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typing the menu :: nellie wong

by on June 21, 2016

Not a day goes by
when Ma, in her blue waitress uniform,
stops me reading The Oakland Tribune
to dictate, precisely at 3:30 P.M.,
the next day’s menu.

All right, Ma says, in English,
tomorrow we’ll serve
Baked Spaghetti
Beef Stew with Potatoes and Carrots
Fried Breast of Lamb and
Boiled Ox Tongue with Spanish Sauce.

My mouth waters
as she decides the next day’s specials.
Ma doesn’t need to say
Breaded Veal Cutlets
Fried Oysters or
Prime Rib of Beef
because these are always
on the menu every day.

Though I can write in shorthand,
I scribble the specials in long hand
and step down into Bah Bah’s office
and insert a a piece of paper
into the old Royal typewriter.
I type tomorrow’s menu
watching the purple letters spring up
like soldiers marching in union
filling up the sheet, such plums and grapes
for our daily lives.

I proofread carefully,
the typed menu, making sure
I typed the correct specials
that Ma dictated,
making sure that each item
was spelled correctly
just from memory
because Spell Check
was a futuristic ploy.

With the labor of my fingers,
my back, my eyes
staring at the list of items
that ranged from Halibut Steak
for 50 cents to
Prime Rib of Beef
for 95 cents
knowing that my fingers
helped to support the family,
my secretarial skills a blip
of the family business
known as The Great China Restaurant
Ai Joong Wah
at 723 Webster Street
in Chinatown, Oakland, California.

When my sisters and I labored
without wage
but survived with tips
and ngow ngiook fahn
Beef over Rice
served us by Bock Gung
the head cook
when Ma and Bah Bah
weren’t looking.

When World War II filled
The Great China with customers
Pinky of Milen’s Jewlers
Mr. Carlson of Carlson’s Confectionery
Johnny, the boxer, and his girlfriend Lucille
with her ruby red lips and white teeth
Thlon doy
single men
families
pensioners
workers from gas stations,
the parachute factory
and herb and poultry stores,
tenants from The Aloha Hotel,
gypsies with their love
for bowls of steamed rice overflowing
with gravy.

Typing the menu
a job I didn’t apply for
but became mine
in between making coffee,
milkshakes and lettuce and tomato salads,
anxious for tips that filled
the glasses kept beneath
the formica counter,
understanding, even then,
that money grew not on trees,
but through our labor
typing the menu
drying silverware
stringing string beans
refilling granulated sugar jars
washing the coffee urn on tip toes
sweeping
mopping
Bah Bah inventorying and planning
the next day’s supplies
vegetable oil
flour
50 pound sacks of long grain rice
Flank steak, pork butt,
Jello.

The Great China,
our second home,
sandwiched between
regular school and Chinese school,
our days of wonder,
questions,
fatigue,
anticipation and
simmering American dreams.

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