tbt: laundry on landale street // hong kong
It’s been three weeks. “Very long,” she scolds.
“I’ve been so busy,” I say in Mandarin and give an overwhelmed face. I’ve become better at miming.
The wall is stacked with what looks like bags of dead bodies. Her eyes dart around and she spots mine, pulling it from a tall pile. “Wah, so heavy, la!” she sing-songs in Cantonese. “Okay, okay.” She places the bag onto the scale.
I’ve gone to her tiny sliver of a laundromat on this barely noticeable street in Wanchai, Hong Kong for the last two years. It’s an extremely narrow space right across from I live, marked by a faded blue and white sign written in Chinese characters only.
She speaks only Cantonese, but no English. I speak English, but no Cantonese. The mutual language is Mandarin, but she can only understand some of what I can barely speak it. Our words pass through one another while we both try to collect the solid parts, the way boiled water passes through a sieve and leaves hot noodles behind in the mesh.
“Baahtsaap.” 80 Hong Kong Dollars, she says in Cantonese.
I look around and focus on the small details. Then, I say in Mandarin:
“I’m leaving Hong Kong; I’m going back to America.”
She looks at me for longer than normal and I don’t know what it means. I hear her going off in a Cantonese tangent. I nod and pretend like I know. But know nothing—I don’t even know her.
She, on the other hand, knows my most intimate pieces of underwear, sweatiest pairs of gym shorts, coffee-stained blouses, and mismatched socks. She knows I’m lazy by how infrequently I get my sheets washed. She knows I often go to nightclubs by the amount of cigarette-scented skirts I leave with her when I show up hungover on a Sunday. Part of me wants to tell her I’ll miss her, but it would be weird to say to someone who knows me solely by my dirty laundry, right?
Instead, I say, “Thank you so much,” in the best Cantonese I can. She laughs and covers her mouth like she’s embarrassed for me and my terrible accent.
I hand her my money one last time and head home.