When our interest in long form journalism intersects with our wide and deep interest in foodways, we could not be happier than to pass it along. Have a taste of this deeply reported story on cooks in the Chinese restaurant trade in the USA, as offered in this week’s New Yorker:
In a strip mall on a rural stretch of Maryland’s Indian Head Highway, a gaudy red façade shaped like a pagoda distinguishes a Chinese restaurant from a line of bland storefronts: a nail salon, a liquor store, and a laundromat. On a mild Friday morning this July, two customers walked into the dimly lit dining room. It was half an hour before the lunch service began, and, aside from a few fish swimming listlessly in a tank, the room was deserted.
In the back, steam was just starting to rise from pots of soup; two cooks were chopping ginger at a frenzied pace. Most of the lunch crowd comes in for the buffet, and it was nowhere near ready. “Customers are here already!” the restaurant’s owner, a wiry Chinese man in his fifties, barked. He dropped a heavy container onto the metal counter with a crash. “How can you possibly be moving this slowly?”
The senior cook, a lanky twenty-nine-year-old who goes by Rain, had been working in Maryland for almost two months. He stood silently frying noodles in a wok, his loose bangs tucked into a trucker hat with the band name Linkin Park written across the brow. “You’re too slow!” the boss yelled at the other cook, who had arrived only a few days earlier. Rain stayed focussed on the buffet dishes. He was weighing the possibility of getting a cigarette break soon. There was no sense in getting into trouble defending a co-worker he hardly knew.
Rain was born in a village in rural China. He had left his family, walked through a desert, and gone tens of thousands of dollars into debt to reach the United States. From Manhattan, he had taken a late-night Chinatown bus, which stopped at freeway off-ramps to discharge other restaurant workers, whose bosses picked them up and took them to strip malls along Interstate 95. He was in his fourth year of restaurant work and felt a growing pride in his fried noodles and sautéed shrimp.
The other cook set down his knife and squared off with the boss. “I have worked in a lot of restaurants, and none of those bosses complained!” he said. “If you’re so worried about it, why don’t you come do it yourself?” The cook stormed out of the kitchen, on his way to catch a bus back to New York. Rain sighed. The next forty-eight hours were the busiest of the week, and he would be the only cook in the kitchen. “You think I was wrong to talk to him like that?” the boss asked. Rain didn’t answer.
There are more than forty thousand Chinese restaurants across the country—nearly three times the number of McDonald’s outlets. There is one in Pinedale, Wyoming (population 2,043), and one in Old Forge, New York (population 756); Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania (population 1,085), has three. 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. The restaurants, connected by Chinese-run bus companies to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, make up an underground network—supported by employment agencies, immigrant hostels, and expensive asylum lawyers—that reaches back to villages and cities in China, which are being abandoned for an ideal of American life that is not quite real.
Rain, who asked that I use his adopted English name to protect his identity, is reedy and slight, with a wide face and sloping cheekbones. He is observant, in no hurry to speak, but he is more cagey than timid. Like his boss, and like everyone else who works at the restaurant, he is primarily concerned with saving as much money as possible. He needs to pay the snakehead that got him to the U.S. and send money to his family in China. He harbors the vague suspicion that everyone around him is angling for more money, less work, or some other benefit at his expense. So, instead of conversation, Rain occupies himself with the math of a transient cook: the time it takes to clean the shrimp, the days before he can visit his girlfriend in New York, and the balance of his debts. At night, he lies on a cot in his boss’s otherwise empty living room, mulling the slow processing of his green card. During the day, if he’s feeling bold, he walks across the strip-mall parking lot to order lunch at Subway, pointing at the menu when he doesn’t know the English word for something.
“I understand why he acts like this,” Rain told me, about his boss. “He’s been working in that restaurant for almost twenty years. He goes back and forth between the restaurant and the dorm where we live. Back and forth, back and forth, every day for years.” The boss’s wife and kids are in China. “You do this kind of work for that long, and you start to lose perspective.” Rain pinched his fingers together. “Your world is this small.”
