by Jeanne Powell
A motherly looking woman shuffled slowly along the hall ahead of me, herding five children of varying ages towards the school registration office. The sound of her walk was a “slide, slide” rather than the “clunk clunk” of most moms at school. She didn’t seem to know or care that her pink striped top was strikingly mismatched to her yellow floral skirt. Seeing her, I instinctively knew which style of shoes she wore even before I saw them poking out from her long hem. Our whole school called them “Cambo shoes”, so I did too.
Puzzling words were a constant part of my everyday life as a kid. Teachers gave weekly vocabulary assignments with instructions to define each word and then use it in a sentence. When new words appeared in life, just like in school, my young brain set out to define and assimilate them.
Cambo shoes: Simple rubber sandals with a V-shaped strap at the top. The new students and their families wear Cambo shoes even when it’s cold outside.
Stockton, California was a typical suburban city, sprawling with new development in the early ‘80s. The Southeast Asians who took refuge in Stockton were just another group to assimilate and bring novel concepts into my world. There were many cultures and races around me, but given that had always been my experience, I never saw it as anything but normal. I believed that surely every town was as colorful as mine.
Southeast Asian: A way to sum up all the people who came from Cambodia, Laos and other faraway places that I’ve never heard of. The Southeast Asian kids at my school are super good at art.
My parents did not speak racist words, nor did they bring it to my attention that other people did. People looked and acted differently than I, but I understood they were mostly like me in every other way. Growing up, I don’t remember being aware that I should consider anything about a person besides whether or not they were kind.
And so, in 5th grade, when the disheveled, quiet, dark-eyed students with unusual names started filling our classrooms, I saw it as a promising opportunity to make some new friends. They arrived in groups, enrolling all at once. “Refugees” was the word my teacher used. I deduced its meaning and other new words that arose from their arrival from the context of my experience living among them.
Refugees: Children from Southeast Asia who don’t speak English, have scars and old clothes, and are shy but nice. The refugees left our classroom every afternoon for ESL class.
ESL class: The pretty room with the really friendly teacher where new students go to learn English. Helpful schools have ESL class for students who just came from another country.
Although there were many races at my school, differences besides coloring were hard to spot in kids I’d been with since kindergarten. Most of the student body spoke English and dressed similarly. The new kids wore their clothes many times before washing them and were often sent home for having head lice. I understood the troubling scars on their bodies to have a backstory, but my realm of experience could not grasp how or why. All I comprehended came from news’ snippets about Cambodia, Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge, overheard as I set the dinner table.
Pol Pot: A certain type of pole and pot which a bad king uses to hurt people in Cambodia. The mean fighters hit people with a Pol Pot.
The images I glimpsed on the six o’clock news became more real to me as I got to know the refugees. Those being hurt on TV looked like my friends. I sat, eyes glued, awareness expanding, purposely listening to Peter Jennings for the first time in my life. I began to pray for the Southeast Asians every night as I lay in bed, wondering why anyone would want to kill good people.
Correction: Pol Pot: The name of a terrible man who leads soldiers called “Come Here Rouge” to kill people in Cambodia and make the whole country communist. The terrible fighters hurt people because Pol Pot made them.
Communist: A kingdom where everyone listens to the king. Pol Pot will be glad if Cambodia goes communist and he is the king.
Certain “old” students, who weren’t well-received themselves, made jokes about our new students. They were mean to the refugees the same way they were mean to everybody else, pointing out anything which was unusual.
It was true that the Cambodian kids behaved differently than the rest of us. They sometimes squatted in an odd sitting position as they talked and didn’t look adults in the eye. They forgot to add an “s” onto words to form plurals, received a “free lunch” ticket in the morning and got to ride the bus to some far-off place called “Government Housing” after school. The important thing to me was that they wanted to be friends.
Government Housing: Big, fancy houses where government officials used to live. The refugees needed a place to live, so Congress said they could have their Government Housing.
The Cambodian girls shared their favorite game called “Chinese Jump Rope”. It quickly became very popular with all the girls. Set was one of the best Chinese jump-ropers, outgoing and confident in her expertise. I was lucky that our teacher placed her desk right next to mine. As it turned out, we were a good team. I assisted her in class and she helped me advance my skill on the playground. We became fast friends, getting by mostly without words.
I memorized the songs full of foreign words which were to be chanted as precise jumps and turns were taken. I didn’t even try to understand the meaning of those words. They were just fun.
