Updated: Feb 24
I have a scar on my forearm close to my elbow. It has faded over the last 24 years. You can barely see it, but it carries a sweet memory.
Chinatown, New York. Summer of 1994.
After paying a 100-dollar bill to the work introduction agency, I got a piece of paper and a handwritten telephone phone number handed to me through the barred window. The face behind the window was somewhat indifferent. But I was excited. Finally, I was in the Big Apple, a city that I only read about in magazines in China.
This paper gave me three opportunities to be hired in a restaurant. On the first job, I found myself, a native-born Chinese not understanding any of the names of the Chinese dishes yelled out from the other end of the telephone line. “Wow, the New Yorkers speak so much faster than people in Illinois! Everyone is in a hurry?” That was the only thought that I could get out before the very pregnant boss lady gave me $5 and sent me out the door. I had lasted five minutes. The Big Apple wasn’t very sweet on our first date. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and defeated.
By the time I got to the Happy Restaurant, I had already been fired twice. I don’t remember the actual name of the restaurant. When I think about it now, the feeling comes up as happiness. So let’s just call it Happy Restaurant. The second job had lasted about an hour and a half. So I was making progress and hoping the third time would be the charm.
If I fail the third job, I would have to pay another $100, which I didn’t have. Though raised as an atheist, I was hopefully sending prayers out. “I really, really need this job. Whoever is up there and listening, please, please help me.” And somehow, my prayer was answered. I spent the next three months working at Happy Restaurant, an Italian restaurant owned by a Hongkongese man. I learned how to deep fry chicken wings to perfection, tender and juicy. I learned all the tricks and got faster and faster.
In the kitchen, there were metal nails on a wood beam where white slips of orders would hang under. Orders were taken on carbonless copy paper, a kind of paper that transfers writing from the top green-colored paper to the bottom white-colored paper. After writing down an order, I quickly walked to the kitchen, tore out the white copy from the bottom, and stuck it on the nail. The assistant cook on the other side would rip it off to read the order and cook the meal.
Every day before opening, I would take a deep breath and embrace myself for battle. There were three guys in the back, a cook and two assistants. None of them spoke English. I was the only one out in front to face the customers.
“I can’t make any mistakes on these orders,” I told myself. “It would mess everyone’s job up in the back.” They relied on me!
There were walk-in customers. Customers on the phone. Customers coming to pick up orders. The rush hour usually lasts about two hours.
One day when I was in the battle zone, I was leaving an order on the nail and pulled back too fast. My right forearm caught on the nail and instantly started to bleed.
"Ouch!" I yelped, but I didn’t have time to feel the pain, the customers were waiting. I quickly assessed the damage. Not a deep cut. Good. I grabbed a napkin and pressed it on the wound, just long enough for the blood to be blotted away. And I went right back to the front.
After the rush hour and all the customers were gone, the kitchen staff in the back helped me dress the wound. They told me to be extra careful after that.
Though coming from different parts of China and of different ages, we became teammates. Me, the cook and his assistants. We were a team.
The restaurant opened at 11 am and we would get there two hours prior to get the place ready. We turn the neon sign off at 10 pm and go home shortly after that. The next morning, the same routine starts all over again. I worked there six days a week for three months.
I only had one goal during those days and I achieved it. That summer, two of us combined, Samuel and I, were able to make just enough money for his graduate school tuition for the upcoming year. That was a bloody victory!
So it was not a deep cut, but it left a two-inch-long light-colored scar. Maybe just a souvenir for those simple and beautiful days at the restaurant. Those days were happy as they afforded me an opportunity to make a living. Scars can be gifts by reminding us of memories that have helped create who we are.
We all carry scars. Some are physical, some are emotional, some are psychological. They are signs that we have lived. Some scars are new and some are old. Some are inflated by others while some are caused by ourselves.
Samuel has a different scar, a gift from New York as well.
We rented a room in a two-bedroom townhouse in Flushing, New York. Summer of 1994.
The room was about 10 x 10 feet small. We had a bed and a small desk against it with one lamp for lighting.
One night, I was dozing off after a long day at the restaurant. Usually, Samuel arrived home about 30 minutes later than me. But he didn’t come home at the regular hour that night.
I didn't know what time he came home. When the door opened, I semi-woke up from the noise and asked him if everything was okay. He said yes. So I went back to sleep. The next morning I opened my eyes to find him lying next to me, his shirt was covered in blood. His head was bandaged with red soaking through the white cloth.
A scream escaped my throat.
He woke up, instinctively putting his hand on his head.
Seeing that he was awake, I immediately asked, “Are you ok?”
“Yes. We were robbed last night. Two young kids in black masks jumped over the counter and hit me on the head. They had a gun.”
I covered my mouth with my hand. Holding my breath. “How did it happen?”
“I saw a shadow in front of me when I looked up, a person was flying towards me like in the movies. Before I could do anything, I was hit on the head and fell to the ground.”
“Then what did you do?
“Nothing, I laid on the ground pretending to be dead.”
I don’t know why, but I was so happy to hear he did nothing instead of being the hero trying to take over the gun. Not every Chinese guy is Bruce Lee.
The rest of the story was just as dramatic. The two young robbers forced the cook and the rest of the staff into the big ice room and locked the door, then fled with the money. The boss thankfully had a big ax –from prior experience– prepared inside the ice room by the door. So when the coast was clear, they broke the door down and called 9-1-1. Samuel was the only one that was injured and had to be sent to the hospital. Unfortunately, his boss had to close down the restaurant.
So Samuel was left with a scar on his head and also jobless. It took him a month to find another one, still in the same dangerous part of town.
22 years later, we took the kids to New York.
We chose a Chinese restaurant in Flushing. Watching the hustle and bustle of this restaurant, I can’t help but wonder what is the meaning of life?
Is it to enjoy life to the fullest? Our scars remind us of events in the past that helped define our future. Each one carries a story, a lesson and a choice. Every day above ground is a good day, a day worth living.
Even writing about our scars this morning gave me joy, appreciation, and gratitude for this magnificent opportunity to live in this free country.
In 2002, I became an American citizen. I believe in this country. United we stand.
Our country has scars. Scars of slavery. Scars of injustice. These scars are reminders of how much we have overcome. The tremendous progress we have made along the way. And yet they are also a symbol of how much we can grow. How much we can improve and learn from each other to keep creating new stories, make better choices, and more beautiful scars.
Scars are gifts. Our scars are part of our life's journey. Life has no meaning except the meaning that we give it. Life is a gift and so are our scars.
What do your scars mean to you?