This is the first in an ongoing series of profiles and oral histories about Maywoodians and people with Maywood connections—some are still here, while others have moved on. See the Village through their words. Know and live free.
In December of last year, I came across a man from China while doing some canvassing on the North Side of Chicago for a Hurricane Sandy relief event. A friend and I had sought shelter from the pouring rain inside of a restaurant he owned. We’d been here once before, but we didn’t talk to him then like we did this time. During our conversation, I couldn’t help but feeling slightly envious (it was the only way to channel my patriotism) and even a bit angry, as if this Chinese man, with his exuberant, confident optimism, was infringing upon a copyright that I owned. I kept thinking, ‘Is the American Dream becoming the Chinese Dream; or rather, ‘Is the American Dream becoming a reality for everyone but Americans?’ But when he said that he’d lived in Maywood for a spell, during his youth, he immediately endeared himself to me.
The place was empty when Nick and I walked in, just as it was the last time we were here. The same Chinese guy greeted us from behind the counter. We ordered the same meal – a value meal, two hot dogs and a fry, with two cups of free water.
As before, we paid begrudgingly. I handed him a flyer and strained an explanation. “Hurricane Sandy…Help…Fundraiser…To raise money for the people over there…Can I leave it, here?,” I said. He nodded and gestured with his hands and winced his eyes as he responded, his body motions bridging the void of understanding in which my words were mere echoes. He approved and I taped the flyer onto the wall nearest the entrance.
When our food came, the man said, “I give you extra fry, since you like fry so much.” I’d told him that his French fries should be the envy of Chicago, they were that good. He was amused and gracious, as before. But this time, unlike before, as we ate our food he asked us questions. He wanted to know if canvassing the neighborhood with benefit flyers was how we earned our living. We said no, begging the question of how, in fact, we earned our living. I told the man that I write. He laughed and made a typing gesture with his hands, seeming to mock me. Nick told him that he stays at home with his parents for the time being, his life on pause, muted out of protest. He has many complaints with the way of the world.
“You go to school?” The man asked. We told him we both went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a golden crease formed on his face. And then he suddenly looked astonished. “You mean you go to the Illinois and you don’t have a job?” he said to Nick, but I suspect it was indirectly posed to me as well. After all, where he’s from, perhaps even more than in America, writers are synonymous with the chronically unemployed. He thought it was miraculous that we’d graduated from U of I and were out canvassing on a weekday afternoon.
He said his son also graduated from the U of I and indulgently labored to produce his children’s wrinkled resumes and smeared graduation photos. They were, he apparently believed, his truest form of identification. He presented an oral précis of his son’s achievements – third in his engineering class at U of I, Master’s in engineering from MIT, MBA to be eventually obtained from either Harvard or Stanford, several patents to his name, prized employee at General Electric before being lured by Boeing for $135,000. And his daughter – “She at Cornell…This summer she can make money with internship…I don’t have to worry…she work right away!”
He looked at us as if pitying a pair of stray pups. “Why you don’t get job while in school? Why you in debt? You don’t get scholarship?” And as he continued with his barrage of questions, we looked at him like an alien. “My kids, they go to school and they get jobs before they leave,” he said, smiling, proud, but not boastful. “The company come to the school every week – it’s unbelievable! … I’m very lucky. But I told them, I do everything for them to go to school…I sell house, whatever. I see people put the child-len out of their house and thing,” he paused, as if to indicate that such a sad reality needed a moment of silence. “They are an investment how I see it,” he said, smiling.
His name is Victor and he was born in Southern China. He told us stories of terror under Mao Tse-tung, of hardship, but not of overcoming. That he didn’t have to verbalize. Even though he’d studied economics in China, when he came to America he had nothing. “I was homeless.” Eventually, he earned a Master’s degree from DePaul. After school, he worked at a bank in the loan department, but he stopped. “Bad system—before computers.”
While he was still young and unmarried, he lived in Maywood, inside of Hines Hospital. He worked in the morning in exchange for food and board (“That time was golden. No more.”). He married to get his green card. He had children. Having grown restless in his banking career, he got the idea to open a hot dog joint, which he named Relish the Thought. He figured that, with his degree, he was insured if the business failed. It was a lesson he imparted to his children. “I tell them, think about it – You have to have a backup plan…Now I got house, my kids in school. I’m good.”
“Well, you get an A in the parenting book,” Nick said. Victor laughed while walking back to the counter. “Yes. I done my job.” He said this with relish, the way some people speak of their cars or their bank accounts. He asked Nick why he didn’t go into teaching. Nick launched into his trademark systemic lament about everything from corrupt charter schools to incurious students to the government, itself. “It’s totally corrupt,” Nick said.
Victor, despite his optimism, agreed. “I know. We hire them and they sklew [screw] you!” As we were leaving, I thought back to the conversation I’d overheard between a Chicago cop and the owner of a bookstore about the Mayan prophecies and all of the buzz about immanent doom and apocalypse. The cop said that if the world ends, at least he’d be spared from going home to his wife. I wanted to know if Victor shared the cop’s humorous pessimism. “Do you think the world is going to end?”
“No,” Victor said, laughing; that golden crease. “I believe in my Buddha. He say no,” he said, before pausing. “I hope not!” Nick pointed out that Buddhists teach that the world is eternal, that it has no end. Victor seemed to concur. The world’s end, however, seemed, for him, a more minor matter compared to our particular prospects. As we were leaving, he piped up jocundly, “Good luck! I hope you get a job!” As I walked out the door, I could feel Victor’s smile on my back.