I graduated from Vassar College this past May with a double major in political science and French, eager to begin my career as a post-grad in the field of journalism. This summer I moved home and took a minor detour in this journey as I took on a waitressing job at a new restaurant along the Route 1 corridor in Princeton. I didn’t expect how much this experience would shape my education and influence the kind of journalist I hope to become one day.
As a senior at Vassar I took seminars devoted to modern diplomacy and post-colonial theory, and at the restaurant I took courses and tests toward learning the menu: the way each item could be cooked, the options for side dishes, the ingredients of a pina colada. I’m not sure which course material was more difficult to learn. I did discover the physical work at the restaurant to be grueling and yet rewarding. I was exhausted at the end of every shift and there was something deliciously satisfying about falling asleep at the end of the day so enervated. My biceps ached from carrying heavy plates. But I did learn a lot this summer with lessons I never could have learned in a classroom. And though I can boast stronger arms, I am more proud of building a stronger constitution and a more resilient outlook.
I learned about people. Working in customer service, my pay was not predetermined, but dependent on the generosity of those I was serving and the support of my coworkers. They were kind and hardworking people and I admired them thoroughly. Some nights I couldn’t keep up. My fellow waiters and waitresses, hostesses and bartenders had my back, no questions asked, and this was a humbling and uplifting feeling. I had many customers who treated me well and with respect, who looked me in the eye when I took their order and said please and thank you. Unfortunately, this was not my experience 100 percent of the time.
There were times when I was taken aback at how rudely or condescendingly I was treated. I could tell that because I was serving them, some people saw me only as an anonymous person in a uniform, somehow somewhat lesser than they as I carried heavy trays and hefted brimming drinks to their tables.
There were men who thought it was okay to put their hands on me; there was a woman who stopped me on my way to the kitchen and practically shouted, “POR FAVOR, service PUHLEASE,” and even a group of 20-somethings who looked at me incredulously when I used the word “idiosyncratic” in my dialogue with them, whispering under their breath (as if I were deaf as well as stupid), “How does she know that word!?”
Indeed, there were some people who seemed to look right through me, who didn’t see me as a recent college graduate, or a sister, or a daughter, because if they did, that would have put me on the same level with them, and somehow, to them, that just didn’t seem to be the right thing to do. If there’s one really important lesson I learned this summer, it’s that people in the service industry do hard, necessary work, and for them, I feel tremendous respect, gratitude, and true empathy.
This summer I learned the hard way that the source of intolerance is perceived difference. Racism: seeing yourself as different and superior over other races. Sexism: seeing yourself as different, superior than the opposite gender. Any shape and form of bigotry is the act of building barriers to distance oneself from others, often out of ignorance or fear. People fear that which is different. This has driven human tension and created wars both real and metaphorical for as long as humans have existed.
I’m fortunate to have been raised by parents born worlds apart, my mother in Korea and my father in Kansas. They couldn’t look any different from one another, and literally spent the first years of their lives speaking different languages, but they are both my parents, and in the most important ways, they share common ground.
I have two best friends. Katherine is from Taiwan and studied medicine in college, but when we get together we laugh and laugh, often at things no one else would find funny, but we do. Najwa was born in Morocco and is Muslim and multilingual. Her younger sister and my little brother were studying for their SATs at the same time this fall, Mimi in Casablanca and William in Plainsboro. And Najwa and I, on different continents, were pulling out our hair over the stress we felt on behalf of our siblings because we care so deeply about them that their success and happiness feel like it is our own.
I want to be the kind of journalist who truly connects to people, moves them, and communicates complicated issues in a human way that promotes understanding, not confusion. I want to speak from the perspective of sameness instead of difference, no matter what kind — racial, religious, social, or otherwise.
I left my waitressing job in late September with warmth in my heart and friends I will keep. I spent a beautiful summer at home with my family, and this Saturday, I’m leaving for Paris to begin an internship in French media. I want to use my career in journalism as a platform to help bridge the gap of perceived difference.
But you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to help combat the sting of intolerance, the nonsense of ignorance. You may even find that the answer might be right around the corner, in the booth of your favorite local restaurant and in the kind eyes of your server, for she is, like you and everybody else, a child and citizen of the world. Treat her this way, and it can make all the difference.