I Too Was a Takeout Kid

A new documentary series captures the richness of the lives of families who provide an essential service to local communities in Aotearoa: affordable cooked food.

A ‘third place’ is defined as a space outside of home and work that provides social contact, community and a sense of place. Some people find their third places in spaces like malls or parks. But for the families who run takeaway shops, and their children, the family business is the third place. They are the purveyors behind your neighbourhood Jordanian restaurant, coffee shop, fish ‘n’ chippery and Sāmoan takeaway. Everyone has their local. Customers may not necessarily know the names of the people that run these establishments, but their faces will be synonymous with the takeaway shop. It is a unique experience of both being in the community and in service to the community.

In the newly released observational documentary series Takeout Kids, director Julie Zhu captures the different spaces in which the takeout kids spend their time, and how growing up in this environment blurs the traditional lines between work and home, parent and child.

For a multisensory experience, watch the trailer and episodes while reading.

At mealtimes, everything is go in the takeaway shop. The kids and the adults split the work: taking orders at the counter and over the phone, keeping track of the meals sizzling on the grill, shouting in several languages over the extractor fan. Many of the takeout kids speak more fluent English than their parents, and their help is integral to the operation of the family business. But in the downtime, the kids slink back into their normal roles in the family: Rama runs amok in the kitchen while her uncle preps the vegetables; Brooklyn and his siblings do their homework at an empty café table; Martynique calls her bank while her mum supervises from behind the counter; John and his dad loiter outside the takeaway at the end of a busy night. Out of necessity, both public and private life are lived on the commercial premises. When there are no customers in sight, the takeaway shop is no longer just a place where food is prepared for others, but a space where parents and children can share a moment during the day.

These scenes are familiar to me because, I, too was a takeout kid. My family operated a combo dairy and fish-and-chip shop. Every day my dad opened the shop door at 6 am, and takeaways were available from mid-morning. The double glass and security doors were locked at 7 pm. Then there was an hour of cleaning to do before finishing the day. My parents never took sick or holiday leave, save for the afternoon of Christmas Day.

Like the Takeout Kids, we had no employees: just family. My grandparents, who had no English language, stayed in the back and filled white paper bags with 50 cents’, one dollar’s or two dollars’ worth of lollies. After school and on the weekends I would be called into the shop when it got busy. I took money for cans of soft drink, noted orders for fish and chips and burgers. When I left home for university, my younger brother succeeded me behind the cash register. Thankfully, a year after he too left for university, my parents retired from the takeaway business.

Like the Takeout Kids, we had no employees: just family

All in all, my parents ran the shop for 16 years. Sometimes my parents and I still talk about some of the regulars that used to come into the dairy. We stood behind the counter long enough to see new generations of customers’ families be born and older generations of those families pass away.

Given the commonalities of the shop life, there are many details in the series that resonate for me: John’s parents being slightly incredulous when he corrects the spelling of ‘jam rap’ to ‘jam wrap’; Rama being asked stupid questions by her classmates about the food that her parents make; the boredom of Brooklyn and his siblings as they wait in the upstairs stock cupboard for their parents to finish up for the day; Martynique’s mum telling an anecdote about a customer over dinner. I was a teenager when I worked at the takeaway and I approached my unpaid labour with a mixture of resentment and resignation, a feeling mirrored particularly acutely in John’s and Martynique’s stories.

You only get to be a kid once. While I remember feeling bored and neglected at times due to my parents’ work, growing up in a small, relatively poor town I didn’t feel like I was missing out on too much. It hasn’t been until the last few years, through observing the colleagues at my nine-to-five job who have kids, that I have realised how much easier family life is when the parents don’t need to work nights or evenings. My colleagues have the time and money to take their kids on weekend trips to the zoo or plan themed birthday parties. It doesn’t mean that they love their kids more because they can give them more. Rather, I see the love eked out by the parents of the takeout kids, asking about their kid’s day at school as they peel hard-boiled eggs together, calling to ask if they’ve eaten, finally taking them to the arcade after much wheedling. These gestures might seem small, but given how time poor the parents are, it shows their dedication to their kids. Love is giving to your kids when it isn’t easy, when you’re tired from working a very long day.

It’s a funny childhood, being put to work by your parents. When I was younger, I heard stories from other kids about washing dishes or doing the laundry for pocket money. It sounded like a dream. There’s a scene where John Li takes an order at his parents' fish-and-chip shop, and the customer teases him, saying, “How did you get the easy job?” John has the same job as I did in my parents' shop. Having this unpaid job didn’t feel easy at the time, but after I left home, I became aware of just how many jobs I was never asked to do in the shop. My brother and I were never needed at the deep fryers, where my mum eventually got RSI from lifting out baskets heavy with battered fish and chips. We were never asked to help my dad prep sandwiches for the 6 am opening. He’d always keep aside a chicken and mayonnaise sandwich, the most expensive of the ones we sold, for me to take to school for lunch. Unlike other kids, we worked, but we were given the easy jobs, and we were still looked after by our parents.

It’s very easy to reach for words like ‘hard working’ and ‘sacrificing’ to describe the parents of the takeout kids. Of course, I knew my parents worked hard and sacrificed a lot to provide a better future for my brother and I. It's the oldest line in the immigrant book. But after my parents read my book of essays about growing up in Aotearoa, my mum told me that she was grateful to know about the things I was feeling and experiencing in high school. She said she knew they didn’t have enough time for me because they were working so much, but couldn’t do anything about it. She was grateful that, through reading my book, she didn’t miss out on my childhood entirely. I never realised that my parents felt guilty about working so much; I always thought they rationalised that their work was ultimately in my best interests. I only had one childhood, but they only had one childhood with me, too.

I love Zhu’s quiet and unobtrusive direction in this series

I love Zhu’s quiet and unobtrusive direction in this series. As the camera follows the kids from home to school, work and their chosen places of leisure, there is no narrative forced on the families’ relationships to each other and their lines of work. Instead, we are offered a window into the small, mundane interactions that speak volumes about the highs and lows of being a takeout kid. We are shown the richness of the lives of people who provide such an essential service: affordable cooked food. It’s been over a decade since I regularly worked at my parents’ takeaway, but I still can’t order fish and chips without thinking about them. For those of you who didn’t grow up as a takeout kid, perhaps when you next go to your local there will be more for you to think about as well.

Takeout Kids was produced by Hex Work Productions and Uhz for The Spinoff. Made with the support of NZ On Air.


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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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