THREE WEEKS LATER Howard hired another busboy and promoted Nan to the chef ‘s assistant, because the former kitchen aide had left for Miami to marry a Cuban Chinese woman. Nan got a one-dollar raise too. Chef Zhang needed a lot of help, and Nan ‘s job was mainly to cut meats and vegetables, fry chicken cubes, and wrap dumplings. Nan watched carefully how the chef cooked. Zhang told him to memorize the entire menu and the ingredients of every dish, so that Nan could assemble all the things needed for each order in a bowl or a plate or a Styrofoam container before the chef cooked it. On occasion Zhang would let Nan make fried rice or noodle soup while he stood by to supervise. He also taught Nan how to concoct various sauces. When it wasn’t busy, Nan would go upstairs to chat with the waitstaff. Chef Zhang, always cooped up in the basement, told Nan not to “gab too much with those bitches up there.”
The waitstaff disliked the chef, partly because they made money in different ways. The chef was paid by the hour and so were Nan and Chinchin, but the waiter and waitresses depended mainly on tips. When business was good, both the boss and the waitstaff would get excited, whereas the chef would become grouchy, having to cook without respite. Old Zhang often struck his legs with his fists to help the blood circulate. He revealed to Nan that he suffered from piles because for many years he had stood for more than ten hours a day in the kitchen. Whenever the work turned hectic, his pain and itch would grow more intense, insufferable. He said to Nan, “Lots of people in this business have this problem with their asses. Be careful-don’t end up like me.”
At last Nan understood why there were advertisements for treating hemorrhoids everywhere in Chinatown. No matter how tired he was, he’d take a shower before going to bed. Also, at night he’d place his pillow under his feet instead of his head to prevent his legs from developing varicose veins, which were also a professional hazard as a consequence of standing for long hours. He wasn’t interested in managing one of Howard’s dumpling houses, but he was eager to learn how to cook. Neither did he feel he could be a good waiter, who would have to carry a loaded tray on his shoulder steadily while climbing up the narrow stairs. Worse yet, a waiter had to put on a smile in front of customers, some of whom were nasty and wouldn’t leave tips on the grounds that the service wasn’t good enough. So Nan felt that by nature he belonged in the kitchen, where he wouldn’t have to face any customers. Chef Zhang seemed fond of Nan and taught him how to cook and how to make dumpling stuffings whenever it wasn’t busy. He often said, “You’re lucky, Nan. When I started, I was not allowed to touch the rim of the wok during the first year.”
Nan had heard a lot of stories about the difficulties in finding a job at a Chinese restaurant in New York. The waitresses told him that if you were unable to speak Cantonese, most places wouldn’t hire you. Ding’s Dumplings was one of the few restaurants in Chinatown where the owners didn’t know Cantonese. Heng said he had once worked at a place where all the waiters had had to wear a short bow tie, which made him miserable, unable to breathe freely. Chinchin, the hostess, had worked in other restaurants before and also talked about how the Chinese waitstaff were exploited and humiliated by their bosses, and even mistreated by barkeeps, most of whom were Caucasians. In contrast, Howard was by far a better boss, who wouldn’t dock your pay if you came to work an hour late because of an emergency. Nan felt lucky he had this job.