The new girls skillfully showed us how to weave rubber bands together to make the rope. Come recess, the blacktop, which had once been filled with Four-Square games, now had classmates standing in groups with a rubber band rope stretched around ankles, knees, and hips to create differing heights. The Cambodian girls were inarguably the best at it, but we American girls were having a ball trying to improve.
Chinese Jump Rope: The best game in the world! I would like to play Chinese Jump Rope all day!
Many Southeast Asian boys proved to be great, agile athletes, spending recesses on the basketball courts with the other boys, engaged in “Americans” verses “Asians” game. It was a quick way to pick fair teams. No one seemed to mind the politically incorrect team names because each group was proud of its nationality.
My mom said she was pleased that I had made friends with the refugees. I noticed that her smile was always a sad one, lips closed and eyebrows furrowed in sympathy, when we spoke of the new students.
“I’d really like to meet Set someday,” she said. So I knew that when I asked Set to come to my house, Mom wouldn’t mind.
Set asked permission, but the next day she returned with news that her mother wasn’t sure. I didn’t understand. At home that night, my mom explained to me that Set’s mother must be very nervous to send her daughter, with strangers, to a home she’d never seen. Mom reasoned “It’s hard to trust people with your precious children when you come from a place of cruelty and war.”
I should “give it time because they just got here,” she said, but I was still perplexed.
War: Good guys fighting and killing bad guys in another country. Also, a card game to play with Grandma. People will be happy when the war is over.
Set begged her mom for several weeks until she finally gave the excuse that there was a logistics problem. “My mom no car,” Set told me one day.
I offered that she could walk home with me, and then my mom could drive her home later. There was no communication between our mothers because neither could understand the other’s language. We girls planned everything.
Set and I couldn’t stop smiling as we walked to my house. The path home was lively as always, with dozens of kids on either side of the street. Many went out of their way to say hello to Set. She responded kindly to each. I felt honored that she was going to my house. We joyously sang Chinese jump rope songs with a literal hop in our steps as we passed manicured lawns and freshly painted tract homes.
We were mid-song when a sixth grade boy, who always walked alone, yelled at us from behind, “Go back to where you came from, Chink!”
Suddenly concerned, I walked faster, unsure of what to do. Set matched my speed.
We were rescued by a group of boys walking on the other side of the street who played “Asian verses Americans” basketball. They, stopped and faced us as one shouted back at the bully from across the street, “Shut up and leave her alone!”
I knew we were safe because the insulting boy was far outnumbered by peers with integrity. Set looked at me. I rolled my eyes and shook my head so she’d understand to ignore him. I hoped Set hadn’t understood his rude words. I didn’t even comprehend that last part myself. We started singing again as we rounded the corner to my street.
Chink: A word someone with no friends calls a person who does have friends, when they want them to leave. The strong boy punched him for yelling “Chink” at the nice girl.
I pointed to my house and together we ran up the lawn to our porch. Set stopped at our front door to remove her Cambo shoes. “You can leave your shoes on,” I assured her.
Panic and confusion crossed her face as she quickly shook her head no. “Ok, that’s fine,” I shrugged as she slipped them off and placed them neatly on our step.
Mom was waiting with new pack of rubber bands and cookies as a treat. “Hello, Set! It’s so nice to finally meet you!” she said with her usual cheery tone to my barefoot friend.
Set lowered her eyes and gave a slight, unsure smile as she put her hands in front of her like she was praying. Mom smiled back, “Thank you.”
I gobbled three cookies while Set nibbled one half as we sat, cross legged on the floor of my bedroom, adding an extension to our current rope. “I like you house,” Set told me.
“Thanks,” I responded without considering hers might be different.
“I like you bedroom,” she added.
“Thanks,” I said again as I looped rubber bands.
“I like you mom.”
I looked up, beaming, “Thanks. I’m really glad you came over.”
With our rope long enough, we headed out to start our game. Outside, we easily gathered up some neighborhood girls and my sisters. Time flew. Set wowed us all with her expert moves until the sky dimmed and neighborhood dads began to pull into their driveways. I reluctantly gathered up the rope as our playmates said goodbye.
Mom drove us to the other side of town, where Set lived. It was a run-down apartment complex, situated in a series of apartment complexes. As we pulled up, I was shocked by the number of people packed into the small area. Grown men were squatting with their rears almost touching the ground, engaged in animated conversations. Very young kids were running on sidewalks and patchy-brown grass and dirt areas. It seemed that no one was watching them. Some people were napping right there on the sidewalk. Everyone was disturbingly thin.
Correction: Government Housing: A crowded place where hungry people live in small apartments that look old. I’m glad I don’t live in Government Housing.
