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[M]aybe it’s the very fact that Chinese buffets are totally not about exoticized “authenticity,” and that the food is generic, predictable, and stubbornly resistant to culinary innovation, that make these restaurants so comforting — and in a way, as American as McDonald’s — to many immigrant diners. Added to all this, too, I suspect that the potentially infinite promise of food is an irresistible draw for those like my parents who’ve endured wartime poverty and hunger at some point in their lives. That’s why I try not to judge — at least not too much — when my folks insist on getting up one more time for that seventh plate of sushi, shrimp, and soft-serve ice cream. (You know what I’m talking about.) 

There may be a high price to pay for such cheap abundance, though.  Chinese buffet workers, often undocumented and lacking in the language and legal resources needed to challenge unfair labor practices, are frequently the biggest victims of the low-cost Chinese buffet system.  Many stories of exploitation of Chinese buffet workers across the US have been reported in the past decade, including in Chicago, where the owners of fourteen Chinese buffets were sued in 2002 by the U.S. and Illinois Departments of Labor for $1.5 million in unpaid back wages to their employees.  In a horrific recent case in Countryside, Florida, the owners of a popular buffet restaurant were sentenced for “harboring, transporting, and exploiting illegal aliens” following a two-year investigation by Homeland Security that found the restaurant’s twenty-seven employees living together in three cramped apartment units and working eighteen hour days, six days a week at a rate of $3 an hour. 

Over at Hyphen, Jenny Lee breaks down the social appeal and the societal cost of the ubiquitous Chinese buffet.

Image credit: Chris Busby at TheBollard.com.

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