26 October << 2001 >> 11 November
I've been reading the memoir of a Chinese-American woman who grew up in San Francisco in the early part of the last century. The conversation above takes place during World War II, and as I read the early life story of this woman growing up in what are pretty unique circumstances in history, I note this guy talking about how she might get back to China and see the way things have been for, what, the last four thousand years? But, like I said, this is World War II. By the time anyone gets back to China, the country will be in the midst of various violent lurches in to the modern industrial age. I'd like to think there are still apprenticeships in herb shops to be had in China today, but the pattern of tea-spittoon-chair boy is hardly the norm. One thing I note in Ms. Wong's biography is the idea of individual change being a component of the larger picture ... the family, the nation, the will of God. Where the individual may lead a less-than-fulfilling life, the greater organization perseveres. I see this to some degree with my own family. My own chips are down at the moment, but the family remains strong. The persistence of tradition, of the establishment, can lend comfort in times of tumult. Similarly, the persistence of tradition can also be stifling when opportunity beckons. Some are geared put down roots in America, or to take the dot-com job in California, others find that they prefer to stay a little closer to home. The way our country was formed, it is a collection of the itchy people who fled to the new world, to experience change. This is what makes our country great, but also leaves us with weird troubles like lack of national health-care. America is concerned more often with personal initiative over collective interest than other nations. That in itself is part of the tradition of American family of which I am a part. Well, you have to have respect for the way things are, even as you hope to change. The culture of change leaves its own immobile traditions. Hrmmm.
By this time the brushes had been wrapped, paid for, and the change made, but Jade Snow lingered, fascinated. The shop was quiet. No other customer had come in and the proprietor seemingly had nothing to do but talk.
"You are a native daughter, aren't you? You have never been in China, but some day you may be able to study these things at first hand for yourself."
Jade Snow asked how long it had been since his last visit to China.
Forty-five years--and fifty-five years since I came to America the first time. It's difficult to leave your business after you get it started because it is hard to get a trusted employee. Once I sent for one of my relatives from China to learn my business, but did he want a gentleman's job? No, instead of staying at my store after he arrived, he took a dishwasher job to make more money. So now he drifts from job to job. No self-respect, no security. I guess he was too old when he began here. You can't teach a man a new trade or business after he's thirty."
"Daddy told me that in China a father sends his son away at an early age to a good friend for business training," she volunteered, "the theory being that if his son became angered at the friend, he would run away and return to his father, but if the father undertook the training himself, the son might run away from the father. Thus, friends can be mutually free in disciplining each other's sons. I understand that three years is the minimum apprenticeship period."
The proprietor-philosopher agreed. "Business training in China is rigorous indeed. It begins with the most humble duties--what would merely be janitorial work here. The trainee becomes what we call a tea-spittoon-chair boy. It means that his training begins with the maintenance of the shop and the welcoming of the customers by keeping the teapot filled with fresh tea and the spittoon emptied. He pulls up a chair for the customer, and serves him tea. He has to wait until his master retires before he may rest himself. All this may sound strange to you, but, as I say, some day you will see all these things for yourself.
Jade Snow Wong
"Fifth Chinese Daughter"