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The Secret Cost of Chinese Buffets, Part 2
Posted on Nov 16, 2016
By Amelia Pang
The Latinos, drinking beer below us in the basement, blast mariachi music. I am suddenly very lonely. I want to ask John about his life in China. I want to ask him why he gave up on school. But he had been complaining all day about how painful it was to talk with tongue ulcers. I leave him alone. I walk into the bathroom and overcome my disgust and brush my teeth as the roaches dance below me in the sink.
After I shower, I come out of the bathroom and bump into the buffet owner. He is a stout man wearing a “Reagan Bush ’84” T-shirt. I wasn’t expecting anyone to stop by the house at 11 p.m. I’m wearing gym shorts, and he stares long and hard at my legs.
The owner is a morose man. I later find out he was smuggled into the U.S. He managed to pay off his debt and start two restaurants.
This is my first time meeting him. He does not ask my name or tell me his. He simply unlocks one of the bedroom doors.
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My new room is a remarkable upgrade. It has a bed, a plastic shelf and a closet filled with broken hangers. There is an unplugged mini-fridge that has potential.
I later find out my old room is reserved for a 35-year-old woman named Cindy who is arriving the next day to work at another restaurant. When more employees come, we will have to share rooms. Many have to sleep on the floor.
I go downstairs to look at the washer and dryer. The Latino workers are lying on their beds, looking at their phones with forlorn expressions.
I’m hesitant to talk to the workers because I’m supposed to barely speak English. I manage to ask them where they’re from and how much they earn. They’re from Mexico and make $2,000 a month. They’ve been working in Chinese restaurants for four to six years.
At 9:40 a.m. the next day, we climb into the white van.
We hold our noses when we enter the restaurant’s kitchen through the back door. It smells like rotting food.
My morning routine consists of wiping windows and re-wiping tables. We brew sweet tea. We refill soy sauce containers once a week.
Breakfast is at 11 a.m.
I eat cantaloupe, and broccoli and green beans soaked in oil. It is also what I have for lunch and dinner. It’s usually the most nutritious items left in the buffet. I can eat it quickly. There’s salmon, but it’s old and steeped in old oil. It makes me queasy. There’s crawfish. Everything else is meat, rice and noodles.
There’s a lull in the afternoon. John and I go to the kitchen. We fill mushrooms with cheese and ground beef for 45 minutes. We are so tired we don’t talk to each other. John breaks the silence.
“The boss’s wife takes us to Wal-Mart every three weeks,” he says, his tone suggesting it is a treat.
The dinner guests start rolling in at 5 p.m. I am jealous of people having dinner with their families. I am jealous of people who have time to make plans with friends.
John and I sit down for dinner at 9:30 p.m. Three sets of customers stroll in. There’s an elderly couple, two friends and four construction workers.
“It’s the second time this has happened in two weeks,” John mutters about people coming in near closing time.
The kitchen goes into a frenzy to reheat and restock empty food trays. Another family comes in. The mother and daughter fill their plates with food. They sit down. The father announces there’s not enough food. He doesn’t want to wait. They leave without paying. The food shortage becomes a crisis.
I’m relieved to learn the two friends are only interested in eating crawfish. But the stern elderly man waves me over at 9:56 p.m. to inform me, “It’s not 10 o’clock yet, so bring out more oysters.”
“I’ll talk to the owner to see if that’s possible,” I say.
I expect the owner to say no, but he dashes to the freezer to get the oysters himself. It is 9:58 p.m. The kitchen workers are setting up equipment to steam oysters.
At 10:10 p.m., we tell the customers we can’t bring any more food out. They start to leave.
There is a frenzy of vacuuming, yelling, sweeping, running and pushing of carts. Eric turns off the lights. Workers yell at Eric to turn them back on.
I have been working for 13 hours. I am so exhausted I can’t think of Chinese words when John asks me what tasks I’ve completed. I start stammering in a mixture of English and Chinese. I wonder if I just blew my cover. John is too tired and flustered to notice my slips.
At 10:50 p.m., the owner says we can go. We drop everything and make a run for the van, our eyes adjusting to the darkness in the parking lot out back.
I made $110 for the 13 hours. Not bad. We stop at the gas station. No one gets out.
“No gas?” Eric says.
“No gas,” someone says. “Casa.”
“Why today no gas?” Eric says.
“No money,” someone says.
We go to the dorm. The air is thick with fatigue. The dorm is eerily quiet without the mariachi music. John struggles to stay awake as he plays games on the cracked screen of his cellphone. The Mexicans turn on the mariachi music.
“I regret coming to the U.S.,” John says. “I really do regret it.”
On my third night at the dorms, I decide I’ve seen enough. I arrange for a car service to pick me up early the next morning, before everyone leaves for work. I tell John I’m a reporter and I want to interview him about the underground Chinese-restaurant industry.
We stand in awkward silence in my room. He thinks it over. His eyes narrow.
“You’re very strange,” he finally says.
Then he shrugs. He tells me his story again—how he dropped out of college, how he needs to make money before returning to China, how he plans to start a business—a narrative I’ve heard a dozen times. I get the feeling that he’s so lonely he doesn’t care who he’s talking to.
At 6 a.m., I slip out of the house with my suitcase. One of the Mexican workers is standing in the driveway, talking on the phone with his family.
I wave goodbye to him as I get into the taxi. He waves back. I feel ashamed.
Amelia Pang is an award-winning journalist formerly with the Epoch Times.
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