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Lessons from the Chinese Laundry

September 15, 2012

Judi Huck

I moved. Not to nearby Hoboken, somewhere else.

In New Jersey (where I used to live), I would do laundry in the basement of our apartment building.

Language Barriers at the Neighborhood Laundromat

Today was the first day I did laundry in Manhattan again, dropping off a load-and-a-half at a laundromat two blocks away.

When I returned for pickup, the attendant couldn’t easily find my bag. She was a middle-aged Asian woman, possibly Chinese – as in Chinese laundry.

Trying to be of help, I said to her, “It’s the orange one.”

At first it seemed like she didn’t hear me, so I said it louder. But when she kept fumbling around and trying to match receipt numbers and turning over black laundry bags, I realized – she didn’t know her colors. I’m not sure how much English she knew, actually.

I thought for a moment…how was I going to explain a color to her? How *does* one explain colors? For the time being, I had forgotten about my iPhone and the ability to use things like Google translate to try and help me. Although, I’m not so sure that typing “orange” would have necessarily emitted the correct response. (Which orange – what if the program thought I meant the fruit?!)

I looked around and fairly quickly noticed a ruler that was orange. In fact, almost the exact orange as my laundry bag. I’m not sure why they had a ruler on their counter near the cash register. It didn’t appear to be in use, it just sorta looked like it was hanging out there.

I picked up the ruler with my right hand. With my left, I slowly stroked the surface. “Orange,” I said to her again. Swiping the plastic ruler up and down, I repeated, “Orange.”

It was my attempt to get her to pay attention to a small load-and-a-half bag in the corner. I was pretty sure it was my bag and that she was looking over it. I thought it would have been harder to try and explain the concept of “corner.” Perhaps. But perhaps not.

In any event, she got it. Soon after she realized what I was trying to communicate to her, reached far back into the corner, matched my bag with my receipt number and presented it to me.

Beyond Prejudice

Judi Huck beyond prejudice


Image Brianna Diane

To me, this little laundry incident far extended the laundry. It was about tolerance. It was about what it means to be in New York, a melting pot of languages, ethnicities, cultures and religions. It was about the common themes that unite us all – our shared humanity.

Yet it reminded me of a negative event I witnessed at the New York Public Library last week. A black man raised his voice at another in the main reading room. He cursed something to the effect of, “We don’t want none of that here. Go back to Korea with that!” It was aimed at an Asian man, clearly, and was very shocking to witness. In the library, of all places!

I said nothing to defend the Asian man, only thought to myself – We were all immigrants at some point. And then I was sad to see such acts of prejudice unfolding before me.

Now, in the comfort of my home, and on my fresh, clean bed sheets I think….So long as we don’t try to understand each other and make honest efforts to communicate openly – regardless of the obstacles that separate us, and in spite of all our differences – unfortunately there can be little progress.

A world without progress is not a world I want to live in.

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