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Dear Yen

| Friday, April 28, 2017

How can I fairly represent the life of “the other?” Even if I can represent it, how can I use language, any language, to capture the totality of her life? How can I make you understand, empathize or, at least, listen, to the story of a life that is not your own?

Should I start with “the story below belongs to one of us?” or should I start with “Year 1975. United States army pulled out from South Vietnam?”

Her family left North Vietnam and escaped to China. They stayed in China for a year, but China was poor at that time, so “you know, parents always want better for their kids and we set sail for Hong Kong. Illegally. I was 19.”

They were on the ocean for two weeks, in a wooden boat, “no land no nothing, only a little radio.” She could not bring many things onto the boat. “They said you can’t bring a lot of food so we only brought cookies and water. That’s why I don’t eat cookies no more.”

When she got to Hong Kong, she was immediately put into a camp. “More like a jail because at night they count head to make sure nobody’s missing.” Where could they go? She found herself trapped on a small island she did not remember the name of. “Ping Chau. Ping Chau?” The island had walls on three sides. The side that did not have a wall looks into the great ocean. She found herself in the jail with a cohort of refugees — “people from all kinds of countries.” If these people from all kinds of countries didn’t have a “sponsor,” they could not leave the jail. She took care of daily duties on the island, eating, sleeping, talking, loving, hating and perhaps most importantly, waiting. She stayed two years in that camp, until one day —  “My brother sponsored me to go to West Virginia. But when I got there we had to find another sponsor. Someone from here sponsored us.” On June 1, 1981, she and her brother arrived at South Bend.

“I couldn’t communicate with others, so I carried a dictionary everywhere.” The sponsor family set the rule that for two hours a day, she could only speak English. “My parents were with me and they followed that rule too.” Living with another language was hard. “The kids in that house, five or six years old, say ‘you want some more?’ all the time. One day they were playing games. They wanted me to play but I didn’t want to play so I say ‘you want some more?’ That’s the only thing I could say. They say yes, yes, yes.”

Their sponsor said she needed to go to high school. “So, me and my brother went.” She couldn’t understand the classes at all, except for mathematics. She went to the public library and learned English from ABC with the volunteers there. “And I went back home and watched Sesame Street and got my GED in two years.” GED, General Educational Development, measures proficiency in science, mathematics, social studies, reading and writing. Passing the GED test gives those who do not complete high school, or who do not meet requirements for high school diploma, the opportunity to earn their high school equivalency credential. She chose to work instead of staying in school and going to college. “I should have stayed.”

She first worked as a waitress. “I also worked at factory and was a nurse.” Then the factory moved to Mexico and she opened her own restaurant in town in 1993. “Then I came here, been at South Dining Hall for almost 15 years. I like the kids.”

She had supported two of her four kids through college. “I told them, I took care of you, you got to take care of me.” She laughed. “I used to work two jobs, one in the afternoon to 9:30 p.m. then 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. My kids see so they know they should work hard without me telling them.”

Yen made stir-fry for me almost every Friday night. I gave Yen my plate of vegetables and noodles.

“Do I get to do whatever I want with this?” Yen smiled widely. Under the bright yellow light, her silver nose pin shone with pride.

“Yup,” I said. “Just not too spicy.”

Yen took out a frying pan from somewhere under the counter, waved it in the air as if it were her victory, put it on the stove.

“What kind of meat?”

“Chicken, please.”

Yen added three full spoonful of chicken, thought for two seconds, and added a fourth spoonful. She added a whole bunch of sauce into it – soy, oyster, teriyaki and something I did not even know the name of.

When I found myself debating passionately in classes about what human rights were, when I found myself argue loudly with friends whether Pence should be speaking at Commencement, when I found myself writing columns after columns on “urgent questions,” I thought back on Yen’s quiet life. I told myself to remember her story so that next time when I walked out of the dining hall, I would be able to smell of the newly cut grass, the misty air and the tantalizing hope instead of my own faint perfume. Thinking of these, I heard Yen’s words once again — “You know what my son got me for birthday? A big TV.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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