SAN FRANCISCO—Despite his open-mindedness and deep commitment to multiculturalism, Steve Bern, 32, expressed fear Monday that Rei Luo, the Chinese woman who does his dry cleaning, does not like him.
"Whenever I come into [Luo's Laundry & Cleaners], I'm always very friendly," Bern said. "I say hello and ask her how she's doing, but she never reciprocates. She just smiles and hands me my receipt. I hope I haven't done anything to offend her."
"Maybe she's mad about my tags," Bern said. "A lot of my stuff says 'Made In China' or 'Made In Hong Kong,' and I know that a lot of those places run sweatshops. I'd feel awful if she thought I was supporting the exploitation of her people."
Bern, a features editor at the alternative weekly Bay Area Free Press, has been familiar with Rei since March 1998, when he started taking his laundry to her store on Visidero Street. Though there is another dry cleaner closer to his apartment, Bern wanted to patronize a minority-owned establishment.
"I like to interact with and support people of other cultures," Bern said. "This country is a tapestry of many different beliefs and backgrounds, so I try to foster that by spreading my business around to everyone, not just Caucasians like myself. I always tell Rei how much I admire the way an immigrant like her could rise from poverty to run her own store, but she never really gives me much of a response."
Despite his best efforts, Bern has been unable to transform his relationship with Rei into something approaching a friendship, or even a mild acquaintanceship.
"I found out that Rei came of age in a remote mountain village during the height of the Cultural Revolution, so I'd been fascinated to hear her stories," Bern said. "A few months ago, while she was pulling a 50-pound box of soap off a high shelf, I asked what it was like to grow up under Chairman Mao and the Great Leap Forward. She just stopped and muttered something to herself in Chinese, then went back to work. I'm starting to think maybe I was a little too forward."
When he returned to pick up his clothes, Bern perceived a possible change in the quality of service he received.
"I brought Rei a pair of gabardine pants with a salsa stain on the left leg," Bern said. "But when I got the pants back, the stain was still kind of there. It was faint, but if you held it up to a bright light, you could see it. I wonder if maybe not getting rid of the stain was her way of telling a white, middle-class oppressor like myself to mind my own business."
Undeterred, Bern decided that the best way to get on Rei's good side would be to learn more about her culture.
"I got a few short phrases from an Internet site about Chinese to help break the ice," Bern said. "The next time I saw her, I said 'Hello' and 'Have a nice day' in her native Mandarin. But she didn't even look up from the stack of dresses she was steam-ironing. Maybe she didn't hear me. That machine is pretty loud."
To improve relations, Bern has refrained from complaining about his dry cleaning.
"There was this gray wool sweater I brought in a few weeks ago that I never got back," Bern said. "I didn't want Rei to think I was dissatisfied, so I never brought it up. Losing a sweater is a small price to pay compared to the struggles she must go through daily as a Chinese-American."
Even though Bern firmly supports Rei's right to befriend whomever she chooses, he admitted to being disappointed by her snubs.
"I know that, culturally speaking, the Chinese tend to be low-key and not overtly demonstrative, but it would mean a lot to me if she occasionally took a break from scurrying around the shop's backroom to give me the occasional smile," Bern said. "Is that too much to ask? Well, maybe it is. After all, how can I judge someone if I've never walked in her shoes?"
When asked her opinion of Bern, Rei was unable to recall who he was. She then shooed reporters out the door, saying, "I too busy, too busy."