Book Review: Forty-Cent Tip

A collection of immigrant stories compiled by students from three international high schools in New York City.

by Mario Sanchez

When I heard that Forty-Cent Tip was a collection of immigrant stories compiled by a group of students from three New York City International high schools, I immediately wanted to check it out. I came to New York from the Dominican Republic eight years ago, and I attend the International High School at Union Square.

Students interviewed relatives, friends, and neighbors. They recorded, translated, and transcribed their taped interviews, and teachers helped them with editing. The results are the stories in this book.

One of my many favorite stories is called “An Anxious Life.” It tells the story of a female Chinese CD seller. As I read it, I felt guilty, for I’ve seen people selling CDs while I am out eating with my family. Sometimes I get annoyed because they interrupt us to try to sell us a CD. But I hadn’t thought of their possible struggles. This story opened my eyes and made me sympathize with these hard workers.

In the story “Shattered by Reality,” an immigrant woman from China talks about how she dreams of being an artist traveling across Europe and living well, but instead finds herself stuck cleaning toilets at a Manhattan hotel. “Here, I gave up my dream because I don’t have any time to make it come true. All I think about is how to make more money to support my family,” she writes.

Her boss has an unpredictable temper and asks her to clean the same toilet over and over again, because he isn’t happy with her work. She isn’t even allowed to wear gloves. This story moved me because it highlights the ugly truth of being an immigrant and having to work for people who have power over you and exploit you.

A story titled “The Truth Behind the American Dream” is about an undocumented Mexican immigrant. “One day I told my supervisor that I wanted to work in private parties at the hotel…. She didn’t think I had the skills, even though I had worked in restaurants for almost 10 years. But she thought that the new white guys, whom I taught how to carry a tray, did have them,” he writes. He gets fired after this discussion but can’t make a complaint because, “I didn’t have papers.”

Next Generation Press

A Lot Like My Parents

Reading this book made me think about my mom and dad. They immigrated here as adults, and they don’t speak any English.  Neither seems to have much of a choice but to work in low-paying jobs. My mom works the night shift in a factory that produces various types of plastic. My dad works in a supermarket, managing and maintaining the fruit aisle. Needless to say, they would have had more options if they spoke English, even broken English. They’re aware of that and they have been trying to learn the language.   

Many immigrants in Forty-Cent Tip say they hope their grandchildren and children will have a better life and become something beyond what they have become. That is part of why my parents immigrated to New York: to have a better life for my siblings and me.

Working long hours in exchange for little money comes up in many of the stories. My dad often says in Spanish, “All one does here is work and work, and you don’t get a break. This country is made for you to work all your lives.” I used to roll my eyes and think he was the only one who thought this way. But after reading some of these stories, I realize that what he complains about is a reality for other immigrants here, too.

I cannot imagine myself having jobs like selling newspapers, cleaning toilets, or being a waiter my whole life, like some workers in Forty-Cent Tip. I’m thinking about becoming a talk show host or an author. I want to be able to afford everything. I feel lucky that I’m documented and my father is working toward getting me full U.S. citizenship.

Even if you’re not an immigrant, I recommend this book. It will make you want to reach out and give these immigrant workers a hug – but not a pitiful one. They are strong human beings, just less privileged.

Reading this book made me think about my mom and dad. They immigrated here as adults, and they don't speak any English.
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