Each evening, a man Steinbeck calls “the old Chinaman” walks through the streets with a basket, disappearing down on the beach beneath the piers. Then, right before daylight, he reemerges and walks back up the hill. Many of the people living in Cannery Row hear him coming and going, but they never “taunt him.” One day, however, a boy named Andy who’s visiting Monterey decides he must yell at the man in order to maintain his “self-respect,” though he is afraid to do so. Still, he follows him and shouts, “Ching-Chong Chinaman sitting on a rail—’Long came a white man an’ chopped off his tail.”
Andy’s decision to yell at the old man in this scene is strange, as it seemingly comes from a place of obligation. Indeed, Andy feels as if he must yell this racist line at the old man in order to keep his “self-respect,” a notion indicating that he proudly sees himself as someone who doesn’t care about kindness or social decorum. In a novel populated by virtuous and kind people like Lee Chong and Mack, then, Andy exemplifies a complete failure of empathy.
The old man turns, and Andy watches his two eyes “spread out until” they merge and engulf the man’s entire body. “And then it was one eye,” Steinbeck notes, “one huge brown eye as big as a church door.” Looking into this eye, Andy sees “a lonely countryside, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains.” Peering into this “countryside,” Andy experiences intense “loneliness,” feeling as if there isn’t “anybody at all in the world” except himself. As such, he closes his eyes, and when he reopens them, the old man is walking away. “Andy was the only boy who ever did that and he never did it again,” Steinbeck writes.
After failing to show the old man kindness, Andy experiences a vast and inconceivable loneliness, effectively feeling as if he’s the only person on earth. As such, Steinbeck intimates that failures of empathy can estrange a person from the people around them, eventually leaving them all alone in the world. Practicing kindness, then, is the only way to avoid a bleak and lonely life.