By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
My first culture shock in America happened while working my summer jobs. I was an international student from Hong Kong. My experiences could be lessons for youth hunting for summer jobs.
Last April, unemployment rates hit 6.1% (9.8 million unemployed) nationwide. This month, most businesses are hiring although the unemployment numbers are not out for June 2021.
This is great news for the general population, especially the younger generation. Summer jobs should not be hard to find.
The issue is, many young people view jobs differently from my generation. They expect not just a job, but meaningful internships with good pay, and possibilities to grow and meet interesting and important people. There’s nothing wrong with being goal-oriented. But you are missing out on a lot if you set your mind only on building your future through financial reward and networking opportunities. Some just set their sights on office jobs, and wouldn’t even consider manual labor jobs.
I never had a job interview before I came to America. The interview helped me to think on my feet. Some business owners asked, “Do you have experience?” I would lie. Yes, I sold clothes in a Hong Kong department store. Yes, I was a waitress in Hong Kong. No one would have the time to verify my life in Hong Kong. Over five decades ago, we were not required to fill out a job application.
I was grateful to many of these restaurant managers who hired me because some of them knew they were hiring a novice. “Have you carried heavy things before?”
“Yes, no!” I fumbled in my response. They trained me how to hold a large tray with eight plates by practicing with two phone books on one hand.
“Do you know how to serve cocktails?” Not very often. The truth was, no. I had never served drinks. Then, came the hard question.
“Are you over 21?” No, I didn’t want to lie because I could get caught. I was surprised the restaurant owners were willing to take the risk.
“When those people (liquor investigators) came for your I.D. (identification card), hide,” was the advice.
Serving liquor is a must to earn higher tips. Most diners tip according to the check amount. I was shocked to learn how much someone can drink—three to four beers, or three to four glasses of wine and other hard liquor without batting an eyelid. All waitresses were entitled to a free drink every night after work. Did I take advantage of it? My colleagues said I was dumb for not doing so. No one appreciated my innocence and character. Greed was not my desire.
Waitressing has its own benefits, despite the hard work, especially when the restaurant is packed. All the tips I counted every night delighted me so much that the pain in my feet from standing so much faded. The amount of tips I made every night proved that I was a really great waitress. My customers always enjoyed their meals with my service.
The people I worked with were friendly. Sometimes, they bullied me by having me serve the stingy customers who wouldn’t tip. But I did my best to charm these misers with my great service, so they tipped me. It might be just a few quarters, but it gave me satisfaction and the confidence I needed to deal with difficult people. And the free meals the restaurants provided were a bonus. Every penny I saved, paid for the new school year.
In my first summer in America, I had six different jobs. My first job was working 15 hours a week at a department store’s fountain. I sold ice cream and milkshakes, and had to wash the fountain machine before closing the store. It was not a fun job, even though I could eat free ice cream. I didn’t mind the work. But the schedule was lousy, working only five hours a day and riding the bus for 40 minutes to get to the store. I quit after two weeks when I found other jobs.
My life revolved around sleeping and working so I didn’t have time to spend money. The most underpaid job was being a babysitter, $1.25 an hour. I took care of a baby. It was not an easy job and more employers had taken advantage of childcare workers by underpaying them. I wasn’t prepared to clean up that much poop in one day. And I didn’t think the parents appreciated me as much as the other employers. It was my least favorite job during the summer.
After that experience, I decided to focus on waitressing jobs—working at two different restaurants at two split shifts—I worked one during lunch hours and the other for dinner. I was also lucky I found an American host family who paid for my room and board. I saved a lot of money during my first summer in America.
I was so happy to have jobs. I didn’t mind manual labor at all. The whole summer, I learned more about work ethic, people skills, team spirit, and managing my finances. It was a proof of independence with the ability to handle my own money. One restaurant chef-owner treated me like his daughter. He cooked me a piece of steak when the other four wait staff and hostess left. It was the first time in my life I realized someone outside my family treated me special. If you are the boss and see someone doing a great job, how do you make that person feel special?
Another lesson for college students is to respect the contributions of the working class. Elitists often categorize physical laborers as the lower rank of society. Well, without them, there would be no one to wash dishes, cut and toss salads, or cook in restaurants. Think about the chaos it would bring if their dishwashers and other kitchen personnel quit. Likewise with hotels without the housekeeping and maintenance staff.
My American host family owned a lumber yard, and my host father required his 11-year-old son to work in his yard during the summer in 1971. He paid him $1 an hour (equivalent to $6.95 now) for sweeping the floor. Every evening, the little guy was exhausted and his face was sunburnt from working outdoors all day. He never complained and felt proud of his contributions. Knowing that he was the boss’ son, he had to set an example. You might say the father was mean. The father was simply teaching his son to appreciate the value of hard work. It’s a character-building tool.
I met other youth doing fun jobs with little pay in my first summer. One was building a road in a national park. She said she didn’t make a lot of money, but she got to work in nature. Job satisfaction is a wonderful benefit.
Use a career counseling service
In Hong Kong, my only summer job was tutoring. I took shorthand classes and learned typing on my own, while thinking about becoming a secretary. The role models around me were housewives, secretaries, teachers, and nurses.
There was nothing in my environment inspiring me to dream differently. Although my high school was one of the most prestigious then, there were no career-preparation classes or counselors to help students chart their future.
Anyone in Hong Kong who wanted to have career counseling or study overseas for college had to pay thousands of U.S. dollars for those services. Even now, many Asian countries, including Hong Kong, do not provide career counseling in their education system. American kids have taken these free programs for granted in their high schools. Some never take advantage of career programs. Sad!
There was no one (except my 4th grade teacher) asking us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She asked us to write an essay on the topic because the conventional thinking for girls was to get married, not careers. Girls were not perceived as leaders during my youth. Now, girls are doing amazing things to prepare themselves to lead.
As leaders, you have to understand the people working for you, including the janitors, plumbers, construction workers, and even garbage workers, to understand a full picture of your organization. How can you motivate them to use their full potential to support your goals? How can you keep your people long-term? If you had done some of those jobs in your early career, those experiences might help you to manage your workforce better.
When the pandemic hit, many businesses shut down and laid off many of their employees. Now, COVID is almost over and businesses are starting to reopen, and they don’t have enough workers. One of my business friends lamented that he couldn’t fill his openings. And he blamed the government for giving too much in unemployment benefits, so people are not keen to return to work. It could be true for some of them, but not all.
Last March, I could have laid off some employees during the pandemic. Half of our advertisers left. I decided to cut down the newspapers’ size instead of laying off people. I hate to say, it did affect our printers, who had to lay off 20% of their staff as other papers eliminated their print version for months.
It’s challenging to face the pandemic, and lose jobs simultaneously. As an employer now, we worked hard to keep our people during the last 15 months. While some businesses now have the headache of finding workers, we are one of the few businesses who don’t have that problem. We have the same team before and after COVID. Our employees are committed to producing newspapers with great content—print and online.
With remote work, my employees enjoy their jobs more than ever with the freedom, flexibility, and time to do what they want. I hate what the pandemic has done to the world, but it does present many of us with unusual gifts under devastating circumstances.
For those of you looking for jobs now, you have a lot more choices and perhaps better pay and benefits. For kids who are over 16 that play all summer, and do nothing, are spoiled. Just playing video games all day isn’t a solution for youth to spend the summer.
Now the pandemic is almost over, young people should look for volunteering opportunities or learn new skills, even if they don’t have a summer job. Cultivate a purpose during the long break and make it fun to achieve your goals.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.