The Gift of Education

The Gift of Education

By Kelly Yang, Published in the South China Morning Post in Dec 2015.

For the past 10 weeks or so, I’ve been eating a bowl of noodles every Saturday lunch at a cheap noodle place near my office. Every time I go, I see a little girl behind the counter washing glasses and making drinks. She’s about 10. It’s hard work – the place is packed. Yet, every time I see her, she is bouncing around the kitchen with a smile on her face. She seems proud of the work she’s doing.

Recently, I worked up the courage to talk to her. I said “hello” and we started chatting in Putonghua. She told me she was the daughter of one of the waitresses. I asked her if working in a restaurant all day was hard. She said it was; Saturdays are busy, and sometimes it’s a lot of work, but she doesn’t mind.

She asked me why I always ate my noodles so quickly. That’s when I gave her my business card. I told her my office was close by, that we’re a leading learning centre in Hong Kong. “I know you have a job and everything,” I said, “But if you ever want to take a break from your job and pop over to take a Chinese class or something on a Saturday, come on over.”

“You wouldn’t have to pay,” I added. “It would be on the house.”

Her eyes widened as she took my card and my words registered and she dashed off to tell her mum. Walking out of the restaurant, I was never more grateful or happy. You see, it wasn’t totally random that I went up to the little girl; she reminds me of myself. When I was a little girl, about seven or eight, I, too, worked in a restaurant with my mum.

We had just got to the US and life was very hard. One day, my mum got a job as a waitress at a restaurant. But there was just one problem: there was nobody to look after me. As a last resort, my mum asked the restaurant boss whether she could take me with her. He said the idea of having a seven-year-old in the kitchen was preposterous. But my mum pleaded with him and he reluctantly agreed, on one condition: I make myself useful. That’s how I got my first job, working as a tiny waitress.

So much has changed since then. I was blessed to have good teachers even in terribly underfunded American public schools. No matter how bad the school, though, I always managed to find one good teacher. And, sometimes, that’s all you need to change your life – one good teacher. Which is why I jumped at the chance to teach the little girl in the restaurant. To be able to come full circle, from a little girl working in a restaurant, wondering if she will ever get a better life, to being able to give another little girl working in a restaurant a chance to realise her dreams, that’s a beautiful thing.

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