By Moina Arcee, updated July 3 2018
She came into my office with her client and we talked for an hour. Aun sat quietly, letting her client speak for himself. When she spoke he stopped talking until she was through. Twice she absent-mindedly pulled a bright diamond ring up and down her finger. Her teeth sparkled like the diamond.
Aun’s client was a good fit for our program, and we were able to get him in quickly. This pleased her. As we concluded the meeting Aun gleamed her full whites at me and shook my hand vigorously.
The second meeting was just Aun and me. She was embarrassed over some admission paperwork that had not been completed by her side, and was avoiding eye contact with me. I put her at ease by making light of the situation. She brightened and leaned forward. “I have to tell you, you really remind me of someone – Billy Joel. I just love him, he’s my favorite singer.” I told her I liked Billy Joel until he made it big. We joked about me being jealous of his fame. I told her that when everyone liked Billy Joel then he wasn’t mine anymore.
I changed subjects. “To help your client feel comfortable here we’d like to get his ethnicity right. Is he Cambodian or Hmong?”
“He is Cambodian,” Aun emphasized. “The Cambodians do not like being mistaken for Hmong, who actually immigrated to the Laotian mountains from China. The Cambodians are much darker skinned.”
“What are you?”
Aun enjoyed the question. “I am Cambodian, Chinese, and Vietnamese. I am from Cambodia. If you have ever seen the movie “The Killing Fields”, that is how things were when I was born there. Except much worse. Everyone in my family who were adults at that time says the movie didn’t show anywhere near the violence that actually happened. Did you know there are Khmer Rouge living in America now? They immigrated over with us. A lot of them live in Boston.”
Aun’s initial shyness was gone. She met my gaze directly, sitting upright: young, alert, attractive. Her skin is light brown, her hair is black, she has large brown eyes and a flashing smile. She is in a mood to talk: the subject is herself.
“I was three years old when my mother, brother, sister and I escaped Cambodia in the night. We went with leaders we didn’t know but had to trust. We had to be very quiet and there was little to eat. I was dying. I had the same disease a lot of children in our village had. My stomach was bloated and I was going blind. Many of our children died from this. Mother said I was dying too, but a doctor made me drink some herbal remedy and I got better. My mother was surprised. I don’t know why I seemed to be the only one who got the medicine.
“But I have always been lucky. We believe in karma, that what you have done in a past life affects your present life. I must have had good karma to survive the disease and get out of Cambodia alive. When I was in my mother’s stomach she won the Cambodian lottery. I tell her that it was because of my luck and that she owes me half of what she won.
“I know I am alive for a reason. I have a passion for helping others. I went to school to be a teacher, but now I feel more fulfilled helping my fellow Asians get used to life in America, and helping them with their problems. It is really not so hard over here. My mother said that compared to working for the Communists, working in America is very easy. You get to take a bus to work instead of walking, and you don’t have to work day and night, or when you are sick. It is very easy over here.”
We both had busy days ahead of us, but we talked for more than half an hour. When Aun relaxes she is confident and has the easy, happy energy of youth. I walked her to the door. As we said goodbye each of us turned in a different direction. Then we each looked back at each other, our eyes meeting and holding a quiet, smiling gaze together – a moment of grace shared before we went our separate ways.