How the gift of education can transform the life of a young girl working in a restaurant

Kelly Yang says witnessing a little girl helping out in a noodle shop reminded her of her own start in life, and the value of a good education

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 December, 2015, 4:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 December, 2015, 4:04pm

For the past 10 weeks or so, I’ve been eating a bowl of noodles every Saturday lunch at a cheap noodle place near my office. Every time I go, I see a little girl behind the counter washing glasses and making drinks. She’s about 10. It’s hard work – the place is packed. Yet, every time I see her, she is bouncing around the kitchen with a smile on her face. She seems proud of the work she’s doing.

Recently, I worked up the courage to talk to her. I said “hello” and we started chatting in Putonghua. She told me she was the daughter of one of the waitresses. I asked her if working in a restaurant all day was hard. She said it was; Saturdays are busy, and sometimes it’s a lot of work, but she doesn’t mind.

I was blessed to have good teachers even in terribly underfunded American public schools

She asked me why I always ate my noodles so quickly. That’s when I gave her my business card. I told her my office was close by, that we’re a leading learning centre in Hong Kong. “I know you have a job and everything,” I said, “But if you ever want to take a break from your job and pop over to take a Chinese class or something on a Saturday, come on over.”

“You wouldn’t have to pay,” I added. “It would be on the house.”

Her eyes widened as she took my card and my words registered and she dashed off to tell her mum. Walking out of the restaurant, I was never more grateful or happy. You see, it wasn’t totally random that I went up to the little girl; she reminds me of myself. When I was a little girl, about seven or eight, I, too, worked in a restaurant with my mum.

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We had just got to the US and life was very hard. One day, my mum got a job as a waitress at a restaurant. But there was just one problem: there was nobody to look after me. As a last resort, my mum asked the restaurant boss whether she could take me with her. He said the idea of having a seven-year-old in the kitchen was preposterous. But my mum pleaded with him and he reluctantly agreed, on one condition: I make myself useful. That’s how I got my first job, working as a tiny waitress.

So much has changed since then. I was blessed to have good teachers even in terribly underfunded American public schools. No matter how bad the school, though, I always managed to find one good teacher. And, sometimes, that’s all you need to change your life – one good teacher. Which is why I jumped at the chance to teach the little girl in the restaurant. To be able to come full circle, from a little girl working in a restaurant, wondering if she will ever get a better life, to being able to give another little girl working in a restaurant a chance to realise her dreams, that’s a beautiful thing.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.