Leaving Georgia

Was there any good future for a Chinese American family in Macon, Georgia? As the ONLY Chinese in the whole region, mother and father felt isolated. They neither wanted to or could ever be fully American; their children could never be fully Chinese. Although their children were Chinese in physical features, their cultural and social upbringing was increasingly American.

As we became older, they realized an urgent need to move the family to California, especially when the older children, both daughters, reached adolescence. It was hoped that, in San Francisco with its large Chinese population, they could meet, and hopefully marry, Chinese boys. In Macon, that would have been impossible. They saw no future for them in a mixed race marriage, especially in a place like Georgia.
Mother insisted that the family should move to San Francisco so that we children could associate more with Chinese people, and learn the values, customs, and culture of China. A decision was made to move to San Francisco in stages, so that father would stay in Macon and operate the laundry to provide steady income. The plan was for Mary, the oldest child to leave first, with mother. Immediately upon Mary?s graduation from high school in 1949, mother escorted her by rail across the country to San Francisco where she would enter college that fall.

A new chapter opened in the life of our family. It was exciting, but also frightening in some ways. With mother in San Francisco, Jean and I had to help father with the laundry after school was over each day. Father prepared the meals. Somehow we survived the abrupt modification of our family structure and functions even though there were some uncomfortable moments.

In the summer of 1952, we began the second phase of our move with everyone heading west by rail except for father who stayed behind to operate the laundry alone to provide continuing income for our family. There was no fanfare; he was prepared to make the sacrifice because it was for the good of the family. He was now to be a bachelor laundryman, just as his brother had been for over 13 years in Atlanta. 

During this period of about four years without the physical presence of father, mother acquired a strong sense of independence as she was the head of the household because father was single-handedly minding the laundry in Macon to provide support for the family. At first she searched for work in Chinatown and even tried washing dishes as well as sewing in a garment factory, but she was not fast enough to keep up with the experienced workers. The following year, fortunately, the Laundromat that occupied the store beneath the flat where we lived went bankrupt and we were able to take it over. Mother had to manage all of the finances, operate the Laundromat, and still raise the children. It was far less demanding to run a Laundromat than to operate a laundry, but most customers still wanted full, rather than self-service. They did not tend their own laundry, but would drop it off and want us to wash, dry, fold, and wrap their laundry. Mother had to interact with customers to a greater extent than she did in the laundry in Macon. It was largely through these interactions with customers in the Laundromat that she had the opportunity to acquire sufficient command of English so she could feel more in control of her life.

When father retired and came to join us in San Francisco, mother was no longer the head of household. She may had mixed feelings about the reunion of the family in that father resumed control of many family decisions, while she lost some of the authority and autonomy she had had to assume during this period. They now shared responsibility for operating the laundromat. Since we had not been with father for almost four years, aside from my one summer with him in 1953 and a brief visit he made to San Francisco in 1955 to look for a second real estate property, we had become very independent. He was almost a stranger, it seemed.

Father relished the move from Georgia. The weather was infinitely more agreeable, and San Francisco, cooled by the Bay fog from the Pacific, was never oppressively hot as it was in Georgia during the summer. In fact, even the few days when it was hot in San Francisco, the evening fog of summer would roll in around late afternoon and quickly lower the temperature to levels that were chilly. 
The workload was considerably lighter for father than the heavy physical and time demands he had in Georgia. Father found social outlets that he never had in Macon. In Chinatown, he found other Chinese men to socialize with in community centers. It was quite an improvement for him from living in Georgia

'Learning How To Be Chinese'

The move to San Francisco involved many adjustments, geographically and culturally. Although we children knew we were 'Chinese', we had never had much social contact with Chinese people, aside from visiting a few aging Chinese laundry men in Atlanta a few days each year. We had not had much exposure to Chinese customs. It was only when we moved to San Francisco that any of us children really had the opportunity to develop friendships and socialize with Chinese Americans in any extended sense. Now, Chinese-ness would become a salient aspect of our identities. In high school as in college, there was a Chinese Student Club, and it was assumed that if you were Chinese, you would voluntarily segregate yourself and socialize mainly with Chinese students. I hesitantly conformed, but it seemed awkward for me, coming from Macon where everyone I knew at school had been white.

Mother had had no opportunities to socialize with any Chinese women since she had left China over 20 years ago. In fact, this lack of opportunity probably contributed to her never really developing any close social bonds with other Chinese even after she moved to San Francisco. She always seemed to be uncomfortable with idle time socializing and gossiping as many adults are inclined to do. Having had little spare time throughout her life, she probably felt it was a waste of time to sit down and have trivial conversations with others.

One aid in our transition was Mary's large extended family that she acquired through marriage. Edward had 3 sisters and 3 brothers, four of whom were married. Mary was living on Pacific Street only about four blocks from where we lived on Polk Street in a building that held four apartments. Here, several of these in-laws, as well as her father- and mother-in law lived in the other three apartments in the building. Her mother-in-law ran a garment sewing factory in the first floor store below the four apartments. Here, at least five or six older Chinese women worked to sew women?s garments for dress designers. This type of arrangement was sometimes the only opportunity for employment for these women who spoke little or no English. They worked long hours, often in crowded conditions. Yet, they had a lively camaraderie among them, chattering away with conversation while they worked. For a short while, mother tried her hand working there but found that she was not fast or skilled enough to compete with the other ladies, as you were paid by the piece, not by the hour. The large Gee clan was very outgoing, and warmly receptive of mother and us. Thus, we were immersed in an almost overnight socialization into Chinese life style and customs that we might not have otherwise achieved on our own for months or even years. When we first arrived in San Francisco, we really did not know how to be or act Chinese. We learned many aspects of Chinese family values, traditions, and customs firsthand from the Gee family.