by Angie Aker
I met her on the playground in the 2nd grade. Lena was shorter than me with luminous skin the color of mahogany, wide, almond shaped chocolate eyes, the cutest little nose with a bridge that barely rose above her cheekbones, and impossibly glossy, straight black hair. There was no one like her in my little idyllic town of perfectly homogenized Rockwellian families, and she was beautiful to me. We instantly became friends and I learned that she was from Laos, recently immigrated when she was 4 with her parents and two siblings, of which she was the middle child (there were more back in Laos).
She’d sleep over at my house and learn that I had a mom and a stepdad who drank and fought, and she was my best friend when we were told that my 2 yr old little brother had cancer.
I’d sleep over at her house and try to decipher the Lao that she and parents and siblings would speak to each other. I never heard her parents fight. Though the tones and cadences of their native language could sound sharp, I quickly interpreted that it wasn’t indicative of what they were saying. Often when I thought things were getting tense they’d end their sentence with a smile and a laugh and I’d realize that I had no chance of trying to figure out what they were talking about.
I called Lena when my brother died. As in, 1 hour after I had told him goodbye while cradling his dead body as I sat in my mother’s lap. I was 11. It went like this.
“Are you serious?”
“Oh my god. I’ll be right there.”
She and her brother rode their bikes to my house and collected me. I wanted to fly away and leave that house of death and grief and my mother’s misery, but riding my bike to their house was the next best thing.
I walked into their little apartment with them and their dad looked at me with kindness and the wistful look of having things to say that he didn’t know how to convey. He just gave me a hug and let us head up to the girls’ room. Over the years, there would be many times that Mr. or Mrs. Hanesakda would offer empathy over my situation, amusement at my strange ways, or disapproval of what I was wearing, with just a gesture or look on their face. I had to ponder all of the possible things they could mean with a look and decide which one I thought it most likely to be. No matter what the situation, the love they shared with me remained constant. My perceptiveness, awareness, and empathy was born largely in this home.
The next few years were survival. My mother was elsewhere, lost in her grief and the bar and drudgery of the 3rd shift job she hated but was resigned to accept. She vacillated wildly between loving me too ardently as her only living child, and seeming to hate me and compete with me and resent me. I often wondered if she’d have rather it had been me who died instead of my brother. I blamed her and said awful things to her.
But I always had refuge at Lena’s. They had saved up enough money to buy a little house in the country, and I spent all my time with them even though I lived in town and couldn’t ride my bike there like I used to when they lived in the apartment. I would just ride the bus home with Lena, Nora and Alex after school. At some point in middle school, Nora and I had become best friends, though I was still friends with Lena, too. It was a lot like having sisters, and just being closer with Lena at one phase in life, and finding more in common with Nora in a different phase.
Our town was filled with children who were privileged yet unworldly. They were sheltered and fed but never pushed beyond the limits of their little town or their little ideas. One thing my Laotian friends and I had in common was not being understood by these kids. They didn’t understand people with squinty eyes or children who didn’t have fathers. Rage surged through my veins when I would overhear someone call my best friend a “chink”. I couldn’t understand how anyone could say unkind things to or about my wonderful friends. My fierce loyalty led me to say equally unkind things back to whichever ignoramus had uttered it, and privately almost to tears. I saw what my friends were up against, and the unfairness of it branded my soul with a prejudice against privileged, sheltered white kids…an equally unfair prejudice that I still struggle with at times.
For a picky eater like me who couldn’t even stand onions, being immersed in a Laotian household was the ultimate irony. I was strangely fascinated yet repulsed by new textures and smells, and once in awhile would venture a taste. Some things I found I really liked. I learned how to make spring rolls en masse for parties when they would have all manner of extended family and friends over. The first time I rolled one Lena’s mother said something in Lao and they all laughed. I asked Lena, and she translated. “She said that your rolls are long and skinny, just like you!” I learned how to clean squid and remove its cartilage. I watched Lena’s mother chase a chicken in the yard and break its neck before plucking it and preparing it for dinner. They had a stool with a half-moon serrated metal attachment- you would sit on the stool and run a coconut half back and forth over the half-moon, collecting the coconut meat in a bowl underneath. The stool was angled to maximize every motion, making the work easier. It was basic and brilliant, all at once, like the compassion that their family naturally gave to a child in need.
Life in their world was full of oddities that I sometimes could make sense of, sometimes not. I managed to navigate it, and learned to not be intimidated by things I couldn’t immediately understand.
After my freshman year in high school, my mother moved to a new school district and I moved with her. I stayed mostly with my grandfather and made new friends. I kept in inconsistent touch with Lena, Nora, Alex and their family over the years, but have never forgotten the kindness they shared with me during the time when I was simultaneously everyone’s child and no one’s child.
Looking back, I suppose I’ve always been my own. In the tumult of my difficult childhood, I had a lot of emotional work to do that no one could help me with. But this immigrant family, who was tenaciously working to provide themselves the basics, opened up their home and their hearts to give me what they could. It made the difference.
Sometimes, it’s the people who know what true hardship is that are the least afraid to give of what little they have. They couldn’t fix my life, but they kept me safe and warm and fed, and were my friends. They couldn’t always understand me, and I couldn’t always understand them, but to see a little girl in need of family was something that transcended any linguistic or cultural barriers.
This is the America in which I grew up.