As children, my parents expected my brothers and I to work.
If only that meant basic chores known to every child — dish-washing, dusting shelves, and sweeping floors. An allowance, of course, was unheard of — Asian kids never received one. Instead, my parents owned a small Asian grocery store in Eastern Washington. And for anyone who had small business owners as parents — you were the slave labor, no questions asked. The work was almost illegal — to American standards. But within an Asian family, it was normal: working long hours with few breaks, lifting loads above your body weight, and cleaning all matter of surfaces with questionable home-made chemicals. We operated the store for years, until my father found a job at the Boeing plant in Everett, leaving the management of the store to one of our uncles. But for the year between 1990-1991, our family moved back to the southeast corner of the state, once again braving the blistering summers and blizzard-like winters of the Tri-Cities.
My parents called the store “Crowded People” Asian Grocery, once translated from Vietnamese. Cute, I know. During summer, I worked nearly everyday at the store. But I wasn’t deprived of much. We lived in a small studio apartment and always had food – an advantage with a grocery store at your disposal. But, for some reason, I don’t remember having any other outfit except for a t-shirt with a “hula bear” on it and these neon swim shorts. It was fluorescent green on one leg and bright pink on the other and made a “swish swoosh” noise when I walked. Among my duties: bag groceries, re-stock shelves, and clean as far as my reach.
On weekends, my dad returned from Seattle with a fresh shipment of produce and dry goods. He arrived late Friday nights, often 2 or 3 a.m. and met us at our rundown apartment where one of the kids stayed up to let him through the locked entrance of the building. We’d all wake up, sleepily crawl into the van, find a space between the loaded merchandise and head to the store to unload. My parents said it was necessary to unload right away and store merchandise such as the boxed frozen shrimp — the most expensive item in the store — otherwise it would melt or lose its freshness. I recall many times, lugging produce and boxes of cans through the backdoor with my two older brothers and parents in the middle of the night.
But despite these weary moments, there were more often, joyful ones. During slow runs in the store, my uncle tickled us in between the aisles, turned up his worn-down Michael Jackson tape to “Beat It”, puffed on Triple 5 smokes, and told my brothers and I jokes. We often scanned the aisles for candy, dried or pickled favorites to snack on until dinner and play hide-and-seek in the damp, dark backroom, giggling while my mom cooked lunch for us over an improvised kitchen.
Memories like this aren’t uncommon. Many Asian American parents staffed their children in family restaurants, stores, or even on the vast grounds of a farm. Others toiled for wages, to support their family or support their own quality of life. We’re bound in an exclusive club of child laborers who find humor, understanding, and depth in our experiences. In an article by Collin Tong, we feature the story of Japanese American children in the 1950s and 60s, who were bused from Seattle neighborhoods to work on farms in what is today Tukwila, Renton, and Auburn, to name a few. For many, the money earned that summer lasted an entire school year; providing pocket money to buy school clothes and lunches – luxuries for kids from lower-income families. Their adorable memories on rowdy buses full of neighborhood kids and recollections treading between rows of strawberries amidst the glow of summer, are shared here.
Surely, some adults who worked as children feel a measure of regret over losing a part of their childhood; unable to play with friends and forced to deal with adult situations. For others, it defined their childhood and marked their sense of identity and belonging. I often think back with a smile and my senses rise: the smell of my uncle’s Vietnamese coffee, the taste of dried squid snacks, the soft glow of the store’s adobe exterior at sunset, and the sound of bell chimes as customers entered the door.
I learned remarkable things that continue to define who I am and my work: my parent’s strength as people and dedication to each other, the family and its future. They arrived in America as immigrants with nothing, but refused to give up – always working with dignity and integrity. That was my childhood and I wouldn’t have it any other way, neon shorts and all.