I was there . . .
by Mickey D., originally published in Processed World #29, 1992
The doorbell on the cast-iron gate doesn't work, so Chuahan is yelling up to an open window on the third floor: "Phouthouloum Bounthoum! Beck!" A small head appears and darts back in. Within seconds the gate is pushed open by a crowd of excited children and we leave the sun-drenched sidewalk for the murky hallway. Hands tug our clothes as we're led into the interior.
Southeast Asian refugees arrive in San Francisco, c. 1983.
Photo: Sara Colm
Kids are climbing my legs, jumping on my back, swinging from my arms. The stink of urine-fetid clothing is overwhelming. Chuahan chastises them in Lao while they compete for our attention. One performs kung fu motions with his feet; another jumps an entire length of staircase, easily five times his height. The only hostility comes from a runny-nose kid who persistently takes aim at my crotch with his tiny fist.
Trying to balance the squirming, giggling arm-load of kids while twisting my waist to avoid the punches, I follow Chuahan up the stairwell, past the used condoms, burnt crack pipes and piles of uncollected garbage. Pubescent homeboys in hooded San Francisco Giants jackets scowl as we pass.
When we get to the fourth floor, I notice that none of the apartment doors are closed to the hallway and the children pass freely from one apartment to another. With the fragrance of herbs, spices and cow brains in the air, it seems as if a remote village has suddenly been transplanted to a sleazy skid row hotel.
Chuahan shows me into a small studio and—after quick, unspoken introductions with a group of women sitting cross-legged around bowls of food—I try to settle inconspicuously in the corner on a six-inch-high kneeling stool. The room is sparsely furnished. One entire wall is taken up by a huge TV-CD-stereo-VCR console showing some kind of Khmer Benny Hill video; opposite it, a Theravada Buddhist shrine with burning candles; below it, a bed protruding legs and arms that contains sleeping men and babies.
A new group of kids from inside the room approaches and quietly stands eye-level around me, sizing me up. The oldest woman's eyes are questioning even as she offers me soup. Her name is Sepanerath and she wears a beautifully colored dress and tinkling jewelry. The other women are heavily made-up teenagers with luxurious hairdos.
Looking at Souvanna, Sepanerath points at me with one finger and with another simulates-fellatio? The teenagers giggle. It takes me a moment to realize that she's asking Chuahan if I'm gay, i.e. a pedophile, and am I after her kids? As if in answer, I open my bookbag and give the kids the notebooks and packages of paper that I stole from work. They accept them blankly. Sepanerath says to the children in Khmer for them to say "thank you" in English.
Then I produce a handful of magic markers and colored pens (more loot). I draw a cartoon face. "Draw Donatello," requests Nancy, an eight-year-old girl with just-shampooed hair. Before I understand that she isn't talking about the 16th century Italian painter, her younger brother shows me a picture of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. To their delight, I duplicate it; then I draw Bart Simpson. More cheers. My popularity is assured, and we spend the rest of the afternoon drawing pictures.
On the way home I feel happy in a way I've never felt before.
Chuahan was born in eastern Thailand when Ubon could still be called a village, but his earliest memories are of the airfield and the earth-rumbling routine of U.S. planes en route to bombing sorties over nearby Laos. Ubon was forever transformed by the U.S. military personnel and AID officials, the inevitable economies of drugs and prostitution, and the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from across the border. Traditionalists took it hard. Chuahan renounced his parent's religious fundamentalism and wholesale fabric business, shaved his head and made his way to an American university to study poetry.
Cambodian families gather in the Tenderloin to support refugee rights, 1986.
