The More Important Lesson

Postcard from Hsinchu, Taiwan

I thought my greatest challenge this summer would be keeping myself motivated to work on self-directed thesis research. It was the only concrete goal I had, and I was determined to make it happen. I liked my topic: translations of English literary texts into Chinese in Taiwan, their importance in the publishing industry, and their cultural influence. The scope was a bit too broad, typical for someone who tends toward academic sprawl, but I figured I could narrow it down.

Little did I know that the magnitude of the job of stand-in housewife would be more overwhelming than the magnitude of my too-large thesis topic.

I went home expecting to be pampered, as usual. My mother would feed me all my favorite foods, drive me everywhere, and leave me alone when I needed to do work. But Fate conspired against me, sending my beloved mother-cum-chauffeur off to work for 90 hours a week and leaving a still-unlicensed 20-year-old stranded. Not only did her new job deprive me of a trustworthy ride; all of a sudden, dinner wasn’t being purchased, the dishes weren’t being washed, and trash wasn’t being taken out.

As the eldest child, I knew the onus was on me. So I stepped up, sort of. Awkwardly. Even resentfully. I had spent last summer in Cambridge, and theoretically I knew how to deal with the mundane details of everyday life: cooking, cleaning, garbage disposal. But like most of my peers, I had eagerly returned to the happy bubble of HUDS dining and College conveniences once the term started. And never had I thought that my safe haven would require me to play housekeeper for the entire family.

So I sulked as I did the laundry. I glared at my mother and father and younger brother any time they left the house with a chore undone—a chore, I knew, that I would probably end up performing. Every time I turned around, it seemed, there was another task I had forgotten or never knew existed. Where was the time for my academic project, I grumbled, and how in the world was I supposed to do everything, anyway?

But it is a little embarrassing for a rising college senior to whine incessantly. At various points I would scold myself internally, wondering why exactly I was so unhappy with the situation. Performing necessary tasks out of a sense of duty is part of being “grown-up,” after all, and I was supposedly striving for that. And though I nearly fainted at the idea of having to pack up the hundreds of books on our shelves—and possibly even give some of them away!—I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to reread many of my childhood favorites. The tasks of housekeeping were good for me, and not even all that time-consuming. They were a form of useful procrastination, and I still was able to work on my thesis.

My main issue with my new part-time occupation, then—aside from sheer laziness—was probably the scary, scary thought that the responsibilities might soon be permanent. It was rather nice to be able to go home to my parents and fall into the old habits of being taken care of. A year from now, when I leave Harvard College for the last time, I will not be returning home. I will have to set up a mini-household of my own, somewhere, and eventually (but very far in the future, I hope) I will have a household with more members than one. So it would’ve been nice to be a child, to be taken care of completely, just a bit longer.

But maybe it’s good that I’m getting a dry run on this housekeeping thing. Despite the past month of training, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t pass any housewifely tests. I still don’t know how to drive, I tend to tape up packing boxes with “This side up” arrows pointing down, and, well, my mom had to step in and make sure more packing and less reading got done.

At least I have one more year to figure it all out. So here’s to learning—I hope.

Jannie S. Tsuei ’06, a Crimson magazine chair, is a literature concentrator in Quincy House. She really, really hopes to acquire more housewifely abilities by the end of the summer, but also really, really hopes no one will test her claims to such competence just yet.