The American summer vacation season is underway. Domestic tourism is an industry that generates billions of dollars in the United States. But a hefty share of those wages go to guest workers who staff the resorts and other leisure destinations Americans enjoy.
At the historic Mount Washington Resort, a sprawling complex in the rural heart of the New England state of New Hampshire, nearly a quarter of the staff are international guest workers. They hail from over two dozen countries as diverse as Bulgaria, Argentina, Ghana and Turkey.
Tahir Turkuz is one of many international workers who come to America to learn English, not to become U.S. residents, but to become more effective in their home countries. Until recently, Turkuz was a waiter in one of Turkey's most famous international hotels. "Sometimes people at the hotel were speaking with me and I didn't understand them," he says.
Many seasonal guest workers are college students who want to come to the U.S. simply to see the country and immerse themselves in its culture. Alex and Anton, for example, who came to America from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, were admitted under the J1 student visa program which permits them to come here for 90 days of work and 30 days of travel.
"Your country is very clean. I like America!" Anton shouts to a reporter over the din of the kitchen's industrial strength dishwashers.
Mount Washington seasonal employees do not get health insurance, but they are permitted to use the resort's golf course, swimming pools and tennis courts during their off hours. But for Alex, working in this new cultural context is not always easy. "Sometimes, I can't understand American culture," he says with a smile, "especially the jokes!"
For their part, many American workers experience working with the foreign staff as a challenge. Peter Nobile, a Mount Washington Resort maintenance shed supervisor, has insisted his workers do their work the American way – in English.
"They will start talking their language and I'll tell them not to do that. You need to talk English so we all know what's going on," he says.
Nobile says the international members of his staff are good workers, but integrating them into his shop required an extra effort. Telling them what to do wasn't enough. "[I had to] actually take them out and show them," Nobile says. "They do need to be led a little more than some of our other guys."
A large proportion of the workers at the Mount Washington Resort are women. Many, like Hopal Bernard of Jamaica, left husbands and parents back home. After three years of excellent work, Hopal's employers offered to sponsor her for citizenship. It's a process that can take years.
Meanwhile, the work – making beds, and cleaning bathrooms – is long and hard, but Hopal says it's easier than the subsistence farm work she knew back home.
"But sometimes I get sad," she says. "I miss my family. I'm really doing this for them, especially my dad. He worked really hard." Hopal says she wants "to see him stop doing that and just sit and relax."
Like most other international workers here, Hopal says she came to the United States with high hopes. "Everybody's dream is to have a big nice house! And I want to further my education. I am working towards it, and I'm getting there."
Besides the possibilities of education, money and citizenship, many guest workers point to less tangible benefits of their jobs. The multicultural environment offers an eye-opening contrast to the often-homogenous culture of their home countries. And the deep friendships they often develop with their co-workers can offset the loneliness they feel for their families and friends left behind.