At the beginning of every week, a steady stream of Chinese restaurant workers files into the nest of Chinatown employment agencies clustered under the Manhattan Bridge: young men with spiky hair barely out of their teens, smooth-skinned girls who still giggle about their crushes and stocky older men who left their families behind in China years ago.
The workers walk in and out, in and out, checking each of the dozens of dusty single-room agencies. They focus on the white boards and walls of notes that list the hundreds, if not thousands, of job openings available across the country each week: kitchen helpers, chefs, waitresses, telephone answerers, delivery men who can drive, delivery men who don't need to drive.
Among the job seekers one Monday in late September was Xue Qingxi, a 38-year-old immigrant with large, friendly eyes and a bright green T-shirt who had arrived in New York City the day before, towing his belongings in two small black rolling suitcases. Feeling it was time for a change, he had just left his job as a cook in a Chinese restaurant in North Carolina. Where, exactly, in North Carolina, he wasn't sure.
PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
"It's all rural," he said dismissively. After renting a bed for the night for US$15, he was wandering in and out of the employment agencies the next afternoon, looking for his next job.
"I want to leave tonight," he said.
There are more than 36,000 Chinese restaurants in the US -- more than the total number of McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King restaurants combined, says Chinese Restaurant News, an industry publication. They have popped up in exurban strip malls and on the decaying streets of former industrial centers in the Midwest: buffets, takeouts. And the main hub for staffing that vast network of restaurants -- or at least those that lie east of the Rocky Mountains -- is at the convergence of Forsyth, Division and Eldridge streets, where the rumble of the subway can be heard overhead.
"It's remarkable how successful the Chinese have been in adapting their food to the US, making it so available," said Kenneth Guest, a sociology professor at Baruch College in New York, who has studied Chinese restaurant workers. "You can go and get a great meal for great prices, based on workers paid well below minimum wage."
Well, on paper at least, the salaries will squeak by minimum wage, especially if tips are taken into consideration. All the agencies have Chinese signs explaining the concept of the minimum wage law.
The vast majority of these workers, like Xue, are undocumented, and have paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of being in the US. In the Delaware-size area around Fuzhou, a city that has become China's leading exporter of restaurant workers to the US, the going rate for being smuggled is now around US$60,000, Guest said.
The risk of being caught exists, but arrests are sporadic. Last November, US Immigration and Customs agents detained 80 illegal immigrants and arrested eight people in raids in five New York state counties. In recent years, authorities have also focused on restaurants and employment agencies in Texas, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The detained illegals are usually put into deportation proceedings.
But for almost all the workers, including Xue, the risk is worth it. All they care about are the three numbers: the monthly salary, the area code where the restaurant is located and the number of hours it takes to travel by bus from New York City to the job.
The monthly salary, for a job that requires six 12-hour days a week, ranges generally from US$1,800 to US$2,700, scaling upward from dishwasher to waitress to cook. It is understood that all jobs beyond commuting distance of New York City include free room and board, provided by the restaurant owner. The owners rent or buy apartments that serve as dorms for the workers.
The jobs can last from a few days -- if things don't work out -- to several months or longer. The workers are mobile and seldom have any connection to the nameless small towns and strip malls they end up in.
For workers who cannot read the names of their destinations in English, area codes serve as the restaurants' main geographical identifiers. The workers do not see the US as a series of cities or states, but as a collection of area codes, almost all with dozens upon dozens of restaurants looking for help. Maps in every Chinese agency break down the country by area code.
For many restaurant workers, the number of hours by bus is a critical measure of how far they are from the US center of their universe, East Broadway in Manhattan's Chinatown. Almost all travel by bus, because many do not speak English or have identification, so they cannot travel by plane. A network of Chinese bus companies has sprung up to shuttle restaurant workers from Chinatown to the rest of the country. Some have started to draw non-Chinese riders, specifically the "Chinatown buses" that run between New York and Boston or Washington. One bus-company sign advertises the destination and the fare: "Minnesota (612, 952, 763) US$150; Wisconsin (920, 608, 414) US$120."
At Sincere Agency on Division Street, which sometimes places more than 100 workers in a day, Xue found an appealing job as a cook in Ohio (US$2,400 a month, 440 area code, near Cleveland, 10 hours by bus). In the short phone interview with the restaurant owner, the questions were practical. Instead of "What do you see yourself doing in five years?," Xue was asked: "How many years' experience do you have?" and "Can you leave tonight?"
A verbal agreement was reached, and Xue pulled out US$30 in cash to pay the agency. Unlike many employment agencies where the employer pays for the match, the employees here pay for the privilege of finding a job. Competition among a growing number of agencies has pushed the going rate down over the years, to US$30, down from 2 percent of one month's salary. Some fly-by-night agencies have pushed it to US$15 or US$20, which causes the regulated agencies to grumble about the cost of rent and insurance.
The agency clerk gave Xue two slips of paper: one listing the restaurant's name and the number for the owner, the other telling him where to catch the Ohio bus at 5pm.
As he left to retrieve his things, Xue got a call on his cell phone from the restaurant telling him that he was not wanted because he was northern Chinese. The language barrier, the restaurant explained.
So Xue returned to Sincere Agency for another job. This time it was in South Carolina, and the bus was leaving at 10pm.
By 9:30pm, Xue was seated on a cushy bus with air-conditioning and DVD movies. In the belly of the bus were his two suitcases holding his chef's cap, pictures of his son and Chinese novels. He paid US$80 for the ticket. When the ride ended, he would have made a 60-hour journey from North Carolina to South Carolina, via Manhattan.
As the bus pulled into the sparse night traffic and dimmed its interior lights, almost all the seats were full. About 90 percent of the people on the bus, Xue said, were heading to work in restaurants in the South.
The bus joined the tractor-trailers heading south on the interstate with their goods. They would all arrive after the sun rose the next morning.
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