Ode to a Dishwashing Machine

I’m no longer overextended. I’m able to truly rest and take on extra things only when I’m capable. It’s amazing. I don’t have so much to untangle or juggle or multitask or squeeze. Everything happens more or less in its own time, and it’s a welcome change. I haven’t been this free in probably five years.

The main reason for my new freedom is because we just got a portable dishwasher. It’s perfect. Normally I would take care of buying home appliances as a house spouse, but Carrie took the initiative. Our place is too small for a traditional one, which left us with only a few countertop options. We were prepared to spend $300 to buy it brand new since there weren’t many listings on Kijiji. However, Carrie found one going for $200. The seller was super nice too. They’d used it for a short while but didn’t need it anymore. They even included the little faucet adapter, and they communicated clearly over email and in person. It fit perfectly on our countertop and under our cabinets, and it’s surprisingly spacious inside. Noise is a huge factor for us too since we live in such a small space, and the dishwasher runs super quiet while we sleep. We had a bigger one in our old condo and it was noisy as hell, even with the bedroom door closed. Everything about this new one is just amazing.

As an engineer and technology enthusiast, I feel strongly about automating basic tasks to the robots. Computers and machines taking over menial tasks for humans unlocks our potential to do better things. Hans Rosling discusses how he could receive an education because the washing machine took over laundry duty for his grandmother, who then taught his mother how to read. I highly recommend watching his talk.

Picture Carrie washing almost all of our dishware for the last 5 years while I put them away once they dried. I probably helped to wash them about 10%-15% of the time. Throughout Carrie’s full-time work and school, she would still wash dishes for 30 minutes to an hour every day while simultaneously pushing out 80-100 hours of labour every week. I’m a great husband, eh?

I have lots of little issues with dishwashing. I hate getting my hands dirty, even if it’s to clean. Putting on rubber gloves doesn’t really help either because it gets hot and uncomfortable and tight, and I’m slightly claustrophobic and hate confined spaces. The amount of dirty dishes we generate is quite a bit for a family of two since we cook and eat at home more nowadays. The corner where our kitchen sink sits isn’t spacious, and it’s not terribly well-lit either. I’m not great at stacking dishes in the drying rack. I also generally like to over-clean them, so I take extra long to scrub simple things like chopsticks. These speed bumps can all be overcome, meaning it just takes a lot more energy for me to approach this particular chore, but there’s a larger reason why I hate it. Surprise, surprise, I have some childhood issues around dishwashing.

The first time I tried to help my mom wash the dishes was when I was around five or six years old. I wanted to help her clean up after a meal, so I asked if I could wash some bowls. I scrubbed them down, rinsed them, and put them in the drying rack, very proud of myself for helping out the family even though I was just a kid. Then my mom did some quality assurance inspections on my work and found that there were some defects. She pulled me over and pointed out the soap bubbles still sliding off the white bowls.

“Why didn’t you rinse these bowls?”

“I don’t know. I thought I did. I can do it again.”

“Why did you do this? How come there’s still soap on the bowls?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see it. I’ll do it again.”

“Do you want us to eat food with soap in it?! Is that why?!” she asked, pulling me by the arm to the drying rack so I could see my handiwork.

“No! I didn’t know. Please just let me fix it.”

I cried and never forgot that experience. I never fully processed it over all these years, so it has come up several times in unexpected outbursts. My mom has no recollection of it. That’s just a heartbreaking image to me. A child trying their best to help out their parents and then getting absolutely fucking reamed out for a little mistake. As a result, I’ve always hated the chore my whole life. I get that my parents were probably stressed while raising us, stretched too far due to being poor refugees raising four little devils. I still want to know why my mom treated me like that. Even to this day, if I have to wash the dishes at home or at a friend’s place, whether by hand or by loading the washer, I have flashbacks to that day in the house where I grew up in Edmonton. I can see how tall the countertop was relative to how short I was. I can see my mom looming over me and shouting at me. I can still see the white bowl, covered with bubbles.

Corelle Butterfly Gold, the dishware that we and everyone else seemed to have in the 90’s.

Some will argue that this is the best way to teach children. Bring the hammer down on them early on, and they won’t forget the lesson. I think that’s true, but there are certain scenarios where it’s more appropriate. Studies show that encouraging young children on their efforts rather than their intelligence teaches them to work hard and keep trying, having a growth mindset and learning how to learn, whereas the inverse causes them to perform worse long term. You could crack the whip on your kids to produce immediate results, but you pay the price by testing the relationship and weakening the child’s long-term adaptability. I was always told by my dad and others that I would understand their lessons once I was older. Well, I’m 30 years old now, and I hardly ever washed dishes until I got this dishwasher. How much older do I have to be for them to admit they were wrong on this one?

