Saturday, December 08, 2012

When the Lings came to Lowell

It's been a good day. The El Paso Writers' League holds an annual writing contest for its members, and prizes were given out today. I won a second prize for Children's Poetry, a first prize for Reminiscence, and a first prize as well as a Best of Best for Fiction. One great aspect of the contest is that the outside judges return critique sheets to the entrants.

Here is my Reminiscence essay:

When the Lings came to Lowell

We met the Ling family at Boston’s Logan Airport in January 1980.  They were a Cambodian family of four that had just arrived from the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand. The man clasped his hands together to greet my wife and me. Cambodians call the gesture sampeah, which is both a greeting and a sign of respect. He introduced himself and his family: Song, his wife Sceur Ly, their infant Es, his ten-year-old sister-in-law Tong. Only Song spoke, using halting English. He wore a short-sleeved shirt, wrinkled pants, and sandals. Sceur Ly wore a dirty sampot, or sarong. She held Es in her arms. Tong’s clothes looked like rags. Both sisters wore blank expressions on their faces. All their belongings were in one bag of tattered cloth attached to a stick.
As their sponsors, we took them to our house near Lowell, Massachusetts, and showed them their bedroom next to ours. We introduced them to our six-year-old son Jeff and our dog Divot, then showed them around the house. Song marveled at the toilet.
That night we heard constant moaning. Sceur Ly’s teeth had all rotted, and her agony kept her awake. Song’s body shivered. He had a circular welt on his forehead where he had treated himself for a headache—Asian suction cup therapy involves a small cup and a flame to cause a vacuum against the skin. My wife gave him Tylenol and placed her hand on his forehead. It felt like a hot skillet.
The next day, a dentist removed all of Sceur Ly’s teeth, and a doctor diagnosed Song with the first case of malaria the doctor had ever seen. In the next several days, all the children came down with colds, and I contracted double pneumonia. My wife stayed healthy.
Why did the Lings come to America?
In 1975, silence had descended on Cambodia, which shut itself off from the rest of the world. For four years, nothing but stray rumors escaped the Southeast Asian nation. In 1979, communist Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime that had murdered more than a million of its own countrymen. A mass exodus of refugees followed, with hundreds of thousands of people walking through the jungle to makeshift camps in Thailand. There they huddled and received humanitarian aid from many countries and organizations. But the camps were meant to be temporary, and many refugees found homes in France and the United States.
Lowell, Massachusetts became a major destination for many Cambodians. One reason was the presence of Wang Laboratories, a major employer in the city during the 1970s and 1980s. That the company’s president was the Chinese-born Dr. An Wang may have helped convey an aura of openness to foreigners. Wang Laboratories employed many of the newcomers, who earned a reputation as diligent workers. Massachusetts also provided benefits more readily than some other states, and the growing number of refugees fed on itself and attracted more.
The Lings were one of the first refugee families in the area. Outside of the usual milestones every family faces, sponsoring them was the most momentous experience of our lives. We learned about human generosity and prejudice, cultural conflicts, our country, and ourselves. Friends and strangers donated clothing, dishes, soap, food, and a little money. We also received a couple of anonymous letters and phone calls suggesting that we and the Lings should all go to Cambodia and stay there. A letter addressed to Tong contained a newspaper photo of her face, marked in ink with horns and sharp teeth, like Satan. We never told her about it.
They spent seven weeks in our house, far longer than the few days refugees spent in other sponsors’ homes. We should have let them go their own way sooner, but we all bonded, and the crises seemed to come one after another. We also wanted to make sure they found jobs so they wouldn’t need charity.
America was an alien land. Song looked around at New England’s bare trees and asked my wife, “Missy. Why all trees are dead?” One day he said, “Dogs taste good. In Cambodia, dog number one.” That worried me, because they spent plenty of time alone with Divot. So I looked him in the eye and said, “You hurt my dog, you number ten!” He got the message, and Divot was safe. But Song’s biggest difficulties came with his family. In America, women had too much freedom. Sceur Ly and Tong learned that they could make many of their own life decisions and have the support of their American friends. In time, Song came to see me as weak because I often deferred to my wife’s choices and never hit her.
Tension simmered inside their family when my wife, son and I were away at work and school. Song quickly saw his authority eroding in a new society where women were not subservient. Thus he was happy to finally get his own apartment, where he expected to re-assert himself with force. We broke up more than one altercation, telling Song that wife-beating was illegal.  When he protested that it was a “Cambodian custom,” we made it clear that such “customs” would land him in jail. Sceur Ly came to us privately to ask for help in obtaining a divorce, but when given the chance she never followed through.

Song’s rapidly growing English skills made him important among the newer refugees. He translated many conversations and documents for them but gained a reputation for cheating his own people. Rumors began to circulate among both Cambodians and Americans that he had been Khmer Rouge. As angry as his wife and her sister were with him, they denied the charge. He was a bad man, they said, but not that bad.
Nothing could ignite Song’s anger more quickly than his young sister-in-law, who defied him whenever she could. Tong went to public school and excelled, becoming ever more eager to stay away from him. We stayed close to the women of the family for years, meanwhile learning about the rest of the family left behind at the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand. Among them were Sceur Ly and Tong’s parents and siblings. Their attempts to reunite were met with continual failure. They asked us and other Americans to help.
It took community involvement, filling out immigration forms, speaking with the State Department, and engaging local Congressman Chester Atkins, but eventually the entire family was reunited in Lowell. That doesn’t mean an entirely happy ending, though. Atkins’s high-profile efforts stoked resentment among many of his constituents who felt he wasn’t paying enough attention to their concerns, and he was defeated in his re-election bid. Some citizens felt that the government was giving too much to the refugees. One man complained on the local TV news that Cambodians were being given new cars, which was untrue.
For the most part, the Cambodians assimilated reasonably well. Many became citizens, and some migrated back to Cambodia once it became a safer place. Some became doctors and lawyers in Lowell; one became a city councilor. Tong earned a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University. Song became a landlord. Tom Brokaw produced a nationally televised feature about the family. One night, we watched Song on television, telling Brokaw that he worked hard but that his fellow Cambodians were lazy.
In time Song and Sceur Ly moved to Rhode Island, and we began to see them much less often. But every few months our doorbell would ring, and there would be Sceur Ly with a warm smile on her face. In one hand she would be holding her son Es, and in the other a box of jelly donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts. We never knew she was coming, and she never showed up without a gift.
We lost track of them a decade ago, and perhaps it’s just as well. They have an extended family within reach now, with all the joy and pain that can bring. Now we live in New Mexico, over two thousand miles away, but we will always have the rich layer they added to our lives.


Gail said...

wonderful tale of how every one me meet leaves a mark on our life

Sue said...

It's a wonderful human interest story, Bob. You covered all the basis in telling it like it was.

Guilie said...

Wow, Bob. What a great story. I suppose immigration is the same everywhere--at first the refugee is sheltered and protected, even hailed as a banner of the country's goodwill. But eventually, as always happens, the pendulum swings, and the same refugee becomes a source for resentment, an example of the government's ineptitude. It's hard to strike that middle ground, because the ground keeps shifting. It's a great thing you did, though, and I'm glad you took it as an opportunity to learn. I'm sure you and your family left an indelible mark on the Lings, too :)

Wendy said...

I enjoyed your insightful essay, Bob. What an experience it must be for refugees to face life in a strange land and for you and your family as sponsors. Worrying but also enriching. I'm sure it had a lot to do with attitude on bothe sides.