ROANOKE, Va. — I worked in the laundry industry for 44 years and had the pleasure of working with many legal immigrants. This is normal because the laundry industry is a natural gateway industry for this type of employee.
Today I would like to write about what I learned from my many experiences working with this group of employees and now being married to a Thai wife and helping raise her two children.
The first thing most of us recognize is that there is a language barrier between you and the potential employee. Many immigrants have moved to the United States from war-torn regions of the world. Many have lived through traumatic experiences we can just not understand.
I came to a greater understanding of this language problem on my several trips to Thailand. While some Thai people speak some English, the vast majority do not. Thai is a tonal language and not easily learned. I have never been good at learning a foreign language and only passed two years of high school Spanish on the promise I would never have to take any more.
I was always so grateful for the kind smile and helpful attitude of those Thai citizens who went out of their way to help a poor, lost tourist. They made me feel welcome in their wonderful country.
We should make sure the same happens in our laundry. Not being able to communicate clearly in English does not make them a bad employee. They want to be acknowledged for what they can do and feel welcome. Learning a few words in their native language can make a strong bond with these employees.
When my Thai wife moved from Bangkok to Roanoke, Virginia, she immediately noticed three things. The first was how quiet everything is around my house. There is a constant noise level in Thailand with many cars, buses, trucks and loudspeakers used to attract customers. Quiet in Thailand is hard to find except in the very rural areas of the country.
The second was how clear and clean the air was. Thailand has severe air pollution problems to the point that many Thais routinely wear masks outside, even before COVID-19. The third thing she noticed was the change in weather to what she had experienced for the first 47 years of life. Thailand is very hot and humid. The average temperature is around 90 degrees. She was very concerned about being warm enough during winter.
I remember having several new female employees from the Congo in my laundry. They suffered greatly when the temperature dropped to below 50 degrees. They often wore multiple layers of clothes to work.
Some of my employees told me I should tell them they looked silly and to wear only one dress at a time. I explained to them how hot it was where they came from, how it takes the human body at least a year to adapt to a new climate, especially when the change is as drastic as moving from the Congo to Roanoke. Once they understood the problem, they made suggestions to the women about warm underclothing they could buy to help manage the cold.
Another problem facing this type of employee is understanding our money system. Many of these employees will come from areas of the world where there are no banks or banks are not to be trusted. Having a wonderful direct deposit payroll system is something they are not comfortable with and do not understand.
In Thailand, the bigger the coin the larger the value. But here in the United States, our dime is worth more than the penny or the nickel, both of which are larger. In Thailand, each bill is a different color. Here, bills are the same size and same color.
Adapting to a changing world is difficult. Many things are different here than elsewhere in the world. Even with these problems, immigrants are excited to be here and develop a better life for themselves and their children.
By understanding some of their challenges, we can help them feel welcome and important.