It didn’t help that over the years, my brothers and I fought over chores all the time. My parents had to cook elaborate meals for four growing boys, so there was always a mountain of dishes every day. If we weren’t forced to do it, we would leave them alone, though that was our general attitude to most of the home chores. After I moved out and before I stopped contact with my family, I visited maybe every couple months. Some years ago, they actually got a dishwasher installed, after probably 15 years of having a cutout under the counter specifically made for one but left empty in favour of storing things like the garbage and various cleaning supplies. I was beyond enthused for the household. “This,” I thought, “would finally end all of the strife over this chore.”


They still forced the kids to wash dishes by hand. At this time, my younger cousin had moved in, and she was made to spend a lot of time at the sink. My brother and his girlfriend were living there temporarily as well, and she also was made to help out by scrubbing dishes, amongst other things. Even Carrie had to help out whenever she visited, which was a misguided effort by my parents to teach the girls how to be responsible wives. Both women were already far more mature and responsible than the four of us boys. Seeking to put an end to all this misery, I tried to encourage/force my parents to use the dishwasher. I thought they just needed someone to teach them, so I showed them how to load it and run the cycle. Nope, didn’t take. Okay, so maybe they were just older and need time to adjust because they had older habits carried over from decades of momentum. Hm, well, they took really strongly to their iPhones and learned quickly how to take photos and send emails and texts, despite the larger learning curve, so clearly they could learn if they were properly motivated. Okay, so maybe they were just old school and distrusted machines doing a proper job versus good old human dexterity and skill. Well, I don’t know, my mom had so much back pain from working on her feet for 30 odd years that she used the massage chair almost every day. So no, they didn’t have some distrust of machines. I thought maybe the prices ere too high for all the detergent and rinse aid, so Carrie and I bought them a few large tubs to get them started. They appreciated it a lot. Probably one of the better gifts I ever bought them since it was practical and they didn’t like receiving decorative or fancy things. Well, that still didn’t get them into the habit of using the dishwasher. I shared studies and facts about saving water, how much cleaner the dishes would be since humans can’t handle the higher temperatures and stronger detergents and higher water pressures, how immigrants associated hard labour with soul redemption, and on and on until I was blue in the face. Couldn’t convince them through logical arguments either. So what was the hold up? Why wouldn’t they change their ways to make the home a much happier place?

Power and control. The patriarchy was alive and well in this house. Since they couldn’t really vocalize their objection despite me constantly peppering them with questions, the only thing left to conclude was that they delighted in making the kids do the hard work. Part of it is from receiving that treatment when they were children. They must have been forced to do all sorts of crap jobs because that’s the social structure in Vietnam. Chores were used as punishments, so maybe that’s why it was impossible to transition them to using the dishwasher. Sometimes my dad wouldn’t even let us help each other out by splitting up the jobs between rinsing, scrubbing, and drying. It was the one lever they could pull to remind the kids who was in charge, and it worked. My parents cooked, paid the bills, so the kids damn well better wash the dishes. It’s the least we could do! The unfortunate part is that the argument worked. I was the only one who really wanted to rebel, which was easier since I didn’t live there anymore. I came in and rocked the boat, told my parents to use the dishwasher so the kids wouldn’t have to suffer. I think the suffering was the whole point of the exercise.

Everyone has to decide whether to pass on the pain they experience or to prevent it for others. When driving, I’ve personally given up on moving out of the fast lane on Deerfoot Trail. There, I said it. It isn’t enforced here (as far as I know), and there are jurisdictions that ticket you if you drive slow in the fast lane. I get that by driving slowly in the left lane, I create an unsafe driving condition because people that want to pass me have to change lanes, zoom ahead, then get back into the left lane. On the other hand, every time I move out of the fast lane to make way for the speeders, I encounter five other people who’ll never move out of my way when I’m in a hurry, even though I politely keep my distance and avoid tailgating them. I’ve driven tens of thousands of kilometres on the highway in my 15 years on the road, and I’m just fed up with people not reciprocating my proper road manners. Even more, it’s a systemic safety issue for the government and traffic law enforcement because they haven’t created and maintained a culture of consideration, with driver re-testing and public service announcements and enforcing the numerous signs they put up that say SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT. In short, I have often acted safely on the road by moving out of the fast lane when people want to pass, but since almost nobody does it for me, I just maintain my speed in the fast lane now, even if big, mean-looking trucks tailgate me aggressively. That is, since I have to suffer behind slow people in the fast lane, I pass on that suffering to people behind me. So I understand where my parents are coming from with the chores. They grew up in an extremely strict, conservative environment. Now that they’re older and in charge, they’re relishing the opportunity to force the kids to do their bidding.

