The string of corn cobs running from the top corners of his front door are the Laotian version of medieval gargoyles: both serve to ward off evil spirits. There is a large, healthy tomato plant on the front step; below it bright red plastic flowers are spiked into the lawn.
Inside the house there is an altar of sorts on the living room wall closest to the entrance. The base of the altar is a wide-screen television that is playing a videotape of Thai’s family. Above the television are large, separate portraits of Thai and his wife. To the right of these portraits is a larger, full body portrait of Thai sitting in a chair that is like a throne. He wears a white suit. His expression is dignified and kind. Behind his benevolent whiteness the background is completely black. The portrait’s frame is ornate, painted over in bright gold paint.
Thai is older in person. He still looks kind, but not as dignified anymore. His hair has thinned. His clothes are dull. He looks hopefully at me, then shyly breaks eye contact, turning to the interpreter who is telling Thai what I just said.
I begin asking Thai questions about his personal life. He answers relatively honestly. Since coming to America his hearing has gotten worse. He has a hearing aid but only wears it when he leaves the house. He is depressed, but the American medicine helps some. Sometimes he goes out at night and drives on the freeways very fast. He doesn’t always remember doing this. No accidents or tickets yet.
As we talk Thai’s youngest child shoots at me with a fly swatter. We start shooting at each other and the child laughs. Then I realize Thai is telling me he doesn’t feel like living anymore, that he feels like he has already died but his children’s love for him keeps him alive. His youngest child has an Americanized name: Billy. The older children have Hmong names, but they don’t speak Hmong anymore. They go to public schools and are Americanized. Thai doesn’t speak English.
He gets frustrated because he has to rely on his children, but he cannot communicate with them because the older ones have forgotten how to speak Hmong. They understand what American strangers are telling them, but they do not understand their own father. And he cannot understand them. He feels helpless and depressed. His children don’t listen to him even when they do understand him. “They don’t listen to me, they don’t listen to the Elders,” he said quietly. “They just do what they want.”
It is a long way from the mountains in Laos to urban American life. Thai’s hearing problems may be how he copes with a new world he doesn’t understand and doesn’t trust: a world that is now taking his children away from him – his children, the only ones he is still alive for. Soon they will be gone – not physically gone but lost to Thai nevertheless, as they are absorbed one by one into this new world Thai either can’t or won’t adapt to. The Social Security money he receives from the government is nice, but also an insult: “they pay me for being sick.”
Not so much of an insult that Thai turns the money down. Americans turned down for Social Security may play the world’s smallest violin for Thai, or invite him to go back to the mountains he came from. Maybe he should. But who would go back there with him?