Photo: Sara Colm
When we met in San Francisco's financial district, we were both bearers of worthless degrees stuck in dead-end jobs. Desperate to escape our condition as servants to giant bureaucracies, we talked endlessly about ways of contributing meaningfully to the world while having fun. Chuahan seemed to have hit on the perfect combination when he landed a job at the Head Start program, tutoring Lao and Cambodian pre-schoolers in the Tenderloin. A combat zone of illicit pleasures populated by transvestites, strippers, hookers, addicts, drifters, thieves, lost tourists and newly arrived Southeast-Asian refugees, the Tenderloin is about as far from the spirit of' the financial district as you can get—only a couple of blocks away, it exists in its shadow.
Witty, charming and compassionate, Chuahan was an immediate hit with the families in his program. An Indian subcontinental, his reputation is enhanced by a readiness to speak up on behalf of Laotians and Cambodians who resent the Vietnamese domination of the meager social services available to southeast Asians (the majority of the Vietnamese got here a decade earlier and are better established). Chuahan's ascent within the ranks of Tenderloin non-profits is rapid, and pays better than temping.
"It's not such a bad thing I do, helping poor women who can't speak English collect their welfare payments." Compared to what I do for a living, this sounds reasonable.
Recently adrift from an east coast suburb, my entire social horizons become enmeshed in the lives of people who less than five years ago were living in rural areas outside of Vientiane and Phnom Penh. Until now I have only thought of them in terms of emotional associations with concepts like "civil war," "imperialism" and "revolution" ("samsaravattam" is the closest word in Khmer to "revolution," though its meaning is closer to "transmigration").
For many Asian immigrants, children (who learn languages much more quickly) are indispensable to their parent's survival in the new country; they're interlocutors with the outside world: courts, landlords, immigration officials, etc. They become my translators as well.
Chuahan and I take the kids to places they've never been: the playground at Golden Gate Park, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Ocean Beach. On Halloween we take a taxi cab full of 3-4 year olds to a rich neighborhood. The idea of ringing the doorbell of an oak-doored mansion and receiving free candy is a happy novelty, but not nearly as exciting as the expanses of lawns: being able to run and fall on soft grass comes as a surprise.
Kids crossing at Golden Gate and Jones in front of St. Anthony's, mid-1980s.
Photo: courtesy Randy Shaw
The kids seem oblivious to most urban hazards. When playing tag, they move with frightening speed in and out of traffic. Scrawny Phouthouloum (a.k.a. "Rambd') possesses an acrobatic grace that is truly incredible: he can mount a newspaper vending rack, shimmy up a sign post, swing from his legs, and always land on his feet. In his hands, anything can be transformed into a toy weapon; baseball cards become stars, rolled up newspapers become numchucks.
"Gangsters" (older kids and thieves who prey on the more vulnerable) with whom the kids indifferently share the sidewalks during the day are ominous figures at night; several kids' families are routinely terrorized by break-ins. The cops are even greater objects of mistrust, a relation which fails to change despite innumerable "community relations" meetings.
Slang and style tastes are distinctively African-American. It takes me a while to realize that when these six-year-olds address one another as "nigga," it's learned from neighborhood blacks and as neutral a part of their vocabulary as anything in Lao or Khmer.
The kids show me a side of their neighborhood that was previously invisible: down a labyrinth of seedy alleys a rabbit sits in its cage, wedged between a dumpster and a pile of trash. In a remote attic corner some other kids show me a broken pigeon's egg, long abandoned in its nest. Anticipating its eventual birth, they've organized an extended family for it.
"Koun lok," announces Chanpheng, after a magpie-like bird known in Cambodia for its cry at sunset. In Khmer, it literally means "child of the world." According to legend, some young kids who were abandoned in the forest to be eaten by tigers transformed into these birds, achieving safety by being at home in the wilderness. Forever after, the cry "koun lok" serves as a reminder of the borders between the wild and the tamed, nature and human. Birthday parties for the children are community celebrations; every kid seems to have about twenty birthdays a year.
Sometimes more formal gatherings (particularly for the young and unattached) are arranged by Lao ethnic associations; gloomy warehouses like the Hungarian Hall (next to Sex Toys & Movies) are rented for an evening. These involve crystal-ball disco decor with a Lao rock band intermixing standard rock covers with more traditional numbers. They're fairly somber affairs, except for the appearance of three Lao transvestites, who are always a hit.
