All I Really Needed To Know, I Learned in A Chinese Laundry

Who’s Who Among Asian American Communities in Georgia Gala, Keynote Address,  John Jung,  Omni Hotel, Atlanta, GA. April 29, 2006

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 Distinguished honorees, ladies and gentlemen:

I am honored to have the privilege to speak to you on this wonderful occasion.  I am most impressed with what a vibrant and energetic sense of community there is among the members of Atlanta’s Asian Americans.

In contrast, when I was living in Macon, we had a much smaller community…As our family members were the only Chinese in town, when we finally left in the mid-1950s, the entire Chinese community was gone! The local paper noted it was the first time in 100 years that there were no Chinese in town… it was not clear from the article whether the writer was relieved or saddened (just kidding)!

A few years ago, in reflecting on my family’s life in Macon__ our cultural isolation for over 25 years, being the solitary Chinese, or Asian, for that matter, family in town during an era of a highly segregated society before the civil rights movement, I was inspired to write a memoir, Southern Fried Rice, to document our family’s life in Macon and in a small way help preserve and share a bit of Chinese American history that few people outside of the South know about.

There isn’t time enough tonight to go into any detail about our family story so I want to say a few things about growing up in a Chinese laundry.

Let me BEGIN with what might seem to be a digression: I’ll bet none of you knew that this past Thursday was:  “TAKE YOUR CHILD TO WORK WITH YOU” Day …The premise being: it’s good for kids to learn what their parents do at work, even if they go for only 1 day.

Note that  this doesn’t always have the desired result: For example, when my son was a youngster, I’d occasionally take him with me to my college campus. He soon reached the (false) conclusion that work was just fun because all I seemingly did was:

Drink coffee,  chat with students,  and occasionally scribble on the blackboard, and illegibly at that.

I, too, had the chance to watch my parents work when I was growing up. I worked with my parents in the laundry… not just 1 day a year, but EVERYDAY so that I often hated having to work in the laundry, but I now must admit it did teach me some valuable lessons.

What “lessons” did I ‘learn’ from watching my parents work?

The Nature of Work

1. Work is hard. Ben Franklin, as we all know said, “Early to bed, early to rise … well, he never talked to a Chinese laundryman because even though my parents went to bed early and got up early… six days a week, 52 wks a year, it did not exactly make them any healthier, or wealthier, … but perhaps wiser.

2.  Murphy’s Law (If it can go wrong, it will) also applies in the Laundry.  When the hired help doesn’t come in, the work must still be done. When machinery breaks down, the work must still be done… And as with President Harry Truman, the buck stops here… with my parents who still had to get the work done on time.

How to Deal with People

3. The customer always thinks he is right… even when he is wrong.

For example, some customers thought we had lost their clothing articles but they later admitted they had never brought them in to the laundry… but had misplaced or left at home.

4. Golden Rule: Treat customers the way you wanted to be treated.  This approach did not always work, but it was a good starting point and usually worked.

5. Learn how to ‘read’ or size up customers. I learned to pick easy to serve customers to wait on … and let my father deal with the obnoxious ones.

Use Your Intellect or Brain

6. Dealing with many illiterate customers, white and black, quickly taught me the value of being able to read and write and why education is so important.

 Learn Problem Solving skills:

7. For example: Lost tickets were the bane of our existence… by the way, just how the mocking expression, “No tick-ee, no wash-ee,” arose is a mystery to me. No Chinese laundryman said that because we always found the customer’s laundry, even without a ticket. But we had to open, and rewrap, many bundles to find the right clothes. This taught me to develop strategies for finding a customer’s clothes efficiently.

 Develop Organization and Memory Skills because “Time is money:”

8. In a laundry, you have to do more than just wash and iron clothes; after that you must sort and reassemble finished items for each customer and to do this efficiently you need to be organized and have a good memory.

Money Does Not Grow On Trees, (although it sometimes fell out of clothes).

9. Our parents did not indulge us, or themselves, with material items, but they always found the way to provide for essential needs especially if it had to do with our schoolwork.

Family Involvement

10. Family cooperation is essential for survival… we all had to pitch in and work together in order to make a living.

 These lessons were invaluable in helping me succeed throughout life.

Now I will  conclude by contrasting two very different conceptions of laundry life

The first, I will call the Customer’s “Romantic” Philosophy of The Chinese Laundry

There was an OLD soap commercial in which: 

A white customer asks the Chinese laundryman: How do you get the shirts so white?  The Laundryman’s proud but sly Answer: ANCIENT CHINESE SECRET!  (imagine a background song “Laundryman, My Laundryman”… to the tune of ‘Chinatown. My Chinatown”)

 In other words: We, Chinese were IMBUED by the white ad writer with magic-like power to transform dirty, smelly clothes into clean fragrant clothes. This stereotype shows that society saw Chinese as experts, but only in this one area of laundry work.

Versus

A “Realistic” Philosophy of the Chinese Laundry… one that might represent the view of the Chinese laundryman:

Children, you should aspire to something higher than doing laundry; control your own future with knowledge and education. Our laundry will provide the financial support for you to get this valuable education.

In conclusion…we must recognize that successful though we may be, we did NOT do italone. We stood on the shoulders of our parents and families, a strength of our Asian cultures.

Tonight, in honoring these 67 outstanding members of the Who’s Who in Asian American communities, I think I can safely say that we are at the same time honoring their parents and families who supported them in pursing their dreams.

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