While all this was taking place my friend George was sitting in the air

While all this was taking place my friend george was

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While all this was taking place, my friend George was sitting in the air-conditioned living room, watching a boxing match on television with Nao Kao and wondering what I was doing. Neither he nor Nao Kao spoke a word of each other’s language, but they communicated in the universal language of male bonding by throwing punches in the air and making appreciative grunts. When I emerged from the bedroom, George was, in a word, stunned. He didn’t think I looked good , exactly. He told me later that I resembled Tom Kitten in “The Roly-Poly Pudding,” after Mrs. Whiskers ties him up and covers him with pie dough. However, Foua’s work must in some way have had the intended effect, because a week later George asked me to marry him. When we told Foua that we were engaged, she didn’t act in the least surprised. Later, when I complimented Foua on her beautiful needlework, she said matter-of-factly, “Yes, my friends are proud of me because of my paj ntaub . The Hmong are proud of me.” That is the only time I ever
heard her say anything kind about herself. She was otherwise the most self-deprecating woman I had ever met. One night, when Nao Kao was out for the evening, she remarked, out of the blue, “I am very stupid.” When I asked her why, she said, “Because I don’t know anything here. I don’t know your language. American is so hard, you can watch TV all day and you still don’t know it. I can’t dial the telephone because I can’t read the numbers. If I want to call a friend, my children will tell me and I will forget and the children will tell me again and I will forget again. My children go to the store to buy food because I don’t know what is in the packages. One time when I went to the hospital I went to the bathroom, and the hall went that way and that way and that way and that way, and I didn’t know which way to go, and I couldn’t get back to where I was because too many sad things have happened to me and my brain is not good anymore.” When I suggested that I would have had at least as much trouble finding my way around her village in Laos as she had finding her way around MCMC, Foua said, “Maybe, but in Laos it was easy. I didn’t know how to do anything but farm.” Venturing that it couldn’t have been quite so easy as she claimed, I asked her to describe a typical day in Houaysouy, the village in the northwestern province of Sayaboury where the Lee family had lived. She tilted her head to one side for a moment, thinking. Then she said, “In the season when you have to tend to the rice fields, you get up at first cock crow. In the other seasons, you can wake up at second or third cock crow. Even at third cock crow it is before dawn, and it is dark, so the first thing you do is light a lamp. The lamp was like this.” Foua walked into the kitchen and came back holding the bottom three-quarters of a Mountain Dew can, which was filled with oil and had a homemade cloth wick. “In Merced, when the electricity goes out, we still use one like this,” she said. “First you cook the rice for your children,” she continued. “Then you clean the house with the broom you tied together yourself. After you are

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