On Monday afternoon at Sunny Launderette, the sewing machines were quiet, and Shirley Xu had just finished lunch.
Inside Sunny Launderette on 20th Street, a dozen pieces of clothing hung on the rack across from Xu: A green plaid wool blazer, vintage-looking leather jackets and faux-fur coats that seemed too warm for the Bay Area winter.
Since she came to San Francisco in 2014, laundromats have been Xu’s work life. “I’ve never worked in other types of business,” Xu said in Mandarin. “This is the only thing I know how to do.”
The 45-year-old has learned the necessary vocabulary to serve the customers who frequent Sunny Launderette, though she says her English is not fluent.
Six days a week, she greets customers, carries out small repairs and explains why some stains cannot be removed, no matter how hard one tries. She’s familiar with care labels that seem almost unreasonable — “do not hand wash” but also “do not dry clean” — and deals with them as best as she can.
She remembers old customers coming in, telling her they are moving “out of the city, out of the state or out of the country.”
“Life here is just constantly flowing,” she said. “The old ones leave, and then new ones come.”
At work, she wears T-shirts and black sweatpants. But what she actually loves to wear are dresses. The weather in San Francisco doesn’t always allow that, nor does the work at a launderette, which requires dexterity.
Born in Guangdong, China, she never noticed many laundromats where she lived. “We never go out to wash our clothes, and also we don’t really own many nice clothes that require dry-cleaning.”
She works most days, and when she’s off, it doesn’t feel like a vacation. She cooks, cleans, and shops for groceries. “It feels like I’m always hustling, never really taking a break. I feel so much more relaxed when I live back home. The lifestyle is just really different.”
“When I just came here, I wanted to go back so badly,” she said. It’s been almost 10 years since she arrived, and Xu still looks forward to the packages she occasionally orders from China: Sneakers, clothes and accessories that are both nice and affordable. “Now, I have a kid going to school here, and he’s very used to the life here already.”
Xu loves all sorts of seafood in her hometown in Guangdong, and that’s what she misses most about home. Every morning, she rises at around 6 a.m. and prepares lunch boxes for her son, her husband and herself.
Her 16-year-old boy doesn’t share the same cravings. “He doesn’t like Chinese food. He likes steaks, hamburgers, fried chicken,” Xu said, smiling.
She hasn’t been back to China, where her parents still live, since 2018. There’s no plan to visit home this year. Next year, maybe. And, though she calls Guangdong home, her son does not feel the same.
“He doesn’t even want to go. That, to him, is no longer a familiar place to go back to.”