Long before you catch sight of the diminutive Thai woman, you’ll hear her voice — loud, strong, a touch of carnival barker in the undertones and leavened with laughter.
“Come in, come in, come in — please, sit anywhere,” is heard from the depths of the kitchen. And you obey. The smell of curry makes your nose prickle as you look over the spotlessly ordered dining area. Even the sides of the condiments are sparkling clean. Really.
Ormsin Heineman, nicknamed “Mao” by her family (a Thai variation of the sound made by a cat), is barely visible on the other side of the pass-through as she cooks in the kitchen.
She quickly finishes the dish she is preparing and looks at you beaming with a smile that stretches wide enough to make her eyes disappear. Ah, but you take a second look. Her solid, no-nonsense stance makes you hesitate. Without her saying a word, you know she will not brook any sass, you know you’d better sit up straight and you hope you cleaned behind your ears. This is June Cleaver mixed with a bit of Athena the Goddess of War. Tough love.
Raised in rural Thailand, Mao came from a family of 11 that was “dirt poor.” Every morning she would push a cart to market to sell items made and raised in the home. She started cooking to have more items to sell from the cart. It was a hard life. After she finished all the schooling she could in her small town, she headed off to college in Bangkok where she obtained a degree in cooking and other home arts. This led to teaching home economics. It was not enough. Mao had bigger plans. So off she went to America.
For the next several years, there were few jobs that she didn’t do — restaurants, grocery stores, fast-food joints. She cooked, she cleaned, she cooked some more. Whatever it took. Language, however, was still a problem. In one restaurant she worked at in Seattle, she wasn’t allowed to wait on customers because she couldn’t say the words on the menu. Undaunted, the menu came home and she worked endlessly to try to make sounds that were non-existent in her native language. Apparently her hard work paid off. She ended up cooking for and running three restaurants in Seattle. Not bad.
On Sept. 3, 2004, Mao became a U.S. citizen.
“I never missed a question on the test,” she says proudly. And four days later, she opened the King and I in West Des Moines — a highly respected Thai restaurant with amazing food.
She summarizes her management style: “I talk loud. My mouth order-order, but my hand work-work, too.”
As for the customer, “I know exactly what they want when they come in the door, and that is treating them right.”
Given her past, it is not a stretch to believe her when she leans in to say, “I can do anything; I’m not scared.” No kidding.
But perhaps she is referring to something else . . . .
Many years ago, while living on the east coast, she met Fred. A Vietnam Vet. Wounded in the war. Purple Heart. A man by any measure of manhood. There was just a small problem. Fred had MS. It didn’t matter to Mao at the time. She was in love, they soon married. Twenty-one years quickly passed.
Fred became sicker and sicker. That also didn’t matter. Mao’s belief about marriage isn’t complicated: “One gets sick, one holds the other’s hands.” Period. Fred is now totally bedridden and needs basic care.
“He’s a happy guy; he’s at home,” Mao says in explaining his life. She takes care of him and comes and goes frequently from the restaurant, to make sure he is all right.
”I watch him on a webcam now, too,” she adds.
Really? It’s all a cakewalk? This is the good life?
“I’m so tired,” she admits. “Sometimes I cry at night and talk to my dead father. Then it is over. I cannot just stand back and watch him die. I love him. And if you love somebody, you can love everybody. I try to help many people — too much pain for many. If you don’t expect it back, you happy. If you do good, tomorrow is better.”
Emma Lazarus wrote a poem that is enshrined at the Statute of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Perhaps this immigrant is the one lifting the lamp. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.