Orn returned from work to an untidy house. Half-eaten bowls of cereal strewn on the counter, newspapers with coffee rings and mashed scrambled eggs melding with wet ink. The sticky floors popped with each step. Her annoyance grew, but who was there to blame? Her children and their lack of responsibility? Her husband for his inability to discipline the children? Or her, the exhausted mom running the marathon race that is the American Dream? At the end of the day, whether she wanted to or not, she’d have to clean the house and make dinner for the kids. Nearly fifteen years in the country and that was her American reality.
Her husband, dressed in his knee-high blue lab coat, rushed out the door the moment he saw her in the kitchen. No hello, goodbye, welcome home, or kiss. The man who once snuck out of a Cambodian refugee camp, who bribed guards with gifts for a chance at clandestine meetings of passion was nowhere to find. And neither was she. Predictability and routine displaced adventure and passion. Her youngest child, Jake, nicknamed them sun and moon after Thai Songkran, Thai New Year. Unlike the New Year celebrations in the States–fireworks, BBQs, and midnight kisses–Songkran is considered the most important day of the year in Thailand; A day revolving around the sun and moon and crop cycles of Southeast Asia.
She missed her home and Songkran more and more with each passing day. The festivals and parties that continued throughout the night and all through the week, her family setting up booths selling durian and lychee to tourists partying the night away. But now, her memory of Songkran was tainted. Her husband remembered the holiday as the day he escaped from Cambodia. Songkran reminded them both of running away, Communists, and Killing Fields.
Orn turned on the faucet and filled the sink with soapy water. She trashed the newspapers and wiped the counters. While placing a bowl in the soapy water, she cut her finger on a knife. She pinched her pointer-finger to her thumb, the dull throb more annoying rather than painful. She reached for the cabinet with Band-Aids, but her hips sideswiped the trashcan. The crumpled up paper soaked in yesterday’s old scraps spilled out on the already dirty tile floor. Orn balled both hands and shrieked with seal lips.
Unable to stare at the mess any longer, Orn bandaged her finger and went outside to tend to her plants. The red and green Thai chilies sprouted and lined the entryway of the door like Christmas lights budding through the bushes. Her children couldn’t take spicy foods, so the chilies would eventually die. Floral and citrus scents intertwined as lemon grass lingered in the air and small buds of Jasmine began to sprout. The only Jasmine her daughters knew was the princess. Growing plants for Orn was an extension of her heritage, of her identity. Her ancestors worked farms. Even her husband, while in Thailand, picked and sold fruits in the capital. She came to America for a better life for her children, but had she succeeded? She spent more time outside with her plants than inside with them. Plants didn’t frustrate or tire her. She’d plant a seed and watch it grow. When no one looked, she’d sing Thai nursery rhymes to the plants before bedtime. She never sang the songs to her children. Her husband would say, “They need to learn English in this country. They are American now.”
Pressing her thumb to the head of the hose, Orn sprayed a thin layer of water over the plants. The skies appeared serene, but Orn had spent enough time outside to know when a sudden shift in weather would come, when heat would be devoured by cold.
A sharp pain shot through her lower back. Orn sat down on the bench. It had been years since they left Thailand. And it showed. In her skin—in her bones. She never liked running, but it felt like running was all she knew anymore.
Orn had cried most of her drive home from work. Her husband too inaccessible to notice. Her workday was much like her home life. Routine. As an assembly technician for Unisys, all of her wires, pins, and soldering guns needed to be put away and unplugged at the end of her shift. Any supplies used during her shift needed to be re-stocked. But Lynn and Angie, two women from the adjacent work row appeared to have a single work goal, and that was to test Orn’s patience. At first, Orn thought maybe this was some tradition for new people. Traditions, Orn could understand, but the relentless women never quit. Then, when Orn heard them call her “slant eyes” she knew the teasing would never end. And talking with her supervisor only resulted in “I don’t speak Chinese.”
Although she was not Chinese, her children and her husband had Chinese blood running through their veins. Did that change who she was? And what good would it have done correcting him? She, a woman and a minority? He’d likely say she was lucky to have the job.
She knew not all Americans were like her supervisor. Her husband’s boss, a middle-aged man with blonde hair and brown eyes, respected her husband and treated him like a person. But Orn–she was the “Chinese” “slant eyes” who wasn’t even Chinese.
