Chapter XIV. The Heathen

This must be mainly discursive and anecdotal, for no one really knows much more than externals concerning the Chinese. Some men there are, generally reporters on the big dailies, who have been admitted to the tongs; who can take you into the exclusive Chinese clubs; who are everywhere in Chinatown greeted cordially, treated gratis to strange food and drink, and patted on the back with every appearance of affection. They can tell you of all sorts of queer, unknown customs and facts, and can show you all sorts of strange and unusual things. Yet at the last analysis these are also discursions and anecdotes. We gather empirical knowledge: only rarely do we think we get a glimpse of how the delicate machinery moves behind those twinkling eyes.

I am led to these remarks by the contemplation of Chinese Charley at the ranch. He has been with Mrs. Kitty twenty-five years; he wears American clothes; he speaks English with hardly a trace of either accent or idiom; he has long since dropped the deceiving Oriental stolidity and weeps out his violent Chinese rages unashamed. Yet even now Mrs. Kitty's summing up is that Charley is a "queer old thing."

If you start out with a good Chinaman, you will always have good Chinamen; if you draw a poor one, you will probably be cursed with a succession of mediocrities. They pass you along from one to another of the same "family"; and, short of the adoption of false whiskers and a change of name, you can find no expedient to break the charm. When one leaves of his own accord, he sends you another boy to take his place. When he is discharged, he does identically that, although you may not know it. Down through the list of Gins or Sings or Ungs you slide comfortably or bump disagreeably according to your good fortune or deserts.

Another feature to which you must become accustomed is that of the Unexpected Departure. Everything is going smoothly, and you are engaged in congratulating yourself. To you appears Ah Sing.

"I go San Flancisco two o'clock tlain," he remarks. And he does.

In vain do you point to the inconvenience of guests, the injustice thus of leaving you in the lurch; in vain do you threaten detention of wages due unless he gives you what your servant experience has taught you is a customary "week's warning." He repeats his remark: and goes. At two-fifteen another bland and smiling heathen appears at your door. He may or may not tell you that Ah Sing sent him. Dinner is ready on time. The household work goes on without a hitch or a tiniest jar.

"Ah Sing say you pay me his money," announces this new heathen.

If you are wise, you abandon your thoughts of fighting the outrage. You pay over Ah Sing's arrears.

"By the way," you inquire of your new retainer, "what's your name?"

"My name Lum Sing," the newcomer replies.

That is about the way such changes happen. If by chance you are in the good graces of heathendom, you will be given an involved and fancy reason for the departure. These generally have to do with the mysterious movements of relatives.

"My second-uncle, he come on ship to San Flancisco. I got to show him what to do," explains Ah Sing.

If they like you very much, they tell you they will come back at the end of a month. They never do, and by the end of the month the new man has so endeared himself to you that Ah Sing is only a pleasant memory.

The reasons for these sudden departures are two-fold as near as I can make out. Ah Sing may not entirely like the place; or he may have received orders from his tong to move on--probably the latter. If both Ah Sing and his tong approve of you and the situation, he will stay with you for many years. Our present man once remained but two days at a place. The situation is an easy one; Toy did his work well; the relations were absolutely friendly. After we had become intimate with Toy, he confided to us his reasons:

"I don' like stay at place where nobody laugh," said he.

As servants the Chinese are inconceivably quick, deft, and clean. One good man will do the work of two white servants, and do it better. Toy takes care of us absolutely. He cooks, serves, does the housework, and with it all manages to get off the latter part of the afternoon and nearly every evening. At first, with recollections of the rigidly defined "days off" of the East, I was a little inclined to look into this. I did look into it; but when I found all the work done, without skimping, I concluded that if the man were clever enough to save his time, he had certainly earned it for himself. Systematizing and no false moves proved to be his method.

