Chronological / Destinations / Hotels & Resorts / Massachusetts / United States

Foreign Service

Overheard in a Wellfleet restaurant mid-morning on a late August day
Overheard in a Wellfleet restaurant mid-morning on a late August day:

“Hey, George, the waitress says she’s from Slovakia and she says the person at the counter is from Jamaica and the guy bussing tables over there is from Taiwan. This place is a real international house of pancakes! Pretty neat, huh?”


Foreign service usually means working as a diplomat overseas. On Cape Cod it has a whole new meaning, though it, too, has to do with diplomacy. From Falmouth to Provincetown, foreign service means being waited on in restaurants and stores by young ambassadors from universities across the globe. From as far away as China, Thailand, Eastern Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa, and as near as the Caribbean, flocks of workers arrive on the Cape in manner that has become as predictable as the return of the flocks of shore birds that grace our beaches and marshes each summer. Both hang around for a while (the human travelers usually stay for up to four months — June, July, August, September, the feathered are with us for much shorter periods), before they depart for other climes. Collectively those in the two cohorts of temporary migrants have something else in common. Members of each species are frequently seen in clusters — and subgroups — chattering away in tones that only those of their ilk can comprehend.

"Foreign service is not just for government employees. On Cape Cod and many resort areas in this country, ordinary people can enjoy it, too."

Waiting to get on one of a bank of computers in the Wellfleet library (or the libraries of many other towns on the Cape), one hears young people standing over the shoulders of typist-friends, speaking to them in animated Russian or Bulgarian or Romanian or Serbo-Croatian and several east and south Asian languages, then turning to the librarian who says, “Time’s up,” to answer in near-perfect English.

The keyboard typists and their buddies are on break from the places they are working. (Other breaks are spent on the beach or in the village, or, at night, in local pubs.) Soon they must go back to Moby Dick’s seafood emporium (home of “A Whale of a Meal”), or Van Rensselaer’s family restaurant near Marconi Beach, or one of several Box Lunch sandwich shops on the Outer Cape, or to The Marketplace in the center of Wellfleet. (Their counterparts are to be found in eateries and stores, both supermarkets and the mini variety with the oxymoronic names, “superette,” up and down the Cape.)

In the summer of 2009 I set out to learn more about this one-way “exchange” program and set out to do some serious investigation.

Informally, I first visited five nearby restaurants. In two days discovered that, in just those few places, there were summer workers from the United Kingdom, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Poland, Romanian, Turkey, Jamaica, China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Liberia, Nigeria, and Ghana. Some employers told me they have as many as 70 foreign students from more than a dozen countries on the payroll this year.

In addition to the variety of nationalities represented, and the sheer numbers — far more than I had expected, I was also struck by the fact that, in some places the sex ratio, women to men, was as high as 3:1. I asked several employers why this was the case. One said it has mainly to do with what is most needed in her establishment, i.e. table servers. (I realized that, having eaten there for years, there were only a few male waiters, though I did know there were men working in the kitchens, including a number from abroad.) Another said that, while he never specified gender he said he found that women are far more apt to seek service jobs and more apt to be students in the Humanities or Law or the Social Sciences, already requiring higher proficiency in English than other academic fields. Some followed up by saying, “If I were hiring people for construction work, and, as now, didn’t specify gender, the majority would be overwhelmingly male.” The fact is that there are many establishments on the Cape, such as the large groceries and general stores, whose summer help — both “native” and “foreign” — seems to have roughly equal groups of men and women.

Curious to know more about these birds of passage, I made appointments to speak at length to the owners and managers of several local restaurants and a few of the shops that also employ them. Then I interviewed to a number of the foreign service workers themselves.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts Cape Cod, Massachusetts

I learned that the vast majority of the foreign workers come to the Cape through one a number of agencies know best by their acronyms such as BUNAC (the British University North American Club), CIEE, CEUSA, or by some shorthand form like “Interexchange.” There is a sort of matching system where the proprietors of places in need of summer help are brought together with those from abroad who are eager to come to and work in the States. The guidelines are quite simple but sometimes the implementation of the entire process seems frustratingly complex. Much of this is said to be related to concerns about national security.

Employers register with agencies, specifying the nature of their businesses and the kind of work required, what they need in terms of skills, whether or not they accept couples, whether their workers receive tips, the hourly wages that can be expected, and information about the availability of housing and the cost of renting rooms. Most of the overseas summer-helpers come on “J1” student work visas available only to fulltime university students with more than passable English-language ability. The applicants must be prepared to pay for their own transportation and health insurance as well as registration fees. (Total outlays can range $1000 to $3000). If accepted, they are expected to go to the place where the seasonal employment has been arranged through the contracting agency. Most who come with such credentials do end up at the places of assignment where they are paid on a regular basis and then pay rent for rooms often provided for or arranged at very reasonable rates by their employers.

