Arizona's Chinese food immigration problem

A Pei Wei Asian diner fires Hispanic employees for protesting SB 1070. But who cares -- there's a great coupon deal

Published July 27, 2010 12:27AM (EDT)

It is testament to my cloistered life in a West Coast enclave festooned with fantastic Asian restaurants of every possible variety that my first inkling that such s thing as the Pei Wei "fast casual" Asian diner chain even existed only arrived today, after I noticed a sharp uptick in Web users googling the heretofore mysterious name.

In my defense, there isn't a Pei Wei within 150 miles of Berkeley. And I'm not completely ignorant: I have heard of P.F. Chang's, the recession-proof "China bistro" chain founded in Scottsdale, Arizona by serial restaurant entrepreneur Paul Fleming. Pei Wei is a cheaper, "pan-Asian" spin-off of P.F. Chang's.

But before I found out that detail, I had do some googling. And in my cursory investigation I also discovered that a Pei Wei franchise in Chandler, Arizona, fired 12 Hispanic employees who took an unauthorized day off to join a protest May 29 against SB 1070, the infamous anti-illegal immigration law that authorizes police officers to conduct identity checks on brown-skinned people for no good reason whatsoever.

I'm not going to argue that according to its own employment rules, the Chandler Pei Wei didn't have every right to fire employees who didn't show up for work. I might be more inclined to suggest that a restaurant chain that depends on Hispanic labor for a significant part of its workforce should be more sensitive to how its employees might feel about race-baiting laws that have transfixed the entire world's attention. But what really gets me riled are the ridiculous contradictions baked into the ersatz globalization symbolized by a chain of faux-Asian eateries in a state like Arizona.

Diversity is fine if it applies to the ability of Arizonans to eat cheaply priced cuisine that imitates Chinese or Malaysian or Thai (albeit with all the sharp edges sanded off.) The fact that producing such cuisine for such low prices requires exploiting cheap labor gets swept under the rug. The fact that actual Asians have almost nothing to do with the production of the food is also considered irrelevant. It's the American dream: cheap fast "casual" food from every nation in the world, just one more exit down the freeway.

But god forbid society itself should become more diverse, along with the food. It has been widely observed that Arizona has the most dramatic dichotomy of any U.S. state between an aging white population and a booming younger, more Hispanic population. The drastic demographic changes signified by such a generation gap have clearly spawned a lot of tension -- the kind of uneasiness that produces Minutemen and extreme laws.

SB 1070 is scheduled to become law on Thursday. So, I wondered, are people googling for this two-month-old Pei Wei story because the action is heating up as D-Day approaches?

As far as I can tell, no. I checked Twitter to see if I could find an echo of concern -- and discovered hundreds of people exclaiming about Pei Wei's speical two-entrees-for-ten-dollars coupon deal, in commemoration of the chain's tenth anniversary, on Monday. The deal was apparently popular -- the local Pei Wei, I read over and over again, was "a zoo."

God bless America: Nothing beats a great deal, at Pei Wei or WalMart or at the Apple store, and let's just not stop to think about what getting that price down so far implies for the exploitation of labor -- not to mention its global migration --  in Chandler, Arizona, southern China, or anywhere else.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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