Orn didn’t want to fight. She didn’t want this life. For some reason, she had all the ingredients for the American Dream, but she could never stomach the taste.
Orn stepped inside and filled a bucket with warm water, then returned outside to soak her feet. Across the street, the beeping of a moving truck echoed.
Orn had known the moment she caught the Chinese woman eyeing her grapefruit last week that she’d be seeing more of her. And today confirmed her suspicion. Orn and her husband had toured the home across the way before purchasing theirs, but Orn disliked the direction the house faced and that the front yard was wider than the back. No one could save money with such a shallow back yard.
The Chinese woman waved at Orn while simultaneously directing movers with boxes. After the discussion with her supervisor, the last person Orn wanted to talk to was an actual Chinese person.
“Nín hǎo.” Orn looked up to see a floppy purple hat atop her new Chinese
“I don’t speak Chinese,” Orn said. The woman had probably seen the Ba Gua octagonal mirror above the front door that kept spirits out. But that didn’t necessarily make her Chinese. Orn believed in luck, Feng Shui, and superstitions all around the world.
“Oh, sorry. Where are you from?”
In Thailand, she rarely was asked, “Where are you from?” ABA. American based Asians. Since coming to the country, every Asian person she met asked. Even if they already knew. It was like the equivalent of the American handshake. After the fourth or fifth time, she wondered if she missed some manual she should have received when she got her citizenship. Next to, “What are the three branches of the American government,” “What is the most important question to ask when meeting another Asian?”
“How is the neighborhood?” the woman asked.
“It’s good. Safe.”
Orn wondered if her new neighbor would understand the double meaning behind her words. Could the Chinese woman see the weathered woman with her feet in a hot bath trying to find some tranquility in the chaos of her life? Could she see how annoyed this weathered woman was by the loud-speaking Chinese woman who looked like a white-faced demon? Birefly, Orn felt bad about thinking of the woman as a white-faced demon, though a little more color in her makeup and less in her clothes would probably help her appearance.
The woman continued talking. Orn continued nodding. By the time the woman left, the water had become cold.
Orn returned inside and called her husband at work. Partly, so she could update him on their new neighbor, and partly so she could hear his voice. She couldn’t remember the last time the two talked about something other than saving money. She explained how they needed to extend the gate. How the Chinese woman across the street would steal her grapefruit, but her husband ignored her concerns and told her to stop worrying and how what grows from the Earth is God’s doing and should be available to all God’s creatures. Orn believed in God. She also believed that the fruits that grew from the Earth belonged to the woman who planted them.
“Bring over the extra duck,” her husband said.
“Our ancestors might still be eating,” Orn replied, referring to the custom of leaving food out after prayer and inviting one’s ancestors to dine on a good meal. Shouldn’t he be doing this? Shouldn’t the kids be doing this?
“Chinese New Year. You give to your family. You give to your ancestors in the afterlife. And you give to your neighbors.”
Orn did not want to see the Chinese woman again. But she cellophaned the duck and marched over to the woman still directing the last of her boxes.
“Happy Chinese New Year,” Orn said.
“I thought you weren’t Chinese?”
“I’m not.” The two stood in silence.
“So those grapefruits look amazing,” the Chinese woman said.
The silence continued until the Chinese woman thanked Orn for the duck and excused herself to continue with her move. When Orn returned to her side of the street, she paused and listened. Not to her new neighbor barking orders at men, but to her husband’s lectures she heard over the years. She could hear him say that building a community and friendships was important because of all the ties he’d lost. But she didn’t lose her friends and community. She left hers.
After Orn had dropped off the duck, she checked on her children. Her oldest daughter, Laura, sat in her room, the corded see-through phone flashing red, yellow and blue illuminating her daughter’s face. Her other daughter, Stephanie, stood in the bathroom running a brush through her hair as she stared at her reflection in the mirror.
The two’s eyes met in the mirror but no words were exchanged. Stephanie was still mad Orn said no to her spending a night at a friend’s house. It was a weird tradition in the States, to inconvenience another family with her child. To have them feed her child and put a roof over her head? Was this some way of saying Orn failed as a mother?
Stephanie reminded Orn of herself as a child. Outgoing and popular and sure to be trouble when she grew up—she could even see her running away with a boy someday, leaving the country, her family and everything she knew behind to follow love.
