day. So for example if I made Wontons or Egg rolls each day for a week, on Saturday I would receive $1.00. If in addition I helped bake pies, knead dough and roll pastries throughout the week then on Saturday I earned $2.00. In this respect, my father had devised a system in which he never said no to me. If I wanted something, anything; a pair of jeans, a new toy, or a book, there was a very simple rule. I could have anything I wanted, if I could first come up with half the money. This remained true from the toys I wanted from very young to the day I wanted my first car. This taught me that if I really wanted something I first had to work hard, and that by doing so I could eventually accumulate enough. It also taught me to really put a priority on what I wanted. Maybe that Ghostbuster game wasn’t worth as much effort as the new pair of Guess Jeans?
I started introducing responsibility to Tino as he could begin to do things, whether it be to pick up his toys, put his blocks away, or put dishes in the sink. Now he is three, and he enjoys doing the dishes with me, and is always eager to help us clean up around the house amongst the occasional mixing of cookie dough. The trick is to make it fun, and he gets to exercise a variety of adaptive and motor skills at the same time. But at some point I will turn these into chores and responsibilities. My father had no training, books or help in being a parent – he had a hard work ethic and he passed that on to me. These days a hard work ethic can be confused with workaholic.
For me it’s not about the work or the actual chores, it’s more about starting and finishing a task. It’s about organizing your time and seeing things through. It’s about applying quality effort versus careless indifference. And, I think, if we do these things together it will help to build relationship, mentorship and communication as it certainly did with my father.