Not many people, aside from Chinese friends and relatives, get to go beyond the front counter of a Chinese laundry into the work space or crowded living quarters usually found in the back or upstairs above the laundry. If they did, they might be surprised, as was true for a white school boy who many decades later wrote on his blog about his memories of his invitation by a Chinese girl, Mae, to join her family for dinner one evening. It was a valuable experience as he learned to appreciate or understand how people different from himself live.
In his 2010 blog post, David Farside wrote about the Chinese laundry down the street from where he lived, noting that:
“As kids we always joked about how they slaughtered the English language, how they dressed, their diet and how many of them lived huddled together in back of the sweat shop.”
He had invited a daughter of the Chinese family with whom he enjoyed a friendship to his 8th birthday party. Mae did not bring a present as all the other kids did, which he assumed was because her family was poor, but instead she gave David a written note at the end of the party inviting him to dinner with her family that evening in the laundry.
His mother was unsure whether it was safe for him to go, but David insisted on going. At the laundry he was greeted and led “through the maze of hanging clothes, ironing mangles and washboards to the back of the shop.”
In the back yard, he saw a shack that was “Covered entirely with sheets of corrugated metal, it appeared to be an old garage for auto repairs.” Upon entering the shack he found: “The whole family was seated on the floor around a huge teak circular lazy susan covered with food. They all sang a Chinese happy birthday song and I sat at the seat of honor for the feast. I couldn’t tell what I was eating, except for the rice. But after 65 years I can still taste the delicacies I shared that day.”
After the meal, David recalled enjoying cultural activities and entertainment that were unfamiliar but captivated him. He recalled going home and telling his father he would never have guessed the Chinese possessed so much wealth, education, skills and kindness. His father listened for awhile and said, “David, things are never what they appear and I hope you always remember what you learned tonight at the Chinese laundry.”
Farside concluded: I learned about art, aesthetics, mysticism and the true meaning of life. So dad, wherever you are, I always remembered my best birthday gift of all. I remember what you taught me and what I learned that night at the Chinese laundry.
David’s reminiscence was touching and illustrates how close personal interactions can correct misconceptions we might have about people from other backgrounds.
Here is a link to David Farside’s 2010 blog if you want to read the entire post. https://davidfarside.wordpress.com/tag/chinese-laundry/
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to see what Mae learned about white people from her interactions with David as there surely must have been some surprises for her as well.
As an example of what a Chinese laundry kid could learn from personal contact with a white classmate, I can share my own experience with Richard, a Jewish schoolmate who was my best friend in grammar school. Richard and I often walked home together as we both lived toward the business district of Macon, Georgia, whereas all the other kids in our class lived in the opposite direction. Richard and I would sometimes go inside his family’s apartment, which was the first, and only, white residence I ever visited while growing up. His parents were both business people and their apartment was very nicely furnished, unlike the living space above our family laundry which was just two storage rooms with a sink with only cold running water but no toilet. We had dilapidated beds, several wood chairs, one table, to double as a dining table and a place to do homework, and sevral apple crates repurposed to serve as nightstands, storage spaces, and bookcases. As Richard’s parents were well-to-do, Richard had many nice toys, especially his Lionel electric trains, which I envied as I could only afford inexpensive wind-up trains by Marx.
Richard also had a black “nanny” who cooked meals, cleaned the apartment, and supervised Richard until his parents came home. Even though it was only about two blocks from Richard’s apartment to our laundry, his parents would often insist on giving me a ride home if they were headed in that direction. Since we never had a car, it was a real treat to ride in a nice car even if only for two blocks!
Had it not been for my friendship with Richard, I would have never seen the inside of the home of any white classmate. I had no real idea of the furnishings and arrangements inside a home other than from looking at furniture store window displays of dining, living room, and bedroom furniture although I had a vague idea from some movies that had some scenes inside homes.
So, just as David Farside made discoveries of how Chinese laundry families lived from his visit to Mae’s laundry, I learned much about the American living space from my visits to Richard’s apartment.