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.”
It can get kind of better
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.
So this is why he stays
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.”