Working in a Louisville Supermarket

This year in February, I learned that I was accepted to a graduate institution and from then on I knew where I would live and do for the next five years. In the last few months of 2016, however, I was living on a week-by-week basis and had no long term plan. I have finally found the time to write about those days.[1]

A Chinese activist and intellectual in pre-communist China expressed the frustration, "Why am I not yet part of the working class?" He was speaking from a position of privilege, yet wanted to be in solidarity with the working class. Fortunately or unfortunately, graduate students and adjunct teachers are becoming increasingly a precarious social class; some have already become the working class and no longer need to ask that question. Yet even before I became a graduate student, I was already part of the retail working class.

I wanted to use Drake's song "Started from the Bottom" as the title, but that would have been too facetious. I actually descended to the "bottom" and worked my way up. This blog is about the experience at the "bottom." In 2016 October, due to unforeseen circumstances, I was living with some friends who were also quite precarious--one was a refugee living off benefits, and the other two were ex-refugees working as wage-laborers for 14.5$/hour and 14$/hour respectively. We were living in Shelby Park, a disreputable part of Louisville, known for violence.

Art in the neighborhood. "Building Something Bigger than Ourselves Together."

Luckily for us, everyone was able-bodied and healthy and generally we got along quite well. I was very upset with an unsuccessful Pakistan visa application for a history conference in Lahore, and felt that the embassy was destroying my future of becoming an academic. One of the friends, Yaseen, would comfort me and say, "We make the money. It's not the money making us." And I said, "Yeah,I write the f****** paper, not the embassy." Sometimes we cooked together, went to the club together, drank together, or watched TV together. Sometimes we talked about Iraqi politics, or joked about going to Tennessee on a whim (--it hasn't happened).

I lived there without working at a job for a few weeks, and later decided to find a job. I applied to Chipotle, a falafel shop, a packaging factory, and finally at an ethnic supermarket. I landed the ethnic supermarket job for 8$ / hour and also thought it was best for me to move out of the house. I pissed my mom off by using her credit card to rent a place at an Airbnb for a month. She confronted me and asked me, why I couldn't save money instead and stay with her? I said I needed time and space to apply to graduate school. She did not cancel the payment but swore to me that it was the last time she will pay for anything. So I went into the supermarket job with a "no-more-bridges-left-to-burn" mentality.

The woman who hired me has a very nice nickname--"Red." She asked me to call her Ah-Red, which does not indicate seniority even though she is a mother of two. She is from southern China and walks like a ball of fire. She speaks to Sun, the other cashier receptionist, in a Cantonese dialect; Sun calls her Big Sister Red. Her can-do spirit solves all the problems one could have in a supermarket. If someone needed to return something and get money back on their card, I would ask Red or Sun to help me. If anything needed to be fixed, Red would be up on that case. Red also knew the old customers and would talk to them when she was available.

When I first met her on a Monday, she was the only person at the check-out counter. She first said she would train me the next day. But when I went on Tuesday, I directly started on the job. It was very hectic as Thanksgiving was approaching and generally only two lines were open. The job needed someone who could recognize the myriad different types of Asian vegetables. I can't say I am much better than the average Asian American, since I did not eat that much variety growing up, but at least I could read the half-Chinese menu on the check-out monitor.

These vegetables were easy to check out because they already had barcodes. They were pre-packaged by Red's father, who also works at the supermarket but mostly behind the scenes. He also cooks lunch for us. Around 2pm, Red would bring her lunch to the front and tell us to eat in a very welcoming way. Lunch was served in the dingy storage section. When I ate, I sat between the office, where we would punch our hour cards, and the men's bathroom.

Highlight of the day

Red's father was definitely a good cook but sometimes didn't have vegetarian options. He was very insistent on me eating enough and I even ate meat in front of him. Later he was not happy with my association with the Iraqi friends, and became very distant from me.

Sun made this for me when Red and her father took Tuesday off.

The other Latino workers sat with each other when they had lunch. One guy, San Diego, was very nice and sometimes he would drive me home. San Diego doesn't like rap music and took care of unpacking the food items and placing them onto shelves. It seemed that he knew the products like the back of his hand and could even "read" Chinese packages. I did not have much interaction with the other Latino workers, besides checking out goods for them when they bought dinner from the supermarket, but I was generally fond of them. One of them would use the tips he earned from packaging fish for customers. One father and son who worked behind the fish counter were new from Honduras. Red would sometimes give them derogatory nicknames that she used for her own book-keeping.

The supermarket boss was a man from the north and would come in every now and then to check on things, including the CCTV camera. He had an issue with me reading my kindle at work. He said I should go roam around the stacks and learn the name of the groceries if I had time. Once his wife came to the store and deliberately blocked up the whole cashier lane because she could not decide on which goods she wanted to buy. Red took time to try and find exactly what the boss's wife wanted. I thought it was her way of showing her importance. 

