I like small restaurants.
I like the kind of small restaurant that has bottles of Sriracha or Tapatio sitting on plastic-covered Formica tables. The kind that have plastic or metal chairs that screech loudly when you pull them out so that everyone knows that you’re there. I like listening to servers, bussers, kitchen staff, owners calling out to each other in Spanish, English, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mandarin, Thai while pots clang and water sizzles into steam.
I like these restaurants where servers with skin closer to mine look out at me from eyes, brown, like mine.
I go to other restaurants with my dad, my mom, her friends. They are white. The staff smiles, asks questions, makes suggestions, gives us more time. We almost never have empty drinks. Managers walk by, ask us how we are, how’s the food, everything good? Good. Big smile. Clasp hands. Walk away. Our plates are cleared soon after we are done. Y’all save room for dessert? We have an amazing apple pie/chocolate cake/lemon tart. Our check comes quickly, is quickly returned with a warm smile from the server. Bussers stand to the side so we can pass as we leave. What a good meal.
I go to these other restaurants, these other, small, U.S. American restaurants with their crisp, white napkins and their big, white, ceramic plates with my significant other, a Hapa man who is often asked, What are you? Oh! Mexican! Filipino! Native? I thought he was just a white guy who dyed his hair…
And, even though I’m lighter than he is, my so-called monolid eyes, the caramel tint in my skin reinforce our otherness. So that when he and I go to the same restaurants I’ve gone to with my parents we stand in doorways awkwardly until a white couple comes and stands near us and the host finally arrives and turns to the white couple to ask, “For two?” So that we suffer the indignity of being invisible unless the white couple turns toward us and says, “I think they were first.”
[This is a true story, recently when he and I were out, a white couple had to tell the host/bartender that my significant other and I were first three times before the man turned and saw us. He even said he did not see us, as if this somehow made it better.]
Other times we go out to the same restaurants I’ve visited with my mom and her friends and a wait staff that was friendly and attentive has suddenly become cold. Managers stop at every table that houses a white patron to ask how the food is until they reach our table where there is suddenly something that needs attention—something that is of more import.
I feel cheated.
Because my family is white I know what my significant other and I are missing. We are missing the air of authority and congeniality that comes with the cloak of whiteness. I recognize that we are young, and that servers may believe that we will not tip well, but this cannot account for the consistent, vast differences in service I receive when I am with my white parents or with my Hapa partner.
It makes me sick when I realize what is going on—so sick that the half-eaten sandwich that had tasted so good sits in a plastic container in the fridge for three days before I throw it out because I don’t even want to look at it.
And, I realize—realize that adults and children are going hungry and starving here. Realize that it is a luxury to go out and pay someone to make me food, to sustain me. I realize that there is a hierarchy in most restaurant kitchens that is built on the underpaid, demeaning, intense labor supplied by bussers and dishwashers who are usually poor or working class men of color.
I also realize that when I go out with my light brown-skinned, black-haired, Hapa significant other, we are treated as less than by establishments that fall all over themselves for my white parents or peers.
That is why I like going to small restaurants, where on each table sit small pots that contain three different kinds of hot sauces, or tables that are glass-topped so that they can be squeeged cleaned, where servers, bussers, kitchen staff, owners look into my eyes and can see that part of me that feels like I’m home.