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Sunday, September 02, 2007

On Sundays...

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.


  1. That's a touching story. I haven't seen that woman selling veggies in front of Banh Mi Che Cali, but I'd definitely buy from her if I see her.

  2. I love reading your blog. I'm not Asian, but I love a lot of different Asian foods and I really, really love reading your viewpoint on them and many other things. I especially loved reading this post -what a wonderful person you are! I live in the Chicago area. Thank you so much for posting this and for your wonderful actions of helping others.

  3. I love your little Chinese man story. I don't know who picks up my recyclables, but I leave it in a bag next to the trash on pick up day too.

  4. see? i told you drinking all those water bottles would have some good. :)

  5. Elmo,
    I haven't seen her anymore either. :(

    Thanks for the nice words, but I didn't really do all that much. Please feel free to choose an faux name and comment more often. I can't keep my anonymous commenters straight. :)


    Lil' sis,
    Come back! I drink from the Brita so no new empty bottles lately.

  6. Hi, I've been reading your blog for a long time and this is the first time leaving you a comment. You are such a wonderful person with a very good heart. Thanks for sharing your story. We too have an old Asian couple that came by during the night to check out our recycle bin.

  7. When you got to the part where the truck picked up the cans, I almost started crying. In fact, I'm still on the verge of tears. How sad it would be for him to almost loose all of his hard work? :(

    Yay for you to have been there to help. And yay that you save your recycling for him. That's great.

    We have a woman who will jump into our recycling dumpster to get cans every week. I wish I could just leave my cans out for her, but I hardly ever catch her.

    Thanks for sharing your story/musings.

  8. That's really nice of you to help them like that. I think this is a common scene in asian communities. In northern virginia, we have this vietnamese plaza called eden center. On weekends you'd see old men and women selling water spinach, chili, plants, etc. A couple of weeks ago, I bought a really nice jasmine plant for only 11 bucks.

  9. Wow, that is so nice of you! I used to see elderly Asian people collecting recyclables at my high school and college in broad daylight. I'm glad that no one ever stopped them from doing so.

    Thanks for sharing your nice story!

  10. Mel's Mommy,
    Gee, and everyone else thinks I'm so nice. ;)

    Thanks for coming out of lurkdom and for your nice words. I'm not that wonderful. It's just a very small thing to do.

    Thanks for your kind words as well. I'm not sure what made me keep watching him that day, but I'm sure glad I did!

    Peachy Mango,
    That's a very common sight all over Little Saigon or all over the San Gabriel Valley.

    I used to see this old Asian lady with gloves and a trash picker so she had a routine down pat!

  11. that's so sweet of you. i have a soft spot for elderly people, too. a family friend's grandpa used to go around my neighborhood picking up cans, and when i was younger i'd ask my dad why he did so. my dad said, well he's probably bored so it's kind of a hobby...Exercise, some extra cash, and helping out the environment!!!

  12. Anon,
    I just saw him again today. I don't think it's as benign as a hobby. I think for a lot of elderly, this is very necessary income.


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