Triple good luck and "Southern Fried Rice"

Oct. 09, 2013 @ 05:51 PM

In today’s Chapel Hill, we are surrounded by neighbors and university students who come from a Chinese background.

Not too many years ago, however, seeing an Asian face would be a rare event in Chapel Hill and rarer still in other towns and small cities in the South.

Thanks to a new book “Southern Fried Rice,” we can get a look at what it was like to be part of the only Chinese family in a small southern town. The author, John Jung, retired professor of Psychology at California State University, Long Beach, grew up in Macon, Georgia, where his father owned the “Sam Lee” Laundry.

I met John Jung in the summer of 1959 when I visited San Francisco’s Chinatown after a summer job canning peas in Washington state. Don Mar, a co-worker in the cannery encouraged me to come to San Francisco and stay at the Chinese YMCA.

“If you come, I will show you all around Chinatown and you can meet some of my friends,” Mar told me, and when I got there he did just that.

“You have to meet my friend, Long John,” he said. “He comes from somewhere in the South, too.”

When I met the very tall and slim John Jung, I saw he deserved his nickname.

“I grew up in Macon, Georgia,” Jung told me.

Playing the southern game of do-you-know, I asked if he knew my cousin, Carey Pickard.

“You’re kidding,” he said. “Carey was one of my best friends.”

So we hit it off. Jung took me around the Berkley campus of the University of California and we joined a group of Mar’s friends who treated me to a real Chinese meal, a treat I have never forgotten.

“Why did you move away from Macon?” I asked.

“My sister and I were growing up,” he said. “Since there were no other Chinese in Macon, she was not going to find Chinese boys to marry. We had to come to San Francisco to be with other Chinese.”

Don Mar and I have stayed in touch over the years, but neither of us kept up with John Jung until recently, when Mar saw a note about “Southern Fried Rice” on the Web. Mar tracked down Jung and reconnected us.

Since retirement, Jung has written and researched the Chinese experience in the America of the early and middle part of the last century. “Southern Fried Rice” follows his family’s laundry business and compares it with similar experiences of others.

“We lived above the laundry,” he told me the other day. “My dad worked all the time and never took a vacation.”

Earlier, his father took a break to travel to China and make an arranged marriage to the woman who became Jung’s mother.

According to Jung, their story is like those of many other Chinese laundries in other small towns.

“I heard from a guy named James Jung whose family lived in Kannapolis, North Carolina. He said it was the same thing for his family. ‘You wrote my family’s book,’ he told me.”

John Jung told me that many people in Macon called his dad “Sam” or “Sam Lee” because that was the laundry’s name. But Jung found that many Chinese-owned laundries shared that name, a name that meant something like “triple good luck” in their Chinese dialect.

Jung also writes about the history of Chinese restaurants in American and Chinese grocery stores in Mississippi, reminding me of the precious experiences that brought new life and strong people who have made our country even better.

 

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the Web at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch