Down the street from where I lived there was a Chinese laundry. As kids we always joked about how they slaughtered the English language, how they dressed, their diet and how many of them lived huddled together in back of the sweat shop.
While most everyone was out of work in 1944 because of World War II, the laundry seemed to survive. Every morning, through wind, rain and snow, a Chinese man pushed a large wire basket-like cart through the streets of downtown, picking up dirty laundry and clothes to be pressed from restaurants, businesses and city hall. Late in the afternoon, he pushed the same cart delivering the clean folded napkins, tablecloths and uniforms, collected his pay and was ready for another day. The politicians always had the best ironed shirts and pressed pants in town delivered right to their door.
My mother decided to have a big birthday party to celebrate my eighth year of existence. She invited all the children in the neighborhood and I invited "Mae," one of the Chinese children from the laundry. She was funny, always made me laugh and we were good friends. Even though I couldn't understand her accent half the time, we managed to communicate with each other, as children do.
Everyone brought me a small gift, except Mae. I really didn't care because we were good friends. My mom said they were probably as poor as we were and probably couldn't afford even a small gift. But after the party, Mae, with a big smile, graciously handed me a piece of paper with an invitation for dinner that night.
Mom didn't know how to react. There must have been four children and five adults living in the back of the laundry. She didn't know what to expect, what the conditions would be or if it was safe. But I wanted to spend time with my friend and she consented and we both were off to dinner.
We were freezing on that cold November night walking the long city block to the laundry. The hot steam vaporizing on the laundry windows seemed like a gift in itself. Mae and her mother greeted us at the front counter of the shop. They were both dressed in long gowns of some sort and they very gently and graciously guided us through the maze of hanging clothes, ironing mangles and washboards to the back of the shop.
Mae opened the back door to the yard, most of which was covered with a 60-by-40 foot shack with two large swinging doors as an entrance. Covered entirely with sheets of corrugated metal, it appeared to be an old garage for auto repairs. Her mother opened the doors, asked us to wait for a moment and rushed inside to draw the curtains covering the inside entrance. Then, we entered a wonderful, new and different world.
The whole family was seated on the floor around a huge teak circular lazy susan covered with food. They all sang a Chinese happy birthday song and I sat at the seat of honor for the feast. I couldn't tell what I was eating, except for the rice. But after 65 years I can still taste the delicacies I shared that day.
After dinner, Mae and her father, using the ancient art of jianzhi (paper cutting), created a portrait of me using a pair of scissors and one piece of paper. What a great skill.
There was a large pot-bellied stove in the middle of the spacious room. The walls were covered with Persian rugs, finely stitched tapestries, bamboo and watercolor paintings. The soft light shining through the red paper lampshades hanging from the ceilings created an almost mystical hue I had never seen before in my young life.
Half of the back wall was covered with books written about science, religion and politics. The other half was lined with draped shelves, partitioned into sections for the personal effects of each member of the family.
At one end of the room, there was a small altar that was adorned with candles, ivory, gold, onyx and jade. It was their temple, a place of worship.
At the other end of the room there was a large waist-high countertop table with a black velvet drape in back of it. Before it was time to leave, the family made their way to the back of the table, hid from sight, started to sing and presented us with a puppet show involving each member of the family.
That night, I told my father I would never have guessed the Chinese possessed so much wealth, education, skills and kindness. He listened for awhile and said, "David, things are never what they appear and I hope you always remember what you learned tonight at the Chinese laundry.”
It took my 10 years to realize what I did learn on that cold November night. Among other things, I learned the value of work ethics, family values and unpretentious wealth.
I learned not to judge people by how they dress, the color of their skin or their accent as they try and struggle to speak our language.
I learned about art, aesthetics, mysticism and the true meaning of life. So dad, wherever you are, I always remembered my best birthday gift of all. I remember what you taught me and what I learned that night at the Chinese laundry.
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is www.thefarsidechronicles.com.