The Gala was a great event, and I was even 'given' a tux to wear (and keep). I gave a Keynote Speech in which I took advantage of the fact that National "Take Your Child To Work" Day was just a few days earlier by talking about how as a child I was taken to work every day in our laundry! I then spoke about some of the invaluable lessons I learned from that experience.
ALL I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW, I LEARNED IN A CHINESE LAUNDRY
Distinguished honorees, ladies and gentlemen: I am honored to have the privilege to speak to you on this wonderful occasion...
oh... I was taught to be polite... but I really mean it.
I am most impressed with what a vibrant and energetic sense of community there is among the Atlanta Asian American .... ..
In contrast, when I was living in Macon, we had a much smaller community...my family...we were the entire Chinese COMMUNITY....when we finally left in the mid 1950s, the Chinese community was gone! A local paper noted it was the first time in 100 years that there were no Chinese in town... it was not clear from the artilce whether the writer was relieved or saddened!
A few years ago, in reflecting on my family’s life in Macon, ...our culturally isolation for over 25 years, being the solitary Chinese, or Asian...for that matter, family in town in an era with a highly segregated society, I was inspired to write a memoir, SOUTHERN FRIED RICE,.. to record our family’s life ...and in 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 just 1 day.)
[Note: this doesn’t always have accurate result: For EXAMPLE, when my son was a youngster, I’d occasionally take him with me to campus. He soon reached the (false) conclusion that work fun because all I 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 our 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
What Work is Like
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 for even though my parents went to bed early and get up early... six days a week, 52 wks a year. ...it did not exactly make them any healthier, or wealthier, ..but perhaps wiser
2. The Peter Principle (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 HarryTruman, the buck stops here .... with my parents who still had to get the work done.
How to Deal with People
3. The Customer Always Thinks he is right, even when he is wrong Some customers thought we lost clothes that they later admitted they had never
brought in... but had misplaced or left at home
4. Golden Rule Treat Customers the way you wanted to be treated... this did not always work, but it was a good starting point and usually worked
5. Learn how to ‘read’ or size up customers, that way I could 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.
7. Learn Problem Solving skills: For example: Lost tickets were the bane of our existence... by the way, just how the expression, No tick-ee, no wash-ee, arose is a mystery to me. No Chinese laundryman said that because we always found the 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.
8. Develop Organization and memory Skills because Time is money:
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.
9. Money Does Not Grow On Trees, (although it sometimes fell out of clothes). 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.
Importance of 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 want to conclude by contrasting Two very different conceptions of Laundry Life
The first, I will call the Customer’s “Romantic” Philosophy of The Laundry (imagine background song “Laundryman, My Laundryman”... to the tune of ‘Chinatown. My Chinatown”) There was an OLD 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!
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 mainstream society saw Chinese as experts, but only in this one area
A “Realistic” Philosophy of 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 it alone. 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.