She seemed somewhat relieved to see me, a familiar face lost in a sea of foreign ones. It was my last day in Portland, visiting a close friend who I haven’t seen for over a year. A part of me felt ashamed to be the only Asian, ironically, in a small and tidy, but worn, Korean restaurant. Actually, it was probably because of the recent surge of people close to me dating white guys that made me feel as if I was doomed to fail from the start. Still I felt ashamed to be ashamed. I guess I have a lot going for me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of. But today, I was eating the $6.25 lunch special.
She was old, maybe around 60 or so. A small and tidy, but worn, Korean woman working in this restaurant. She reminded me a bit of my mom, with a shy smile hiding under a cautious and guarded exterior. An old radio played soft piano classical music. The gentle music lured me in, back to a time where I had heard these exact same songs somewhere before, in the exact same order. If there’s anything I’ve learned about Portland culture, it’s that people are unabashedly willing to talk to strangers. It’s a huge paradigm shift from what I was taught by my parents and from my experiences in Los Angeles, where friendliness and a desire to make a human connection are often mistaken for sleaziness, creepiness, nosiness, or as a catch-all, a burning desire to get in a stranger’s pants. But not this time.
She asked me if I wanted a refill. No, I didn’t want one. “Where did you get that cassette tape from? My parents used to play this cassette tape when I was a kid.” She didn’t remember, but she said her husband copied the tape for her. She took the tape out with weathered hands and placed them in mine. The words “Golden Home Piano Vol. 2” were meticulously printed on the tape. It was so easy to imagine them as my parents. I smiled as I gave it back to her, and I could feel her warmth as she asked me if I was Chinese. “Yeah.” We laughed, as softly as the piano music now playing again, as she patted my back. But I knew I couldn’t stay.
She reminded me of the omens that I had been reading about. I walked along the deserted Oregon highway, thinking about shepherd boys, oases, and tribal wars. Dark skinned desert women with raven black hair sending their men off to find their dreams, knowing that they may not be reunited when the dust clears. Ah, Fatima. It was in the Alchemist, but I had heard it somewhere before. Something seemed oddly familiar about a shepherd boy entering the Arabian desert right when a tribal war is breaking out. And again, Fatima, with her olive skin and desert features. I’ve heard that part of what makes the Alchemist so great is its ending. Could it just be a retelling of Muhammad’s story? Maybe I can’t stop thinking about it because I’ve felt like the boy many times before. The screech of a car passing by brought me out of the desert. I wondered what it would be like to throw myself in front of one of them. At those speeds, death would probably be certain and instant. Maybe even painless. Perhaps we should never have to think about what our funerals will be like. But I’m turning twenty five in less than a month, and it’s hard to not think about what that will be like.