At one party I hear Mony reminiscing about the miserable, squalid conditions for the Cambodians in the U.N. refugee camps and the interminable waiting for visas in the Philippines. I ask Mony for more information about where he's from in Cambodia, how he ended up in the camps, what he thinks about what's going on there. Mony speaks with contempt of the arrogant Thais and the Filipinos, but turns the conversation to brighter subjects.
"Once we were just poor Cambodians. Treated like shit! Now, when we go back to Cambodia, we get respect," he explains, cocking his biceps into a Proud muscle. "Because we are Americans"
Nods of agreement among the men in the room.
I think: are you kidding? Your kids play in garbage, you work like a dog so you can live in the slums! Instead I say, "Look at what the U.S. did to Cambodia, though. They bombed it for years—they must have killed a quarter of a million people.
Silence. Then Mony says, "I heard about that. It was on TV. But they said they only killed the bad people."
The host produces a bottle of brandy and calls in the birthday girl, who models her crisp chiffon dress and pirouettes. A toast is made as shots are downed. Mony and his friends dismiss our talk as "politics," and the rest of the night is forgotten in alcohol.
Gambling is a way of life for the adults. It is pursued with unflagging fascination from early in the evening to late the next morning, several nights a week. Each night a different host's floor is crowded with sessions of poker, blackjack and an unfamiliar game played around a blanket with mysterious diagrams. The stakes are high: if you aren't willing to bet at least twenty dollars to get in, forget it. Sizeable fortunes can be made and lost, and nobody ever quits.
While playing poker with three old women one night, Souvanna hands me what looks like a tobacco leaf and instructs me to dip it into some purple powder and chew it. I try not to lose my attention. Evidently, I'm supposed to chew the leaf and spit out the juice, not swallow it. When my head stops spinning, I realize that I'm a big loser at poker too.
Later Souvanna, recognizing my financial misfortune, lets me in on what he promises is a formula for making a fortune. Of a group of 12, everybody promises to contribute a hundred dollars a month; if you want to collect $1200 some month for any particular reason, it's yours with the stipulation that you pay an extra $100 that month. My math is bad, but Souvanna demonstrates to me that no matter what, since every month somebody collects, we all eventually come out $100 richer. In what is obviously an act of bad faith, I skeptically decline the invitation.
Most of these people work at low-wage jobs: washing dishes in Thai restaurants, day-labor construction, fish cleaning; many are dependent on welfare. So where do the rolls of large bills everybody seems to have for gambling come from? Maybe the sub-economy which they've invented is a way of rotating the riches that they'll likely never possess as individuals; maybe gambling is a way of facing fortune, a metaphor for fate or the randomness of the market. In any event, the intensity they bring to gambling shows something about luck and knowing when to make your move.
Chuahan and I are visiting Sepanerath and her children's new apartment in a new building behind the medical center. They only moved in a few days ago and most of their stuff is still in boxes. It's late, and the younger children are sleeping under a blanket on the carpet. It's more spacious and cleaner than their old place in the Tenderloin. Sepanerath's new boyfriend is paying for it; she doesn't want her oldest son, Bounari (already 11) to grow up to become a gangster like the other Cambodian kids. She tells us that this new environment (a mile or so away) will help keep him away from the influence of gangs.
Nancy, her only daughter, always wears new dresses and jewelry, and she's self-conscious of her looks as she serves us soup and fish balls. I notice Nancy's similarities to her mother by checking her against an enlarged photo framed on the wall of a younger Sepanerath smiling triumphantly, wearing a disco dress sparkling with gold.
Chuahan opens the bottle of wine we've brought as a house-warming present and pours everybody a glass, including five-year old Peter, who gulps it right away, defiantly.
