Vietnamese immigrant Kim Nguyen used hand signals to show Sonia Vargas, a recent arrival from Bolivia who speaks no English, how to artistically splay slices of red and yellow pepper, tomato slices and California greens across the plate, leaving an open space for the dish's centerpiece, a phyllo dough basket filled with Gorgonzola cheese, caramelized onions and spinach.
The result is an American workplace that in some cases resembles a modern-day Tower of Babel, presenting multiple opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding, as people seek to work together across steep barriers of language, culture, gender and economic class, and racial, educational and religious differences. Female managers supervise men who come from countries where women's activities are restricted; high school dropouts instruct former college professors; immigrants who speak only Spanish work alongside those who speak only Vietnamese; Bosnians work alongside Serbs.
The change has been particularly dramatic in the hotel and restaurant business, which relies on a steady stream of able-bodied, low-wage workers. William Edwards, general manager at the Hilton, recalled that when he was hired there as a dishwasher in 1971 after a stint in the military, there were three main groups -- white, black and Hispanics. Almost all the managers were white men, with names like "Jones, Edwards and Smith," he recalled, and there were only two languages at work, English and Spanish.
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