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It is a long-standing tradition that if a Chinese restaurant is farther than an hour's drive from the nearest large enclave of Chinese people (e.g., Flushing, New York or New York City's "Chinatown,") one of the benefits provided employees of Chinese restaurants is housing.

Now, some restaurants in smaller cities are on the ground floor of a building owned by the restaurateur(s). The apartments above, unless in a truly high-rent district, are partially rented to paying tenants and the rest used to house the restaurant's employees. If the restaurant is a stand-alone or in a commercial building, the restaurateur(s) then purchase a home in which all the employees are housed. Now, some Chinese restaurant employees have homes or apartments of their own (they're usually the higher-paid individuals, like managers or bartenders). The waitstaff, chefs and porters live in the "employee house," and all share the kitchen, den, and living room; the rest of the rooms are typically two or three persons to a bedroom. Sadly, some employers have been known to house four or more individuals in a room (especially in a master bedroom) leaving these poor people with very little privacy. Bathrooms are shared, too.

To those of other cultures who cherish their own living space in the world, no matter how small or big, the phenomenon of living all the time with one's co-workers (in very close proximity) may seem atrocious. To the Chinese, it's a familiar way of life.


The Concept of the Extended-Extended Family

The Chinese are, culturally, very family-oriented. In fact, when addressing a young man whose name you either don't know, or even at times if you do know his name, and you're older, you address him as xiao2di4 (pronounced shao-dee); or "little brother." Same with young women (xiao jia — shao2jie3 or "little sister"). If one is slightly younger than the one addressed, than it's "big brother" or "big sister" — elders are still "Sir" or "Madame" (in whatever dialect you happen to be speaking.

One of my employees actually grew up in a corrugated metal shack on the outskirts of Shanghai. The floor was dirt; they slept on cots under threadbare blankets. Heat was provided, as well as fire for the wok, by a wood fire built in the bottom of a sliced-sideways 50 gallon drum; the smoke filling the room and escaping via a hole in the roof. Now, the reason why this man's family lived this way is because they were near the bottom of the unspoken Chinese caste system; they were from the farmlands; their dialect/accent gave them away. Mother and Father had bank accounts; there was always food to eat (they weren't starving, or forced to eat nothing but congee). However, this is the way that the suburban district in which they lived dictated they live. Beside, if they'd even been successful at renting a small apartment, the rent would've broken them financially.

This man now has his own spacious room that's centrally-heated, equipped with satellite TV/DVD/CD and stereo, and hot and cold running water (I bet you take that for granted).


The Chinese Restaurant Experience

For a while, my wife and I housed our employees in a large home that was purchased, along with the restaurant, from the previous owner of the restaurant. The place was a mess and required $70,000 in renovations just to make it liveable. We, however, lived in yet another Chinese restaurant house; this one owned by the partners in my wife's first restaurant; it was a lovely home and we enjoyed it until the arrival of my wife's aunt, who made life unbearable enough that we decided we'd move out. What to do? Here we were house-hunting, and our huge (I mean nine-bedroom, two-kitchen, four bathroom huge) home wasn't nearly completely occupied.

We had always told our employees that we're the type of employers who would never ask them to do something we wouldn't do (or haven't done) ourselves (this applies to washing dishes and the particularly smelly and obnoxious job of cleaning out commercial grease-traps). So why not live with them?


Planning The Remodeling for Comfort, Convenience and Privacy

The house was, at first, a capacious two-family dwelling, bordered on one side by a very nice neighborhood of ethnic variety; all hard-working souls whose homes were humble but in very good condition, lawns impeccably kept; shrubs trimmed, driveways sealed, etc. Sadly, the other side of the neighborhood is lined with filthy four- to eight-unit dwellings. Worse, neither landlords nor tenants nor myriad visitors thereto care a bit about the appearance of these buildings. The police are frequent visitors to this block and a fatal shooting occurred a on the next block over last year.

So when we moved in, the eyes of the "good" side of the neighborhood were on us; being smack on the corner of the street that delineated the two socio-economic areas.

To the delight of all concerned (including a couple of older women from the "bad" side of the neighborhood), we installed new windows and siding. We re-planted the grass, trimmed the shrubs, and the employee who doubles as our houseboy even planted a rather large vegetable garden in the back.

The more important part is what we did inside. Not needing two kitchens, one became a communal dining/gathering room, used for the Mah-Jongg games that are played most every night into the wee hours of the morning. The other's equipped with the biggest fridge we could find (remember, there are nine of us in this house) a big gas stove, and lots and lots of cabinets. There's a big-ass instant hot water "Hot Shot" dispenser (thanks KitchenAid for teaching the pushy, selfish one in the bunch that he's not to wash his hands whilst someone else is using the other side of the sink) in one of the sinks, for making tea (or, in my case, brewing coffee in a Melitta); or heating up ramen noodle soup. Ice and chilled, filtered water are located on one of the fridge doors. Who could ask for more?

The building, having been a two-family (side by side) three-story dwelling with a large basement and a dormered attic, couldn't have been better arranged for our plan — our little "commune" on 1.45 acres. The attic finished off into two large rooms nicely. One of the master bedrooms is my wife's; the other belongs to the executive chef and his wife. The chef's daughter and one of our waitresses have chosen to share a room. I sleep in a tiny room in the dormered attic; my "den/office/workshop" is in the room below. The rest of the bedrooms and what was a dining room are all single-occupancy, locked-door spaces for our employees. New employees are astounded that they're not doomed to the "dormitory" style of housing found with other employers.