Set beamed as we pulled up. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure. Mom put the car in park, took a deep breath, and smiled back at us. “We’re here,” She said, more sing-songy than usual.
I took Mom’s lead and reluctantly got out of the car for my friend’s sake. The men’s foreign, loud conversations sounded like yelling and were high-pitched for male voices. Their words were like noises from the backs of their throats. Mom stood with her shoulders back, smile fixed, as her eyes darted around. “You girls walk ahead of me.” Her happy tone sounded more relaxed than she looked.
We followed Set as she wound around the unkempt building, through groups of men, who occasionally paused to stare. We climbed up dirty, outdoor, concrete stairs. I saw a few boys I recognized from school and felt more at ease. We passed dozens of Cambo shoes lined up next to doors. I marveled that every pair of shoes represented a displaced resident of that apartment. They were tiny and large, wide and narrow, all well-worn and precisely placed. Set stopped next to the row of her family’s shoes, slid off her own, situated them neatly, and opened the door.
A woman gasped with excitement before she appeared right in front of us, obvious relief on her face. She gathered Set up in her arms and held tight. Set gently broke her mother’s hug and introduced us, in Cambodian. Her mother smiled slightly, lowered her eyes and prayed with her hands like Set had done at our house. Mom returned the gesture, so I did too. Set turned to us and said, “You meet my family,” and ran inside.
I started to follow her in, but Mom’s hand stopped me. I looked up as Mom nodded her head to the side towards the shoes and motioned towards my feet. She slipped off her own shoes. I stepped out of my penny loafers and placed them neatly next to Mom’s.
Stepping inside, I was shocked at the mass of people in the small space. There were no chairs or table or couch or TV. Many people, even elderly women, were sitting on the floor. A make-shift additional kitchen of electric skillets was set up, sizzling with food which didn’t look like nearly enough for that big group. The scent of overpowering spice and fish was like a punch in the face. It took all I had to maintain my polite smile.
Set proudly pointed to her cousins, siblings, and grandparents as she said their names. Each prayed their hands at us, and we returned the greeting. Sleeping mats were strewn about the floor. Set proudly pointed to hers, “This my bed.”
Mom and I both commented on how nice it was. It was obvious by the way Set’s face lit up that she was so pleased we were meeting her family. And, it was more obvious, by the awkward silence, that all the adults in the room were uncomfortable with us inside their home.
After a few uneasy moments of staring at each other without speaking, Mom said we needed to leave to “go get dinner started.” We put our shoes on and said our goodbyes. Mom held my hand tightly and maintained a polite smile as we walked quickly back through the dozens of grown men chatting loudly in their squat position circles.
Sleeping mat: A thin, hard blanket to use like a bed. My dad would not want to sleep on a sleeping mat.
I had so many questions for my mom on the way home that evening, but mostly I worried that my good friend lived in such spare conditions. Mom explained that Set’s family came from an even worse situation, and it was a good thing that they got to live there. She told me that even though it wasn’t perfect, they were safe and they had family.
“Didn’t you notice how happy Set was?” Mom asked. I told her I had. But things seemed so unfair.
Correction: War: Fighting which makes people have to live in another country with almost nothing except their clothes and hopefully all of their family. I pray there is never a war in America.
The plight of those caught in war was no longer about names in a newspaper but about people whose homes I could enter. They were friends of mine who had shown courage and kindness at school, trying hard to learn lessons in a language they barely understood. My friends were in the midst of a lifelong struggle. The group of people in my circle, the “us”, I was accustomed to, expanded. Set was in my “us”, and since she loved her family, now they were too. My innocence cracked as I struggled to process the distressing reality.
Set stopped coming to school suddenly, and a few days later our teacher told us that her family had moved. I had no warning, and I’m pretty sure Set didn’t either.
Decades later, I recognize the unintentional imprint she left on me, and I am grateful. Diversity comes in so many forms, shifting perspectives and linking people in big and small ways, changing the strange to the familiar.
It’s hard to believe I once called those sandals “Cambo shoes.” I wear flip flops almost every day now, too.
Jeanne Powell is a rookie writer who, at forty-three, is finally finding time to finish the book that has been building momentum in her head for decades. She has written various essays over the years, which are now being dusted off and polished. Jeanne lives in the beautiful Texas Hill Country with her husband Randy, teen kids AJ and Amber, two dogs, and abundant wildlife all around. A former elementary school teacher, Jeanne’s degree is in Child Development. She is also a certified Reiki Master and Life Coach. “Defining Childhood” is her first publication.