A view from one of the cash receptions

I also had to deal with the cultural differences. I counted that the customers came from at least 20 different nationalities. An Indian man once even complained very rudely about how the Latino workers didn't understand English. I defended them by saying no one else had a problem with them before. Shouting was generally the tone of the day--both for the customer and the workers. Sun once semi-yelled at another lady who has not yet mastered English: "Do you want sugar in a CANE or sugar in a CAN???" The general consumers who visited also had shorter tempers than people who would shop at a non-ethnic supermarket. One Asian American girl once shouted at me for 5 minutes about how I suck at my job because I made a mistake in calculating the change. I was very stunned and Red apologized on my behalf. Red also would complain about how some customers would bundle two spring onions and try to pass it as one bundle. Red also said that a Vietnamese lady purportedly fiddled with the scale to get more and pay less and claimed that the food was for offering to Buddha. Red joked about her: how will Buddha be able to accept this "offering?!" One customer also knowingly smuggled out a bag of rice without allowing me a chance to scan the barcode. The cultural differences were definitely a highlight but also stressful since misunderstandings could arise at any time. One time a white guy even walked in the supermarket openly carrying a gun. He was with his girlfriend and bought a lot of cute Japanese snacks. I later complained to San Diego about it and he was very used to these customers.

Sometimes I would have the more solitary job of unpacking incoming goods and labeling them for distribution. It was less stressful but it also made my head dizzy after some time. Human interaction was also missed doing this particular job. I liked observing different patterns of consumption based on the different groups of people. Many non-Asian Americans also bought ethnic food and made it themselves. It was impressive considering that they learned how to prepare it themselves. I also observed how some people hated to depart from money in the form of cash--how they would hold onto it, how they would count each bill when they paid for something very small. How much it mattered to their being and sanity.

Packages next to the medicine counter. Many non-Asian Americans also bought Chinese medicine from this supermarket

Red hanging decorations up for the new year.

I usually commuted from the Highland to the supermarket, which was next to a highway. Generally I had to change buses because the Highland is not very connected to the rest of Louisville. Sometimes the bus would stop quite some distance from the supermarket, due to the difference in routes. Then I would walk along the highway to reach the place. I arrived at 10am or 2pm or 4pm, depending on the need as well as my schedule. I would punch the card, spend my time either at the cashier, or right next to the cashier unpacking the goods, or in the stacks. Work ended at 9pm. I would count all the cash money, leave 152$ in the cashier, and hand the rest to the boss. Then I would I would punch the card, commute back on the bus, or my friend CP would pick me up and drop me off at Highland. The weekends were the busiest and Red generally expected me to take Mondays off.

Some additional highlights from an otherwise dreary job: three Iraqi boys came to buy fish one day. I showed off my Arabic by saying "zyein," which means "good." They also said "zyein" back to me. Another highlight was a woman drove 2 hours from Tennessee to the supermarket to buy food stocks for her restaurant. One final highlight was a Hispanic couple: the wife commented on my beauty in Spanish to her husband (que bonita) while her husband remained silent. I also pretended I didn't understand. Other Chinese customers would also joke with Red about my new and youthful presence. Red would say in her typical can-do tone: this place needs young people to liven it up.

I also learned about food stamps at the job and tried to apply for them myself, unsuccessfully. The boss had to sign the paper proving I was working for him. He was not happy about it, even though it did not affect him in any negative way. He said with a mean joking tone: you are just working here to apply for food stamps. I wished that were the case! I would not have balanced the books if I needed to pay for my own rent, based on the rhythm and frequency I was working on that job. But with the schedule and flexibility in contract, I could have applied for graduate schools in the mean time. And now looking back, it was the right decision for that time. I left the job in mid-December and went back for a few days in January just to get the paycheck. Red was not very sentimental when we said goodbye but she was as good as a supervisor could have been in those circumstances.

The hardest part was not being bored on the job or being tired after the job. (Sometimes I even sustained cuts from handling the  fish scales or the live crab.) It was getting myself to think in the hustling way to make it to the job, and then "de-hustling" and think about long-term graduate school plans. It was absurd that I had to believe that I could have control over my research, when I didn't even know if the next customer will yell at me or not. I also found it very difficult to relax and read anything that required some kind of intellectual investment, since I was always moving from one chore to the other.

This experience informed me a lot in terms of immigrant differences and how theories of race are utterly inadequate without taking into account of the economic circumstances. I still don't know much about Louisville and much of what I know is from that work experience. I watched Moonlight during this period of my life and working had also informed my understanding of the protagonist and his lover. I also translated the short story A Mason's Hand by Pakistani author Ali Akbar Natiq, first published in Granta, during this time. It was about a worker's journey to Saudi Arabia and his precarious experience. I would not have been so interested in it if I did not share some of the protagonist's subjectivity.


[1]Two sources were very inspirational for my writing: one is the book Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West, and the other is "Love in the Time of Trump," a conference on queer identity and class hosted by Dr. Kareem Khubchandani.