Her mother’s job was a source of shame for Yawynne Yem growing up. Now checkout operators are essential workers as we hunker down against Covid-19.
Any time I had to reveal my mum’s job to someone, hastened justifications would also fall out of my mouth, reeking of shame. “We’re a first-generation immigrant family…” “Oh but you know, she used to do a different job back in Cambodia…” “Don’t worry, she’s happy though!”
Tens of thousands of people have passed through my mum’s till over her 11 years as a supermarket checkout operator, many of whom would have been too blinded by the stigma of her job to see much else.
“Some customers, they really look down. They will throw money at you rather than into your hand,” says Mum, then adds: “I always smile at them, though, and give them a good service.”
At five foot tall, Mum always appeared to me a tiny Cambodian angel on this Earth. She’s defined by her love of Louis Vuitton handbags, Zayn Malik’s solo on the One Direction song ‘Little Things’ and her tireless kindness.
She loves to buy chocolates for the students who work part-time with her. Since I moved out, I’ve sometimes thought that by feeding her youngest colleagues, she had found an alternative to trying to fatten me up. Recently she spent months cooking dinner every night for our neighbour because he couldn’t afford groceries. It never mattered how tired she was from work – it’s always give, give, give for her.
These acts make her more than enough. But the value system through which we equate someone’s worth with their income always made me worry that people viewed her as inadequate.
I spent much of my early life attempting to shake off this idea. Athletics day during high school was an event I anticipated with dread, because the park where it was held also happened to be right next to Mum’s work. I feared my classmates going in and recognising her on the job. Each scan they took held the power to shatter their perception of me.
The elephant in the room followed me everywhere. Even simple things, like having dinner at a new friend’s house, would mean waiting to be asked: “So what do your parents do?”
As the Covid-19 crisis worsened in New Zealand, I never heard Mum complain once. Instead, she told me over fits of laughter about the customers who bantered with her, asking “are you sleeping here? Or do you [just] work here?”
She had worked seven days that week, and six the previous. All she talked about was that one of her regulars came in and gave her his phone number. He told her she could call him for help any time if something happened during the virus.
This ability to focus only on the good is what draws people to her. My favourite memory of her is from the front row of a Shawn Mendes soundcheck (yes – not even the concert) a couple of years ago. My dreams of becoming a groupie at 16 were crushed that night by Mum, dead centre, proudly holding up her giant iPad and recording every moment. It’s pretty obvious who he couldn’t take his eyes off the entire time.
I wish the past couple of weeks had been as carefree as that night.
When the announcement came last Monday that New Zealand would be entering level four of the alert system, my breakfast came straight back up. Panic buying at its peak had already made me endlessly worried that people were treating my mum like Homebrand bread, leftover on empty aisles all across the country.
That feels trivial compared to this. My fears once were of people’s judgement, but now are for her health. It would only take one infected person coming into the store to cause chaos within our family. Despite her love of telling people we could be sisters, her age makes her much more vulnerable than the school kids who many believe are the demographic doing her job.
In a classic Gen-Z move, I rang her immediately after the level four announcement to demand that she call in sick to protect herself. She refused. After nearly a decade on the job and even during a pandemic, the woman still refuses to pull what my peers regard as a rite of passage, a ‘sickie’.
“The store is already understaffed and I can’t be selfish,” she told me. What’s selfish, I thought, is all the people who have taken you for granted until now.
Once the lockdown began, we called her every night. It wasn’t work that was making her sad, but the guilt of being a single parent needing to leave her 15-year-old at home during a pandemic to make rent.
“Before I go, I look into her room and she’s still snoring. After I turn off the light and then lock the door. When I’m driving and thinking about my kids and the younger one lonely at home, sometimes the tears are coming. But there’s no choice, I must go to work.”
The Covid-19 crisis has certainly forced us all to question everything we once took for granted. Isolation provides a lot of time to think. I realised that I had never once asked her if she thought her job was important.
“At the moment, we are important,” she replied. Her reply made me feel heavy with sadness.
During her press conference on the first day of level four, prime minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed supermarket workers to a “new frontline” in fighting Covid-19. A widespread recognition of essential workers is crucial.
It is going to be a tough four weeks, but perhaps part of this time can be spent reconsidering our habits in conflating people’s status or intellect with their income.
A smart woman has always taught me to focus on the good and so, on the first day of lockdown, I made a joke that Jacinda should reward her with a Louis Vuitton handbag for working hard during the virus. She made sure to remind me that her favourite one is “the shoulder one that Angelina [Jolie] has. She carries the real one though, not the fake one.”
Then she added, more seriously: “All I want is for you, my girls, to be happy and have good studies. And to be safe from the virus.”
We all want the same thing – for our loved ones to be safe. My mum is out there on the frontline working for the country right now, but she’s been on the frontline for me my entire life.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.