I had my arms covered up to my elbows in chicken fry batter, and he worked the fryer. It was steamy and warm, my glasses glazed with a layer of grease and sweat that always seemed to be there no matter how often I cleaned them. We talked over the hissing fryers for the hour that our shifts overlapped. He had been in the South Vietnamese army and had been a prisoner of war after Saigon fell. I believed the good guys had won that war, though I tried never to say it. One day I asked him what it had been like to be a prisoner of war. He didn’t say much. I suggested that at least the North Vietnamese were not like the Khmer Rouge in executing their enemies. He surprised me. He said that killing and dying were easy. He made a trigger with his finger, held it up to an imaginary head, and pulled it. That’s easy, he said. His life as a prisoner—he told me—that had been hard.
He got a second job as a postal worker. He delivered mail along rural routes west of Hillsboro, Oregon. It pleased me so much to picture this small and smiling Vietnamese man, bouncing along dirt roads in his mail truck delivering letters and packages to rural Oregonians. The hour before he started his shift at the store, I would try to get as much done for him as I could. We all did. We all felt the same affection for him.
When his first child was stillborn everyone felt it. His wife was young. They had met in a refugee camp in Thailand. I think he must have been well into his forties but his small frame and his sparkling eyes made him seem much younger. But even this death did not fundamentally change his outlook on life. Eventually, he and his wife had a baby boy. He worked all day and into the evening. He spent the rest of his time with his family. He gave me a hard time for sleeping more than 5 hours a day. He jokingly wondered aloud when I would start working hard, although I already worked 40 hours a week and went to school full time on my two days off.
My work friends took me drinking on my last day as a full-time grocery clerk. I had done that job for six years as I figured out how to be something other than a manual laborer. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I have many pictures of that last day, acting silly in the store and getting very drunk afterwards. In one of my favorite pictures we are standing in a large group and I have my arm around his shoulders, big smiles on both our faces.
When he first started he didn’t speak much English and was unfamiliar with the equipment. It was very difficult to explain to him how to use or clean the machines. I couldn’t see how he was ever going to be able to do customer service. At the end of his first week, my boss asked me what I thought of the new hire. I said that if I were her, I would fire him and find someone else to do the job.
I’ll never forget that.
I’ll never forget that.
OneRepublic sings “I owned every second that this world could give/I saw so many places, the things that I did/With every broken bone, I swear I lived.” I can’t say the same thing. But to be honest, I don’t think anyone has lived that way, including the singer of this song. I would like to say, rather, that I lived life in the best way I could. But even that’s not true. I have done so many things wrong, so many things that I wish I had not done or wish I could have done differently. From my experience, the only thing you get from having lived is the life you lived.