Monday 20 May 2024

Book Review: Takeaway: Stories From A Childhood Behind The Counter, Angela Hui

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Growing up in the small Welsh village of Beddau, Hui spent her evenings and weekends serving customers in the family Chinese takeaway, packing prawn crackers, and on ‘lid duty’. She struggles with the separation this causes between her and her school friends, never able to spend any significant time hanging out with them. It’s also difficult as a young woman being on the front line of customer service, having to deal with sometimes abusive customers and men making inappropriate comments. Family life is a constant slog and it puts a strain on all of them, her mother holding everything together while her father gambles away a lot of their earnings and becomes increasingly aggressive. Despite this, they make time to prepare wholesome meals to share as a family before service begins. 

For some readers it will seem that not a huge amount happens in this book. The repetitive nature of the endless labour is reflected in the narrative, and moments of climax often pass without too severe consequences. However, it is this repetition of labour, the growing up in an environment where you feel under attack from the local population, the endless casual racism which shape Hui during her formative years. She has no escape from it. There is very little time for rest in takeaway life. At weekends they sometimes go to Cardiff but this involves Chinese lessons, which she does not enjoy, going to wholesale food suppliers to purchase items for the business, and, the best part, family meal in a restaurant full of people they know. A wonderful social event where they can indulge in food they didn’t have to prepare themselves.

A recurring theme of the book is Hui’s feelings of disconnection. She doesn’t feel entirely at ease in China as she has spent her whole life in Wales, and yet in the Welsh Valley she is seen as foreign and is othered. She also struggles with the language barrier with her parents, who have tried to learn English but only have quite a basic grasp of it. This means that Hui and her brothers have to act as translators for them and take on more of the admin work than you would ordinarily expect from children. This puts a strain on the relationship as a sense of resentment grows, but also means that she feels she can’t talk to her parents about things that really matter to her. She continues to struggle with what she sees as the two separate parts of her life into young adulthood as she goes to University and leaves the family home. She tries desperately to keep different aspects of her life separate, especially when it comes to boyfriends, who she is convinced her parents won’t approve of for not being Chinese. It is cathartic for her to realise it’s OK to blur the lines and let people in to her whole world. 

The book is a thoughtful portrayal of the struggles of being a teenager and growing up in a world where there isn’t any separation between home life and work, but it is also an exploration of the work that goes in behind the scenes at a takeaway. We see throughout how relentless the work is, how it shapes their family life, and that on days where everyone else is relaxing and celebrating, they are working even harder. Customers can be lovely and become familiar, while others take any opportunity to complain and forget that the person behind the counter is trying their best and has feelings too. The descriptions of her feeling exposed to unpleasant customers, often making her uncomfortable as a young woman, are visceral, and are reminiscent of many experiences of working in customer service. Local youths frequently torment them, coming in with fake money, stealing plants from their back garden, and even breaking their window. Hui’s parents are reluctant to ever get the police involved and try to deal with situations themselves. Her mother is firm and will stand her ground when the customer is in the wrong. Her father on occasions oversteps the mark and threatens violence. Nonetheless, they feel vulnerable, and as technology changes and they don’t keep up it becomes increasingly difficult to turn a profit. 

I was quite shocked by the racism they experience, and Hui expresses how it wears you down. She is disappointed at her graduation that her name is mis-pronounced, and after a lifetime of being asked where she’s really from, having prank callers phone the takeaway regularly to mock her family’s country of origin, and people’s shock at her ability to speak the language of the country in which she was born, it is felt keenly. She also discusses the way the food they serve in their takeaway has been designed for a Western palate. Her parents don’t like them to eat what’s on the menu because it is unhealthy, and her father keeps his best dishes just for them. Food is a sign of love for her parents, and having suffered severe food shortages in their own youth they are determined that their children are well fed. 

An interesting read that combines a coming of age tale that many can relate to yet with specific challenges, and a broader discussion on the clash of cultures and the sense of being an outsider that is familiar to many who have chosen a new country to call home. Food is central to the text, with vividly described meals and even recipes at the end of each chapter. There are a few moments of (presumably) unintentional repetition where we are told the same snippets of anecdotes again, but broadly this is an enjoyable read.

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