By design, the two bathrooms used by my wife and I (and the two ladies and the houseboy) are on one side of the house. The ladies are quite clean about the bathrooms and so am I and so is Xiao Yang — the sushi chef who doubles as houseboy — who cleans up the little things like garbage pails and occasionally surfaces. The rest of the guys get to argue about cleaning the bathrooms on the other side of the house (they're awful about keeping the showers/toilets clean; but then again, it's a cultural thing that I've grown used to. I just don't look in there any more.


Pros and Cons of Communal Living

The most peculiar thing about the house is that it's a house of staircases. Since we broke-through on two floors (the attic and basement floors are accessed by one staircase apiece) there're a total of three stairways running from different levels all over the place. One of the units was bigger than the other; so that staircase is winding, with two landings; the other one has a single landing. On the ground floor of each staircase, the shoes are neatly lined up alongside sandals (the Chinese never wear their shoes on the carpeted areas of the house). I am so infrequently on the opposite side of the house from mine; I forget whose room is whose. Should a telephone call come in for one of them on my cell, it means I get plenty of exercise trying to figure out who it is. Most of us have cell phones, but some don't. There is a land-line in the house, but it's rarely used for calls. A DSL router is now finally attached to it; and the satellite dish system needs a tether to it for some unknown reason.

The security system is also attached to the land line (that was installed after our one and only break-in; early on in the game; just kids, probably, 'cause they took booze and a pair of computer speakers and took neither computer nor woofer (anyone want an inoperable Altec-Lansing woofer, minus the tiny speaker that controls the whole deal?) The televisions are far too large and far too heavy for anyone but a pro to get out of the house unseen.

The only downside about communal living is that even though we have our own spaces; there're still people in the house most of the time. Sexual spontaneity rarely occurs, and when it does, it does so ever-so-quietly! My singing rehearsals (ones I can record and play back) are limited to the time between when I get home and when Xiao Yang goes to bed downstairs. And there are rare times when I'm having trouble getting to sleep, and in the distance I hear the clackety-clack of the mah-jongg tiles and the yelling of the players (some intoxicated, some not). I have not once needed to tell them to keep it down (except when a real fight ensued, necessitating a 2:00 a.m. drive to the hospital because one poor fellow was hit over the head with a chair and had a nasty gash. Turns out he deserved it, and upon healing, was dismissed for being dishonest.


Lots More Pros Than Cons

Which brings me to the neat thing about living with old-school Chinese people. Those who work hard for their money and are God-fearing (Buddhists all of us) believe that stealing will only cause you suffering in the next life; so they're (99% of the time) incredibly honest people. Not just cash-register honesty; from-the-heart honesty. I like that. (It also comes in handy when I scream at the top of my lungs about leaving dishes in the sink (there's a dishwasher) and leaving lint in the dryer (they just don't seem to get the hang of it and I fear a fire) — they come clean about it.

Only two of the employees have a wife and kids in New York City a weekly trip home is a must for them; the rest leave for the day once a week to see friends or go shopping, but they haven't homes anywhere but with us.

So imagine how energy-efficient it is to heat water with one gigantic furnace for all of these people, and have four zones on the heating furnace. Two furnaces instead of nine *must* save energy somehow. The thermostats are timed to go down a full 15 degrees during the day, yet the house is quite well insulated and so large that it has a "memory" for heat and but for the coldest days is warmer than the turn-down of 53 degrees inside when we come home. Air conditioning is not central; but we keep an eye on who uses it (many do not) and that it's turned off when we're out. I'm certain that one big refrigerator does a much more efficient job than nine little ones (most of which would be nearly empty). Television watching on one of the four Chinese channels we get is usually done communally; which is both energy-efficient and also keeps nifty rapport going about opinions on the issues of the day (or the entertainment of the day).

Other benefits of having employees in the house: coffee brought up hot each morning before I get out of bed; no vacuuming, ever; people are ever-so-polite about how one's laundry is handled (oh, yeah; there're two huge laundry machines in the basement) and socks rarely grow little legs and run away (or worse, end up behind the washer or dryer). And each summer brings Xiao Yang's bounty from the garden (we all chip in with weeding and picking).

The cost of the house, incorporated into the purchase of the restaurant, was only $50,000. Add the initial $70,000 to make the house livable, and another $45,000 to make it comfortable. That's a bargain for what we call our "mansion." Sure, there's no stately lane leading to a porte-cochere (only a heated garage and parking outdoors for three cars). Nor is there a butler's pantry, a library nor drawing room. No tennis courts. No fountains, no acres of expensive landscaping, no greenhouse, no coach house, pool nor guest cottage (nor other typical mansion appointments I can't now recall).

One of my friends asked me if at night we all say "Good night, John Boy... Good night, Elizabeth... Good night, Grandma..." like they did in The Waltons*, but in Mandarin. Nope.

However, when we get older and sell the restaurant (and, presumably, the house) I think I'll miss it a great deal.


Communism Rears its, er, Head...

I guess there's something good to be said for one of the myriad facets of the communist ideal; share and share alike; (in our own unique sorta way). I like our little commune.

Submitted for More Than Walls

*Thanks to DejaMorgana for correcting my lack of research regarding the "Goodnight, John boy" quote.

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