Thursday, November 6, 2014
The Kitchen Network
It has always been there and even understood to be there but never properly described. I think that this article fills in the blanks rather nicely. It is a narrow world that is cut of from the surrounding culture and these folks see none of it. Yet it seems to work for everybody involved.
The rest of us gain a chinese restaurant in places where no other restaurant will bother to come. This holds true almost world wide.
These workers accept a lot and are typically loyal. I was once asked why my back room was populated by mostly Chinese clerical staff. The answer was terribly simple. They rarely quit while all other staff quit in a couple of years.
The Kitchen Network
America’s underground Chinese restaurant workers.
BY LAUREN HILGERS
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.
Fujianese food is traditionally soupy and slightly sweet, heavy on shellfish and seafood. But, as Fujianese immigrants took over restaurants, they adopted their predecessors’ menus, offering the same spring rolls and egg foo young. In the Chinese-restaurant business, the Fujianese have a reputation for being hardworking and somewhat myopic. A common joke describes their doggedness: if an entrepreneur opened a successful gas station along a highway, Western businessmen might build a grocery store or a café nearby; an influx of Fujianese entrepreneurs would open fifty more gas stations.
The joke underplays how lucrative the restaurant business has been. In the villages surrounding Fuzhou, the provincial capital, the evidence of people flowing out and money flowing back in is visible on nearly every street. The village of Houyu, after a decades-long building boom, is filled with ostentatious mansions, even though few people remain to live in them; the area is so depopulated that, in some cases, squatters have moved in and stayed, undetected, for months. A woman I met there, who runs a takeout restaurant in New Jersey, waved at the empty houses and said, “It doesn’t matter if no one is living there. You have to build a big house so people look at it and say, ‘Oh, that person is doing really well in the United States.”
The village that Rain left in 2009, on the water north of Houyu, has been similarly transformed. Most of the adults who still live there are supported by someone overseas, and the ones who remain eke out a living as fishermen or farmers. Rain’s father, a former teacher, worked in faraway factory towns, and came back when he could, bringing toys. “I worshipped him,” Rain told me.
Rain speaks nostalgically of village life. Growing up, he played games in the alleys until dinnertime and then ran out again to play under the stars. As he got older, he and his friends liked to light firecrackers, stick them in water-buffalo dung, and then sprint away. He remembers the days stretching out lazily, running into years with no urgency. There’s little leisure in the U.S., he says. “If you ask people here if they want to go out and eat dinner with you, or go somewhere to have fun one day, they’ll say, ‘What? You think I have that much American time?’ ”
He told me that he was forced out of the village not by poverty but by religious persecution. After he graduated from vocational school, at nineteen, he started attending a Christian house church with his mother, who had converted when Rain was a child. One day in 2009, he met with a group of other young people to discuss the Bible. The local police burst in, threw him roughly in jail, and demanded the equivalent of three hundred and twenty-five dollars in bail. Once he was released, the police told him not to go anywhere, and checked in regularly to make sure that he was at home. He couldn’t work, and he soon grew desperate.
In the U.S., stories of religious repression are frequently viewed with skepticism. Chinese asylum claims vastly outnumber claims from any other country. In 2012, more than ten thousand Chinese applicants were granted asylum, many of them with the help of high-priced lawyers and interpreters; Egyptians, the second-largest group, had fewer than three thousand successful applicants. The Fujianese government is not known to be particularly strict with Christians, and there are rarely crackdowns on small house churches. When pressed, Rain admits that there are other reasons a person from his village might want to go to the U.S. His parents, for instance, might want him to go: “They’ve been poor their whole lives. They don’t want their children to be poor.” Even well-educated Chinese find few opportunities to pull themselves out of the lower classes, Rain said: “There are a lot of people who went to college, who are very refined and cultured, and even those people can’t find work.”
The cost of passage to the U.S. varies by province. In a packed hostel in Queens, I met a twenty-six-year-old from Henan Province who paid twelve thousand dollars for a student visa. After a smuggler trained him to pass an interview with the consulate and enrolled him in an English-language school in Oklahoma, he flew straight to New York and applied for asylum. Peter Kwong points out that people from Fujian, working through a different network, pay some of the highest fees: “If you’re a Fujianese villager, you’re not likely to say, ‘The price is better in Shandong. I’ll go to Shandong.’”
When Rain decided to hire a snakehead, his parents asked around in the village and came back with a price: seventy thousand dollars. Once he arrived in the U.S., his family and friends would borrow to cover the fee, and Rain would slowly pay them back. “Seventy thousand dollars is a lot of money, but you can make two thousand dollars a month—so you can pay it back in a few years,” he said. “And afterward you’re still making two thousand dollars a month.” A worker in China’s private sector makes, on average, about forty-seven hundred dollars a year.
