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America’s Underground Chinese Restaurant Workers ›

Each agency consists of a narrow room with a desk behind bars and employs a small staff of women who sit flanked by phones and notebooks. Stickers pasted to the bars differentiate jobs in New Jersey, Long Island, and upstate New York. Most everything else is just “out of state.” Rain moved among the offices, weaving through the crowd. “All the agencies are about the same,” he said, watching a Chinese couple pass from one door to the next. “But your chances are better if you leave your phone number with all of them.” The women behind the bars scribble the information in college-ruled notebooks. Then, Rain said, you sit around in stairwells and on sidewalks and wait for them to call. Job seekers have to be ready to leave within hours, and Rain expected to be on a bus by the end of the day.


Like most cooks in busy Chinese restaurants, he figured out how to use a single knife, a heavy cleaver, for everything from cleaning shrimp to mincing garlic. “It’s important that you do it fast,” he said.
Since then, Rain has bounced from restaurant to restaurant, staying for a few months and then going back to New York for a rest before getting another job. He has few impressions of the states and cities where he has worked; he leaves the kitchen only to smoke cigarettes in a back parking lot or to be driven to the restaurant’s dorm at night. He told me that he would never go on a walk on his day off. “What if you get lost?” he said. “You can’t ask anybody directions, and your boss is going to be too busy at the restaurant to come get you.”

Live in the future, then build what’s missing. ›

But you know the ideas are out there. This is not one of those problems where there might not be an answer. It’s impossibly unlikely that this is the exact moment when technological progress stops. You can be sure people are going to build things in the next few years that will make you think “What did I do before x?”

The Song of the Introvert ›

I am fascinated by how you punctuate your sentences with your hands. You pause for as long as it takes to makes sure you are going to say something of value. Sometimes these pauses are maddeningly long. You are fiercely optimistic and state outlandish impossible things. You are fearless in giving feedback to strangers. You are less fearless, but you can deliver the same feedback with a momentary glance. It’s fascinating how all of you have built all of your systems to get through your day.

The Women I Pretend to Be ›

The truth is, none of us is OK, not really. The best, most dear, most thoughtful and engaged and open and feminist men in my life have occasionally come out with some statement that’s made me gasp. Then again, so have almost all the women.

I’ve finally come to realize this simple fact: Sexism is not a quality of individuals, it is a quality of the society we live in. It exists in every cultural product, in every grouping, in every brain in our culture. I know, I know, that’s not what you want to hear. It’s not comforting.

It’d be comforting to believe that we could take those damn sexists (or racists, or transphobes, or ableists) and send them away and make a society of beauty and wholeness without them. But that’s not how it goes. We all grew up in a society that ascribes particular attributes to men and women, and ascribes men a higher value than women.

Why Poor Students Struggle ›

I know something about the lives behind the numbers, which are largely unchanged since I arrived at Barnard in 1978, taking a red-eye flight from Seattle by myself. The other students I encountered on campus seemed foreign to me. Their parents had gone to Ivy League schools; they played tennis. I had never before been east of Nebraska. My mother raised five children while she worked for the post office, and we kept a goat in our yard to reduce the amount of garbage we’d have to pay for at the county dump.


To stay four years and graduate, students have to come to terms with the unspoken transaction: exchanging your old world for a new world, one that doesn’t seem to value where you came from. The transition is not just about getting a degree and making more money. If that was all socioeconomics signified, it would not be such a strong predictor of everything from SAT scores and parenting practices to health and longevity.

Perhaps because I came from generations of people who had left their families behind and pushed west from Ireland, West Virginia and Montana, I suffered few pangs at the idea of setting out for a new land with better opportunities. I wanted the libraries, summer houses and good wine more than anything that I then valued about my own history.

In college, I read Richard Rodriguez’s memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” in which he depicts his alienation from his family because of his education, painting a picture of the scholarship boy returned home to face his parents and finding only silence. Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

My Hairdo Is Not Your Safari ›

For some reason, this has been happening to me a lot lately. Women, especially women of a Caucasian persuasion, have been stopping me to compliment my hair (which is OK) and then taking a smile or “thank you” nod in response as an invitation to get handsy with my hair (which is not OK!). In da clurb, on the street, and once, horrifyingly, at work. Maybe people don’t understand the difference between asking permission and assuming permission, or assume enough privilege to think that it’s OK, when it’s not. It’s many things—really rude and inappropriate, for starters—and makes me wonder what kind of home training a person has (or doesn’t have) that makes it seem OK to grope a grown stranger’s head out of curiosity.

I also can’t figure out why they want to touch the bun—to see if it’s real? Hard? Soft? Full of candy? No idea. I’m a person of mixed race, and people often take my ethnic ambiguity as an invitation to ask all sorts of prying, personal questions about my heritage, family structure, whatever, and these are things you learn to take in stride because annoyance doesn’t pay the bills—I can spend my time annoyed at stuff like this, or I can spend my time getting bylines and getting paid and being able to afford having various quorums of lady friends over for Sunday dinner, which is what feeds me and helps me grow and is way more important in the long run.

Leah Reich — In America ›

I don’t remember how it started, or with whom, but it was senior year, and it began quite suddenly. In math class, a teacher would hand out stapled packets of paper, problem sets and answers. A student would get one with a few missing pages and another kid would crow, “You got Jewed!” In English class, writing out an essay by hand, someone’s brand new pen would run out of ink and he’d cry “This pen is totally Jewish!”

It was nowhere and then it was everywhere, as if it had been on their tongues in private and they could hold it in no longer. Anything that was cheap or that cheated you was branded. You’d been Jewed.

My senior year I was 16 years old. I was young, the youngest in my class, having turned 16 right after our junior year ended. I wasn’t particularly Jewish, or at least I didn’t know if I was, but I was definitely a Jew. Each time I could feel it the anger of it. Why would you say that in front of me and the other Jewish kids? Why would you say that at all? If they said that in front of me, who seemed so very white, what would they say in front of other people who weren’t? What were they saying that I didn’t realize? What did they say when we weren’t around? What, eventually, would they do?

When the word would rise from somewhere in the hallway, everyone jammed around their lockers, a hush would descend and the crowd would part around me. There I was, alone but firm in my wisdom like Deborah beneath her palm tree. My voice would carry down the hall. “It’s not funny,” I’d say. “You think it’s funny, but nothing about it is a joke.”

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