Friday, April 23, 2010

I Think of Esteban

I prefer to stay out of fights that aren't mine. It's one reason I didn't join the armed forces. Dad did. He was a fighter, and I think it's safe to say that he still is, despite the fact that he looks more like a gruff Burl Ives now than he did when he joined the U.S. Navy. I'm hazy on the details, but I'm willing to bet that was in the mid-60's. He told me he got out before Tet in '69, before the shit really hit the fan. So when there was talk of reinstating the draft back when the Iraq War started, Dad told me he didn't want me in the fight. Though it might have been his way of calling me an indoor kid, I really think he mellowed out since having four kids and wasn't really into war after Vietnam and I doubt many vets were into Vietnam after Vietnam.

He and mom came to visit in February this year, a week before my birthday. It was nice of them to do it, and I think they had a great time, though I'm sure they were pretty damn happy to be back on American soil where food made more sense to them. They were good sports about the whole experience, though, and found a new Asian food that they could lust after: mandu. Mandu was Dad's safety food when he didn't know what to order. I had to get a couple extra bags of the frozen kind as a precaution. Mom was a bit more adventurous, ordering everything from bibimbap to dan-hobak juk. I'm just proud of them for not making us eat at Outback Steakhouse, though Dad had mentioned it a couple times.

My parents are, for the most part, pretty conservative. It's how they were raised, and the values they learned from their parents came down to us as we were growing up. My brother and two sisters are pretty conservative. I swing a little more left, mostly to keep things interesting. Mom's mellowing out a little bit, too, politically. This past election marks the first time they didn't vote for the same candidate. While waiting to exchange some money at the bank we had a decent talk about health care. Mom's a nurse, so I felt her opinions were a little more informed than my own.

Inevitably, the issue of immigration came up. My own opinions on this have changed slightly since moving to Korea in 2008. I haven't been here that long, but I get a little edgy when I hear people refer to a foreigner collective as "they" or "them." It's a bad habit that a lot of people, not just Americans, have. My parents were referring to Mexicans, and though I don't think they really have any problem with Mexican people in general, it was easier to parrot the rhetoric that they've listened to for so many years. I told them about Esteban.

Just yesterday, I was browsing through various K-Bloggers' posts, I came to this one by Mr. Wonderful. Being the curious sort, I checked out the links and read pretty much what I expected to find: the collective broken records of foreign ESL bloggers and netizens and their followers having a bitch-fest about who the biggest e-dickheads on the e-peninsula are. Alright, ladies and gents, we'll call it a draw.

I was pretty disgusted by both teams. I got introspective. When I get introspective, sometimes, just sometimes, I think of Esteban.

I was born and partly raised in the Midwest, but spent most of my life in the South. Both regions are generally pretty rural, but only the South has the pockets of Mexican immigrants to employ for its numerous low-wage agrarian or food-service jobs. Consequently, the ubiquitous Americanized Mexican restaurant can be found in most mid-size cities. The dishes in these establishments range from bland to palatable to "fresh-looking," and are reasonably priced, but are essentially Tex-Mex. The truer Mexican restaurants where I come from are found across the tracks in lower income neighborhoods. They are usually close to Mexican run convenience stores or places that sell car accessories and will blow your mind if you're not careful. Order a Mexican Coke or a glass of horchata and dig into a plate of carnitas (slow-cooked pulled pork) or chorizo tacos (ground sausage on corn tortillas with sprigs of cilantro, chopped red onion, Mexican farmer's cheese, and sliced avocado). Splash those bastards with a complimentary lime wedge and you've got yourself a mean damn meal. Sadly, a good portion of Americans will not venture into these places for fear of food poisoning or accidentally becoming tolerant of other cultures. I argue that you can get get food poisoning more easily from a Red Lobster or Macaroni Grill (I've worked in both and have seen awful, awful things) than you can from a mom and pop Mexican restaurant (you will probably also die sooner).

Shortly after college, I got a job at the city country club, working the snack bar for the pool, doing the short-order cook bit. Working with the main kitchen staff and servers was fun, but the customers, their children especially, grew more tedious as the temperature rose. I was glad when summer was over and the pool closed down. I was out of a job, sure, but being a cook has its advantages over being, say, a typewriter repairman. Everybody's gotta eat at some point.

I got a job at a small-scale tapas restaurant downtown, this time as a server. I figured it'd be good to try my hand at getting tips. I did a decent job and pulled in a good chunk of money, but the front-of-house is so much of a gamble that I had to take a later barbacking job to make ends meet. Eventually, I got tired of the front of house and literally jumped when I was offered a chance to be on saute in the kitchen. This is when and where I met Esteban.

Actually, that's not true. I had known Esteban as the fry/pantry cook when I was serving, but working with him in the kitchen gave me a completely different perspective. Esteban was a 50-something-year old Mexican from a town I've never heard of. Though nobody aside from the owner/executive-chef was required to wear a chef's coat, we all did, though Esteban usually supplemented his with track pants and a backwards orange University of Texas baseball cap. Esteban ran circles around everybody in the kitchen, a feat made more impressive when you realize he averaged about 5 hours of sleep every night and his primary job was as the daytime kitchen manager of one of the larger hotels in the city. Every paycheck, he sent money to his wife and younger children still living in Mexico and his plan was to eventually move back to Mexico and retire on this money.

Though he was far from a saint, Esteban worked his ass off and never complained. His station was consistently the cleanest and easiest to navigate, and aside from the days he was still drunk from the night before, he was generally faster and more efficient than the rest of us. Whenever we got really busy, or he had made a mistake, he released a laugh I can only describe as three short bursts of Goofy in a Mariachi band, and every time Esteban let out this sound, I smiled and reminded myself to laugh at the bullshit. His English wasn't great, but it was good enough to catch the jokes we made about customers or the wait staff. He was always jovial and never moody or self-pitying, even if he wasn't in on a joke. He always came to employee get-togethers, got hammered and had a good time doing it. Only once did I see him get visibly upset, when a lower-level stoner kitchen bitch started complaining about Esteban leaving right at 10:30 when the whole kitchen was still a mess after a particularly busy night.

I could say a lot more about Esteban and perhaps I will in subsequent posts, but the reason I think about him more than any other employee from that restaurant is because I am essentially doing in Korea what he did in the States. I am a migrant worker. If you're an ESL teacher in Korea, you probably are, too.

There is a difference, though. Most migrant workers in America do jobs (harvesting produce, working construction, or cooking) that, despite their low level of respect and income, have a more immediate effect. Do you think neurosurgeons picked those organic apples you bought at Whole Foods? And yet, immigrant day-laborers are so close to the bottom rung of American society that many people assume they got into the country illegally. Employers often take advantage of some workers' low level of English to make a buck or supposed legal status to keep them in line. Do those workers that entered legally have a right to complain? Absolutely. ESL teaching is more abstract, yet we get paid higher wages, we buy into the pension and get our money back, we are provided housing, are given a cushy job that takes very little physical effort, have access to the internet, and running water. If we are slighted, do we have a right to complain? Absolutely.

My mom used to tell me about the squeaky wheel and how it gets the oil. Complaining is how we get what we want, and I'd like to imagine that somehow a lot of K-Bloggers or netizens are getting satisfaction in complaining about Korea or elsewhere, as the case may be. If they are, wonderful. If not, then I suspect if the squeaky wheel, after receiving the oil, continues to squeak, it'll just get replaced and none will be the wiser.

I still prefer to think about Esteban's laugh.

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