The snakeheads instructed Rain to bring as little as possible, he told me: “They said, ‘Do you think we’re taking you on a tour? The lighter the better.’ ” Two weeks later, a van drove him to Fuzhou and dropped him off at the airport with a fake passport, an address on a slip of paper, and a ticket to Beijing. “As soon as I walked out my front door, everything was a first,” Rain said. “It was my first time on an airplane. It was the first time I travelled so far. And, in Beijing, it was the first time I saw snow.” Rain hailed a taxi and gave the driver the address, which turned out to be a hotel—a way station for emigrants. He spent two weeks there, walking around the neighborhood and watching TV. He felt as if he were on vacation.
Finally, Rain and an older man from Fujian were put on a plane and given another address on a slip of paper: a city in Mexico that Rain had never heard of. During a layover in France, they searched nervously for their connecting flight. Landing in Mexico, Rain was frightened. He took a taxi and paid the driver far more than the trip was worth. “I think they saw us and knew what we were,” Rain said. After spending a night in a hotel, he and his companion were picked up and driven north for hours, until they arrived at a small house with crops growing in the fields around it. Inside, a number of Mexicans, watched over by smugglers, were waiting to cross the border. No one spoke Chinese, so when Rain got hungry he pointed at his stomach and someone gave him a cup of instant noodles.
Wherever the house was, it was close to the border. The smugglers looked them over to make sure they were fit to spend the day walking in the desert, gave them each a bottle of water, and herded them out the door. Their guide blew up an inflatable boat, and they floated across the Rio Grande. “You didn’t need to understand anything besides ‘Go,’ ” Rain said. “When the guide said, ‘Go, go, go,’ you ran.”
BUY OR LICENSE »
Rain and his companions walked for a full day and most of the night, until, before dawn, they came to a road, where an associate of the smugglers picked them up. They went to Houston first, and from there a van took them straight to New York. “I just got here and looked at the sky,” Rain told me. “Everything looked so big. In China, everything seems squeezed together and small. I thought, The U.S. is going to be wonderful.”
Rain had relatives near New York, and a cousin he barely knew drove him out of the city to a family-owned restaurant. For a week, he stayed at his cousin’s house, alone, while the rest of the family went to work. “Everyone is like this,” he said. “They don’t want to take you to the restaurant, because every person that goes into the restaurant wants to get paid.”
Eventually, Rain’s cousin got him a ride to Manhattan and told him that he was on his own. With the help of a friend from his village who was living in the city, he made his way to the employment agencies in Chinatown. He struck a deal with a restaurant owner and paid the agency a small fee of about twenty dollars. 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.” Along with the other newly employed workers, he collected his belongings and walked to one of the Chinatown bus agencies, a few blocks away.
Rain’s first job was outside Albany, at a family-run restaurant where he was the only employee. When he arrived, his boss put him to work prepping all the food for the evening’s service. Rain kept cutting his fingers chopping chicken. The boss told him, “Oh, little brother, you don’t understand anything,” but he refused to help. At mealtime, the family handed Rain a bowl of rice with a few vegetables and left him to eat by himself. Later, the boss dumped buckets of water on the floor and told him to mop it up. Rain called his friend to complain. “That boss is bullying you,” the friend said. “He knows you just arrived in the U.S., so he’s making you do too much.” The next day, Rain was on a bus back to New York.
Rain’s friend told him to find a job farther away, “so the boss will treat you better.” Rain found work in South Carolina, where he stayed for two months. “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. He practiced using cornstarch to make a crispy coating on General Tso’s chicken and to thicken the sauce for beef with broccoli. Like most cooks in busy Chinese restaurants, he figured out how to use a single knife, a heavy cleaver, for everything from cleaning shrimp to mincing garlic. “It’s important that you do it fast,” he said.
Since then, Rain has bounced from restaurant to restaurant, staying for a few months and then going back to New York for a rest before getting another job. He has few impressions of the states and cities where he has worked; he leaves the kitchen only to smoke cigarettes in a back parking lot or to be driven to the restaurant’s dorm at night. He told me that he would never go on a walk on his day off. “What if you get lost?” he said. “You can’t ask anybody directions, and your boss is going to be too busy at the restaurant to come get you.”
Six mornings a week, the boss picks up Rain and the other workers from their dorm and takes them to the restaurant. Their preparations have a catechistic order: first the rice cooker, then dishes for the buffet, then those for the lunch rush. Twice a week, a Chinese-run company brings supplies, and everyone gathers to butcher meat, hacking it into small pieces for quick cooking. They put on rubber gloves and pour salt and cornstarch over the meat, mix it by hand, then seal it and put it into the freezer. 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. When a buffet tray gets low, a waiter calls through an intercom, set at a startling volume: “We need more pineapple chicken up front!”
