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The Secret Cost of Chinese Buffets, Part 2

Posted on Nov 16, 2016

Eric Rosberg / AP

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Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series by the author about agencies that profit from exploiting the labor of undocumented immigrants. Read the first part of this investigative report here.

I call the number the agency gave me for the driver.

He gives me an address over the phone.

“What time is the bus?” I ask.


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“Eight o’clock,” he answers. He hangs up.

I walk seven blocks from the employment agency to the address. I pass bubble-tea shops and restaurants with roasted ducks hanging from hooks in the windows. I stop in front of a building with a sign in a second-floor window that advertises the space as a temple. Below the temple is a grocery store that doubles as a bus agency. I go inside.

It is a small store that sells herbs, fermented bean curd and frozen chive dumplings. Customers pay for bus tickets and groceries at the same counter.

I show the cashier my employment-agency paper.

“I need a ticket to Georgia,” I say.

“$80,” she says.

I pay in cash. She hands me a bus ticket stub. The route is printed on the ticket: “New York to Baltimore, to South Carolina, to Atlanta.”

The discount buses in Chinatown go to more than 40 cities. They are notorious for long delays, breakdowns on the highway and fatal accidents caused by overworked drivers who fall asleep at the wheel. They are also widely believed to be linked to the Chinese mafia. Law enforcement officials have found buses carrying large quantities of cocaine and methamphetamines. Rivalries between competing bus companies can be deadly.

In 2002, a Chinatown bus driver named De Jian Chen backed into a competitor’s bus three times. He fractured the unlucky driver’s pelvis. A year later, Chen died from five bullet wounds to the chest.

The buses are also crawling with pimps who attempt to recruit Chinese women, headed for restaurant jobs around the country, into prostitution. The pimps frame the prostitution as massage-parlor work. They hand out business cards. The women usually do not call right away, but when they discover how little they can earn in the restaurants working 12-hour shifts, especially given the money they must turn over to the employment agencies and “snakeheads”—people who specialize in smuggling and human trafficking—it is hard not to succumb. For those who fall behind in their debts, the choice is often violence against them and their families, or being prostituted in a “massage parlor.” Many women in Chinese massage parlors started out working in Chinese restaurants.

There are only three Chinese passengers on the bus, including myself. The rest are African-American. The bus companies in Chinatown were originally formed in the early 1990s to transport undocumented Chinese workers to restaurant jobs across America. But eventually the cheap fares attracted non-Chinese passengers.

I drift in and out of sleep during the overnight trip. I wake around 1 p.m. We are passing billboards that advertise adult-film stores and restaurants. I am near the end of my 16-hour ride.

The bus arrives at the last stop in Atlanta. It’s August. I’m wearing a shirt I bought in Chinatown that says “Let It Snow,” in an effort to appear less Americanized. I feel a little ridiculous.

A Chinese woman waves at me. “You will be driven to a town an hour from here,” she says, motioning to a silver Audi. “It will cost you $50.”

She does not tell me the name of the restaurant or the town.

I get in the car. A taciturn Chinese man wearing dark sunglasses is behind the wheel. He is wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. We drive past Waffle House restaurants and discount department stores. We do not talk for the one-hour ride. He drops me off at a McDonald’s.

“Wait here,” he says. “Someone from the buffet will come pick you up.”

He leaves.

Outside McDonald’s, I sit on my suitcase. “Are you lost?” a man asks me. “I don’t see many Asians around here.”

“Someone is coming to pick me up. Thank you for asking, though,” I say. But I’ve never felt more lost. I don’t even know the name of the city.

I sit there for half an hour. A Chinese woman driving an SUV pulls into the parking lot. She is the buffet owner’s wife. I’ll call her Ellen. She is a thin, 45-year-old woman with sharp eyes and radiant skin. There is something severe about her face.

In the back seat are her two children, ages 5 and 11. They speak in a mixture of Chinese and English—Chinglish.

“I want McDonald’s,” one says.

“No, I want Wendy’s,” the other says.

“Be quiet!” Ellen snaps. A hush falls over the car.

“Did you come here on a student visa?” she asks.

“I used to go to school,” I say, hoping my vague but truthful answers will suffice. “School is very expensive.”

Ellen has been in the U.S. for more than two decades. She tells me she will teach me everything she knows about American society. She plays ’80s rock music and orders Chicken McNuggets at the drive-thru.

We drive for 20 minutes, passing shopping malls and Wal-Marts. We arrive at the workers’ dorm. It is a white, two-story house. The grass is overgrown and the paint is chipping. Two Chinese-restaurant owners use this house for their employees. She unlocks the door.

There is no living room or hallway on the ground floor. There are stairs going up and stairs going down.

“Don’t take your shoes off,” Ellen says. “The floors are very dirty.”

The beige carpet on the stairs is worn and soiled with brown stains. She leads me upstairs to a room containing only a lamp.

“This is your room,” she says.

I wonder if I’ll need to buy a bed. I go to the bathroom. Cockroaches scramble in the sink. I decide to wait until I get to the restaurant. I change into black clothing and leave with Ellen.

The buffet is a 10-minute drive from the dorm. We drive past well-kept suburban houses and a bike-rental shop.

The restaurant has a pagoda roof and red lanterns. It is in a small plaza filled with clothing stores and a pizzeria. A large banner says, “All You Can Eat Chinese Seafood For $7!”

I walk in the front door. The restaurant smells of soy sauce and Lysol. It offers the typical dishes found in cheap Chinese takeout places: egg drop soup, orange chicken and various meats fried and refried in soy sauce. There are also more expensive dishes, such as sushi, salmon, raw oysters, crawfish, mussels and shrimp with cocktail sauce.

Ellen walks directly to the back. She begins to scold a worker named John. He is a lanky, 19-year-old busboy with bushy sideburns and an expired student visa.

“I was at the dorm today. I saw your filthy room. How can you have your money scattered openly on the table like that?” she yells. “If your money gets stolen, I’m not going to compensate.”

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