Dish Duty


In my paternal grandmother's house, I was told that the rule for all meals was that the last person to finish eating had to do the dishes. This happened as I was the last person to finish eating, when I first visited as a child. It was the first time all of her five grandchildren were in the same place at the same time, so it was a massive family dinner with as many of her descendants as possible. I was eleven, and didn't understand the nature of complicated Chinese family structures, and still stumbled over addressing my relatives with the correct title that acknowledged their position in our hierarchy.

My uncle, the baby brother of his generation (fourth born out of seven), covered me on dish duty; at age eleven, my own parents still had not required me to wash dishes, so the task seemed impossible to me. As the sole representative of my branch, the embarrassment stayed with me for years. Later in that trip, my youngest aunts, my father's two baby sisters, cornered me and told me I wasn't doing my duty of taking good care of my father because of how much he had aged since he left them. They hadn't seen him in almost a decade and a half, during which he immigrated to a different country, had a child, and finished his doctorate. His greying hair and tired face in the photographs I brought, the only appearance of him I had known, became my shame.

I returned to my grandmother's house with my father thirteen years later, and offered to clear the table after lunch. My father put out his hand to stop me and repeated the rule of his childhood: the youngest present cleans up after meals. My cousin, less than a year behind me, dutifully carried all the bowls to the kitchen and washed them. Later, we fought for the right to clean my grandmother's kitchen for her; him, because it was his job indefinitely so long as the baby cousins weren't visiting, and me, because I wanted to erase a burden I carried from my first visit.

These are the things I remember whenever I am doing dishes. In my kitchen, the rule is much simpler: dirty dishes are forbidden. Anything in the sink becomes the problem of whoever sees it. It is permissible to ask to be excused from dish duty for a variety of circumstances, such as hand injuries, occasional time and energy constraints, or in exchange for having done a significant amount of food preparation. But, in general, dishes do not remain in the sink for any longer than it takes to clean them.

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With a quiet smile, the electrician stared calmly at the cockroach that scrambled around his boots as he walked, carefully stepping to avoid smearing it all over the floor.

"Whoa. You know there are some big Madagascar cockroaches down in the steam tunnels." Maybe he was talking to me, since I was the only one within earshot on my way to the stairs, watching him in the same way he watched the roach, but the words seemed more for himself than anyone else.

I laughed while he let the roach escape under the machine room door. "Yeah, this guy's not so big as the ones I've seen."

23 January 2014 18:47


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