By Michael Martin
Published: 2007-12-14

Service positions at Beijing's small restaurants are notorious for their paltry wages and hectic, unfeeling workplace. Offering virtually the same salary and benefits, do foreign food chains really offer a superior alternative to the migrant laborers who wait tables in Beijing? If you stop to ask the waitress behind the counter, you would probably be surprised to find that the hierarchy and mechanical social environment of these international chains often adds psychological stress, and can be linked to the difference in Chinese emphasis on the collective and Western emphasis on individuality.

Two Lives, One Big Difference

At almost midnight, 22-year-old small restaurant waiter Yin Yalin leaves work for his closet-sized one-room unit in a crowded pingfang housing district, one of the many shanty towns swelling with Beijing's migrant workers. About 300 yuan of his 1,000-yuan monthly salary goes towards renting his room, which is just large enough for a bed, a desk, and a bucket that he uses as an all-purpose bathroom. Though gusts of wind tear through the broken windowsill, he only has an electric blanket to fend off the oncoming winter.

Yet, despite this, Yin still claims that he is happy and confident. "If you have to live life," he said, smiling, "You might as well do it laughing instead of crying." While Yin misses his family, and hopes to someday return to his native Gansu province a richer man, he enjoys his work. He says that his boss is nice, he is friends with all his coworkers, and the customer flow means that he is constantly meeting new, interesting people. Yin's confidence and optimism remain virtually unimpaired by his economic stresses.

Twenty-year-old sandwich worker Xiao Long, who works at American fast-food chain Subway, has the same salary and lives in a virtually identical one-room apartment. "I'm not happy with my life," he says bluntly. "I wake up in the morning, go to work, and come straight home only to go back to work again the next day- what kind of life is this?" Long says he has no friends, and that he plans to return to his native Shanxi province after the Chinese New Year.

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