Saturday, December 03, 2005

hard is relative

When I was in my early twenties, I worked with a guy who'd served in Vietnam. We installed networks, and he was always amused by the hysteria that came when something broke. The way he saw it, no one was going to die – literally – so upset was unnecessary. He had a point, I was sure, but in my relative youth I still believed that a hard life meant working lots of overtime under lots of pressure.

These days I regularly buy cigarettes and occasionally dinner at a liquor store/café run by a Vietnamese-Chinese family. They had a liquor store in a busier part of downtown, but recently moved onto the edge of downtown, and set up a kitchen. I'd stopped going to the old place years ago because of the parking, but the new place is easy, so I came back about two months ago.

Running the place are mom, dad, and 2 or 3 girls. I should call the girls women, but personality-wise, girls isn't inappropriate. They're getting in their forties now, but all have permed hair in youthful cuts, have bouncy figures, always wear makeup, and favor shorts and tight clothes. They always greet you with a big happy smile and a high-pitched, musical "Hiiiiii," invariably followed by a giggle. This could have me reaching for a blunt object if I had to hear it for several hours, but judging from the steady stream of regulars, the cheer works. The shorts help a lot too.

The girl who cooks told me a little bit about their past the other day. They were in a refugee camp in Malaysia for about eight months while waiting for an American agency to sponsor them to the US. She called it just "camp," and it took me a moment to see she was referring to the late seventies and not summer camp. She talked about how she cooked tapioca desserts and sticky-rice things in large volume, and how they'd all be gone in a couple hours. The recollection seemed a pleasant one, an experience that had given her confidence to start serving meals here.

A little later, she said that life as a refugee was "very hard." It wasn't much different from the way I would say it. But she had a little extra emphasis, strain flickered across her face, that made me realize that her concept of "very hard" is galaxies removed from that of someone who's lived all their life in peace. In a refugee camp you have no personal space, food shortages, water shortages, inadequate medical care, theft, and occasionally, someone goes nuts and has to kill someone.

This put a little perspective and a little introspection into my day, and possibly my entire life.

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