I met Rain in New York’s Chinatown, standing under a sign that read, “Lucky Days Employment Agency.” He had left his previous restaurant job, at a takeout place in Connecticut, a week before, and after a few days off he was looking for a new job. “You can look online, but nobody does,” Rain said. “This is easier.”
The corner of Eldridge and Forsyth, at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, is cluttered with employment agencies that do business in Chinese. Signs identify the Xingdao Restaurant Employment Agency, the Red Red Restaurant Employment Agency, and the Successful Restaurant Employment Agency. “There are only three jobs a Chinese immigrant can get without papers,” a woman from Beijing told me. “You can work at a massage parlor, you can work doing nails, or you can work in a restaurant.” People come here looking for work as busboys, waiters, or cooks.
It was Sunday, the busiest day of the week, and job seekers spilled out of the agencies, down stairwells, and out into the streets. In tiny local canteens, they ate spicy peanut noodles and pork dumplings before resuming the hunt. The corner gets quieter as the weekend approaches. Bosses don’t want new employees showing up on a busy Friday or Saturday; even an experienced chef requires a few hours to learn a new menu.
Each agency consists of a narrow room with a desk behind bars and employs a small staff of women who sit flanked by phones and notebooks. Stickers pasted to the bars differentiate jobs in New Jersey, Long Island, and upstate New York. Most everything else is just “out of state.” Rain moved among the offices, weaving through the crowd. “All the agencies are about the same,” he said, watching a Chinese couple pass from one door to the next. “But your chances are better if you leave your phone number with all of them.” The women behind the bars scribble the information in college-ruled notebooks. Then, Rain said, you sit around in stairwells and on sidewalks and wait for them to call. Job seekers have to be ready to leave within hours, and Rain expected to be on a bus by the end of the day.
In a smoky second-story office, Rain passed a man who was explaining to an agent that he specialized in painting mountain landscapes on plates, using hoisin sauce. He showed the agent pictures of his work on his cell phone. “I’ve got a job here out of state!” she shouted. “Connecticut! Talk to the boss!” She slipped the phone under the bars. “Hello, boss?” he said.
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 twelve hundred or fifteen hundred dollars a month; a waiter who speaks English could make twice that. Restaurants farther from New York have a harder time attracting workers, so they tend to pay better. Rain explained that the first thing to ask a prospective boss is his age and his home town. “There’s a generation gap between people in their fifties and us,” he said. People who remember the privations of the Cultural Revolution are more focussed on money and more dismissive of quality-of-life concerns. There are regional differences, too. “The bosses from the north of China are usually more easygoing,” one cook told me. “People from Fujian and Taiwan only think about money!” This is a significant consideration; prospective workers will tell you that the Fujianese own the overwhelming majority of Chinese restaurants in the country.
For more than a hundred years, the restaurant trade was dominated by the Cantonese, whose cuisine, fantastically reimagined, provided America’s idea of Chinese food: sweet-and-sour pork, wonton soup, General Tso’s chicken. In the late nineteen-eighties, the mixture of immigrants changed. As reports of China’s one-child policy and of the clash in Tiananmen Square outraged the American public, Chinese immigrants started getting special dispensation in U.S. immigration courts. The Fujianese saw an opportunity. Fujian Province, hemmed in by mountains on one side and by the Taiwan Strait on the other, had been a largely impoverished place for centuries. Its inhabitants began leaving with such urgency that villages emptied out virtually overnight.
In the U.S., the Fujianese took restaurant jobs, learned the trade, and saved up to buy out owners or to open restaurants of their own. The restaurants were concentrated in big cities, but, as competition grew, enterprising immigrants moved away, in search of greater profits. “Previously, if you were looking for a job, it was inside Chinatown or Queens, so people just recommended each other,” Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian-American studies at Hunter College, in New York, said. As Chinese restaurants spread across the country, employment agencies cropped up to link them together…
Read the whole story here.