Washing Their Hands Of the Last Frontier

Bernie Fischer and wife Mary Ngo, a Vietnamese American, do their dishes by hand in Columbia. She holds their son Gabriel, 5 months.
Bernie Fischer and wife Mary Ngo, a Vietnamese American, do their dishes by hand in Columbia. She holds their son Gabriel, 5 months. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 8, 2005

A couple of months ago, in the privacy of his Reston townhouse, Alan Chien made a final break from cultural tradition, a guilt-filled decision he has yet to share with his parents.

He used his dishwasher. He knows his parents will not understand.

"They don't believe in it," said Chien, 35, an engineer who emigrated with his family from Taiwan when he was a toddler. "Just because they never used it, I never used it, so it was just a mysterious thing to me."

In many immigrant homes, the automatic dishwasher is the last frontier. Long after new arrivals pick up football, learn the intricacies of the multiplex and the DMV and develop a taste for pizza, they resist the dishwasher. Some joke that not using the appliance is one of the truest signs of immigrant heritage, whether they hail from Africa, Latin America, Asia or Eastern Europe.

If they have a dishwasher -- and many do, because it is standard equipment in most homes -- it becomes a glorified dish rack, a Tupperware storage cabinet or a snack-food bin. It's never turned on.

Officials at appliance companies have noticed: Sears doesn't even highlight the appliances in its ads in Spanish-language media.

It's a quirk in the assimilation process that baffles social scientists. "It's really striking," said Donna Gabaccia, who studies immigration and culinary history at the University of Minnesota. In the home, "technology is generally embraced by women. Certainly in terms of technology, their homes don't look that much different from Middle American homes."

Gabaccia said one explanation could be that immigrants can absorb only so much change. The dishwasher is a U.S. invention that is rare in most countries, even among the upper-middle class.

Chien, too, has a hard time explaining dishwasher guilt. Chien, whose younger sister goaded him into breaking his "mental block" on the matter, marvels over how the appliance scrubs off caked-on food. But he isn't sure whether he will keep using it.

"I still have the sense that it's kind of a waste of electricity," he said. "It's odd. We buy American clothes; we use the oven; we use the stove; but, somehow, that appliance. . . ."

Graciela Andres laments that her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren have abandoned washing by hand. "They do it the American way -- they put everything in the wash machine, no matter if it's a little spoon," said Andres, who emigrated from Bolivia in 1981.

She does not disdain her family's washer and dryer, microwave, heavy-duty mixer, DVD player or computers. But the dishwasher?


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