Since this is so, it follows, quite logically and justly, that the Chinese servant resents the minute and detailed supervision some housewives delight in. Show him what you want done; let him do it; criticize the result--but do not stand around and make suggestions and offer amendments. Some housekeepers, trained to make of housekeeping an end rather than a means, can never keep Chinese. This does not mean that you must let them go at their own sweet will: only that you must try as far as possible to do your criticizing and suggesting before or after the actual performance.

I remember once Billy came home from some afternoon tea where she had been talking to a number of "conscientious" housekeepers of the old school until she had been stricken with a guilty feeling that she had been loafing on the job. To be sure the meals were good, and on time; the house was clean; the beds were made; and the comforts of life seemed to be always neatly on hand; but what of that? The fact remained that Billy had time to go horseback riding, to go swimming, to see her friends, and to shoot at a mark. Every other housekeeper was busy from morning until night; and then complained that somehow or other she never could get finished up! It was evident that somehow Billy was not doing her full duty by the sphere to which woman was called, etc.

So home she came, resolved to do better. Toy was placidly finishing up for the afternoon. Billy followed him around for a while, being a housekeeper. Toy watched her with round, astonished eyes. Finally he turned on her with vast indignation.

"Look here, Mis' White," said he. "What a matter with you? You talk just like one old woman!"

Billy paused in her mad career and considered. That was just what she was talking like. She laughed. Toy laughed. Billy went shooting.

After your Chinaman becomes well acquainted with you, he develops human traits that are astonishing only in contrast to his former mask of absolute stolidity. To the stranger the Oriental is as impassive and inscrutable as a stone Buddha, so that at last we come to read his attitude into his inner life, and to conclude him without emotion. This is also largely true of the Indian. As a matter of fact, your heathen is rather vividly alive inside. His enjoyment is keen, his curiosity lively, his emotions near the surface. If you have or expect to have visitors, you must tell Ah Sing all about them--their station in life, their importance, and the like. He will listen, keenly interested, gravely nodding his pig-tailed, shaven head. Then, if your visitors are from the East, you inform them of what every Californian knows--that each and every member of a household must say "good morning" ceremoniously to Ah Sing. And Ah Sing will smile blandly and duck his pig-tailed, shaven head, and wish each member "good morning" back again. It is sometimes very funny to hear the matin chorus of a dozen people crying out their volley of salute to ceremony; and to hear again the Chinaman's conscientious reply to each in turn down the long table--"Good mo'ning, Mr. White; good mo'ning, Mis' White; good mo'ning, Mr. Lewis----" and so on, until each has been remembered. There are some families that, either from ignorance or pride, omit this and kindred little human ceremonials. The omission is accepted; but that family is never "my family" to the servant within its gates.

For your Chinaman is absolutely faithful and loyal and trustworthy. He can be allowed to handle any amount of money for you. We ourselves are away from home a great deal. When we get ready to go, we simply pack our trunks and depart. Toy then puts away the silver and valuables and places them in the bank vaults, closes the house, and puts all in order. A week or so before our return we write him. Thereupon he cleans things up, reclaims the valuables, rearranges everything. His wonderful Chinese memory enables him to replace every smallest item exactly as it was. If I happen to have left seven cents and an empty .38 cartridge on the southwestern corner of the bureau, there they will be. It is difficult to believe that affairs have been at all disturbed. Yet probably, if our stay away has been of any length, everything in the house has been moved or laid away.

Furthermore, Toy reads and writes English, and enjoys greatly sending us wonderful and involved reports. One of them ended as follows: "The weather is doing nicely, the place is safely well, and the dogs are happy all the while." It brings to mind a peculiarly cheerful picture.

One of the familiar and persistent beliefs as to Chinese traits is that they are a race of automatons. "Tell your Chinaman exactly what you want done, and how you want it done," say your advisors, "for you will never be able to change them once they get started." And then they will adduce a great many amusing and true incidents to illustrate the point.

The facts of the case are undoubted, but the conclusions as to the invariability of the Chinese mind are, in my opinion, somewhat exaggerated.

