I Measure Time by Haircuts and Laundry Cycles

I’ve lived in New York for 74 washing cycles. Not two of them were the same.

Photo by Kolar.io on Unsplash

When you’ve lived by yourself long enough in a different country, you learn a thing or two about routines. Back at home, I could do laundry whenever I felt like doing it. Our house in Hanoi has a washing machine, which allows for such flexibility. It’s always funny to me how in-unit laundry is so common in Vietnam yet a luxury in New York. “Amenity,” they say. Such a fancy word.

In my first week of college, I realized that flexibility was gone. The laundry room in my dorm wasn’t just five steps away; it was a bit of a walk. I also discovered laundry costs money. It was like I walked into a mirror and entered an opposite reality of some sort. I have to pay for laundry in America but can drink water for free. It’s the other way around in Vietnam.

To avoid going broke within my first few months in this capitalist world, I must stop expecting to wash my clothes whenever I want. Based on the amount of underwear I had packed, which was ultimately what it came down to, obviously, I decided to do laundry once every two weeks. Like, exactly every 14 days. For some reason I brought a solid 14 pairs across the ocean to prepare for this new life. 13 would have been a scheduling disaster.

It became sort of a ritual that every Sunday, I carried my laundry basket down to the basement, paid $1.5 for a washing cycle and then $1.25 for the dryer. These laundry rooms in college, and later the laundromats I go to when I finally moved to New York City, never ceased to fascinate me. Laundry had never struck me as an activity done in a communal space. I’ve never seen a laundromat growing up. We have dry cleaners around Hanoi, of course, but not stores with rows of washing machines where people come, do laundry, sometimes stay for the small talks and then leave. Another miracle was the dryer. I had never used a dryer prior to moving to the US. It’s hot all year in Vietnam, so we just hang our clothes on the terrace and let the sun do its job. It takes a night for them to dry in the summer, and maybe three when it’s chilly. “Chilly,” because winter is not a thing anymore — thanks but no thanks, global warming.

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Routines make life easier, especially when you don’t have family around to help you. My once-every-two-weeks laundry routine became so enmeshed in my American life that it took on a new role of some sort: a subconscious unit of measurement for time. When I felt stressed out by midterms, I’d tell myself it only takes another washing cycle to reach spring break. That’d make me feel better. When I needed to find a book I read earlier in the year, I would go, ah, Roland Barthes was three washing cycles ago, Laura Marks was five laundry trips ago, and Merleau-Ponty was right before the first laundry I did.

Keeping a tactile memory was the only way I remembered it all, and made sense of it all.

The reason I preferred to measure time this way on top of the standard units like weeks and months was that it turns time into a tactile memory. If you ask me what I did this exact time last week, the memory might not come back right away, but my body remembers vividly the last time it shoved a thick sweater into the washer to fit a load, or the last time I got burned from touching the metal button on my jeans fresh out of the dryer. Moving to a completely different country intensifies your sense of touch. It’s like a fish out of water would suddenly get hyper-aware of the surface it touches because that isn’t water anymore. Everything I touched, every person’s hand I shook, the environment I lived in — everything was foreign. Keeping a tactile memory was the only way I remembered it all, and made sense of it all.

Every time I do laundry, I tell myself, “I’ve made it a little further in America,” like a pat on the back. Every trip to the laundry room becomes a milestone that documents my ongoing journey in this country. Every fresh load of clothes becomes a fresh page in the diary that I keep (except I never actually write diaries; this is purely a metaphor). It’s like every birthday, my grandma would say, “I’ve lived another year!” For me, it’d be, “I’ve survived another laundry cycle.” When you live in a different country, a place you’re not yet able to call home and feel fully settled, a place that still seems like a destination instead of a place of origin, that’s how you see time. If you’re still washing your clothes here, it’s an accomplishment.

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Gradually, I realized that this steady frequency could serve something bigger. Every laundry trip becomes an opportunity for me to reflect on life. What has changed in the world since the last time I washed my clothes? What remains the same? Am I the same person? If at work, we have quarterly check-ins with our manager to get feedback on our performance, these laundry trips are routine check-ins I set up for myself. The whirring sound of washers in motion offers a perfect setting for in-depth personal reflection.

I remember feeling overwhelmed on the first laundry trip of June 2017. The air was crisper on my way to the laundromat but there was much more noise than usual. I found myself walking along 112th Street in Manhattan, not the soccer field at Vassar anymore. What had changed since the last time I got my clothes washed? I graduated college and moved to New York. One-way ticket, didn’t look back. The screensaver on my phone in high school was an aerial photo of the Big Apple. I was excited just by the fact that I got to wash my clothes in New York City. A mundane thing to some people, I know, but it was significant to me.

