As a Third Generation Chinese American, I felt a responsibility to collect the stories of my clan because there were not many books from the inside of a Chinese immigrant family. The first book was Inside the Oy Quong Laundry, my mother’s memoir.
My mother was reluctant to tell more than the stories I had heard all my life–about the eight-pound sadiron she had to use when she was only eight years old, about the red rooster who attacked her mother every time she went in to get one of his harem, about the customers who were named for their laundry (Two Towels and Stinky Socks). She said I was wasting my time. Who would care about life in a Chinese laundry? It wasn’t interesting. She told me I should write a best seller and make a lot of money and be famous. But as I transcribed and edited her voice into vignettes that I read back to her, she began to see how serious I was, and she began to remember.
At first it was the bitter things—the hairy mold that grew on the inside of the walls, the sweltering heat of Merced summers inside a brick building with a coal-burning stove and only one small fan. But then she began telling me about the clock weeds that would wind into corkscrews when you stuck them into your sweater and the geese that flew in Vees honking across the autumn sky. She remembered funny things, tender things, and beauty. It healed her. Surprisingly, it healed me as well.
A friend of mine once said that some people have been hit by exploding bullets, and what you hear coming out of them are cries of fear and shrieks of pain. There are always reasons, and if we knew them, we might marvel that the person is not worse.
When I heard my mother’s stories, I began to see her as a person with a past. She was no longer just my mom; she was the voice of all she’d gone through, some of which was wars with exploding bullets flying everywhere.
On the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death, I am again so grateful that I took the time to hear and gather stories. They helped me understand why she was the way she was, and why I was the way I was. They helped me cherish the wisdom she’d gleaned from her adversities, and choose to honor the strong and courageous woman she had become.