It must be remembered that almost all Chinese customs and manners of thought are the direct inverse of our own. When announcing or receiving a piece of bad news, for example, it is with them considered polite to laugh; while intense enjoyment is apt to be expressed by tears. The antithesis can be extended almost indefinitely by the student of Oriental manners. Contemplate, now, the condition of the young Chinese but recently arrived. He is engaged by some family to do its housework; and, as he is well paid and conscientious, he desires to do his best. But in this he is not permitted to follow his education. Each, move he makes in initiative is stopped and corrected. To his mind there seems no earthly sense or logic in nine tenths of what we want; but he is willing to do his best.

"Oh, well," says he to himself, "these people do things crazily; and no well-regulated Chinese mind could possibly either anticipate how they desire things done, or figure out why they want them that way. I give it up! I'll just follow things out exactly as I am told"--and he does so!

This condition of affairs used to be more common than it is now. Under the present exclusion law no fresh immigration is supposed to be possible. Most of the Chinese servants are old timers, who have learned white people's ways, and--what is more important--understand them. They are quite capable of initiative; and much more intelligent than the average white servant.

But a green Chinaman is certainly funny. He does things forever-after just as you show him the first time; and a cataclysm of nature is required to shake his purpose. Back in the middle 'eighties my father, moving into a new house, dumped the ashes beside the kitchen steps pending the completion of a suitable ash bin. When the latter had been built, he had Gin Gwee move the ashes from the kitchen steps to the bin. This happened to be of a Friday. Ever after Gin Gwee deposited the ashes by the kitchen steps every day; and on Friday solemnly transferred them to the ash bin! Nor could anything persuade him to desist.

Again he was given pail, soap, and brush, shown the front steps and walk leading to the gate, and set to work. Gin Gwee disappeared. When we went to hunt him up, we found him half way down the block, still scrubbing away. I was in favour of letting him alone to see how far he would go, but mother had other ideas as to his activities.

These stories could be multiplied indefinitely; and are detailed by the dozen as proof of the "stupidity" of the Chinese. The Chinese are anything but stupid; and, as I have said before, when once they have grasped the logic of the situation, can figure out a case with the best of them.

They are, however, great sticklers for formalism; and disapprove of any short cuts in ceremony. As soon leave with the silver as without waiting for the finger bowls. A friend of mine, training a new man by example, as new men of this nationality are always trained, was showing him how to receive a caller. Therefore she rang her own doorbell, presented a card; in short, went through the whole performance. Tom understood perfectly. That same afternoon Mrs. G----, a next-door neighbour and intimate friend, ran over for a chat. She rang the bell. Tom appeared.

"Is Mrs. B---- at home?" inquired the friend.

Tom planted himself square in the doorway. He surveyed her with a cold and glittering eye.

"You got ticket?" he demanded. "You no got ticket, you no come in!"

On another occasion two ladies came to call on Mrs. B---- but by mistake blundered to the kitchen door. Mrs. B----'s house is a bungalow and on a corner. Tom appeared.

"Is Mrs. B---- at home?" they asked.

"This kitchen door; you go front door," requested Tom, politely.

The callers walked around the house to the proper door, rang, and waited. After a suitable interval Tom appeared again.

"Is Mrs. B---- at home?" repeated the visitors.

"No, Mrs. B---- she gone out," Tom informed them. The proper ceremonials had been fulfilled.

To one who appreciates what he can do, and how well he does it; who can value absolute faithfulness and honesty; who confesses a sneaking fondness for the picturesque as nobly exemplified in a clean and starched or brocaded heathen; who understands how to balance the difficult poise, supervision, and interference, the Chinese servant is the best on the continent. But to one who enjoys supervising every step or who likes well-trained ceremony, "good form" in minutiae, and the deference of our kind of good training the heathen is likely to prove disappointing. When you ring your friend's door-bell, you are quite apt to be greeted by a cheerful and smiling "hullo!" I think most Californians rather like the entirely respectful but freshly unconventional relationship that exists between the master and his Chinese servant. I do.