Heuan Kong, 29-year-old Cambodian refugee, came to live with our family a year ago. He arrived on a freezing December morning wearing a woman's wool plaid coat with elbow-length sleeves and a cowl collar that hung from his scrawny neck. He wore tattered dress shoes with holes in the soles and a brown patent leather plush-lined hat with a visor and ear flaps.
Seeing him for the first time, I felt a combination of curiosity, sympathy and shock. I expected a refugee, but I didn't expect him to look like a refugee! I also felt doubt. Would he ever be ready to move out on his own? But mostly I was overwhelmed with relief that this person standing in front of me, pumping my hand up and down and smiling, was out of Cambodia, out of the refugee camp, here in the United States, free.
Although I had never seen Heuan before, I felt as if a family member had finally come home.
Heuan lived in our television room for nearly four months. When he arrived at our small home in Great Falls, he could only pronounce one English phrase, "Sank you." He said that often. When he left, he could understand simple English sentences. It was interesting to see what people trying to talk to him considered simple sentences.
My sister once tried to open a conversation by saying, "I understand you are thinking of going into farming." He didn't understand. I interpreted for him: "You want to be a farmer? You want to work on a farm?" He nodded enthusiastically and leaped into the conversation.
"I want to be farmer. I want to have many chickens. I want to drive tractor. I want to plant rice."
In our talks with him we tried to concentrate on the parts about the chickens and the tractor. I couldn't bring myself to tell him that rice was out of the question in any job I could find for him.
By the time we got up each morning at 7:30, Heuan had already made his bed, swept his room, and gone outside to fill the water bucket and hay manger for our collection of sheep, goats, horses, chickens and geese. During the day, he helped me with any chore I could explain to him. Every week or so, he meticulously cleaned the barnyard, pitching the used hay onto the garden.
One day, the goats got out. I was able to find the enormous hole where they escapted through the fence, but not the time or the materials to fix it. I showed it to Heuan and gestured to him that I wanted him to repair it. He nodded and an hour later, I found an amazing darning job accomplished. Using no tools, Heuan had woven together bits of barbed wire, poultry netting and honeysuckle vines. A year later, I still can't figure out exactly how he did it and it is still tighter than the rest of the fence.
Heuan went to English classes in double shifts. He attended three classes in the morning and two at night. During the four years he spent in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, he learned to speak Thai and Laotian, and he used his fluency in Laotian to teach the alphabet and basic phonics to other refugees who were illiterate in their own language. When he arrived to live with us, he studied assiduously, filling every piece of scrape paper in our house with sentences laboriously copied in an ornate cursive handwriting that looked like a cross between Mandarin and the Palmer Method.
Heuan came from a well-to-do family. His father had several buffalo and many chickens and ducks. If we understood correctly, they farmed about five acres. Heuan's sister had a degree in business and was a banker in Phnom Penh. Heuan's education in Bangkok was interrupted by events in Cambodia and he wound up in a refugee camp at Surin, Thailand. He spent four years in refugee camps before coming to the United States.
Heuan left behind his father and mother and sister. He has heard no word from them and does not know what has become of them.
Because Heuan said he wanted to be a farmer, we began by teaching him the basic vocabulary: horse, dog, goat, chicken, goose, plow, shovel, hay, grain, water, and most magic of all, tractor. Heuan had been an accomplished farmer in Cambodia. He could plow with a yoke of four buffalo. But here he wanted to be an American farmer. He also wanted to drive a tractor.
We arranged a deal with a friend of ours, Tom Dean of Great Falls. For every hour that Heuan spent splitting firewood for him, Tom gave him 20 minutes behind-the-wheel driver education on his old tractor. With no common language except gestures, concepts like the choke and clutch were hard to explain, but Tom persevered, and Heuan learned very fast. After two lessons Heuan stacked the wood he split on the tractor and drove it up to the house on the tractor. And when he went for his first job interview with farmer John Rocca of Leesburg, Heuan could say, "Yes, I drive tractor."
We had only two unexpected problems while Heuan was with us. First, we could not discover the cause of his severe stomach pains. After many hours of consultation with Heuan in sign language and broken English, our family doctor decided that his pains were related to the frustrations of dependence and the inability to run his own life. The second problem could be classified as a breakdown in communications.
We had given Heuan some quilted nylon ski underwear that he treasured.In addition to enjoying its wonderful warmth, he found it magnificent to behold. Each time we had company, he disappeared into his room and re-emerged in just the underwear, clearly pleased with his appearance. r
Once my husband Duncan drew him aside and tactfully suggested that he put something else on. Heuan indicated that he was in fact quite warm enough, but Duncan was firm, and Heuan ended by putting his trousers back on. The next time it was Heuan who stood firm and refused to put anything over his beautiful shiny quilted longjohns. Duncan said that in that case, he was not welcome in the dining room.
The final confrontation came one day at lunch. He came strolling in wearing just the quilted undertrousers and no shirt. I asked Heuan to go get dressed.He refused. I removed the plate of sandwiches from the table. He crossed his arms over his chest, sat back and fumed. I insisted. He pretended he didn't hear me.
I finally got an idea. I took out the Sears catalogue and showed him the illustrations of the long quilted underwear on models standing side by side with men in the short white underwear.
"Same thing," I told him and pointed to first the long, then the short underwear. "Same thing," I told him and pointed to the jockey shorts in the picture and then to Heuan's legs. Than I dramatically covered my eyes while he dashed out of the room for his clothes.
Heuan spent Christmas with us. His English has improved to the point that he understands whatever he wants to, and he can make himself understood. He reads the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and anything he can get his hands on.
When Heuan went to John Rocca's farm, he could barely drag a 100-pound sack of grain across the ground. The other farm workers smiled tolerantly at the new man on the place. Now Heuan has muscles like an athlete, and hefts the grain sacks up and carries them on his shoulder. He wears Levis and a cowboy hat. John Rocca calls him "Cisco."
One year ago he was a refugee and we felt sorry for him. Today he is an American farmer and we are proud of him.