Beyond Language

By Jailynne Estevez '21

 Pakora, Image from Manjula's Kitchen. 

Pakora, Image from Manjula's Kitchen. 

My shifts start at 11 am but I always strive to get there at 10:45 am. It gives me enough time to count the soup containers, lids, take-out plates, garnishes, refill the sauces, and the mini to-go sauce containers. It’s a system. I tell myself if I am prepared now I will be prepared for the lunch rush. The job isn't hard; it’s more of once you get the hang of things it becomes second nature. I’m putting my headphones back in my bag as I walk in at the same time as the Chinese chef; he smiles, gives me a nod and heads in.

I put my bag on one of the black booths. The restaurant always seems bigger when no one is there. It’s a small local place where you learn the faces of the regulars fast. You come to know an order of small egg drop soup with extra fried noodles, and never to forget the napkin and plastic spoon by heart. The menu, however, is extensive, ranging from the Chinese menu to the Indian menu––an “interesting” fusion whenever I tell others where I work. The best part isn’t just the food, though; it is the tight-knit community borne out of working there during my summer and winter breaks. I always left the restaurant with a community of individuals who became interested in what I was doing in my life and their sincere pride for what I was aiming to do to get a higher education. They always told me, “Really good, school is really good!” They were more than just coworkers; they are more than just coworkers.

The restaurant’s kitchen is small and divided between an Indian chef, a Chinese chef and one person prepping food and washing dishes. The front of the house spends their time collecting the dishes and preparing for orders. On days when I work double shifts, I stay in the restaurant. I continue to do my side jobs to prepare for the dinner shift. The Indian chef who stays with me pulls up a chair to the booth which he uses to take a nap in between shifts. He sees me go back to the kitchen. I come out to make sure the open sign is off. He tells me to rest. I tell him it’s okay, that I’m not tired yet. He proceeds to extend his legs onto the chair and close his eyes. When the dinner shift starts, he is quick to ask me if I’m hungry and if I would like anything to eat before it gets too busy. I take him up on his offer, always happy to ask for some pakoras––my favorite. He smiles and nods. When he hands me the plate I thank him. He has repeatedly told me of the importance of school, and he tells me of his children, now adults, working in the banking world. He is happy and proud. He’s always making jokes and has told me his aim in them is to make a “happy kitchen.” It was in these tiny details that a care for one another cultivated. You come to care for one another, know when they're overwhelmed on busy days, or craving more orders to get their hands moving.

The curious thing about these interactions is they’re all done with the few words of English my coworkers know. Although language is a main form of communication, small acts of nodding heads for a greeting, or helping to get lid containers too high to reach, can go further in cultivating a friendship. In this small restaurant, friendships have grown from these small acts. Language here seems to be more of an accessory in that care and comfortability are beyond what any language can do.