The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘kindness’


Chan’s Chinese Laundry & Dry Cleaning was a small store, about a ten minute walk from my apartment.  The proprietor, a lady who was in her mid-fifties when I first began bringing my clothes there was a Taiwanese woman who spoke very little, broken English. Her name was Chan Mei.  I used her services for a very long time.

When I say a long time it was over a period where I saw her son Peter grow from a toddler, playing in his play pen in the store; watch him grow old enough that he would help out with the ironing; graduate from the University of Illinois with a degree in electrical engineering; get married and have his first child, a daughter whom he named Doris.

After Doris was born I asked Peter how he had decided on her name, thinking this was perhaps a close approximation of a Chinese name.  He answered me, “She has no Chinese name.  We’re Americans, so she has an American name.  Besides, I like Doris Day and her movies.  She seems very nice and very happy.  I want my daughter to be very nice and very happy.”

Every Saturday between noon and twelve fifteen I would show up at Chan’s, armed with a bundle of soiled clothes and some wire hangers which I was returning so they could be reused and would pick up my clothes that had been expertly cleaned.  It got to the point when Mei was so used to my schedule that she always had my clothing up front shortly before noon so that I didn’t have to wait for her to find them among all the hanging clothes that were ready and waiting for pick up.

When my mother passed away, I left Chicago and spent four weeks in New York, dealing with all the things one has to do after a family death.  Needless to say, my last load of clothing languished in Chan’s until I returned to the Windy City.

When I came in that next Saturday, Mei sighed as though in relief and said, “I worry about you, Missee Juwanna.  I thinkee maybe something happen you – no see for long time.”  I explained what had occurred and the reason for my absence.  A look of great concern and sadness came over Mei’s face.

“You fatha die and now you motha die.  You orphan now.”

With that statement, Mei raised the wooden hinged board in the front counter that allowed access to the back of the store, came over to me and gave me a big hug.  “I be you motha now,” she said as the tears welled up in both our eyes.

After a few minutes in this embrace, Mei released me and before giving me my clothes which I could see waiting in their usual place, she said, “You waitee here.”  She went in the back of the store and I could hear oil sizzling in a wok.  About ten minutes later she came to the front of the store with a little plastic lined white Chinese food takeout box and presented me with my lunch.

I thought that was extremely sweet but was completely taken by surprise when the following Saturday I was again presented with a take out container.  That continued  every Saturday for the next twenty years.  This loving woman had voluntarily taken on this responsibility and never failed to deliver on her commitment.  When she finally returned to Taiwan at the age of 78 to take care of an older brother who’s wife had passed away, I could tell that Mei was concerned that I would be able to carry on without her.  But I assured her that I would be okay – and she hesitantly seemed to believe me.

About five years after Mei began making my Saturday meals, I walked in as usual and could see that she was very upset.  I asked her why she was so distraught.  She said, “Man come in and wavee gun at me – steal money.”  I was so angered that someone had stolen the little amount of money this woman had and who worked so hard to earn it, I was determined to do whatever I could to see that he was apprehended.

I asked Mei, “Was he tall or short; fat or thin; black or white?”  If I happened to see him while doing my Saturday shopping, I wanted to be able to flag down one of the police cars that regularly cruised the neighborhood.

Mei looked at me and said, “Missee Juwanna.  All you black and white people lookee same to me.”  I had to bite my cheek to prevent an involuntary smile from spreading across my face.  I did not want her to mistake my genuine amusement at her statement to be mis-interpreted for minimizing the seriousness of what had happened.

I thought about Mei and Chan’s Chinese Laundry & Dry Cleaning the other day because of what has been happening in Ferguson, MO.  I wondered to myself whether Ferguson had a Chinese laundry there.  And I asked myself, “If they did have a Chinese laundry in Ferguson, after all the protests, looting and rioting, is it still standing?”


My father died quite suddenly as he and mom were returning from one of his buying trips to the Orient.  They were having breakfast on the patio of the hotel restaurant in Hawaii where they were staying for the day.  Suddenly, dad fell over.  He was dead of a massive myocardial infarction.

Mom became hysterical – not only at the loss of her husband but at the swiftness with which death took him.  The hotel’s doctor had to sedate her to keep her calm and it was only after the medication began to take effect that she regained the presence of mind to call and let me know what had happened.  I made arrangements to fly to Honolulu the following morning.

I realized that I was going to have to take charge of the situation and make the necessary arrangements because mom was simply too emotional to think rationally.  That was so unlike her but her grief had overwhelmed her customary sensibility.

So we had dad cremated in Hawaii and planned on having a memorial service back in New York.  Dad wanted his ashes scattered in the Sea of Japan and his Japanese Agent, Yoshinori Yassuda performed the service according to his Shinto beliefs.

Mom and I tried to get on with our lives as best we could as a two person family.  At least mom had her business to keep her occupied and having something to focus on other than the emptiness of the apartment helped her through this time.

And then the letters started to arrive.  This was at a time when people would actually take the time to sit down, find a nice piece of stationery and write down their thoughts.  A lot of people had a lot of thoughts because over the next three months mom received over two thousand letters from people who had known my father.

In those days news was anything but instantaneous.   An ordinary person’s death was known only through an obituary notice or by word of mouth.  The letters that mom received were from people with whom my father had business dealings over the course of his lifetime.  In some cases they had been written by individuals who had not dealt with dad for over twenty years.  But they remembered him and cared enough to take the time to share their thoughts with my mother.

There was a theme to these letters.  In essence they all said “Your husband was a wonderful man and a friend.  Whenever I placed an order with him I knew that he was going to take great care of me.  I knew that I could count on his word being as good as gold – if not better.  He was a gentleman and a kind human being.  I grieve with you for your family’s loss.”

The letters started to trickle in – and then as the word spread they arrived in greater number, increasing day by day – to the point where the letter carrier had to bind them together with rubber bands and leave them with the building superintendent as they were too thick to put in our mailbox.  All those good wishes from so many strangers – each well-intentioned and each so painful for mom to read. 

Well this was many years ago – long before the internet had come into being.  As a matter of curiosity I went to Google and typed in dad’s name.  Nothing was returned by the search – other than some suggestions that I might try this or that spelling or did I mean this?  I guess I wasn’t really surprised at the result.

We live in an age where we measure our prestige by how many people click the “Like” or “Friend” buttons on the social networks.  We have lost an understanding of the distinction between quantity and quality.  We equate being accepted or admired by large numbers of people as a validation for our lives – rather than taking the responsibility to validate our lives through our words and deeds.  We have lost the meaning of caring and sharing and loving.  We have surrounded ourselves with the trivial and have excluded from our hearts those things that are of true importance.

In this context, I am grateful that my internet search yielded no results for my father.  I learned things of far greater value from him than I was ever taught in school.  And I will never believe that this kind and loving man was “a person of no importance.”

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