Managing to Build Bridges - Part 4: Dessert Goes to a Different Stomach

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. Part 3 of our conversation concluded with Nani attending San Francisco State University and feeling connected to her academic studies for the first time.

Sarah: You were also holding down a job, right? 

Nani: Yes. I became friends with other Indonesian students and they helped me look for jobs. My first job was working as a barista at the university’s Café 101. I was really into it. I loved making the perfect coffee drinks. And I liked the public-facing aspect. I felt cool working there. 

Then I got a waitressing job at a burger joint called The BullsHead, near my brother’s house in West Portal. It’s owned by Korean-American family. I had no experience in waitressing but they accepted me. It’s a very popular restaurant. Suddenly I wanted to be the best server. I even told my dad that my goal was to be a classy waitress at a fancy restaurant. 

A colleague at the restaurant told me that a great server is when the patrons don’t even notice you’re there. I learned so much about that. For example, if patrons are having an intense conversation, there are ways to interject without intruding. 


I wanted to move up in the restaurant world, so I left Bullshead and went to Olive Garden, next to SF State. I learned how to pair food and wine, which was fun. But it was a very corporate environment, not at all like the mom-and-pop world of Bullshead. You had to show up when they opened at 11am. They could dismiss you any time between 2–4:30pm—but you had to be back at 5:30pm for the dinner shift. 

And the waitstaff were expected to compete with one another. I remember there was a prize for whoever sold the most desserts. I learned to cajole customers using witty comments—“Oh it’s OK, you have room because dessert goes to a different stomach.” I did get into trouble once. I was serving an older white American couple and I kept saying “you guys.” The gentleman gestured to his partner and said, Look at her—do you think she’s a guy? I apologized but then I repeated the term—it was just automatic for me. The second time he was pretty unhappy! 


Even with the competition to sell, I was making less money than at The BullsHead. My performance started to slip—I didn’t want to be the best server in the world anymore. The store manager said, Nani, when you started you were getting 5+ stars but now you are only earning 4 stars. I didn’t last long. No regrets, though, because I learned a lot about workplace politics. 

Sarah: When I met you, you were working in a tutoring center run by the university. How did that come about?

Nani: When I first arrived and was taking basic English, one of my teachers was a French-American woman. I liked her vibe and felt comfortable with her because English was also a second language for her. A few years later I ran into her on campus and she said she was working at the Learning Assistance Center, which provides free tutoring to students. She encouraged me to apply.

I had my doubts. How could an ESL student tutor native and non-native English speakers? I didn’t think I did well in interview. But I was accepted for the position.

Then I wanted to be the best tutor.

Sarah: Tell me about wanting to be the best at everything you do.

Nani: I remember you once said, Nani, when you want something, you want it now. I tended to move fast and I wanted to be the best, but then if I wasn’t stimulated enough, I lost interest.

I learned a ton working as an English tutor. I felt my managers were more confident in me than I was in myself. Sometimes the director would pair me up with students who had learning disabilities. After a session I would have no idea if the student I’d worked with had gotten anything out of it. But we received training and the managers did sometimes observe.

I worked part-time there, tutoring students in reading, writing, and study skills. When I graduated they offered me a full-time position as an office manager with time built into my week to do some tutoring.

The director of the Center was one of the best managers I ever had. She expressed a lot of confidence in me, and she was compassionate and empathetic. For instance, she noticed that I liked to swim. She said, if you go swimming at lunch and you take a little more than an hour, don’t worry about it. I learned so much from her about how to be a good manager.

That position was a great match for me for a while, but over time I got frustrated by the manual system they used for scheduling appointments. I had learned that you could schedule using computers, which made it much more efficient. I offered my recommendations and was told my thinking was sound, but they were not ready to make the shift. I didn’t realize (and wasn’t patient enough to figure out) that in public institutions, things don’t happen swiftly. It’s not like once you identify a problem and a solution you can solve it overnight.

 Next: Poetry Has No Rules