This week, the New Yorker published a story shedding light on "America's underground Chinese restaurant workers," describing how many Chinese cooks and restaurant employees find themselves navigating a network of employment agencies, Chinatown buses, and hostel-like living situations to reach take-out jobs in American suburbs.
Lauren Hilgers' story follows "Rain," a 29-year-old from a Chinese village north of Houyu. Rain, who speaks no English, holds down a Brooklyn apartment while working in a Maryland restaurant — previously, he had stints in upstate New York and South Carolina, staying "for a few months" at each before returning to Chinatown's employment network. Rain, who's been working in restaurants since illegally immigrating to the country four years ago, now exists in an immigration grey zone while working hard to send money back to China. Here are the 10 best lines that tell his tale.
1) On the ubiquity of Chinese restaurants in America: "There are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the country — nearly three times the number of McDonald's outlets… Most are family operations, staffed by immigrants who pass through for a few months at a time, living in houses and apartments that have been converted into makeshift dormitories."
2) On the immediacy of hiring agencies: "Job seekers have to be ready to leave within hours, and Rain expected to be on a bus [to a new job] by the end of the day."
3) On agencies' unorthodox hiring methods: "When an agency finds a suitable match, the cooks and the waiters speak to the restaurant owners, asking about hours, living conditions, and salary. A busboy might make $1,200 or $1,500 a month; a waiter who speaks English could make twice that."
4) On Rain's investment in the American dream: "When Rain decided to hire a snakehead [to help smuggle him into the United States], his parents asked around in the village and came back with a price: seventy thousand dollars." (Rain believes he can pay the fee back in "a few years.")
5) On the secretive way new employees get assigned to jobs: "The agency gave him a slip of paper that listed his salary, the boss's name and phone number, and the right bus to take. The restaurant's address, in keeping with the usual practice, was left out. 'No one knows where they're going,' Rain explained. 'They just show up and call the phone number.'"
6) Rain, on differences between mainland cooking and American Chinese food: "'At the beginning, I couldn't do anything — I could only clean up, do a little frying,' he told me. 'Now I can do pretty much anything.' He encountered his first eggroll and his first fortune cookie, and learned how to prepare dishes he had never seen in China."
7) On why Gordon Ramsay's kitchens are not reality: "Chinese kitchens in the U.S. have none of the badinage that makes for good reality TV. In Rain's kitchen, the only person who talks is the boss, complaining."
8) On Rain's natural caginess: "His salary — $2,800 a month — was good, but not good enough to arouse concern. 'If you come across a job paying three thousand, you think there must be something wrong with that restaurant,' he told me."
9) On Rain living with five roommates, who are also co-workers: "Every restaurant worker has a story of sleeping in a dank basement or being packed in a room with five other people… Rain's boss, in contrast, is fastidious. The house has a granite-countered kitchen, but he forbids the employees living there to use it; instead, a hot plate and a card table have been set up in the garage."
10) On the loneliness of itinerant restaurant work: "In the kitchen and the restaurant dorms, no one talks to anyone else, so it's difficult to ask questions… [Rain] hadn't learned the names of half the people working there. 'I said hello to one guy, and he didn't answer me,' he said. 'Some people go to 20 different restaurants in one month. They don't have time to make friends."