This past weekend life carried me to Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown Central Plaza. While there on an errand, I threw a coin into its Seven Star Cavern Wishing Well. By “well” I don’t mean your standard hole in the ground encircled by bricks, but you probably figured that out with the phrase “Seven Star Cavern”. This is more of a replica of the Seven Star Caves of China, painted green, dotted with Buddha statues and little metal “wells” complete with signage. These signs call out to the things we often wish for – “Love” (naturally all the way at the top, no incognito throwing there), “Prosperity”, “Peace”, “Wealth”, “Good Luck”, and even one for “Vacation”.
There is also one for “Happiness”.
This one isn’t in the picture I took above; it’s near the bottom area under the broken sign for “Wealth” (symbolic of the bad economy?). I aimed my coin for “Happiness” – since it seemed a little closer at hand and I was just talking to someone about the meaning of happiness just the other day. It might not be readily apparent, but “Happiness” has two little “wells” – one very apparent underneath the sign and a smaller one next to it on the right. When I threw a penny in, it ricocheted off either the larger well or the “Happiness” sign and into the smaller one.
My immediate thought, “What does that mean?” Followed by being kind of amazed – I hadn’t even noticed that smaller container and what were the odds of my coin landing in there?
Then the obvious questions: Did it mean happiness? Did it mean almost happiness? The events of the weekend made me think that it’s both these things.
Immediately after this, I purchased a Jasmine milk tea with mini boba and had returned by the fountain to drink it and eat my lunch. I hadn’t been entirely careful when puncturing a hole into the plastic sealed cup and, with the drink perched on the grates of a bench, it fell to the ground. With a plastic cup and a plastic sealed lid, I immediately grabbed it – hoping it was just a minor spill. However, the cup had split open on the side and everything else with it. In my immediacy to grab the cup, my phone also fell into the mess as well. My drink gone, my phone sticky but intact, I sat and ate my container of chicken chow mein under the red paper lanterns, contemplating if the puddle of Jasmine milk tea and mini boba was the picture of almost happiness.
If it was, it wasn’t pretty…
But this seemed like too much of a philosophical question to tackle, especially over spilled milk tea. I roamed back to the same tea shop for another purchase – wondering if I should brace myself for an embarrassing telling of my klutziness if the salesclerk should remember me. Although I think I noticed a slight glimmer of curious recognition in his eyes, I think I was rescued by the place’s popularity and the ordinariness that comes with looking like just another Asian-American girl in Chinatown.
I walked the few blocks of Chinatown enjoying an intact drink and taking photos, wandering through nearby Olvera Street where I picked up a mini decorative guitar – something I had always meant to buy for its iconic nature as an Olvera Street sales item, for the fact that I play guitar, and…okay, they’re just cute.
As I left the shops and restaurants of Olvera Street, I began to hear the sound of drumming at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Plaza. I heard a women nearby tell her friend that it was Aztec dancers, so naturally I scurried forward for a good view. Seated cross-legged on cement, I was in front of the crowd, camera in hand – the show ahead of me.
Bright feathers. Elegantly long headdresses. Shiny colorful outfits.
Drums. Drums. Drums.
Dance. Dance. Dance.
Meanwhile, the sun peeked in and out of light gray clouds. Even under this gray, the day was bright, but when the sun shone through – there was a kind of magic that blended with the dancing. I wasn’t knowledgeable about the history of Aztecs beyond the gentle impression of facts from TV and California and World history schoolbooks. I couldn’t tell you about the costumes, the dances, or the drums. I couldn’t name names or much less pronounce them. But dancing and drums and the reflection of a people’s history carry with it a relationship to the sky and the sun and the earth. It’s a special something that often gets lost underneath our existence in sound-controlled environments, office cubicle spaces, and clock-constrained schedules. At least, that’s how it felt in those moments watching the sky shift with the movement of people and seeing the sun act as the world’s largest spotlight, casting shadows of the dancers on the cement in front of me.
I left the sound of drumming and the motions of dance to go to where I originally intended – the Chinese American Museum. Though I wanted to see their current exhibition on Chinese American architects, I had never been there before and decided to wander it all. It’s not a large museum, but the richness of a museum – like a good book – is never about its size. It’s about how you fill that space. The Chinese American Museum takes you back in time and pushes you forward through the up’s and down’s of a people who helped build this country even if, at times, this country kept barriers in front of them.
Perhaps the journey of Chinese-Americans touches too close to home for me – despite being the daughter of more recent Vietnamese immigrants, I am Asian-American of (at least some) Chinese ancestry. I’m not connected to those roots closely – I don’t speak the language and my knowledge of Chinese culture is intermingled with Vietnamese practices – but it’s part of who I am and being no stranger to the prejudices of being a minority in America, I can feel my thin thread connected to a heavier spool of experiences and actions and heartache that yearned for something better.
But the Chinese-American Museum timeline lets you choose how long you want to linger across time, urging you to move forward to the successes that stem from them, to those that persevere – the war heroes who fought in spite of it all, the acknowledgments that arrived with positions in public office, the (few) faces of celebrity fame. My journey there closed with their current exhibition of Chinese-Americans who shaped the Los Angeles landscape and architecture.
I think we often forget that there are faces behind buildings and a part of me feels that maybe there’s beauty in that amnesia. But in this instance, at this museum having ran through the timeline of where Chinese-Americans had to begin, I was glad to learn the names and faces tied to the complexities of structures, glad to see them as places that rise above a past that could easily hold us all back.
The day landed me in unexpected places, even in the one place I had intended to go. The next day would echo the same as I ran the Chinatown Firecracker 10K. I had signed up for the race twice before and had to bow out due to one reason or another. This third time signing up, I was determined to give it a full go – and I did…and it was wonderful. But it was more than starting and crossing a long awaited finish line. I’ve lived in Los Angeles all my life and though I had to run (okay – walk…) some hills to get there, it was nice to see views I had never seen, to run around Dodger Stadium where I had only gone to baseball games, to gather with thousands of people I might never know but who experienced the same spaces with me.
Almost happiness IS happiness, but it’s the kind that you get without looking. It’s the happiness that you achieve after a certain string of events, some by chance – like a coin ricocheting off a sign and into an unseen wishing well – and others by attempting a goal but achieving far more than that. It’s happiness in unexpected and unseen places.
In a conversation with my friend before all this – that gave me part cause to throw a coin toward happiness – I described that “being happy is a limited effect and all we’re really seeking are the things that will cause it.” While I still believe this is true, I also think that those two wells in front of “Happiness” tell me something: that there is happiness that you can seek, but all around you is the possibility that happiness can also find you in the process.