I would chop mushrooms in the morning on weekends. My hands would smell like them for the rest of the day. I peeled green onions, trimmed green beans—any non-dangerous job. Eventually I graduated to washing dishes, when I was around 8. Then I got to scoop rice or soup during the lunch rush. The vats were so big, I could have fit inside them. Delivery was my favorite—I’d walk orders over to nearby construction sites and get $1 tips, which I immediately traded in for ice pops or chips. I felt like a queen.

Liu’s mother, Cui Ling Wu-Liu, has worked as a home attendant, a seamstress, a garment factory worker, and now behind the counter at her family shop. (Aaron Reiss)

It wasn’t until high school that I started really being useful to the business. Business dried up at our restaurant, but we ended up opening a little shoe/jewelry/DVD/party-planning store at 250 Grand. Foot traffic was low, because we were on the second floor, so my sister and I would drag a box of shoes onto the street and just sell them on the sidewalk. They were $3 for children’s sizes and $5 for adults. We would get stopped by police, ticketed—it scared me out of my mind.

When I left for college, my parents moved to the place they are at now, GTW Tea and Water. GTW stands for “Good Tea and Water.” (I know, I’m working on a rebranding.) During college, I would come back on weekends to help out, working the register, doing bookkeeping, and things like that.

Right after my graduation, my grandmother died. My father had to go back to China to take care of things, and I had to step in to help my mom run the shop full-time. I wanted to be looking for work in the things I studied, but my grandma had just passed away, and I needed to do what I needed to do to make sure my dad had peace of mind while he was away.

While much of the shop’s real estate is dedicated to Buddhist goods, the place is known for its fine Chinese teas. Liu’s father is known almost universally as Chafuzi (a play on Confucius, which could translate to something like “tea-fucius”). (Aaron Reiss)

I tried to take on new projects for them, to help them modernize. I was telling them to get a credit-card system for years. They liked working in cash; it was easier. My dad has kept all his financial records in handwritten notebooks, forever. Finally, I just set up a Square system. It took a year, but they got used to it, and now they can accept credit cards. I’m helping them set up an online shop, just trying to bring them into the modern era. I mean, this is a quickly dying business; my generation isn’t interested in fine tea or Buddhist items. It’s hard. I have to teach myself Photoshop, how to take product photos, how to style a website, how to write copy, and how to set up inventory. This is all new to me.

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