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Jessica Lam
July 03, 2018 2:55 pm

I know a lot of people say this — but my father is my hero.

Growing up, my father was rarely around — not because he didn’t want to be, but because he couldn’t be. My father was the first of his generation to move over to the U.K. He is a first generation Chinese parent, or a parent who has moved to a new country hoping for a better future for themselves and their children.

My father moved from Hong Kong to England when he was about 20 years old, almost 40 years ago now. He left school at 15 years old without getting any sort of diploma or certification, which left him rather limited in terms of jobs he could work. He also wasn’t able to speak English when he first arrived to the U.K., creating even more barriers as he looked for employment.

So my dad became a chef, and he’s a pretty good one at that.

If you know anyone who works in the catering business, then you know the long hours and hard work they put in. In Chinese restaurant culture, you work six out of seven week days for two shifts each day — the morning and lunch shift (from about 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) and the evening shift (from roughly 5:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.).

Growing up, my dad worked in a restaurant that was about 40 minutes away from our home. When my siblings and I were little, he constantly drove back and forth so he could be home in the morning to wave off my sister as she boarded the bus to her special needs school, while my mom dropped my brother and I off at our school.

Then my father went to work for the morning shift at the restaurant before driving back home in the afternoon to do it all over again — except now he greeted my sister on her arrival home while my mom picked my brother and I up.

It wasn’t until after college, when I started working full-time, that I realized just how exhausted he must’ve been.

Not only did my father have to commute back and forth every day, several times a day, but he also had a manual labor job. I am lucky enough to just sit at a desk all day.

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When my brother and I got old enough to walk ourselves to school, my mother stayed home and waited for my sister to come home on the school bus. Our father stopped coming home in the afternoons, which allowed him to properly rest in between shifts and not hurry back to work in rush hour traffic.

The older we got, the less my father started coming home. In many Chinese restaurants, the management provides housing accommodation to their workers — either on the floor above the restaurant or in a nearby house. A lot of the restaurant workers don’t have family in the country, so it’s a place to live. After first staying there in the afternoons, my father then started staying at the restaurant nightly instead of coming home.

By the time my brother and I were in high school, we started going to bed and waking up earlier to take a bus to campus each morning. My father couldn’t get home from work until well after midnight when we were already asleep. And when we woke up in the morning, my father was still asleep after working such a late shift. Spending gas money to commute back and forth — when he couldn’t even interact with us — felt like a waste of money

Of course, it was a huge strain on my mother as she looked after three children by herself. But she only worked part-time, making my father the breadwinner of the family. He had to work to pay off the mortgage, to pay for our music lessons, to pay for school trips.

Luckily, my dad never worked Sundays, so we had a full day with him every week.

Still, as a kid I thought, “Why isn’t he coming home? It can’t be that expensive.” But now that I’ve started working, I understand how hard it is to earn money and how pricey things actually are — especially living in London.

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My father has never complained about work. My family and I have always been able to live the life we wanted because of his dedication. I am very passionate about music, and when I wanted to learn how to play an instrument as a kid, my parents paid for flute, violin, and piano lessons — all very expensive. When I told them I’d quit to save the family money, they insisted that I keep studying because “money wasn’t a problem if I was happy.” Now as an adult, we go on family vacations. Perhaps not as often as other people, but once every few years after we’ve saved up enough money.

Now that I’m earning money, I try to provide and pay for my own necessities as much as possible. I try to treat my parents and my siblings whenever I can. My father’s work ethic provided me with the wonderful life I’ve been able to live. Now that I am working, I hope to make his life — and my family’s life — a little easier.

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