When it came to finding her third child, Orn never knew where Jake was hiding or playing. His imagination left him in the most awkward situations. She once found him hanging from a tree branch upside down, his legs holding him up. Just thinking about it and not knowing where he was made her heart throb.
When she couldn’t find him in his room or the backyard, Orn walked outside to her front lawn. On top of the green electric-company box between theirs and the neighbor’s home, he held his arms up and flapped them like a flightless bird. A short, pudgy, good-in-hot-oil flightless bird.
Orn brushed the dirt off his snug denim overalls. Green stains peeked through the variants of blue. Even his new long-sleeved shirt was covered in splotches of gray. More work for later. Yawning, a slight pulse shot through her hip. She ruffled his hair and took a deep breath, leaning on the box herself. Pain ping-ponged between her shoulder blades. The warmth and vibrations from the electricity felt like a massage.
“Let’s go in,” she said, after a minute or ten.
“I keep seeing a white van drive by,” he said. Orn looked around and saw the back of a white van turn toward the next street over.
“There are always white vans driving through here.” Between after-school programs and the neighborhood being relatively new with families moving in almost every other week, vans, moving trucks and buses passed through all the time. Still, she knew her son wasn’t the most observant so for him to bring up white vans was odd. She shivered and rushed him inside, the cold coming sooner than she thought.
Orn skipped any cooking for the night, and instead ordered pizza. She loved pizza in America compared to the overly sweet pizza in Thailand. And they delivered. Sitting on pink dragon-skinned cushions, Orn wondered if she had the right to complain about her life. The furniture in the living room was hand-carved by master artists in Thailand featuring wild animals like elephants and tigers. The accent wall featured giant, diamond-shaped mirrors, and in the dining room hung gold-plated portraits of the King and Queen. Here, her children took showers in bathrooms and had hot water and plumbing. When she was a child, she had to fill buckets with water to bathe.
As much as she questioned her American Dream, she could not deny that her children were better off. The life she could provide here was exponentially better than anything she could give them in the homeland. Even if it meant she’d live a life disconnected from everything she knew. In America, she could imagine a future, not just a life.
Orn and Jake sat in the living room, nibbling on pepperoni pizza and watching TV when she heard the garage door open. She couldn’t explain the feeling, the coldness forming bumps along her arms. Her fingers felt paralyzed as she squeezed Jake’s hands. She began to call out to her husband and then covered her mouth. Deep down, she knew he would have called if he were coming home early. Her mind quickly drew up the blueprints of the home. Stephanie was in her room located behind the living room. Laura sat at the dining room table between the master room and her. Jake was within arm’s reach. No one else had a garage opener aside from her husband. No one else would be coming over at night. She pulled Jake behind her. Her hands shook as she stood. The garage connects to the laundry room that opens up to the dining room. Before she could call out to Laura, the door flung open, and two people dressed in black stomped their way into the home.
Everything slowed. Movement, physical objects melded into one another like colors on a paint palate. But her mind felt bombarded with questions. What’s happening? What do I do? Why can’t I move? Why can’t I speak? The first taller of the two robbers yanked the phone from Laura’s hand. She screamed. The phone flew into the painting of the Thai King. The wire ripped from the wall like a wild snake.
Out of the corner of her eye, Orn saw Stephanie peek around the wall and into the living room. Jake tried to run to his sister, but Orn held him back. The taller robber grabbed Laura by her hair and yanked her into the living room. The paralyzing fear Orn felt dissipated. Like Florida’s eerie weather, Orn’s state-of-mind transitioned from a clear day into a thunderstorm. Orn’s chest burned, her knuckles cracked, her teeth ground against one another. Orn returned to her roots and started screaming in Thai, “Xya chup luk chan.” Despite the language, Orn was sure they knew now not to touch her children. She ran to the taller robber and clawed at his eyes like the tiger in the carvings. The shorter robber tried to pull her off, but little could stop her. It wasn’t until the butt of the smaller robber’s gun hit her on the side of the head that she fell to the floor.
The kids ran to her, yelling for the robbers to stop. Despite the pain, Orn stood again and told her children to stay back.
“Jewelry, take it off,” the taller robber said. The smaller robber ran to search the master bedroom. They wanted everything she had worked for and soon they’d find the safe.