When Rain arrived in the U.S., he assumed that he had a fair proficiency with Chinese food. His father had prided himself on his culinary skill, and his mother was a capable cook, too. She taught him when to add spice to a dish, when to temper it with Chinese celery. Rain worked briefly as a fry cook in his village, and found that he had absorbed some of his parents’ knowledge. “Even if I’ve never cooked a dish before, I can think about it and draw from my experience,” he said. Having grown up on his father’s subtly flavored fish soups, he was surprised by American Chinese food. Americans seemed to eat like kids: they love starches and sweet things, and are frightened of meat and fish with bones in it. “Americans eat all that fried stuff,” he told me. “It’s not healthy.” Real Chinese food is more refined: “You have to spend a lot of time studying and really understanding it.”
In Maryland, most of the patrons seem to come for the buffet and eat as much as they can. Still, Rain loves watching people in the dining room. “I like seeing a clean plate,” he said. “I like it when people take the first bite of my food and they start nodding their head.” He spends hours trying to create a perfectly round Chinese omelette. “There’s a lot of kung fu in making egg foo young,” he told me. “If you have time, you’ll make it really perfect. You’ll make it bigger, better-looking, rounder. They’ll think, I spent so little money and I got such good food, and on top of that it’s good-looking. And then maybe they’ll come back.”
Rain viewed the job in Maryland as an opportunity to expand his repertoire. “In a takeout restaurant, people order the same dishes over and over,” he said. At a bigger restaurant, he could learn new dishes. And his salary—twenty-eight hundred dollars 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.
Rain lives with five co-workers in a red brick town house that his boss owns, part of a woodsy development near the restaurant. The house is tidy; there are three floors covered with white carpeting, and each worker has been supplied with an identical cot, a desk, a chair, and a lamp. “Some bosses don’t take care of the houses,” Rain said. “If they’re renting the house, especially, they don’t care. The rooms will actually smell.” Every restaurant worker has a story of sleeping in a dank basement or being packed in a room with five other people. Many complain of living in a house that has no washing machine, and being forced to spend their day off scrubbing their grease-spattered T-shirts in a sink.
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. Outside, the building is indistinguishable from the other town houses, aside from a tin can full of cigarette butts on the doorstep. The shades are kept drawn.
Restaurant workers heading to jobs in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, or in Buffalo, New York, don’t worry much about the hard work or the long hours. They worry about the isolation. “If you do this job too long, you’ll eventually lose your mind,” one cook told me. Rain said that the people around him were constantly on guard. In the kitchen and the restaurant dorms, no one talks to anyone else, so it’s difficult to ask questions. (“For example,” Rain said, pointing to the Linkin Park logo on his hat, “can you tell me what my hat says?”) He 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 twenty different restaurants in one month. They don’t have time to make friends.” When Rain arrived, he shared the living room with another cook. At night, they sat on their beds across from each other, watching Chinese dramas on their computers or sending text messages. “You don’t talk, and you don’t say good night,” Rain said. “You just see that the other person has turned off their lamp and you think, Oh, I should lower the volume on my headphones.”
After a year in the U.S., Rain started thinking about a girl he had met in middle school, who was working in restaurants and passing through New York every couple of months. A friend told him how to reach her on a Chinese instant-messaging service, and Rain began inviting her to meet him on his days off. “The two of us were of the same world,” he said. “We had the same goals.” Rain’s girlfriend, who goes by Annie, is twenty-nine and lanky, nearly as tall as Rain. She came to the U.S. a year before he did, and she speaks with assurance about restaurant work. “She’s got a lot of opinions,” Rain told me. “She’s got more opinions than I do, even.” Annie pushes Rain to work harder, to take less time off, and to save for a family. Although she spoke no English when she arrived from China, she quickly learned enough to answer the phone in a takeout place. (Rain points out that the jobs women typically hold in restaurants—taking orders or working as hostesses—give them better opportunities to practice English.) Recently, she moved to a Japanese restaurant, which many Chinese workers prefer; the jobs pay well, and rolling sushi isn’t such hot work as frying noodles. Rain accepted the position in Maryland partly because she had worked in the area a few years before him. “I like to think I’m following a road that she’s walked on,” he told me.
After a year of sleeping in hostels and on friends’ couches whenever he returned to New York, Rain decided that he needed a base. He now rents a bedroom in an apartment in Brooklyn, for five hundred dollars a month, and tries to visit every other weekend and cook a meal for Annie. “If you have your own apartment, you can put your luggage somewhere and your clothes somewhere,” he said. “When you’re injured, when you’re unhappy, when your boss scolds you, when you get fired, you know you can go home.”
