I'm always curious about how people live – the creative and diverse ways they live out their lives. I got a peek into another world one rainy Monday morning, and it got my mind spinning.
The Dilemma & the Solution
I find myself sitting in a shabby, cluttered office at an auto shop getting my smog test done. I should have done it earlier. But the night before I discovered, to my horror, my car’s registration is due today. And I need a smog test on it!
What makes this place remarkable? Everything and nothing at all. Everything because, as I observe the workers as well as the items all around the shop, it’s immediately clear this shop is owned and run by Southeast Asians-turned Americans. Specifically, the owner, a man named Thanh, comes from Vietnam.
Everything about this office gives crazy cultural clues to the curious. The altar to my right is full of jade-like Buddha statues, a lit-up plastic lily tree (with changing color lights), a staging area below with incense and orchids and all manner of items. In the room there are two small plates piled with oranges – offerings to the gods which must fill this room.
There are tea cups and companion dishes out. The cups have lids removed. Someone must be coming (or is it the gods?). Post-its line the desk, paperwork is scattered all around. Doors are open on both sides to let out the car fumes that filled the place upon entry. I almost left, but decided it was worth the shot. “It’ll be fifteen minutes,” Thanh announces before I can ask.
Recording What I See as Fast as Lightning
It is barely enough time to do anything, much less write. But I am determined to get my writing time in today. So I pull out my laptop, open it up and begin to get my fingers rolling. I’m finding it tough at first – I’m being too much the observer – but then I get into the flow.
My curious self wonders, "Is this garage Thanh's American Dream?"
Looking around the room, I begin to consider what stories lie amidst the papers, pictures and artifacts crowding this place. Thanh looks to be in his 40’s or 50’s, although that’s just a guess; I’m really not too adept at guessing the age of middle-aged Asian men.
Still, that would’ve made him just a child – like me – during the Vietnam war. I’m curious whether he was one of the thousands of boat people who escaped that war-torn nation. I’m imagining his story. How far did he and his family get? Or, was he alone? With friends? How desperate was his situation? How did he eventually find his way to the States? Was he picked up by a U.S. aircraft carrier? Or some other way?
Even though it’s clear Thanh does not live an opulent life, he must be making a decent enough living. This garage – one a mere three miles (4.83 km) from my home, but a place I’ve never noticed before – looks well-occupied. He didn’t just move in yesterday.
Imagining How Thanh Got to this Place
Yelp led me here. Thanh's garage was open and his response quick. He could see me in an instant. So that's how I landed in this place. But what about him?
Again, I wonder – How did he find his way to our (relatively) smallish – but expensive – town? I'm curious. Did he marry a Vietnamese? Was she also a boat person fleeing an oppressive regime for her life? Do they have children? Is one of those children working here? Will that child take on the business when Thanh needs to let it go?
Questions abound. I can see that Thanh still is guided by the religion of his ancestors. It looks Buddhist but not. There seem to be many more gods at work here. I don’t know as much about Vietnam as I do about some other Asian cultures, but it sure seems as if many need to be appeased. I'm curious again – how much time, energy and money does Thanh put into keeping the gods happy?
I snap some quick pictures of his office / reception room. To my rather minimalist eyes, it is quite a cacophony of color, mess, dirt and grime, cultures colliding to intrigue my senses and penchant for story.
These are questions for which I’ll never know the answer. Thanh is back in a 10 minutes flat! I’m barely through half of this piece. I have to close my laptop and pull out my credit card.
“It passed?” I ask.
“Yes, just fine. $40, please. I send in the paperwork,” Thanh offers.
We make that transaction.
It’s a good deal for him and me. I needed that smog test done; he was available at 8 am on a rainy Monday morning.
Still curious, I take one last look at his office. It's a true work of art, in a way.
And I marvel at the “world” I just entered. At the glimpse I got into Thanh’s America, so very different from mine.
I smile. I like that.
Can you think of a time you've discovered a world very different from your own but practically next door? What was that like?