That guy using the dishwasher

My DC dishwasher It’s true, I don’t feel comfortable using the dishwater. It’s, well, too American for me.

On Friday I was catching up with episodes of This American Life that I missed and came across this piece by Diane Cook called “That guy” (the link a RealPlayer brodcast of the episode. “That guy” is act two). The story was about being the guy/girl who does not care for a particular product or activity (sometimes even hates it), but ends up embracing, or at least accepting it.

Why? Well, one reason is the desire not to be “that guy”who stands out for their anti stance to stuff. We’re not talking about principles here. It’s struggling with a backpack vs. owning a rolling piece of luggage. It’s owning a European-style phone vs. the popular American flip-phone.

And, yes, it’s washing dishes by hand vs. throwing them in the dishwasher.

I was that guy. That’s what I thought of last night when I heard the piece. And this morning when I stared at the front page of the Washington Post, there I was. That guy. On A1, just below the fold, the newspaper that was recently blessed by media critic Jay Rosen with the title of “Best in America,” ran a story on the immigrants’ refusal to be that guy who uses the dishwasher instead of his hands. The story was called: “Washing Their Hands Of the Last Frontier.”

“In many immigrant homes, the automatic dishwasher is the last frontier,” the story by Phuong Ly says. “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.”

Most times I cringe at stories trying to reveal “social trends” among subcultures, when all of us in the news business know these stories are the product of our knowing this friend of a friend of a cousin who does or uses something (take rainbow parties for example). But I stand by today Post’s story.

When I got my frist apartment in Columbia, Mo. I had a tiny kitchen in which my weird Albanian roomate would microwave salami or freeze bananas until they tuned black, then set them on the fridge and let them ooze brown goo over the white appliances.

Granted, my lack of skills with using a microwave also led me to explode bags of porcorn or my roomate to want to cook a pizza for about two hours. I just want to point out that our incapacity to operate in the kitchen is product of Eastern European patriarchy where men let/make women do all the work. It’s not that I hadn’t seen a microwave before. My mom actually owns one. So does my dad. Westerners are skeptical of this though; in 2001 I had to convince (and thus alienate) a Dutch blonde of the fact that Romanians do have televisions and our roads are indeed paved.

But back to the dishwasher.

I was scared of it. How do dishes get cleaned by themselves in this oven-like machine? It’s not a transparent process like washing clothes, where at least you could stare dumb-founded at your underwear making the rounds and say: “aha, so this is how that unproper stain will dissapear.”

While in college in Bucharest, I was proud of being a dish-washing man. A girl once remarked that I’m the first guy she’s ever met who washed a plate on both sides. I thing about her everytime I run a sponge over the underside of my dishes.

Sure, I had my flaws — my dishes pilled high before I actually washed them — but when I did, it was a relaxing hour of scrubbing and rinsing and scrubbing again while the news, or a soccer game played in the background. I was a grown-up having a grown-up moment, while catching up with the realities of the world. Washing dishes, I believed, could be enlightening.

When I got my second apartment in the U.S., dishwashing was the perfect moment to listen to an episode of This American Life. Enough dishes could last me through at least half an hour of the show. I feel obliged to mention that I did not have a dishwasher in this place.

But let’s get back to my first U.S. apartment. One day, I remember being scolded by my American friends for (basically) being “that guy,” and being told you can save tons of time by letting the machine work for you. I told them, like the Post story notes, that “not using the appliance is one of the truest signs of immigrant heritage.” Still, I went home, put some plates in the machine, some liquid in the hole and turned it on. “There,” I said! “I’m using the devil’s works!”

It was maybe ten minutes later when I returned to find my whole kitchen floor covered in foam and the machine fuming and bubbling like a rabid horse. It gurgled in pain, while spitting foam at me. I was baffled, wet, but revenged. The machine was evil, worthless and messy. The sticky foam-covered floor was proof. I somehow turned the devil off and never ran it again. The Albanian never gave it a try — he spend his whole nine months in the States experimenting with microwaving slices of salami.

It was only later that I found out dishwashers need special liquid and not the Palmolive I was using for hand-scrubbing. The machine was fine apparently, but the user had been an idiot.

The Post story also says 60 percent of U.S. homes have a dishwasher. I am probably in that category. My third American apartment, in Washington, D.C., is equipped with a dishwasher. And, yes, two months ago I gave up on being “that guy.” I bought the right dishwashing liquid and had at it. Sure, I melted some plastic in the beginning (no one told me it gets that hot in there!) but now I’m relatively proficient in using it.

Still, the main reason that I took to using it was not the American one of saving time or sparing oneself manual labor. My kitchen is so small and poorly designed that there is no space to wash and dry a few days worth of dishes. Like the immigrants quoted in the Post story (some who I believe were indeed friends of friends of the author), I would have stayed true to my manual ways if my kitchen allowed. I would have taken the chance to be “that guy.”

I’m still “that guy” in a few respects, such as driving (I refuse!) or comforming to casual shoe rules. But the thing with being “that guy” is that you could stop as abruptly as your started.

My DC dishwasher

5 Responses to “That guy using the dishwasher”

  1. I also find washing dishes by hand relaxing.

    But I never knew how to do it until about four years ago. That’s sad, I know. But I always used the dishwasher.

    John’s family is so bad about it they put EVERYTHING in there, even dirty pots and pans. I don’t do that, I definitely do those by hand every time.

    They also put all the food down the garbage disposal instead of in the trash. If there was a modern “advance” I was raised to resist the magic of, it’s the garbage disposal. I think using it makes your kitchen stink like old food.

    If we had more space in this apartment, I’d probably wash all the dishes by hand, because the dishwasher here sucks.

    But I hate looking at dirty plates, so maybe not.

    My Vietnamese friends didn’t have dishwashers until they moved out of their parents houses…I don’t know if they resisted using them, though.

  2. I’m afraid I’m still “that guy.” Maybe because I like using the same set over and over again (it’s cool and black) and the dishwasher is so big and it feels like a waste to run it for four plates.
    It’s funny — when I read your humoristic/ironic pices, I can’t help but hear your voice with a slight accent in my head, reading it, like you did in your radio experiment. I think it’s stuck there 🙂

  3. that’s a cool story. i read the Post article too 🙂
    anyway it’s kinda farfetched. the dishwasher, though a good kitchen gadget is as incomplete as the microwave over. you cannot do everything with them. Like you’re supposed to rinse a bit the pots and pans before putting them in the dishwasher. It’s like halving my labor and not eliminate it. Same with microwave oven… you cannot give up a conventional oven or stove. Let’s talk again when you’ll be able to decently boil and egg in the microwave or make some good ciorba de oase 😉

    we did run the dishwasher some times in baton rouge though. especially after parties.

  4. so, i just stumbled upon cristian’s byline in my new bitch magazine. and then i found this stellar little blog…

    what’s up?

    you can reach me at these days if you care to catch up. i promise not to be (too much of) a flake.

  5. When it comes to dishwashing, I wonder how being “that guy” by self-inflicted decision is like? Man, it would be nice to find out!
    As somebody who shared some of Cristian’s lodging adventures in a somewhat similar environment, I can atest to the fact that after four years of doing it manually (don’t get me wrong, I am talking about washing dishes), I am more than ready to get immersed into the great American tradition of watching the Machine doing the job for you. While the classical excuse of “I want to save time” could work, the crude reality is that I am becoming lazy – doesn’t everybody?
    So here you have an immigrant who doesn’t want to be “that guy”, he just wants a dishwasher… but maybe the exception only confirms the rule.

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