You’re The Face of the Barn


Being in a community where you are not recognized by anyone can be unsettling. Being in a community where you feel like no one wants you there can be frustrating, in the least. Both aptly describe how I have felt in Cornell, where the campus is so big that you are not recognized by more than half of the faces that you pass by on your way home from the library, where being Korean means that you are thrown in the big Asian category that is either disregarded or is picked on to make jokes. The clubs here are less a gathering for club members with a shared interest, but more a secret society in which people of similar socio-economic background let each other in.

I started working with Cornell Dining in my freshman year and have stayed with them until now. It’s what ties me to a ground and gives me the sense that I belong somewhere in a big campus like ours, regardless of how I look and where I come from.

***

I was thrown into a jungle on my first day of work. And by that jungle, I mean Big Red Barn at the peak of its lunch rush, when all students come in simultaneously for lunch in between classes. The customer line has well exceeded the counter, and the ladies weren’t too happy to see me — an untrained worker — come in. (I didn’t even know the difference between Swiss and Provolone cheese.) Pretending to not have noticed the unwelcoming glares, I went behind the kitchen counter. I put my backpack aside and hung my coat on top of the already overloaded hanger. The ladies had their stations: Carol and her salad station, Peggy and her deli station.

“Peggy, would you teach the new girl how to do deli?” Carol said.

Instead of responding, Peggy carried on finishing her order, going through the deli ingredients like a pianist jumping back and forth between three octaves. She was fearless in grabbing chicken breast with one hand and crossing her arms to grab the Provolone cheese on the far end. As she chopped the green peppers, her knife and the cutting board played a series of perfectly consistent 16th notes. To finish this performance off, she swept through the cutting board with a rag, as a pianist would glide through one pitch to another, marking the end of a musical piece.

I stood still, next to the coat hanger with my two hands dangling in front of me. Peggy was moving swiftly from left to right, claiming the territory. After observing three orders in the side, I figured out that the Santa Fe Sub starts with a sub roll. I stepped in and asked the next customer in line, “What can I get you?”

“Uh, Turkey Brioche please?”

Nope. Didn’t expect that one.

I looked at Peggy apologetically. Peggy rolled her eyes and grabbed a roll of ciabatta bread, “for here or to go?” She finished that Turkey Brioche. I was embarrassed, but I didn’t lose my smile. The customers couldn’t see me not being happy. I wanted the customers’ to get their money’s worth during the whole act.

By my third shift, I had become an assistant to Peggy and Carol. I stood next to the rapid-cook oven and fought through the orders. After the ladies prepared the plates of orders and lined them up next to the oven, I sat the plates inside. When the food was cooked through, I handed them out to the customers. As simple as this might sound, it takes a lot of precision and coordination among the workers to have such a balance. It’s like juggling, but with three people and twenty balls. Peggy throws the meatball at me; I run and catch it with a sub roll. On top of my juggling acts, I do acrobatics in the cramped kitchen space to not bump into Peggy or Carol. I mask on the intense concentration of a tightrope walker and make my way out to the customers.

Soon enough, I was thrown out in the line, and Peggy would trust me to watch over the deli when she took a smoke break.

“Hi. We would like three pulled pork, please.”

“Sure!”

Peggy slid next to me. “I think they come for you, honey,” she said.

“No, it’s because the pulled pork here is amazing,” I said.

“No, sweetie, you’re the face of the Barn.”

I put on my extra charm and handed the three guys their pulled porks.

***

Work is a place where I leave all my anxiety and concerns behind. I tuck schoolwork inside my backpack and leave it with my coat before I step inside the deli or behind the register. Even if my calendar is swarming with due dates and tests, the two-hour shift remains untouched. In those two hours, I put on a persona, dedicated to the customers.

Each encounter with a customer is unique. As soon as the person in front of the line walks away and the next customer’s face meets mine, their experience starts.

“Hello,” the common greeting is never so melodic like mine.

“Can I get an Italian Antipasto?”

“Absolutely.”

I open up a sub roll and reach out for five pieces of sliced ham, scoot. I peel each slice and stack the slices in a row and grab a handful of salami and pepperoni, scoot. I halve the slice of provolone and line them up connecting the ends, scoot. I line four slices of tomatoes with my right hand as I throw in a handful of banana peppers with my left hand, scoot. I squirt Italian dressing to glue the two pieces of lettuce that comes at the top, scoot. I don’t forget to look up and beam at the customer once or twice during the act. I hand it over to my coworker Mike, who would cook the sandwich in the oven. After exactly 45 seconds, he pulls the sub out of the oven, carefully displays the wrinkled parts of the lettuce, cuts it in half, and displays the tiers of tightly packed ingredients, emphasizing expertise and the split second of concentration. He calls out, “Italian Antipasto!” And all of the star performers turn around and say, “Enjoy!” and the curtain drops and we take a bow as the customer thanks us.

Outside of work, I’m judged by my ethnicity and my looks. Most of the times, I’m not even given the chance to explain myself. College boys get drunk and say “you look like the shit ton of Asians here,” taking your unique face away and making you a lump. But behind the counter, we are given faces. Well, yes, I’m still the chirpy Asian girl in Big Red Barn — but hey, now there is an adjective that looks at me in a different way. I try to live up to my customers’ expectation. And it’s not so hard to stay happy when your customers come in, just to see you. On top of that, I have a handful of staff patting me on the back for helping them get through lunch rushes. They say that they wish I was here every day. That feeling of appreciation stays.