Another significant trip was in July 2018. I was folding my clothes at the Great American Wash between 9th Avenue and 49th Street, probably my favorite laundromat ever. It was heart-wrenching knowing it would be the last time I came here. The new landlord in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment kicked us out with less than a three-week notice. It was illegal, but they said getting a lawyer would cost more money than just finding a new place. I was so upset. Partly because there’s nothing in life I hate more than injustice. (I wanted to sue these people and say out loud in court, “I’m Sieu and I’m gonna Sieu/sue you.”) Partly because that was my favorite apartment — I had a rooftop room with a spectacular view of the city. Watching New York from that rooftop made me feel like a protagonist in one of those coming-of-age series, not that it isn’t the most cliche premise ever.

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Life moves so fast in New York that there’s always something new every time I visit the laundromat. Same with the barbershop, another place I frequent. I go to this incredibly sweet, fifty-something Greek barber in Chelsea every two months for a haircut. Alex knows my preference well — “shorter than this, but not too short, but short, just please don’t make me look like a douchebag.” I always fear looking like a douchebag for some reason, yet kept falling for the type (used to, not anymore). I’m never good at describing exactly what I want, but he’s excellent at turning my vague vision into reality. When he’s in action, the buzzing sound of his electric trimmer zones everything out and gives me a moment of stillness. I look at myself in the mirror, take in my gradual transformation, and start to ask myself those familiar questions. What has changed in the world since the last time I was here? What remains the same? Every haircut becomes a personal check-in as well.

Spring. While Alex was working on the side of my head, I realized the last time I visited him I had been single. I started seeing somebody then, unsure where it led but my heart was open to take chances. Summer. I chuckled as Alex made a joke while putting a cape on me, excited for a fresh cut and couldn’t be more thrilled to be single again. Some people just weren’t right, doesn’t mean I lose hope. A diehard romantic am I. Fall. Alex asked if I had any vacation plans coming up. “I’m going back home to Vietnam,” I said with the widest smile. “I’m also visiting my family in Greece,” he sounded excited. Winter. “I’ve already taken 6 weeks of vacation. No, in chunks, not at the same time. Hanoi. Bangkok. Barcelona. I’ll just be at work in the next five months. You?”

The incredible thing is with every haircut, I notice how much I’ve changed, usually for the better. I’ve learned a lesson or two about choosing the right person to fall in love with. I’ve learned to protect my heart but at the same time stay vulnerable. I stopped resenting the relationships that didn’t work out because they made me wiser. Thanks to these people, some I’m happily friends with and some I’ll never see again, I became calmer, more patient, a better listener, and a firmer believer in myself. I’d say I’ve learned to run less and walk more when it comes to love. Stillness is key. I used to get so ticklish when a barber shaved the back of my neck that my head refused to stay still, which annoyed way too many barbers in my life and caused a few cuts that stung for days. They’d be surprised to know how still I sit these days.

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I was supposed to get my haircut this week if New York were not on pause. I kinda regret not booking an appointment right after the news broke because my head looks like a porcupine now. As I’m entertaining the idea of cutting my own hair because I conveniently own an electric trimmer, just waiting to grow an eye on the back of my head which would be perfect, I figured it’s healthy enough to still carry out my usual check-in. So, what has changed in the world since my last haircut? I don’t even know where to start. Every day I wish this is just a dream and all I need to do is wake up. I miss New York terribly. I’m still physically in New York, but it feels much less like New York when the streets are empty. Even the laundromats are less crowded than usual. The fact that they’re still open is a blessing.

Living a dual identity is like constantly entering a washing cycle.

I’ve lived in New York for 74 washing cycles. Not two of them were the same. I hope the next one will be so different that everything actually returns to its normal state. Never has normalcy felt so much like a luxury. A few washing cycles from now, I see myself roaming the beach of Miami, something that’s been in my plans for weeks. Another few washing cycles from then, I see myself eating Vietnamese food on the streets of Hanoi. With a fresh haircut, of course. The tropical climate is never kind to my porcupine hair.

When the daydreaming is over, I return to my reality in New York. I got into the habit of reporting my health to my parents every night at 9. They told me to come home a few weeks ago. I said I will stay, but my heart is with them. Living a dual identity is like constantly entering a washing cycle. Drenched in fresh detergent and fabric softener, you come out feeling new and reborn. That’s how I felt the day I moved to New York. Yet that smell of lavender serenity inevitably fades and you come back to your roots at the end of the day, only to go into the washer again on the next laundry trip. It’s an endless cycle. How much Vietnamese is left in me? How American have I become? Not fully here, not fully there, just constantly fluctuating, ever-navigating the intricate fabric of life.

Lock clicks. Button pushed. Coins clink, all twenty four of them. Machine starts whirring. I stare at my own reflection on the door of the washing machine for a second. I look so different from the first day I got here. America remains a destination, but at the end of the day, life is all about the journey. The water rushes in. Another cycle begins.

In a constant search for something mind-blowing // IG: littlepotatow