Sunday, September 02, 2007
On Sundays I keep my eyes peeled for a little old Chinese man who sometimes walks down my street. The first time I saw him, he was carrying a couple of plastic bags filled with empty bottles and cans. He was peering into the recycling bin across the street. So I quickly ran into my kitchen and grabbed what I had in the recycling bin - two empty water bottles. Then I ran across the street to give them to him before he disappeared.
"Dou tse. Dou tse," Thank you, thank you, he said effusively in Cantonese. Since my Cantonese is limited to the numbers 1 to 10, good morning, yummy, and eat rice, I could only nod and smile.
I wondered if he was homeless. Or was he simply looking for extra ways to get money? I didn't want to offend him and offer him money if it was the latter. Every once in a while, I would see an elderly Asian person, either in Little Saigon or around the San Gabriel Valley, collecting cans for recycling.
When I used to work in Orange County and often stopped off at the Banh Mi & Che Cali on Bolsa and Magnolia, I saw the same little old lady selling rau muong (water spinach) and other herbs. I would always buy a bag from her. A grocery bag-size of already plucked water spinach was only $2. She wouldn't accept more money, so sometimes I bought several bags. Once I asked her, didn't she have family to take care of her? Why did she need to sell vegetables and herbs out on the street? And she said, of course she had a family, but that every little bit helps.
I'd take the water spinach home to my ba noi (paternal grandmother) and tell her the story of who I bought it from. She'd always commend me for trying to take care of my elders, even if they weren't actually mine. Ba noi often did the same thing. One year she made herself sick making banh tet, which she sold to friends and acquaintances for $5 apiece. Her profits couldn't have been much after paying for the sticky rice, pork, mung beans, and banana leaves. My oldest uncle and youngest aunt and I had urged her not to do it. We said we'd give her whatever money she'd make so she wouldn't have to work so hard. But she said every little bit helps and wouldn't stop.
When we first came to America, my parents worked as janitors. Making $2.75 an hour hardly paid the rent. So they picked berries on weekends, collected office trash to sort white from colored from computer paper to bring to the recycling center, and collected cans for recycling. Recently, I tossed an empty can I saw on the street into my trunk, and lil' sis made ewwww gross noises. Hey, 5 cents is 5 cents. But I've stopped taking my cans to the recycling center. Instead, I watch for the elderly Chinese man. He needs the 5 cents much more than I do.
I hadn't seen him in a long while, so this Sunday before Labor Day, when I saw him across the street, I yelled out hello, that I had cans for him, and motioned him over. I ran inside and grabbed two paper bags full of empty cans. Then ran quickly inside to grab the other two bags in case he didn't realize there were more. And for good measure, I grabbed a big plastic bag since I wasn't sure if he had extra. When I came out again, he was neatly folding up my paper bag.
"Dou tse! Dou tse! Tsank you! Tsank you!" he said loudly while chuckling at his bounty.
I helped him dump everything into the second garbage bag. Then watched him slowly make his way down the street.
It was so hot. SoCal had triple digit temperatures. I kept watching him, wondering if I should run down the street with a bottle of water too? Wishing I knew Cantonese to explain that the holiday weekend meant no one would be putting out their trash this Sunday.
He left the two garbage bags on the curb while he ventured into the far back of another house. I saw a truck pull up. A man got out. He opened the bags and when he saw the empty cans, tossed the bags into his truck bed. Like a mad woman, I started waving my arms and yelling for them to put it back. The truck stopped, backed up, and the window rolled down.
"Take it back. The bags belong to a little old Chinese man. They belong to someone. Take it back! Take it back!"
They apologized. It wasn't their fault they didn't know. As they backed up the truck, I could see the little old Chinese man walk out to the curb again. He looked around in confusion, wondering what happened to his bags of cans. The truck pulled up, the bags were given back, and when the Chinese man walked into the far back of the next house, he made sure to take his bags with him.
I saw him again on another night wearing a clean white T-shirt. Perhaps he isn't homeless after all? Either way, I don't recycle my cans anymore, I give them to him.