The most worrisome problem for Rain is securing citizenship. Soon after he arrived in the U.S., his friends directed him to an asylum lawyer in Chinatown, whose services started at ten thousand dollars. Rain paid the fee, wrote up his claim, and collected supporting documents. Because asylum claims must be made within a year of crossing the border, he got a Brooklyn church to confirm the date of his arrival. Three months later, he was invited for an interview. “The lawyer told me to look the asylum officer in the eye,” he told me. “If you’re nervous, or if you mess up the timing, they’ll think you’re lying.”
Rain was granted asylum in late 2010, and a year later his lawyer helped him apply for a green card. But soon afterward, he told me, the lawyer was arrested in an F.B.I. sting targeting fraudulent asylum claims. The application process, which is supposed to take six months, has dragged on for almost three years.
In September, during China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, Rain negotiated a week of unpaid vacation, and he invited me to Brooklyn to try some home-cooked Fujianese food. “Come to my cousin’s apartment,” he told me. “We hang out there most days.” The apartment was on Eighth Avenue, in Brooklyn’s Chinatown.
When I arrived, the door was wide open, and Rain was sitting at a glass-topped table with his cousin and two friends. They wore plastic gloves to protect their hands as they munched on cured duck heads. Rain poured tea and told me, “Don’t feel like you have to eat the duck head.” A soup-filled wok bubbled on the stove, and his cousin, having retrieved a half bottle of wine he had stashed away, cooked rice noodles in the broth, tossing in oysters and cabbage and a handful of tiny, curled squids. “There’s no name for it,” Rain said. “It’s just a simple soup, with noodles. Call it seafood noodle soup.” He opened kitchen cabinets to show me the ingredients his cousin kept. “You see?” he said. “Chinese people use all of these sauces and ingredients for just one dish.” His cousin, gesturing toward the duck heads, said, “Do you know why Americans don’t like eating meat with bones in it? They’re too lazy!”
Rain’s cousin had worked in restaurants when he arrived in the U.S., but he got out of the business as soon as he could. “It’s too hard!” he said, pantomiming a cook’s frantic routine: shaking a wok, grabbing things off shelves, tossing them in. “All day, for twelve hours, you’re like this!” Rain sat at the table, grinning. He sympathized with his cousin’s restaurant fatigue. “Americans, when they want to rest and enjoy themselves, they rest and they enjoy themselves,” he told me. “Chinese people—it all depends on your boss.” Rain’s father died in 2012, and he was unable to go back to China for the funeral. “I regret a lot when it comes to my family,” he said.
For many restaurant workers, the decision to come to the U.S. is irrevocable. But, as the disappointments of immigrant life accrue, it can be hard not to imagine that things might be better elsewhere. Chinese-Americans, despite a good public image, suffer higher rates of poverty than the general public. Mental-health problems are an increasing concern in New York’s immigrant communities. In parts of China where the growing economy has given people more options, the allure of working in the U.S. has faded. This February, in a hostel in Queens, I met a woman who had just returned from a difficult day of job hunting. “I thought America would be heaven, and all it is is cold!” she complained. She returned to Beijing after four months. In Fuzhou, a taxi-driver told me that he was glad his attempts to emigrate had failed. “My father says that having a son in the United States is like having no son at all,” he said.
Rain tried not to dwell on returning to Maryland, where he was due in a few days. Everyone else who had worked at the restaurant when he started had been driven off by the boss’s temper. “And it’s so far away,” Rain said. If he could find a job somewhere closer, he could see Annie every weekend. As his family’s only son, Rain feels increasing pressure to send money home to his mother. But, he reasoned, everyone who comes to the U.S. should be prepared for hardship. “Everything we do, we do for the next generation,” he said, and added, “No matter what, it beats sitting around in the village.”
When the soup was ready, Rain ladled out bowlfuls, thick with noodles and shellfish. The broth, barely salted, was delicate and fresh. Everyone at the table slurped it from the bowl before starting on the noodles, and Rain smiled proudly as we ate.
After dinner, he and I walked along Eighth Avenue to find some moon cakes, and he talked about the future. In five years, if all goes according to plan, he will have his debt paid off, and enough money set aside to help support a child. He and Annie want to raise a family somewhere with a Chinese community, and they sometimes talk about opening a restaurant of their own. He wondered if a Fujianese restaurant could succeed outside Chinatown. Americans might not be ready for it, he said, but if they just tried his food they would be convinced. The next time I came for dinner, he promised, he would make something more elaborate.
Rain watched the fishmongers on Eighth Avenue as they dumped out ice and packed up their fish. “This is the best time of night to buy cheap seafood,” he told me. “They’ll just have to throw it away.” He pointed at a woman buying a huge, scrabbling red crab. “If you’ve never had those crabs, you’ll have to try them!” he said. With a look of concern, he added, “Don’t worry—I’ll take it out of the shell and chop it up. It will be easy to eat.”