Each time I walk by a dry cleaners in the city and see an Asian couple behind the counter, my chest tightens. And here at my parent’s store on Long Island, where I intend to spend the rest of the day, I start to feel the pressure. My father, once a mechanical engineer and a graduate of the prestigious Yonsei University in South Korea, shuffles a customer’s dirty laundry into a basket. And over in the corner, my mother, once a math teacher at an all-girl’s high school in Seoul, works quietly with her thin frame huddled over the sewing machine, glasses clinging onto the bridge of her nose, as she threads stitch after stitch to get someone a perfect inseam on his chinos. I’ve avoided coming here for years because I hate seeing my parents work like this. I hate pitying them. And I hate how I will order sushi on Seamless tonight absurdly thinking about how it costs the same as dry cleaning three pants.
But there is also comfort here. My mom says at our first dry cleaners, I used to run along the garment conveyor, playing hide-and-seek with my sister among the sweaters, police uniforms, and wedding dresses. I could get lost in this maze of strangers’ clothing again, the endless array of weightless clear bags that dance with each movement I make. But my daydream ends just as quickly when I look over the top of the conveyor, at my aging father pandering to yet another customer in accented English.
Over the past few years, I have recognized the sacrifices that my father has made, but only as an abstract concept. Now, sitting in his chair in this 6’ x 5’ back room he calls his office, on this “bring-your-kid-to-work” day that has been overdue by fifteen or so odd years, I feel a visceral pang in my chest for my father I never felt before.
I follow my dad to the area where the steam press, dryer, and laundering machines hum the ensemble that somehow makes the humid air even heavier. The engineer within him roars to life, diffusing through his movements as he manipulates the machinery—caressing a knob here, prying a lever there. And as he stands by the spot cleaning station, mask on, his figure glowing under a line of dusty amber bulbs, I’m left with a poetic curiosity: has he ever likened the stain removal to that of a medical operation? Laying the diseased article down on the board, gloved hands correcting its malignancies with a surgical application of chemicals—a dab here, a spray there. The swift movements and precision all ingrained through millions of repetitions. He does this day in and day out all so that I can one day practice medicine day in and day out.
At closing time, he locks the storefront and we climb into his car. “I don’t think I want to come back,” I manage in broken Korean. “It’s a lot.”
He drives and the dry cleaners shrinks behind us. “I know,” he says. And something in my chest grows a little tighter.