You’ve all heard the stereotypes. 15 Chinese workers crammed into a small room in the back of the local Chinese eatery. They never show their faces. They never leave the kitchen. They don’t speak English. They don’t have green cards, and they certainly aren’t paying any taxes. This has caused quite a stir of late as the Bush administration looks to revise the US immigration policies. Some Americans think it’s about time we punish those who have illegally entered our country. Others feel that it’s just another act of xenophobia from an already over-paranoid administration. In a barbershop in Fuzhou, this is a hot topic as well, but for different reasons.
Fuzhou is famous for its opulent banyan trees, its sugary 荔枝肉 (sweet and sour pork), and its scorching hot summers. But more than anything Fuzhou is best known for its legions of expatriates who emigrate to all corners of the world to wash dishes, cook food, and scrub the floors of Chinese restaurants. If you have ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant outside of China, chances are you have consumed food prepared by a Fuzhou cook.
Estimates suggest that as many as 40% of all Chinese abroad trace their roots back to Fujian province. The vast majority of them immigrate without the proper documentation.
One of the barbers in my shop is especially interested in this topic. My first day on the job he asked me to give him an English name. I chose “Adam” because it sounded similar to his Chinese nickname.
After giving him a name and teaching him some basic English greetings at his request, I asked Adam why he was so interested in learning English.
“I have several relatives who have illegally immigrated to the United States. It is my dream to one day sneak into the United States as well,” he answered.
Adam is uncharacteristically candid for a Chinese, but dreams such as are not uncommon in the City of Banyan Trees.
Like most of Fuzhou’s illegal immigrant population, Adam is not from Fuzhou city proper, but rather from a surrounding town about two hours away. It is in these small, coastal towns where locals have traditionally looked abroad to achieve their fortunes. My first year in China was spent in one of these towns.
Fuqing is a one hour bus ride away from Fuzhou, and is not a desirable city to live in by Chinese standards. It is small, has poor public infrastructure, and few job opportunities for people with college degrees. Yet, on a casual walk through Fuqing, one will see young women wearing designer clothes, old couples living in 5 storey mansions, and men with long fingernails and hairy moles driving BMW’s. Another suspicious characteristic of Fuqing, is the seemingly low number of people in their 20’s and 30’s.
In the words of my friend Xiao He who grew up in Fuqing “There are two options for young people in Fuqing. If you can make it into college, you can get a good job and move to a bigger city. If you don’t get into college, you just sneak into Japan to work for 5 or 10 years” According to Xiao He, of his 41 high school classmates, 11 of them are currently working in Japan, all illegally.
Each little town outside Fuzhou has a corresponding country in which its locals have existing connections and tend to immigrate to. While Fuqing’s expatriates can be found mostly in the kitchens of Tokyo’s Chinatown, New York City’s Chinese restaurants are mostly staffed by immigrants from Lianjiang and Changle, two other small towns just outside of Fuzhou.
The reason people go abroad is simple…money. Most of them spend their entire time working (often up to 13 hours a day), have meals and housing provided by their employer, and rarely go out or spend any money. This lifestyle is strikingly similar to that of barbershop employees in China.
After I initially figured out the hourly salaries of the little brothers and sisters in the barber shop, Adam asked me to calculate what he would be making had he been working in the United States rather than China.
Using the minimum wage of my home state of Missouri ($6.50 per hour) the same schedule as worked by Chinese barber shop employees would net $23,000 per year (before taxes which likely aren’t paid anyway). In China that comes to around 14,500 RMB per month, a salary which easily catapult a worker into the Fuzhou upper class. Looking at these figures, it’s not hard to understand why there is such a draw towards illegal immigration.
This is exactly what Adam and many other Fuzhou people are thinking when they look for opportunities to go abroad. Either way, he will be working 70 hours a week and living in cramped living quarters. It’s just a matter of whether he will be making 50 cents an hour or $6.50.