Her husband’s voice echoed in her mind. Save, save, save. Everything her husband and she saved would be gone. Orn ripped her necklace from her neck and threw it into the corner of the room behind the wood furniture. She pulled off her ring and swallowed it. The robber grabbed her head like a football and slammed it into the diamond-cut mirrors. He then yanked her earrings from her lobes and put them in his pocket.
The impact from the wall dazed her and numbed the pain of her bleeding ears.
The second robber returned, and the family was lined up in a row and on their knees. One by one, the robbers stripped Orn’s children of their jewelry; the gold coin she received the first time she went to a Thai temple in Thailand, stripped from Laura’s neck. The jade bracelet that had changed to white when Stephanie wore it, ripped from her wrist. White was supposed to mean change for the better. What good could come from this? All these heirlooms from older generations in her family, these one-of-a-kind pieces she collected herself over the years, gone. Despite being turned away from them, Orn could see the robbers in the mirror. Was this it?
Flashes of the Killing Fields in Cambodia came to mind. Black and white photos she had seen in local libraries she researched to better understand her husband’s past became colored. Would her family die now like her husband’s family? Would they be shot in the back of the head, execution style, and left on the dirty tile floor that still made popping noises when met with bare feet? Tears formed in her eyes. She spent so much of her life not taking risks, not fighting back—What good were dreams if she were dead?
“Combination to the safe?” the shorter robber asked. He’d found it in the closet, hidden behind stacks of clothes. This time, Orn did not fight back. If not fighting back meant maybe they’d let them go, it was worth it to lose their savings.
The robbers bound everyone’s hands behind their back with zip-ties and went to test the combination. Her children cried, and her heart broke. Her body had been aching for weeks, but nothing compared to the pain of her children’s cries. When Laura got into a fight with friends, when Stephanie wasn’t invited to a party, when Jake scraped his knees for the millionth time, those cries were shallow. But these cries forged holes into their hearts. These cries would leave scars. And for Orn, it felt like a monster had burrowed within her, forced it’s nails into her soul and yanked, a pain she’d feel in every new life she’d have after this.
Orn was sure the sound of sirens was her imagination at first, an echo of hope developed from trauma. As she watched the robbers gather all they could and rush out the door, she realized the sirens were real. Did the robbers feel fear? Like the fear she felt when they robbed the family of their security. She could only hope that when they fled like the cowards they were, one day, her guardians and ancestors would come back and return all of her pain twice fold.
For Orn, even though fireworks and sirens sound different, the sirens reminded her of fireworks on Songkran, lighting up the night sky with gold and red and blue and green and every other color imaginable. Each burst, a life renewed with hope. With the robbers running from the home, she felt unrestricted.
She looked at her children lined beside her on their knees. Laura and Stephanie aged a bit in their eyes. And Jake, well, her pudgy little bird was confused as always.
Minutes felt like weeks, but the police came and cut the ties that bound her hands. The officer asked if she was okay, but Orn couldn’t reply until each of her children’s hands were free. And then she nodded. She didn’t know what okay meant, not in this situation. But she knew she needed to get out of the house. She didn’t need to run or hide, but going outside felt freeing. The cold snap felt uplifting rather than chilling. Orn gave her statement, detailing everything that occurred. The cops looked surprised she could speak English, but she didn’t let it bother her. She mentioned the white van her son had seen on the streets, waiting and watching her family and home. She regurgitated every detail of the night.
Beyond the strobing red and blue, the Chinese woman stood in front of her home and waved, giving space. Orn waved back, bowed, and mouthed “thank you.” It would be days later before Orn knew that she was saying thank you for both space and for the Chinese woman calling the police. The Chinese woman bowed in return.
Her husband arrived almost a half-hour later, approximately, the same amount of time the robbers occupied the home. She couldn’t believe how so much could change in such little time.
When she saw her husband, she didn’t wait for his kisses or an exchange of words. She took the initiative and held him in her arms. What she thought would feel like a stranger felt like home.
He whispered in her ear little things like how strong she was and she agreed.
“When I got the call, I felt like—” Orn stopped him and shook her head. This moment was about what she needed and what her children needed. Not him. And he noticed right away.
His words quickly shifted.
“How are you?” he asked the children, and Orn cried again. But this cry was one of strength and change.