Chinese Restaurant Workers in U.S. Face Hurdles There are about 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States. Many of the workers in the kitchen are recent arrivals from China — some legal, some not — and many took on significant debts to get to the United States.
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Chinese Restaurant Workers in U.S. Face Hurdles

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Chinese Restaurant Workers in U.S. Face Hurdles

Chinese Restaurant Workers in U.S. Face Hurdles

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Now, if the queen had skipped the state dinner, just decided that it was too formal, too stuffy, didn't want to do that, wanted to get a real flavor of America, she could easily have gone out for Chinese instead. In fact, many of you may have done that. There are about 40,000 Chinese restaurants nationwide, which is more than the number of McDonald's and Taco Bells combined.

Almost every town in America seems to have Chinese takeout at least, and the workers who staff those restaurants working long hours for low pay often come through New York City's Chinatown.

NPR's Margot Adler has the first of two reports.

MARGOT ADLER: People come to Chinatown all the time, but they never see the neighborhood the way Ken Guest, a professor of anthropology at Baruch College, shows it to me when he takes me to the East Broadway Mall, the central hub of the Fujianese restaurant business.

Professor KEN GUEST (Anthropology, Baruch College): Inside, you'll find a wide variety of stores with everything that an immigrant could need as they're passing through New York. And all around it, you'll find buses and vans the people can take to get to the restaurants, whether they're in the New York area or across the country.

ADLER: This is not the Chinatown most tourists see. Near the Manhattan Bridge there are stores to buy phone cards or wire money home, as well as places to get Chinese videos, vegetables and herbs, or visit tailors, barbers and lawyers. There's the Chinatown bus that takes people to Boston or Washington, D.C. for $15, but there is an entire other system of transportation with signs only in Chinese.

Prof. GUEST: And you'd also see here a sign for the bus route between here and Ohio - Toledo, Ohio.

ADLER: Ken Guest has done research both here and in China on the Fujianese community that staffs many of the Chinese restaurants all over the East Coast and Midwest. Why a bus to Ohio? You can find the answer under the bridge on a street filled with employment agencies, like the Sincere Agency, which has been run by Wendy Wong(ph) for 15 years. Some days are busier than others, she says.

Ms. WENDY WONG (Manager, Sincere Agency): Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday is the busy times. Yeah, there are more people come in.

ADLER: It's a small room, maybe 12 feet long and 12 feet wide. Wong and two other women stand behind the counter, talking to people looking for jobs. On the wall there's a pair of whiteboards crammed with job listings in a mix of Chinese characters and phone numbers. Ken Guest points to the board.

Prof. GUEST: That tells you the area code of where the restaurant is located, and it tells you that they're looking for a chef and that they're paying $2,500 a month, and the hours are 11 to 11.

ADLER: And the people on the phone have now - this woman here is interested in a particular job.

Prof. GUEST: Exactly.

ADLER: And she is having a little negotiation.

Prof. GUEST: She's having an interview over the phone with the restaurant worker, wherever they may be, in State College, PA or North Carolina. And they have a little interview, and they have a little negotiation. And if they make a match, there's a fee of about - between $25 or $30 that gets paid to the employment agency.

ADLER: And the workers are on their way. Guest says in many towns, they live next to or above the restaurant. They generally work six days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day and, depending on the job, make $1,500 to $2,500 a month.

Prof. GUEST: Though it's very difficult to multiply that by 12 and think of an annual income, because most of these workers aren't able to sustain that level of effort for more than a couple of months at a time. And the isolation is very intense in these places where they may be, along with the other workers in the restaurant, the only Chinese people that they hang out with and see.

ADLER: So they come back to New York's Chinatown and, after a month or so, begin the process again. Xi Don Chun(ph) is at the Sincere Agency with his wife. They've been in the U.S. several years. They want to work here in the city.

Mr. XI DON CHUN: (Through translator) Even if we go home, our problem is that our English isn't very good, so it's a lot easier to be here in New York City.

ADLER: And are any of the jobs on the board things that look interesting?

Mr. CHUN: (Chinese spoken)

Prof. GUEST: He has work, but his wife doesn't have any work.

ADLER: She is looking for work as a restaurant receptionist. Guest says that one reason so many people have come to the U.S. from Fujian Province is the presence of human smuggling networks. And he estimates that while perhaps 50 percent come in legal ways - for example, through family reunification programs - and are documented...

Prof. GUEST: I think probably up to half of them are paying smugglers to come in, and $70,000 is the going rate right now.

ADLER: It can take five to 10 years to pay back the debt. And the long working hours leave little time to learn English and acclimate into American society. Guest says the system that pulls all these workers in from China keeps them in the system.

Prof. GUEST: Keeps them very vulnerable and isolated from mainstream U.S. economics, social networks, politics.

ADLER: Something that most of us do not consider as we enjoy our hot and sour soup.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

INSKEEP: And tomorrow, Margot is going to take us to a restaurant where Chinese delivery workers are striking for higher pay.

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