America’s underground Chinese restaurant workers

From The New Yorker, a brilliant article by Lauren Hilgers on life for America’s underground Chinese restaurant workers.

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.

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America’s underground Chinese restaurant workers