When I was a kid (about 4 years old), my parents were asked by our church to host a refugee from Vietnam. They were told it was an emergency and that it would only be for a little while.
And just like that, we had a house guest. A house guest who spoke no English, ate only rice, and mostly stayed in his room looking very sad. His name was Men. We eventually learned that Men had been separated from his wife during his evacuation and had no idea what had become of her. Of course, at 4 and 6 none of that even registered with my sister and me.
What registered with me was that I got to eat rice – my most favorite food – at every meal. We got the biggest bag of rice I’d ever seen; it came up to my shoulder and made a great punching bag. Although I was told repeatedly not to, I liked to dig my hands in deep and feel the dried rice run through my fingers.
My sister and I would spy on our guest by looking through the cracks under the guestroom door. Always he was just laying there on his bed with the covers completely over his face, looking like a corpse in the morgue. So, of course, we would scream our heads off and run to tell Mom and Dad that he was dead. Every time.
Our guest wound up staying longer than originally planned. After a few weeks Men began to join us regularly for meals and eventually we even saw him smile. After several weeks he began to attend English classes and we did our best to tutor him; for my part I laughed my head off every time he mispronounced something. I like to think I added brevity to a stressful learning experience.
Since nothing brings people together like a catastrophe, we went ahead and had one. The bathtub above the kitchen sprung a leak – big time. It was literally raining in the kitchen. While my sister and I danced around in our indoor water park, squealing with delight, Men and Mom quickly emptied the cabinets which were getting soaked, while Dad ran for the water shut-off valve.
We were kitchenless for several days, but it was definitely a bonding experience. While Mom and Dad sorted out the damage, Men helped my sister and me take or bath in our bathing suits in the sink. While Mom and Dad called contractors, Men helped make lunches and dinners from the boxes of food stacked up in the dining room. While the kitchen was being fixed, Men offered to babysit so Mom and Dad could have their first date night since he had arrived.
Our evening alone with Men was uneventful; I actually don’t remember anything about it until it was time for bed. It was Saturday and Mom had stripped the beds and washed our sheets. At bedtime we realized that the beds had not yet been remade. Uh oh.
Two small children and a grown Vietnamese man could not for the life of us figure out how to get the sheets on the bed. It was hopeless.
So, rather than despair or wait up all night for our parents, we did what seemed logical at the time; we slept on the sheets…inside the laundry baskets.
Several hours later my sister and I woke up to my parent’s laughing hysterically and making the beds. They tucked us in, kissed our heads, and said as they were closing the door behind them, “What on earth?”
I don’t remember when Men left us to strike out on his own. I do remember running in to him several years later when I was a teenager. He had recognized my father as we were walking down the street and held up traffic to speak to us and say thank you. He had remarried after learning that his wife in Vietnam had done the same. He had several children by then and he was doing well for himself as a mechanic.
When I think about Men I wonder what he remembers of his time with us. If he remembers us fondly. If he ever thinks about the two silly girls who insisted on going to sleep in laundry baskets.
I like to think that he does. And smiles.