Inspiration amidst the snowflakes

After I got out to move my car yesterday morning, I settled down with some coffee and readied myself to enjoy a day of doing absolutely nothing.

Well.. almost nothing. I had a project I had to get some work done on for one of my Chorus friends who works for one of Chicago’s AIDS service organizations. I’m designing the poster for the Chicago Ride for AIDS, which is sponsored by TPAN, which stands for Test Positive Aware Network. My friend is one of the directors of TPAN and asked me if I’d be interested in designing a poster for the Ride. I wouldn’t be paid, but the chance to do something for the organization, not to mention the exposure, was something I couldn’t pass up. So what a perfect day to work on it!

After a few good hours of work, my friend Ricardo called. He was a few blocks away and wanted to grab some lunch. I was hungry so I agreed, and he stopped by before we headed out.

We made our way to Argyle street, which is also known as “Little Vietnam.” Over the last 30 years or so, many Vietnamese, Cambodian and other Southern Asian people have settled in this area. The shops along Argyle street reflect this in their wares, their food, and their character. Even the Argyle El stop sports a large red “Pagoda” to reflect this area’s culture.

For years, this area had been pretty shady. It isn’t a reflection on the Vietnamese at all, it’s just a factor of the change in the area from decade to decade. Many of the storefronts have gates in front of them, and some even have full metal garage doors. When I moved to Chicago 8 years ago, you were afraid to walk along the street at night. Now it isn’t quite so bad. The area has changed again. Many new residents have moved in, and the area is on an upswing. Thankfully, this isn’t driving out the Asian people. They have made a home for themselves here and the area would be greatly lacking if they were suddenly forced out.

So Ricardo and I decided to visit a Vietnamese restaurant that he had been to a while ago, saying that the food was excellent. We trudged out into the snow and began our journey.

The wind was starting pick up by now, and the lake effect snow off of Lake Michigan was starting to really kick in. But we kept on going.

The restaurant was warm and charming; one of the larger ones in the area. I had never been there before, but the food was, indeed, excellent. I had some Wonton soup and Kung Pao Chicken, which was stir-fried instead of deep-fried. Spicy and tasty.

After lunch, we decided to walk along the street to look for a gag gift for our friend Jeremy, who was celebrating his birthday that night at Crew. We were also looking for something nice, but there’s always some fun treasures to be found at these merchant stores, so it’s fun to stop in and take a look. Besides, the snow was getting worse.

We stopped in at a store a couple doors down from the restaurant. We started browsing the toys, the fuzzy slippers, the tacky hats and the exquisite scarves. We were greeted by a kindly older lady who asked if we needed any help, and we said no, we were just browsing.

As we snaked through the store, we made our way to the glass counter.

“Oh my, look at all the jade pieces,” Ricardo said.

“Oh yes,” the lady said in her thick accent. “Jade is very healing. It can protect you from danger and evil.”

“Yes,” Ricardo replied, “I have heard that about it.”

“In fact,” she continued, “This pendant saved my life.” She pulled out from behind her collar a small Buddha-shaped pendant in deep green jade.

“It’s a Buddha,” Ricardo and I commented when we saw the pendant.

“It’s the mother of Buddha,” she corrected us. “She saved my life one day. I would tell you the story, but you probably would not believe me.”

Being that we had nowhere else to be, and we were both intrigued by her story, we encouraged her to tell us. So she did.

“When I was in Cambodia,” she began, “and the killing was happening, I was with my children… I had seven children, and one baby. The guards were coming through the neighborhoods and killing. I was so scared. People were running so fast and the crowds were so big. I tried to keep my children together. I held on to them as I ran. And we ran so fast and so hard to get away. And then, I lost one of my children. I couldn’t find him. And I prayed. I prayed to her. (the mother of Buddha) to help me find him. I prayed and prayed and prayed.”

“I stopped running and prayed. And I looked for my child. And the crowds ran past me and then they were gone. And as I prayed, I noticed the guards. They did not see me! I was standing right there, but they did not see me. They had their guns and they were ready to shoot. But I was not shot. And I kept praying that I find my child. And then I found him. And I grabbed his hand and I ran and kept on running. And the guards, they never saw me.”

“This was in 1975. The movie “The Killing Fields” was just a small portion of what really happened. I lived through it. I saw the bodies. I saw the killing. And the way they would kill people.

“The people were starving, so they would put sacks of rice out in the streets. And the people were so hungry, they would run to the sacks of rice and pick them up. But they were booby-trapped… mined. The people would die in the streets and the bodies would stay there for days… weeks. Nothing was safe. Nobody was to be trusted. People starved to death all the time because you couldn’t trust anyone. One of my babies died because I couldn’t get enough food.”

“After I escaped the guards, I continued on the run until I reached Thailand. I went to the American embassy and got in contact with my sister, who had moved to America already. She arranged to have me and my family moved with her.

I have lived in America ever since. And I have been grateful for my life, for my family and for my health. And I have learned in life that one must never, ever remember the past. The past is gone. It is dead. You must look to today and to the future and do good things for people. There is no place for evil.”

She then took out a book of pictures.

Since I came back here, I have no money. I don’t want it. The money I make from my store, I give back. I give back to the people of Cambodia who are still rebuilding. They need food and schools. I help them build schools and feed the hungry people. I have gone back four times since I left. I help the sick, I feed the babies, and I care for the elderly.”

Picture after picture showed the lady in front of us helping to build schools, feeding hungry children and meeting with dignitaries. She was dressed beautifully in some pictures and simply in others. The smiles on the faces of the children were unforgettable. To them, she was like royalty.

“So many people have nothing. They live in poverty. Yet they are happy because they are no longer at war. But there is so much that needs to be done, so much rebuilding to do. And whatever I can do, I do.”

Ricardo and I were in awe at the story being told to us. We had no idea that we would meet such a remarkable person in such a simple little store. This lady survived the “Killing Fields.” She survived war, starvation, and even the death of one of her children because she was too poor to feed them all. She made a life for herself of giving back to those who were less fortunate. It was almost too much to bear, but you couldn’t help but be moved by her story.

“All of my surviving children are happy, they are healthy, and they are educated. They have good jobs, good homes, and good lives. That is the best thing I could have done for them. I don’t need money. I just need to give to charity and help other people. This is what I live for.” The lady in th
e store said to us.

We never got her name. We didn’t even buy anything that day. But on that cold, snowy afternoon, our hearts were warmed and our minds opened by a lady who had lived a far greater life than either of us could ever aspire to. As we made our way out of the store and back into the blizzard, we knew that in a small but special way, we had been blessed by this lady and her story. And it made the day seem just a little bit brighter and warmer because of it.