How working as a waiter in Little India made me a better writer

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In 2008, I was 21 and on a Polytechnic school break. And boy did I need money. I mean, I couldn't even afford a new pair of shoes to replace my busted ones.

Luckily, a close friend of mine told me about a part-time job in an Indian semi-fine dining restaurant at Race Course Road. They paid $7.50 an hour to be a waiter.

At first, I was apprehensive. I wanted to be a successful writer - not work in a restaurant pushing tables! But then I took a moment, calmed down, punched my ego, and said, "Why not?"

It was one of the best decisions I ever made. 

I learnt more from waiting tables in 12 months (yes, I extended it every holiday) than I did at any other job. And I learnt lessons that I still hold onto today.

1. The importance of delivering on promises.

One particularly busy night, I remember there was a family that ordered a bumper crop of meals. I was overwhelmed with each order and the numerous mess ups in the Kitchen.

The father of three kept raising his hand. I kept coming back, reaffirming that I would check on their meal. Soon I heard his baby cry and his kids' complaining. I promised the father the food would arrive shortly.

But it didn't.

After 30-40 minutes, the dishes arrived. I went back to the table and apologised. The father looked at me in the eye and smiled, "I understand. But you gotta deliver on your promises."

He was right.

Life is made up of simple transactions. Pay and receive. Supply and Demand. Love and Love.

Most importantly, if you promise something associated with your job, you must deliver.

Things happen, sure, but a promise represents not only what you're doing, but the values you represent. In writing that means always trying your best to create the best possible content/story/article you can.

So deliver.

The customer doesn't owe you anything - not time, money or their goodwill. You owe them the promise of what you do.

2. Don't escalate conflicts. Empathy can solve everything.

One busy afternoon, a customer scolded me for being too slow with his meal. I was pissed, as he had only been waiting for 10 minutes.

I felt ready to explode; a hidden fire burning inside. But I took a deep breath, decided I didn’t want to make a scene (plus it’s rude) and firmly said. "It will arrive soon, sir. I understand how you feel. I tell you what, I'll get your other items real quick. And your drinks. How does that sound?"

I noticed an immediate change in him. He nodded, registering my somewhat overly friendly tone. By the time the meal arrived, he was fine. He even thanked me and smiled when he walked out. 

Conflicts will happen. Sometimes we have to fight for what's right. But most of the time, the conflicts we face every day are trivial. There are not worth escalating - pissing customers off, the business you work for, and mostly importantly, your own sense of self.

In the end, it’s our decision whether to escalate conflicts, or cut them into sizable chunks that bring us closer to understanding ourselves, and each other.

3. I listened to the stories of others and their culture 

Up until that job, I didn't know much about North Indian/or South Indian food. But after my stint, I could tell you the aromas, textures, and taste profiles of Veggie Makanwalla, Palak Paneer, Murg Gajab ka Tikka, Murg Gilafi Seekh KebabAloo Gobi (my favourite), numerous Lasi flavours, every Naan item there is, and why Gulab Jamun is the most sinful dessert ever - and awesome.

I also watched the Indian-born Chefs and staff craft each meal with commentary about their lives. From the way they had trained for decades to bake the perfect Naan in a clay oven called a tandoori, to the way the Elder Chef used to delicately brew his signature Chai Tea after twenty years of experience. 

Sometimes we couldn't communicate, as a few only spoke Hindi. But that was okay. I understood them through the dishes they crafted and the smiles they offered.

Along the way, I had other conversations with the staff about their lives back in India and Pakistan (yes, working together despite political affiliations), and why they loved Singapore.

It made me feel lucky to be able to hear their stories, learn from them, and understand their culture in some small way.

***

Sometimes we want to achieve big things NOW.  A sense of urgency is good, but we don't realise there is a middle ground.

You can learn things from where you are right now, even if it is not related to what you feel passionate about.

Everything is experience. Everything is learning.

I'm happy I took that job all those years ago. Those lessons have fed back into my life, my writing work, and who I am as a person.

And for $7.50 an hour, that wasn't a bad trade.