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While all this was taking place, my friend George was sitting in theair-conditioned living room, watching a boxing match on television withNao Kao and wondering what I was doing. Neither he nor Nao Kao spokea word of each other’s language, but they communicated in the universallanguage of male bonding by throwing punches in the air and makingappreciative grunts. When I emerged from the bedroom, George was, in aword, stunned. He didn’t think I lookedgood, exactly. He told me laterthat I resembled Tom Kitten in “The Roly-Poly Pudding,” after Mrs.Whiskers ties him up and covers him with pie dough. However, Foua’swork must in some way have had the intended effect, because a weeklater George asked me to marry him. When we told Foua that we wereengaged, she didn’t act in the least surprised.Later, when I complimented Foua on her beautiful needlework, shesaid matter-of-factly, “Yes, my friends are proud of me because of mypaj 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 mostself-deprecating woman I had ever met. One night, when Nao Kao wasout 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. Idon’t know your language. American is so hard, you can watch TV all dayand you still don’t know it. I can’t dial the telephone because I can’t readthe numbers. If I want to call a friend, my children will tell me and I willforget and the children will tell me again and I will forget again. Mychildren go to the store to buy food because I don’t know what is in thepackages. 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 Ididn’t know which way to go, and I couldn’t get back to where I wasbecause too many sad things have happened to me and my brain is notgood anymore.”When I suggested that I would have had at least as much troublefinding my way around her village in Laos as she had finding her wayaround MCMC, Foua said, “Maybe, but in Laos it was easy. I didn’t knowhow to do anything but farm.” Venturing that it couldn’t have been quiteso easy as she claimed, I asked her to describe a typical day inHouaysouy, the village in the northwestern province of Sayaboury wherethe 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 ricefields, you get up at first cock crow. In the other seasons, you can wakeup at second or third cock crow. Even at third cock crow it is beforedawn, and it is dark, so the first thing you do is light a lamp. The lampwas like this.” Foua walked into the kitchen and came back holding thebottom three-quarters of a Mountain Dew can, which was filled with oiland had a homemade cloth wick. “In Merced, when the electricity goesout, we still use one like this,” she said.“First you cook the rice for your children,” she continued. “Then youclean the house with the broom you tied together yourself. After you are