PERSONAL
10/01/2020 15:44 EDT

I Wondered Why My Immigrant Family Didn't Use The Dishwasher. Now I Get It.

Like many newcomers to Canada, we had other uses for it.

On Christmas, I decided to give myself a break.

“As a treat, I will use the dishwasher today.”

I started unloading the bowls, chopsticks and cups I had hand-washed the day before. After all, I wouldn’t need to clean those again. But when I started eagerly filling the machine with dirty dishes, my friend, who was staying with me for the holidays, looked confused.

“Sam, using the dishwasher is not a treat!” she laughed.

I laughed with her, but I also felt guilty. Growing up, my family rarely used the dishwasher. We preferred to wash the dishes by hand, because we thought the dishwasher was wasteful.

Whether that is true or not, we considered the dishwasher a luxury. Our first home, a small house in a Toronto suburb, had a particularly small kitchen without one. In 2001, we moved into a four-bedroom house a few streets away. Not only was it a bigger space, it also had a spacious kitchen with a dishwasher. Having lived without the appliance for so long, however, the machine soon became our new drying rack.

Samantha Lui
The writer did not have a dishwasher growing up, cementing her habit of hand washing dishes.

Similarly, the oven, which is rarely used in Asian cooking, became a place for us to store pots and pans. Our cupboards were filled with canned goods, cooking oils and a large plastic bag filled with smaller grocery bags. We also kept several plastic take-out containers for storing leftover food.

Many immigrant families in America, no matter their background, use their dishwasher as a “glorified dish rack.” Embracing the appliance can be one the last North American cultural quirks that immigrants pick up — and if they do ever hit the “on” switch, they are hit with the same peculiar feelings of guilt that I have. Donna Gabaccia, a professor who studies immigration and culinary history, suggested that one reason why families like mine avoid the appliance is because immigrants can absorb only so much change.

Samantha Lui
A family photo of the writer as a child, pictured seated on her immigrant mother's lap.

I could sense that in my mother. When I was growing up in the ’90s, she would always tell me and my sister how her family did not have much money when she lived in Hong Kong. As one of 10 children, she had to share a bed with her siblings. I’m sure when my mom first moved to Canada in the 1980s, dishwashers must have seemed unfamiliar and a luxury.

Over time, I adopted her habit of hand-washing dishes. It was only when I visited the homes of non-immigrant friends that I realized my family’s habits were different.

I remember the first time a friend’s mom turned down my offer to help clean up after a birthday party. “I’ll just put them into the dishwasher!” To my surprise, my friends even used the oven to bake cookies and roast chicken. It made me feel jealous. If we had this convenience in our home for so long, why didn’t we use it all the time?

Samantha Lui
The writer doesn't use her oven at all, except for storing food containers.

It was only when I moved into my own apartment that I grew to fully understand why we did things the way we did. I filled the cupboard under my sink with canned goods, soy sauces and pasta sauces; the cupboards above brimmed with dry pasta, cereal, chicken stock and snacks. I made sure to fill my home with non-perishables because my mother told me to keep them on hand in case of an emergency.

My remaining dishes and Tupperware had nowhere left to go. So I opened the dishwasher and oven, and stacked them inside. It all made sense.

“I didn’t understand why all of this was so controversial”

In an episode of “Fresh Off the Boat, there’s a humourous scene where young Taiwanese-American protagonists Eddie and Evan Huang discover their dishwasher is not actually a drying rack, and confront their mother. Much like me, they wondered why their family never used it. “Because it’s wasteful!” she responded before throwing a dish rag at them. “Wash and dry dishes the usual way.” 

That was the first time I saw the issue spoken about on mainstream TV. It’s a long shot from Western sitcom depictions of nuclear families making casseroles in the oven, eating dinner together and putting their plates in a dishwasher.

Samantha Lui
The writer's dishwasher is used exclusively for drying dishes.

Images like that remind us just how deeply ingrained using these appliances is in Western culture — some people even fantasize about buying a second dishwasher just to get away from hand washing altogether. From this perspective, North Americans start viewing the practice of storing things in these appliances as strange, gross or dangerous.

I didn’t think much of it until I saw a recent post on a Toronto Facebook group: “Do you use your oven to store things? If yes, WHY???”

The post eventually received hundreds of comments. Many of the negative comments came from people who looked white and made no mention of being from an immigrant household. One of them said, ”Absolutely not! I hate it when people do this.”

I decided to share my story, and other Asians and people from immigrant households came to my defence. A person went on to say that negative responses “reeked of privilege.”

While the post was probably created to be funny, the responses felt like an attack on immigrant families, especially for those who did not grow up with a lot of money or a large home.

Years after moving out, I still have a hard time using the dishwasher without feeling lazy or incapable of doing a simple house chore. On the other hand, a part of me is proud that I continue my mother’s habit of washing dishes by hand.

I brought it up to my mother recently, noting that it helped me save money on my utilities bill. What happened next surprised me.

She told me it was OK to turn on the dishwasher “once in a while.” 

“But I don’t want to waste water!” I replied.

“If you must, use it every two weeks,” she continued in Cantonese. “To make sure it works, and to clean the machine.”

It seems some things about this family never change.

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