Dear refugee child in your first year of arrival in a new country,
Your mother, who everyone says was beautiful in the old country, is no longer beautiful here in the new. He had to cut his hair long to get a job at the factory. Long-time aunts in this country tell her that short hair is much safer when working with machines with large teeth and invisible hands.
She says people at work don’t look at her. She tries to make a joke: “It’s good that they don’t look at me anymore because if they do, I could look back and the heavy cars that I push could fall on me!”
‘You lose your accent immediately’
Your father, who has a strong voice that is deep but soft like the honey that runs down his throat in Hmong, has lost his voice in English. In the new language, your voice has no power to travel. The air inside him dies in his mouth. All he can say is, “Hi, I’m sorry, please help me, thank you.”
You wonder where the poetry has gone. This man whose shoulders were straight and strong enough to hold you up so that you could touch the leaves on the underbelly of the trees. This man whose songs carried you like wings through the empty spaces of your life. How is it that in this new place, the fear inside him comes out of his mouth every time he tries to say something?
Your older sister is learning English. She says that all colors are “yellow”. She tells you, “If you put an s at the end of every word in English, you lose your accent immediately.”
In stores that sell clothes that people no longer want, choose only the most important-looking items: a button-down shirt with a white collar and a brown belt to match your jeans. You want the t-shirts with the cartoons, but some of the cartoons have gotten so stretched that their faces have gotten wider and longer than they should be, so you know the other kids will know it’s an old t-shirt. they dress like new.
Your sister thinks you should also get used to wearing jeans to make you look like the other kids at school, but the fabric is stiff and hard and makes you miss your shorts from the afterlife.
‘You try to swallow the dry pieces’
The food. How do you miss the slippery smoothness of the bone broth fermented rice noodles that vendors sold at the camp market. With just one baht, you could buy a bowl. You could put as much sugar as you like in the broth. You can add thinly sliced cabbage and banana, mint, and coriander flowers. You would eat it all and then tilt the bowl until the last chunk of broth ran down your throat. Now, at school, they give you cold bread and cold cuts and a thin yellow thing called “cheese” that is a little salty but not sweet at all. You can barely eat it, so you poke inside the bread with your hands and try to swallow the dried pieces while everyone at the table looks at you.
The children at the long table are looking at you and you no longer know where to look. You look at the pieces of bread in your hands and you can feel the food in your mouth go dry and dry. The children begin to laugh. You look at them furtively. Some of them have taken the bread from the meat, eat it, chew it, with their mouths wide open. He also notices that he is chewing with his mouth wide open.
It is the only way he has known how to eat. It’s the way the people around you ate in the refugee camp. The food was a great treat. The goal was to eat and swallow it. No one has ever told you that you were eating it badly. No one has laughed at you for that.
Liquid that does not get into your mouth gets into your eyes. You know you are crying, but now there is a burning in your heart. You will not stop eating. You can’t stop crying. The laughter calms down. You feel the hands of an adult on your shoulder. The teacher says, “What is it?” You look at the person’s face but it is filtered through the water.
You are at the bottom of a well. You are looking up. There is light There is a face. Everything shakes in the water.
You are now in the principal’s office. There is a Hmong translator. He is older than your father but he can speak English. He says, “Muaj teebmeem dabtsi?” What is the problem? – He wants to know.
The problem is this place that does not see your mother, that does not listen to your father, that laughs at you. All you can say is, “I miss my mom and dad.”
The man nudges you. Why do you miss them today more than yesterday or the day before?
‘The things you have already learned is the reason you are alive’
His question makes you cry even more. You can’t tell him the truth, that today, not yesterday or the day before, is the day you’ve learned that the way your mother and father taught you to eat your whole life is wrong here in America. The more you think about his question, the more you cry.
He tells you: “Here in this country, you have to learn to do things the same way as other people to survive.”
His words will live inside you for a long time. Sometimes you will believe them. Other times, it won’t because it knows that the things it has already learned is the reason it is alive. And here. Nonetheless.
This new country makes you feel many things, it will push and pull who you are, it will try to destroy the way you see the people who love you the most, who you love the most, but if you survive, it will make you want to change this place to make it better. , kinder to new people arriving, new refugees, new refugee children.
Refugee child, all you have to do is survive. Everything will come later. The beauty of your mother. The sound of your father’s voice in your language. The place you will occupy at that table full of laughing children. All you have to do is survive that first year, that second year, that third year, and so on.
All you have to do is remember: you are not alone.
A refugee woman who was a girl like you who has survived