By Alice Tran
Society has a weird habit of defining people by their occupations and then treating them accordingly.
I have been working in the restaurant industry as a Server for 8 years now (personally, I like to call myself a “Server” instead of “Waiter/Waitress” because it’s gender neutral and it sounds more professional to me, but everyone in this industry has their own valid preferences, and to keep things simple here, I’m going to use the term “Server”). I started when I was 18, a young and naive freshman in college who, for some reason, was curious about working as a Server. I was also extremely shy, so I wanted to practice speaking to strangers, and I thought that pushing myself to become a Server would help with that (it did). I didn’t think I would continue to be a Server to this day, but I have learned a lot throughout my journey.
As I get older, I do wonder how long I am going to keep this up. I don’t think I want to be a Server when I’m 30, but I also didn’t think I’d be a Server at 25, and well, here we are—I’m 26 now and just starting at another Japanese ramen restaurant. To be clear: I don’t think there is anything wrong with being a Server, and I hate that there is a stigma attached to it. For a while, I felt shame and embarrassment when telling people that I work in a restaurant, especially when they knew my age and that I have a bachelor’s degree in the arts. For some reason, when you have an art degree, there are times it feels like people’s expectations of you are much higher because it’s such a huge risk to pursue that path, and when you don’t do something with your degree, it’s especially disappointing. Also, as a second-generation Asian American, spending a ton of money on an art degree and then ending up at a restaurant after graduating is particularly unfathomable.
Asian families tend to place high value on education and practical careers. I am fortunate that when I made the decision to pursue a degree in film, my family didn’t try to stop me. I am fortunate that they didn’t push the idea of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer on me. But most importantly, I am fortunate that my family even made it to the United States of America in the first place so that I could have the privilege of choice. They came here as refugees from Vietnam with the simple belief that life would be better for not only them, but for their children and future grandchildren. My heart is eternally filled with gratitude for that. But it’s been 5 years since I graduated from college, and I am nowhere near seeing my name in the credits of a movie. In fact, I have realized that I am probably not going to become a screenwriter anytime soon because at this moment, I don’t think I have the passion for it the way most people who go into this industry do. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy what I learned at school or any of the projects that I have worked on. I am very grateful for my education and the opportunities that I have had. There is definitely still a chance that I will return to this path in the future. But right now, I want to explore other paths. Members of my family will sometimes try to tell me to go back to school and obtain a more practical degree (and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about giving in to that pressure), but truthfully, I’d rather not spend more money on another degree, and I somewhat enjoy this crazy, unsettling quest to discover other things I can do. I know that they’re only looking out for me, and I am truly grateful, but I will continue to explore different creative paths while ensuring guests have a pleasant dining experience at the restaurant I work at, and I do not want to be shamed for making that choice.
Too often, people think of serving as something temporary, something to do to earn some money while they pursue other endeavors, which is really only an issue when that mindset leads to less effort. I have seen this from a lot of my younger co-workers, and some older ones. They don’t seem to take the job as seriously as I do, and with high ambitions, they seem so sure that they would never continue to work in a restaurant after they graduate from school. To be fair, I once had similar thoughts, but now I know better. While I am sure that at some point, I am going to bid this job farewell, I still take this job seriously because it’s an opportunity for me to develop my work ethic and to get into the habit of putting 100% into whatever I do. I want to live my life knowing that I am always trying my best. I also recognize that if we don’t make a real effort, it only allows those on the outside to continue to belittle this job.
I am by no means a perfect Server. Every job has its ups and downs, but providing excellent customer service while properly handling stuff that people consume has got to be one of the most exhausting jobs. Working in a restaurant is definitely not for everyone, but I do wish everyone knew what it was like. I have worked in several different Asian restaurants at this point, and I have dealt with a diverse range of both customers and co-workers. It is honest work. People tend to talk about this job like it’s not a “real job” (whatever that means), which, first of all, is extremely condescending, and ultimately discounts the Server’s efforts and hard work. I don’t even want to get into the poor treatment some servers receive from people who don’t seem to think they’re human at all. Since when has it ever been okay to treat someone poorly or to dismiss them because of what they do for a living? Working as a Server does not mean that I am merely floating through life with no ambition and don’t deserve recognition for my hard work or to be taken seriously. Most people would be surprised at how many people with “real jobs” are actually the ones floating through life with no real passion or ambition. Restaurant work is entirely different from other kinds of work, but that does not mean it isn’t work.
I am not “just” a server; I am also a human being who genuinely cares about people and discovering new passions, with thoughts and feelings and desires like everybody else. I don’t want to feel uncomfortable the next time a stranger asks me what my job is, only to receive a look of pity from them or to be shortly disregarded after I tell them I serve tables at a restaurant. Let’s stop defining ourselves by our occupations. Human beings are so much more than what they do for a living.
Alice Tran is a second-generation Vietnamese American writer currently based in Orange County, California. Sometimes she talks to people and serves them food at a tiny Asian restaurant, but other times, she enjoys reading, writing, and watching films. She is on a mission to redefine success for herself and to explore her curiosities and the world’s possibilities. Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!