Saturday, May 07, 2011

Our Cambodian friends

The family was deferential to us, but when we weren't around they fought among themselves. Song tried asserting his authority, but his ten-year-old sister-in-law was having none of it. He occasionally hit his wife Sceur Ly, and when word of the abuse got back to us, we told him that wife-beating would land him in jail. "It's okay," he insisted. "It's Cambodian custom." We reminded him that he was in America now, and he had to obey our laws or else. Some other Cambodians we consulted indignantly said that it was not a Cambodian custom, but I came to suspect there was a degree of truth in his claim.

We had a large dog at the time, a sweet-tempered black Lab-Doberman mix named Divot. When Song wanted to say something was excellent, he'd say, "Oh, that's number one." Something bad was number ten. My wife and I were going to work and dropping our son and Tong off to school, leaving Song and Sceur Ly home alone with their baby. Song hadn't found a job yet. Divot stayed outside on a leash and a run. Song told us that in Southeast Asia, dog was excellent food. "In Cambodia, dog is number one!" he said. That scared me, because I didn't know how big a cultural or language gap we were dealing with. Did they plan to cook Divot?  "If you hurt my dog, you're number ten," I told him. He got the message that Divot was a pet and not a food source.
Our good friend Tong

Our guests proved unpopular among the increasing number of refugees living in the Lowell area. Song had a hard edge to him--his English was rapidly improving, and he did a good deal of translating for other people. But he quickly gained a reputation for cheating his fellow refugees in various business dealings. He always dealt with us honestly as far as we could tell, but among some Americans helping other families, his reputation threatened to rub off on us. Luckily, many people who disliked him actually liked and felt sorry for the rest of his family. A rumor even circulated through the city that Song had once been a Khmer Rouge--now, wouldn't that have been interesting? I spoke privately to his wife and sister, whom my wife and I were trying to protect from him. "Is it true? Was Song part of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia?" No, they both insisted, he wasn't Khmer Rouge. He was just a jerk.

Even that was only partially true. The whole family including Song were hard-working. Song was an entrepreneurial sort, apparently outworking most of his fellow countrymen. Sceur Ly got a job on an assembly line where she became known for her hard work and reliability, and Tong assimilated well into public schools, eventually going to George Washington University. They always showed us respect and gratitude for sticking with them. 

After they moved away from the area, Sceur Ly from time to time drove back to Lowell to visit friends. Invariably she would show up at our house unannounced (without her husband), with her little boy in one hand and a box from Dunkin Donuts in the other. She used to talk to us about divorcing her husband, but she never did it. We haven't seen them in years now, but I think they've made their peace.

Learn more by clicking the Little Mountain tab at the top of this page, or purchase a copy by clicking the book image at the right.


Helen Ginger said...

Sounds like a fascinating story, Bob. It must have been an interesting time in your life and in your family's life.

moe said...

Hello Bob, I've been enjoying the unfolding background on the characters for your book plus the people you hosted for 7 long weeks. I think what is interesting to me is the tendency we have to look at immigrants in terms of good/bad as if they cannot have the same extensive palate of grey in their characters we have.

For example, the man is suspected of being Khmer Rouge when he is, in all likelihood just a rather unpleasant man. We have them here too, after all. It might be interesting to examine, in fiction, a Khmer Rouge character who is, in fact, quite sympathetic, conflicted in his life there and hounded in his life here.

Anyway, it's a Monday morning and I just wanted to let you know, finally, I've been following your blog for a few days now and quite enjoy the insights into your process it provides.

Thank you.

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