An Interview with a Chinese worker in Israel: A Sushi Chef in Tel Aviv

It’s been hot in June in Tel Aviv. Chef Lin Yuanlong and I appointed to meet at 15:00 in Ilan’s office, yet he arrived ten minutes earlier. I had already been accustomed to the local convention of being late for several minutes after few months in Israel. But Lin has been here for over 5 years.

Introduced by a friend more than 5 years ago, Lin came to Israel and became a Sushi chef. He was paid much better than in China, feeling content and comfortable. When asked why he chose to go abroad where he can’t communicate fluently with his language, Lin laughed with a touch of shyness, explaining that he just broke up with his girlfriend back then, with a bunch of trouble in life, and working abroad could be an easy cure for him.

Chef Lin comes from Fuzhou City in Fujian Province, where the summer is hot as well, but abundant in greens. He hasn’t been back home for all these 5 years. He smiled a little when talked about this. There are his parents and siblings back home, whom he would definitely miss a lot; but he has also got used to struggle alone in a foreign country.

Though having been working and living in the center of Tel Aviv (near Disengolf) for years, Lin has very few local friends. One of his closest friends is Morris, who studies Chinese in Tel Aviv University with a warm heart and sincere kindness. Sometimes they would gather for a cup of coffee or a meal. During their gatherings Lin may help Morris with Chinese, or Morris perform as Lin’s translator.

Besides, he used to be familiar with an Israeli girl working with him. She invited Lin to her home several times. “Her family is very warm and peaceful,” Lin straightened his back a little, “Chinese families are warm too, but that just feels different.” Then he added after a moment of thinking, “The bond within her family is much stronger and tighter; everyone cares about each other.” However, because of the burden from work, it’s been two years since Lin last went to her family.

Lin and Ilan
Lin and Ilan in Kaplan Building – 2015 June

Usually Chef Lin contacts with his fellow townsmen, who also work in restaurants. His working intensity is stressful—10 to 16 hours per day, with one day off every week. He works 380 hours each month on average, sometimes even up to 420 hours. I asked him how he felt about this type of life. His answer was kind of “Chinese typical”: I can do nothing; anyway it’s his work.

Later, Chef Lin asked me with much concern, if I ever felt discriminated in the university. My answer was hardly ever. But Lin told me that he felt disrespected sometimes at work. The biggest unfairness, he pointed, is that they would take advantage of foreign workers. Actually, Lin’s concept of discrimination is not a shallow discrimination we encounter during casual conversations, but a lack of recognition toward the identity of foreign workers. According to law, foreign workers enjoy the same rights as local Israeli workers, nevertheless, it doesn’t happen in practice. The problem comes from, however, unawareness about working rights of workers themselves—that they have few knowledge about protecting their own rights. Meanwhile, the agents that interact with them intend to swallow part of the profits as well. Lin stated that a person cannot gain respect when he does not respect himself. He came to us for the sake of protesting his own rights. “People from Fujian Province have strongest awareness of rights,” Lin said with pride, “the first lawsuit concerning rights here was issued by us Fujian people.”

Chef Lin’s visa is going to expire soon. He wishes to stay here longer, but he has no approach to that. For now Lin plans to open a Sushi restaurant of his own in his hometown Fuqing County. If I had a chance coming over, I would be more than willing to sit in.

(Histadrut Leumit is aimed at helping foreign workers with legal problems, if necessary please contact by mail )

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But real adventures do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad. -- James Joyce