“The customers teach me about life. Working teaches me about life. Basically, everything here at the restaurant is life,” says Rama Bani Khalid, a charismatic, curly-haired 12-year-old. Rama is a takeout kid: one of many New Zealand children who work in the country’s innumerable takeaway and fast food joints. There, she mans the phones and till, hustles for tips and tops up the water bottles.
“I’m a waiter and I help out a lot,” says Rama, who spends much of her days in her family’s Jordanian restaurant, Petra Shawarma, in Auckland. “I think I know pretty much everyone on the street.”
“Sometimes she’ll sit with the customers and gossip with them,” says Bara, her older sister, who started working in the shop when she was younger than Rama is now.
New Zealand has one of the world’s highest per capita ratios of takeaway and fast food joints in the world. Family-owned fish and chip shops, kebaberies and Chinese takeouts are embedded in many New Zealanders’ weekly routines and rituals. But the lives of the families who run these small businesses – often first- and second-generation immigrants – can easily remain invisible.
“No one really sees behind the scenes,” Bara says – but she and Rama are proud to tell customers their restaurant’s story. “You know, when [people] get that taste, they’re like – OK, there was a lot more sacrifices that were made to be open, or have this dish here,” Bara says.
“Work for me at a young age, it was my getaway. And I can kind of see it starting to kick in with Rama – because you can be who you want to be here at Petra, as a waiter or as a cook. No one can judge you, you can just be proud of what your parents have done. And because we help out, we’re like, oh, we made this: I made this, and mum made this, and dad made this.”
Film-maker Julie Zhu recently released a four-part documentary series, Takeout Kids, which documents the hidden worlds of families who own the country’s takeout shops, and the lives of the children who work behind New Zealand’s counters. The films draw to surface quiet, often joyful moments, elevating the everyday by gentle observation. Martynique, at Samoa’s Finest in Porirua, sells baked taro and pineapple pies. John, at Westminster Takeaways fish and chip shop, takes down orders and quietly corrects spelling on the menu board.
“Immigrant stories are often relegated to the sidelines,” Zhu says. “I was born in China and I came to New Zealand when I was four … I am really interested in the, quote unquote, immigrant experience – not that it’s universal. This was one way of exploring that,” she says.
While her own parents did not own a takeaway store, Zhu noticed echoes of common experience with the children she documented. “I grew up with parents who were always working. So I was left home alone before I should have been and had to make my own fun. I was interested in what life was like for kids whose parents had to work a lot, and kids who are kind of growing up seeing their parents working and seeing what that sacrifice might be,” she says.
Brooklyn Jiang, 12, helps out in his family’s cafe, Sunburst Coffee Lounge, in Thames, a small town on the coast of the North Island. After-school and weekend time is often spent in the cafe, sometimes fixing gadgets: he’d like to become an engineer. Because the cafe is open seven days a week, he sometimes wishes he had more time to spend with his parents. “It’s a bit hard for me – I can’t hang out with my parents that much. So that is a little bit hard, cause I really want to hang out with them.”
For some immigrants to New Zealand, a takeaway shop can introduce a taste of home. For others, it is a means to an end: a grappling hook to give families their first purchase on the slick, icy face of New Zealand employment. The Massey University New Settlers programme study found refugees and immigrants from non-English-speaking countries “faced formidable barriers in gaining employment in New Zealand” – including discrimination on the basis of accent or name, and a lack of regard for overseas experience and training. Many of these businesses may not last beyond the second generation, and often they are not designed to.
Brooklyn’s mother, Lim Heng Yuen, came to New Zealand from Cambodia when she was 15 years old. Like many immigrants for whom English is a second language, she says it was a struggle to find jobs when she entered the workforce. Eventually starting a family cafe, where you work for yourselves, felt like the best way forward.
“You know, sometimes I feel sad that I am working long hours and I can’t take my children out – and some people say, ‘I feel sorry for your children’… But I love my children. I try my best to get them to have a better life – but I also need to work. When English is your second language, it’s not easy to find a job,” she says. “The only thing that you can do is to find a way to make your own job.”