BROOKLYN, New York — It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, but inside Didi Fresco Tortilla and Chinese Restaurant, Joy is hard at work. She greets every customer who walks into the small storefront. Joy recognizes many of her return customers, and makes small talk with them as she takes their order. She knows who just started a new job and whose kids are in college. When their food is ready, she cheerfully bids them farewell: “See you later, my friend! I wish you good money!”
Before coming to New York City, Joy lived in Rochester and in South Carolina. She arrived in the United States undocumented, so New York was somewhat of a safe haven. Joy has since obtained a green card, and relatively quickly because her husband, who also works at Didi, is a U.S. citizen. She explained, “It was a little bit long of a wait, but we still got it. It was a lot of paperwork. For other people, it is a lot harder.”
About 480,000 green cards worldwide can be issued each year in the family categories. There are also 140,000 green cards issued yearly in employment-based categories. Therefore, being the spouse of a lawful permanent resident who becomes a U.S. citizen, like Joy, greatly shortens the wait time to receive a green card.
This is the easier, quicker alternative to longer wait times for those without spouses already in the United States. The waits are especially long for people attempting to immigrate from China, Mexico, India, and the Philippines, due to the demand from those countries. As an immigrant from China, Joy comes from one of these high-demand countries.
Long wait times for green cards can discourage immigrants from coming to the U.S. altogether. After all, needing to wait years and even decades for paperwork can close doors to job opportunities that immigrants would otherwise secure if their wait time was limited to a few months.
Given that immigrants actually successfully arrive here, they must find living quarters. For Joy, this wasn’t very challenging because she had friends in New York who helped her get an apartment in Sunset Park’s Little Chinatown. The median rent per month in Sunset Park is $1,745. When compared to the median rent per month in New York City at large, $3,185 (the second highest in the nation), Sunset Park is a relatively inexpensive neighborhood to live in. Without these more desirable housing opportunities available, new immigrants may not have been able to get their economic footing.
Joy also admitted that initially being in a Chinese community helped her adjust. She enjoyed having Chinese restaurants and supermarkets nearby, and listed Chinatown as one of her favorite places in New York City. She advised new Chinese immigrants, “live in Chinatown because life is easier there for Chinese immigrants.”
The next step to economic security is obtaining a stable job, which Joy did through a Chinese job agency. There are at least a dozen employment agencies near the intersection of Garvey and Garfield avenues in New York, for example, that are gateways to a hidden economy, supplying Chinese-run businesses around the United States with inexpensive labor.
Joy proudly insisted, “I like this job. It’s perfect. If it weren’t for this job, I wouldn’t have stayed here.” She explained that other jobs offered her more money, but she decided to stay in Midwood at Didi because she loves interacting with the friendly customers. She truly feels like a part of the community.
New York at large, however, hasn’t always been so welcoming to her. Now and then, she receives hostility just for her Chinese identity. She recalled one instance when her English wasn’t as good as it is now, and customers criticized her, saying, “Oh, why don’t you speak English? You are here, you should speak English!”
Joy sometimes feels overwhelmed by the rushed lifestyle of the city and the towering size of its skyscrapers. She isn’t used to such a diverse group of people, and feels hurt when they reject her. At the same time, she likes the diverse cuisines they bring. “I like a lot of different food,” she said.
At the moment, though, Joy doesn’t have much time to relax and explore the city. Recently, she has been working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Joy explained she’s saving up for a down payment on a house in Pennsylvania. She confessed, “My rent here is 1800, and my salary is just 2400. So I only have 600 left over. We need to pay insurance every month, and the taxes are higher since both me and my husband work.” It’s difficult to make ends meet.
Joy has been visiting a friend in Pennsylvania, and said she likes “the education, the neighborhood, everything.” She hopes to start a new, more inexpensive life in Pennsylvania. First, however, she needs to save $30,000 for the down payment. “Money is not everything,” she admitted. “But having no money is [having] nothing.”
Joy knows she needs to save money, but it takes a toll on her family life. She doesn’t get to spend as much time with her kids as she would prefer. She explained, “the older you get, the more you think childhood was the best time of your life. It was so simple. You didn’t think about money because your parents spent it.”
In between answering Didi’s constantly ringing phones and counting change, Joy spoke fondly of her children. “One is 10, one is almost 8. His birthday is next month.” She admitted they tell her she works too much and needs some time to herself. “They are so sweet,” Joy beamed. “I appreciate that I have a lot of gifts from God.”
She expressed her gratitude for her job as well. “People here who don’t have work-those people aren’t looking for jobs,” she asserted. “They’re too picky…There are a lot of places hiring. People just don’t look. Even if you lose your arms and legs, you can still work as a fryer, you can still do something.”
Joy recalled the educational and lifestyle differences between the United States and China: “for Chinese, life is easier if you work in government or if you have social connections. There are so many people, and not that many jobs. People here, everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter if you have high education or not.” According to Joy, this equality should motivate people to take every opportunity available to them, and to be grateful for what they have.
Joy has plans for a brighter future. She explained, “When my kids grow up, I want to go back to school so I can get a higher-paying job…If I go back to school, I want to do something easy and simple. Not something that’s so much hard work. One of my friends is studying to be a nurse, and she tells me the studying is really hard. So I don’t want to do that. I’d rather do something that only takes a year in school before I can start working.”
“Life is never easy,” Joy acknowledged. “Even here, even in China, everywhere. We look at everyone else’s life and think it’s so perfect, and our life is so bad. Just enjoy your life, don’t look at other people’s life.” Her life philosophy is simple: “Be honest. Be nice to people, and you’ll never get bad luck.” The countless smiles with which she greets customers certainly align with this philosophy.
Toward the end of the interview, Joy proudly proclaimed,“If I could go back in time, I would still make the same decision to come here. If you don’t go somewhere new, you can never find out what’s out there. And once you go, you can never go back. That’s life.”
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Chang, Cindy. “Immigrants Turn to Job Agencies for the American Dream.” Los Angeles Times,Los Angeles Times, 7 Mar. 2014, www.latimes.com/local/la-me-ff-c1-chinese-employment-agencies-20140307-dto-htmlstory.html.
“Sunset Park Real Estate Market Overview.” Trulia Real Estate Search, Trulia’s Blog, 2018, www.trulia.com/real_estate/Sunset_Park-Brooklyn/5246/.