Sometimes they are also provided with uniforms or special tee shirts with the logos of their workplaces.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Others come to the U.S. holding a regular short-term employment visa, known as “H2B.” For them, the rules are different. They are under considerably stricter controls and often have even more specific duties. Until recently, many employers favored this arrangement but, in recent years, what is known as “employee-sponsored” work in the north east has been made difficult by a federally imposed ceiling of 66,000 student workers per annum. Because the time of application begins in October but none can make any requests until 120 days prior to the need, for several years, Cape Cod restaurateurs, hoteliers, and grocers had slimmer pickings than the rest of the country. (Not surprisingly, the first applications came from those wanting foreign workers in Sun Belt resorts; then there were the ski areas of the west — and some in the east — that put in their requests but a few months later. Soon the quota was greatly diminished.) Of late, some changes have been made to provide better equity but still, as far as I could tell, most of those to whom I spoke in places on the Outer Cape now favor “J1’s,” and several don’t even bother trying to get “H2B’s.”

By and large, most of the employers to whom I spoke were quite pleased with the arrangements made by the agencies. One, however, was quite critical of several of them, saying that, in recent times, he felt that certain companies seemed to care more about getting the fees they charge at both ends than the needs of those of those who require their services here and abroad. Another, commenting on this problem, said, “Yes, there are some bad apples, high-class traffickers.”

What about the guest workers?

For the modern-day “birds of passage” (the term dates back to the turn of the last century and referred mainly to Southern Italians who moved back and forth across the Atlantic) who get to the Cape from other lands there are clearly benefits. Almost every one to whom I spoke told me how much the summer — or, in some cases, several summers — meant to them in terms of “seeing another part of the world,” “learning new skills — like bartending or cooking, even sandwich making,” “improving English,” “getting to know Americans,” “getting to know other young people from around the world,” and, best of all, “makes good money.”

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Most students who are careful in their spending habits can take back several thousand dollars or more from a single season’s work. More than a few told me “What I get paid here is unimaginable at home.”

One other thing a number mentioned to me was how impressed they were with the owners who, as one put it, “Instead of sitting in the corner, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and bossing everyone else, like at home, they work as hard — no harder — than any of us. Now that is impressive!”

Obviously, the summer-working odyssey of the international brigades of university students is a great boon to them. But what’s in it for the employers?

For many, it is the feeling of contributing to a sort of cosmopolitanism; but even those who mention such a noble idea are also wont to say it is a necessity. “We need them.”

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

“But, “ I ask, speaking for many I’ve overheard in a number of local places, “What’s the matter with employing Americans? Surely, there are American kids looking for work as servers, busboys, dishwashers, assistant cooks, salespersons, etc.”

Yes, there are, they tell me, and then add a caveat: “Too many of the Americans who might take such jobs (and many who do) are also college students. These days schools start in late August, at the very height of our season.” Not a few also add that the fact is that they often lose them even earlier.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

“After all, everybody wants a little time before going back to school — and so, even when they promise to stay longer, they disappear in early August. Just up and quit.”

The employers point out that most of those who come from abroad don’t have to be back until October when — “Lucky for them,” say some of their American peers — their semester begins.

When pushed further, several employers also told me that the foreign workers are, “Well, frankly, better.” I asked why.

“They tend to be more disciplined, in part because they really need the money (in fact, not a few are eager to work more than one shift or work at another venue in the neighborhood to augment their income — and their savings). And, because university students are often a few years older there than here, they are also frequently more mature.”

I must say that, while I did hear the last point a number of times, a caveat is often appended. Don t get me wrong, they are still kids, good kids who like to have fun.”

Those who do well are often invited to return for another season. Those who don’t are readily replaced by a long queue of others eager to take their places, most of them learning about “Moby’s,” or “VR’s, or other places from friends who have worked there before. Others hear about the programs through materials send or posted by the agencies.

Is there a downside to all this?

Most of the international guest-workers to whom I spoke are highly satisfied with the arrangements and the work. For a few, the biggest beef is the remoteness and seeming provincialism of the Cape “Well, Wellfleet and Truro and Eastham are in a beautiful area but, aside from the bike path, the beaches and the ponds, there isn’t much to do.” One employer told me that when he does lose one of his foreign legionnaires, which is rare, the disaffected ones don’t go down the road — or up Cape — to work, they head for Boston or New York.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

As for the employers, I suppose the biggest problem could be the risk of hiring too many people in advance for what could be a slow season, the dearth of all who have enterprises on the Cape or in any other resort area. Still, even in the summer of 2009, which was quite slow early in the season, none of those to whom I spoke said they would want to give up on the program. They, like their customers, are pleased to enjoy the benefits of this kind of foreign service.

And so, I confess, are my wife, Hedy (shown at left), and I.

Peter Rose, a member of IFWTWA, is a sociologist and prize-winning travel journalist. His latest book is With Few Reservations: Travels at Home and Abroad. He lives in Northampton and Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

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