Life From The Other Side Of The Counter

When I was growing up, I learned to be skeptical of certain minority workers through observing my own family, friends and other people in my predominately white, suburban town. Migrant workers make up a good chunk of Long Island’s economy. I remember watching documentaries in high school about Long Island’s growing population of immigrants and dependence on immigrant labor.

The general attitude towards migrant workers was not good growing up. It seems like that was and still is the general attitude towards them across the nation. I also don’t really think it mattered whether you were actually an undocumented worker or not. If you had an accent, if you didn’t speak english, if your overall presence seemed to clash with the broader culture, you were subject to skepticism and distrust. I’ve seen it played out over and over again.

It’s a job that isn’t acceptable in society’s eyes I got my current job at a hospital cafe because my neighbor’s family basically runs that catering company. It’s something to do while I’m figuring out my life and job hunting. At the hospital, most of the people I work with speak Spanish as their first language.

for a person with a college degree. Like I said, I took the job just to have a paycheck while I’m figuring stuff out. As a result, I went into this job not planning to get very invested since I was (and still) probably not going to be there for a very long time.

My co-workers have been there for years. They come from El Salvador, Honduras, and Santa Domingo. It’s a tough job to do honestly. I have to be honest, I think the only reason I can perform well at this job is because I know I’m only doing it for a little while so it gives me a little extra room to be gracious with the repeatedly difficult and abrasive customers. (Disclaimer: I am not making any comments about the citizenship of my co-workers.)

I’ve noticed that some of the customers look to me to be the person who will get the job right. When there’s a minor communication issue with the other staff, they start to stare at me and call me over to “rectify” the situation. I’ve been in situations where I basically just redid the exact same thing a co-worker did just because the customer didn’t trust the spanish speaker. A few weeks ago, to make matters worse, a white co-worker (she’s fired now) used to tell the customers horrible stories about the hispanic staff. As a newbie, I wasn’t sure what to believe but I didn’t buy her stories. To my disappointment, too many respectable doctors and nurses took her word for it. It was all too easy for them to believe the worst about these strangers behind the counter. They treated them accordingly.

I’ve discovered in myself the same illogical thought process and unfounded prejudice. To be fair, most of it is just a thought in the back of my mind probably because of my environment growing up. But here is life from the other side of the counter:

Everyone is “mi amor” and “my friend”. It’s loud and crazy all the time. But there’s a lot of love. All the time.

Entering the workplace and leaving the workplace is always an event because everyone needs to be given a hug and kiss on the cheek. And they never just walk out. They have to ask me every day, “I see you tomorrow? Yes?”

It’s a lot of feeding each other. Not just food from the cafe but bringing all sorts of foods from home and sharing what they’ve made.

It’s making sure we are taken care of. It’s covering for each other. It’s making sure our sick co-worker (cancer) eats often enough and takes it easy because she needs her strength. It’s bringing her food and orange juice every now and then because she forgets to take care of herself.

It’s being called “mami” and not realizing they’re trying to get your attention till the fifth “MAMACITA”. It’s knowing you’re “chinita” but not understanding what they’re saying to each other about you. But it’s knowing that they’re saying nothing bad because they love you so much already.

It’s orange slices drenched in hot sauce and sprinkled with salt that you force yourself to swallow because they’re trying to convince you that it will make your stomach “muy contento”, even though it never does and makes your stomach ache but it’s okay because they seem really happy just to share a plate of food with you.

It’s them trying to pronounce “chicken souvlaki” and “tzatziki sauce” and getting it wrong every time and laughing about it together.

It’s long hours. It’s 11-15 hour work days running from job to job to provide for your family. It’s tired feet and achy backs. It’s working your ass off and getting treated like garbage. It’s a community of people all trying to get by, and pulling each other through on days when we just don’t have it in us.

Standing on the other side of the counter, I’m humbled. Finding a community of people I’d grow to genuinely love and be loved by was not something I expected entering into this job. The whole experience convicts me on the way I see people and the way I see work. They make me slow down. They wrestle my attention away from the “what’s next” to the life-things that are happening right now.

I think my mental posture a month ago sort of reflects that of the Israelites in exile. They’re on unfamiliar territory. Things are different from what they knew and what they were comfortable with. They weren’t where they believed they belonged so they were unattached and uninvested in their environment. They were in limbo. But in Jeremiah 29, God says to them,

5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

What I see God saying to them is, “get invested”. I think I identify with this because post-grad life, job hunting, and the general trying to figure out life feels a lot like exile. It’s post-grad limbo. I know I’m headed to something but I don’t know what. So in my anticipation of this somewhere else, I miss out on all that is right in front of me.

It’s about establishing yourself where you are even if it’s not the final destination. It’s about diving into all that God has for you wherever you are. It’s less about getting to that place you think you should be so that you become the person you think you should be, and being the person God has already called you to be right here, right now.

It’s about letting people get tangled up into your life. It’s erasing the line between “us” and “them”. It’s letting an obscure group of people become real to you. Eating what they eat. Becoming like family. Seeking their prosperity because your own is divinely entangled with theirs. It’s realizing that the people on the other side of the counter deserve to be treated with dignity despite what you’ve grown up to believe.

It’s letting the job become something more than just a paycheck while you’re figuring out the rest of your life. It’s letting the job become part of your figuring-it-all out.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jer. 29:11

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By the way, I’ve officially moved my blog to wordpress. I will link updates to new posts every now and then here but I would love to continue to have your readership and feedback at vickwong.wordpress.com

21.02.13
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