Nancy and Bounari give me a tour of all (three) rooms. Sepanerath and her boyfriend (who's at work) have their own room now. Bounari turns on the jam-box I gave him ("Wild Thing). For a long time he kept asking me to get him batteries until he told me that his mother's boyfriend was using the electric cord to whip Peter. I feel guilty when I look at Peter, who's bouncing off the walls. They're excited because their mothers let them take the week off from school and they are up past their bed time.
While we draw pictures of monkeys, Buddhas, and race cars, I think about how Nancy can be particularly vicious to her friend, Bounthoum, who has a mouth full of jagged, mangled teeth and bad breath. "Bounthoum fucks her boyfriends! Bounthoum fucks—[every boy in earshot]." Bounthoum's clothes are always dirty and several sizes outgrown, not like Princess Nancy, who leads the other children in chants to upset a shaky Bounthoum.
Peter's bumping into me until he falls face-flat on the floor and begins snoring away. Nancy's telling me about her favorite teachers and classes. After a while it occurs to me that they haven't been to school because they don't know yet where their new school is; once again, they've ventured beyond the familiar and are waiting.
In all the months I've known Nancy, I've never once worried about her, even when she lived among rapists and murderers. She carries more adult responsibilities at eight years than most people do in a lifetime, and she seems to take it in stride. So I'm surprised that now, all of a sudden, seeing her in this safe, electrified condo, I detect something like a worried little girl in her voice. Driving home in his new sports car, Chuahan tells me that Sepanerath's a L'racist bitch" who just wants to be a white American. The social worker with the master's degree in English tells me that "they've turned their back on their culture!"
I don't see the kids anymore. Fun becomes work. Taking four rambunctious kids someplace on the bus can be entertaining; trying to keep twenty-five together can shave years off your life.
Chuahan got a job as director of a weekend activities program; I was his "assistant." Obnoxiously called "Super Saturday Plus," it was funded by a grant from the Embarcadero Corporation to St. Mark's Church—both large real-estate businesses in San Francisco. We were assured that we would have the freedom to let the kids do what they wanted—and there would be no religious proselytizing!
The kids' participation was entirely voluntary—there was no point to it unless they had fun. I thought it would be cool to have a place outside the playground-less Tenderloin for the kids to paint, learn baseball, play blackjack, whatever. They spent all week being bussed to a school at the Treasure Island military base.
The main area that St. Mark's allotted for the kids was a stuffy basement with pictures of the last hundred years of the Lutheran hierarchy on the wall. The outside "play area" was a dismal concrete plaza of the type that condo developers throw in for "public space" tax rebates. I took great satisfaction in seeing the kids reduce the place to a mess.
All went well until various administrative busybodies insisted on playing a more "active" role. One was a hefty-buttocked old hen who the kids called "the Ghost" because of her dull grey complexion and cop mentality. She invited the St. Mark's minister to make a Thanksgiving speech to the kids about "how they should be thankful for all that they've been given." That was too much. When the day came for his speech he left in a huff because the kids refused to settle down and listen to his bullshit. I remember the look he shot me as he headed for his car (I was in the parking lot with the basketball dissidents); in one hand he had his briefcase, in the other a plate full of turkey and mashed potatoes, but his eyes said it all. Subsequently, Chuahan informed me that I had been retroactively "not hired" and wouldn't receive the wages that had been promised me.
Chuahan, a true professional, couldn't quit as easily as me. He had a reputation to protect among wealthy patrons of social workers. When Christmas came around he had to gather the kids together and take them to the Embarcadero plaza for the annual holiday lighting of those hideous slabs of office building (where I worked as a temp, as a matter of fact). The whole thing was a photo-opportunity for city big-shots and the next day on the cover of the newspaper was a soft-lens picture of Bounthoum holding a candle. The kids, in the generous gratitude of the event's wealthy sponsors, were each given a single McDonald's hamburger—no fries, no apple pie, no coke. Not even a cheeseburger!