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Jung’s Success As Author Goes Beyond His Wildest Dreams

Published: June 1, 2009

John Jung’s retirement isn’t exactly what he thought it would be, but he’s not complaining. In fact, he says he is having the time of his life.

A psychology professor at CSULB since 1962 (minus a three-year teaching stint in Canada), Jung retired in 2002 and soon thereafter came out with his first book, Southern Fried Rice: Life in A Chinese Laundry in the Deep South. It was so well received he followed that up with another titled Chinese Laundries: Tickets To Survival On Gold Mountain. And, although he has published eight books on psychology, being a published writer in Chinese-American history has opened up a whole new world for him.

“No way could I have ever imagined this. It’s beyond my wildest dreams,” said Jung. “This was not part of the plan I had at all. I was happy when I finished Southern Fried Rice to be able to get that account recorded and accessible to others. I was just trying to do everything myself – write it, edit it, market it, distribute it. It was kind of like a challenge to me because it’s hard to get publishers interested in this kind of thing and I can’t blame them. I was thinking to myself, ‘How many people are really going to want to read this?’”

Much to his delight, a great number of people took an interest in his books, and as a result, he has hit the lecture circuit. He estimates he has done more than 20 talks, including some in San Francisco, San Diego, Houston, Chicago, Berkeley, San Jose, Georgia and New York.

“This has been like a bonanza to me because it gave me the opportunity to do a lot of things I never thought I’d be doing,” he said. “I really enjoy going out and talking about the books because people in the audience really seem to get a lot out of it. I really feel good about it. This is good for a retired professor because we are used to having an audience and when we retire we don’t have anyone to talk to. I’m not really in this to make money. It will be ok as long as I break even and have a good time, and I’m having a good time.”

Southern Fried Rice tells the overlooked history of Chinese-Americans in the Deep South through the author’s account of his family’s experiences in Georgia running a laundry from the late 1920s through the 1950s. Chinese Laundries is a social history of the role of the Chinese laundry on the survival of early Chinese immigrants in the U.S. during the Chinese Exclusion law period (1882-1943) and in Canada during the years of the Head Tax, (1885-1923) and exclusion law (1923-47).

Southern Fried Rice is basically a memoir about our family growing up in Georgia; the only Chinese in our town,” said Jung, who was born in Macon, Ga., and left there for San Francisco when he was 15. “That was really odd in a way, but I didn’t really think about it. A lot of people said that was interesting and finally I thought that maybe I should write something about what it was like. Since there were so few of us in Georgia, I thought that if I don’t write about it then nobody is going to write about it. That might be exaggerating a little, but that was my mentality on it. I didn’t know how far I would get, but I dredged up all these memories and I had all these old photos and I just sort of wrote this thing.”

In trying to promote his book, Jung contacted the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco, simply to see if they would stock some of his books. That inquiry turned into an invitation to come up and give a talk.

“That was my first entry into that and it went pretty well,” said Jung. “I then started going around giving talks at various organizations like Chinese-American history museums. I didn’t anticipate that simply because I did not have a lot of confidence in this kind of thing; I was out of my element. When you’ve been teaching as long as I have, you don’t get nervous in front of an audience, but I didn’t know what I was going to say so I went in kind of winging it and that went pretty well.”

Jung noted that one of the gratifying things is that he invariably meets a lot of people whom themselves grew up in a laundry or knew somebody and they want to share their experience.

“The funny thing to me is that the people who seemed to like it the most already knew everything I was telling them. I wasn’t telling them anything new, but they were so thrilled that the things I talked about was their story or their relatives’ story,” said Jung. “And I was thrilled I got it right. I was afraid they would come up and contradict me and say I didn’t know what I was talking about. That was the thing I was most nervous about, but they would come up and thank me. I think they appreciated the fact that this information was getting a little more disseminated. It felt like validation for them, so that’s what motivates me to do these kinds of things.”

John Jung
Photo courtesy of John Jung
John Jung signing his book for a fan

The impetus for the second book came while working on the first simply because while doing his research he learned things about laundries he never knew before.

“Then I had the idea of, well, no one had ever done anything about the effect of growing up in the laundry on the children,” said Jung, “so, I went and recruited seven people I didn’t know who grew up in laundries all around the United States and I had them write about their life experiences,” said Jung. “I put all that together in one chapter. It’s almost like the psychology of growing up in a laundry and what that life was like and I found that rewarding.”

And yes, there is a third book, making his works a trilogy of sorts.

Called Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton, Jung tells the story of all the mom-and-pop grocery stores in the small towns along the cotton plantation fields in the Mississippi Delta.

“About a year ago at the Chinese Historical Society in L.A., I was speaking about Southern Fried Rice and at the end this Chinese guy told me he was from Mississippi and really enjoyed my talk. He said he wished somebody would write about the Chinese in Mississippi,” said Jung. “He gave me a list of all these people who grew up there and told me I should contact them. I didn’t promise anything because I didn’t know what I was getting into, but after I talked to these people and got interested in their situations.” In fact, the Delta Chinese invited Jung back for 11 days to give some talks and get to know them better. “Before I knew it, I was doing something I did not foresee doing…writing another book.

“This kind of lightning keeps striking me,” he added. “At a talk in Northridge, a Chinese restaurant owner suggested that I should write a history of Chinese restaurants to follow my laundry and grocery books. I had just completed writing the second edition of my textbook Alcohol, Other Drugs, and Behavior, so the timing was perfect. I ignored my initial doubts, jumped into researching the topic, and now I am well on my way with this yet untitled book that focuses on the difficult life experiences of families running mom-and-pop Chinese cafes all over the land that serve mostly non-Chinese.

As rewarding as getting his work on Chinese American history published has been, for Jung one of the added bonuses of writing the books has been the self-discovery.

“I am learning a lot myself about things about the Chinese experience I didn’t know before,” he said, “because remember, I grew up where everyone else was either black or white. I’m learning a lot about Chinese immigration history and as a psychologist it’s interesting for me to see how people moved around. how they networked, and overcame extreme hardships. I mean, how did some guy in Minnesota move from running a restaurant in Illinois to running a laundry, then move to Mississippi where his son married a woman who came from North Dakota to Mississippi via New York? It’s kind of fascinating, like detective work. It’s exciting to dig around and discover something. When you are 30 you can’t write a lot because you haven’t done a lot. I figured now I have enough miles on the odometer than I could see this journey more clearly. I think you reach a certain age and there are things you want to reflect on, interpret, make some sense out of, so there was definitely some of that involved.”