Every one of our parents does considerable emotional damage. And from what I've heard, it just might be the best part of being a parent.

Dr. Perry Cox

Stopping the spread of suffering. This is where I try to demonstrate that I understand both sides of this coin. I’ve done a lot in the past few years to ensure that I don’t pass on the suffering I endured. I had this massive ego cultivated in a narcissistic environment, and I’ve done a lot to humble myself and to try to see myself more clearly. That way I don’t hurt the people around me because now I have a smaller, more accurate boundary around my self-identity, and those boundaries aren’t violated as much since they don’t take up as much room. Growing up, I was mostly praised for what I could produce instead of for who I was, so now I’ve switched up a lot of my work and hobbies to be an outpouring and reflection of my intrinsic value rather than a perpetual pursuit for meaning through my productivity. Again, I did this so that I won’t require so much validation from the people close to me for my acts of service because I’ll help out from a place of love instead of neediness. Further, instead of constantly asserting my brains and wit over everyone to remind them how much better I was than them, I’m learning to hold my tongue and to let others shine. I take on mentorship and coaching roles whenever I can because I felt so lost growing up as a kid, with no one really taking me under their wing to develop and nurture my potential. I’ve chosen my relationships over my work, time and time again, ensuring I don’t repeat the devastation my dad caused on our family by picking his career over us. I know that, in their own way, my parents worked hard to give us a better life than they had. They worked very hard to give us a large and comfortable home, vacations, cars and fuel, and an education. However, I would have traded it all just to spend more time with them. Now that I’m a little older, I see some parents provide that same type of lifestyle to their kids as a form of overcompensation, when really the children are happy to just have their parents’ time and attention. Maybe that’s all my parents could manage in their own version of protecting us from the suffering they faced, and I’m just an ungrateful little prick. This is just another example of how we couldn’t get along. Maybe it’s not a dealbreaker on its own, but I fought unsuccessfully to protect my siblings from my parents torturing them with a chore when it was completely unnecessary. Regardless, I have my own family to protect from suffering, and disconnecting from them protects me and Carrie, as well as our future children. Having a dishwashing machine is another way I’ll protect my family from suffering.

When I shared the news of the dishwasher with my friends, some of them were confused why it was such a big deal. When you’ve always had a dishwasher, it’s hard to empathize with those who’ve struggled without one for years, so I can understand why they couldn’t match my enthusiasm. However, for me, buying the dishwasher was a big blow to the mental and emotional complex I had surrounding that particular chore. It’s a rebellion against the power and control my parents always sought to have over us. I tried to free my siblings and cousin from it during the few years of contact I had with them after I moved out, but my parents weren’t having it. I hope I’m wrong about them. I hope they’ve shifted to using their own dishwasher more often, changing the arguments from who will wash the dishes by hand to who will load or unload the dishwasher. I don’t even know who lives in that house now anymore, so maybe it’s a moot point altogether. I sincerely hope so. Maybe my approach was entirely wrong, trying to change the house rules when I wasn’t the one paying the mortgage. Maybe it’s only okay for them to deeply violate my boundaries and maybe it’s not okay for me to do the same to them.

This dishwasher is saving our lives these days. I feel grateful to be able to hand over some grueling chores to the robots. It’s addressing some deeply painful experiences from growing up with my family, from a traumatizing first attempt at helping my parents wash the dishes as a kid to the frequent arguments and struggles every week with my brothers over who would take the dishwashing bullet for the team. For some reason, my parents really wanted us to do them by hand even though there was a perfectly functioning machine that could do a better job and provide some peace in the home, but I can only think that they wanted to exert their power and control. They must have needed to pass on the suffering they experienced as kids, even as they protected us from other forms of suffering in their provision as parents. I can’t really know since they could never really explain why anyone had to be miserable washing dishes in the sink instead of delegating to the robot. It doesn’t matter anymore since I’ve stopped talking to them. Now Carrie and I spend more time together at night, saying how much we love each other and our new dishwasher.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le