I was just another shopper in your line, indistinguishable from other shoppers on this Sunday morning, waiting—you might have assumed impatiently—for you to help the Vietnamese man with his three sons. Actually, I picked your line because of those boys… because the three-year-old in the cart dropped his right flip flop on the floor just as I was passing, so I picked it up and pulled into line, handing him his shoe as I smiled to recall countless shopping trips with my own boy-in-the-cart dropping a shoe. That would have been thirty or so years ago. It feels like yesterday.
And if you thought I was impatient—as you clearly were—you were wrong. Yeah, I wanted to get back home to mow the lawn before it was too hot, but I didn’t begrudge this man, brave enough to shop with his boys, the few minutes it took to help him. And yes, the whole ordeal would have gone much more quickly had he spoken English well. When you looked at him with all that disdain in your eyes, in the set of your jaw, and then spoke with the same disdain dripping from your words, he didn’t know what you meant when you said “less fat.” When your accusatory finger hammered the document indicating his federal assistance with certain grocery items, he didn’t understand your terse, “The milk is supposed to be less fat. Two percent. Do you want two percent? It has to be two percent.” The bag boy seemed cheerful enough as he trotted off to make the switch. And at that point, we all knew—you, me, the boys, the dad—no one was behind me in line—that we had a bit of a wait on our hands, so you could have been a bit gentler when you told him, “These are the wrong beans. The wrong beans. Do you want red or black beans? They have to be red or black.” I heard your disgusted sigh as you stormed away from the register, and if I heard it, of course the dad did, too, as did his sons. It wasn’t necessary; we all understood that you were intent on shaming him.
And suddenly, there I was, thirty years ago, a boy in the cart and three more on the ground, a single mother of four, shopping with food stamps. Oh, I was shamed, too, in a Stater Bros. not far from this one, by a checker who refused to disguise her contempt for a young mother with all those kids relying on public assistance. I didn’t hate her for judging me. I just noted her pathetic ignorance. She couldn’t know that I was a full time college student, that the minute I had divorced him my former husband split, for all intents and purposes abandoning his children—the so-called “special needs” children we had adopted together—refusing to ever pay a penny in child support—because his church leaders had counseled him to do so. Would knowing this have made a difference to her? Would it make a difference now, if she could see that I have devoted nearly half my life to public service, giving back not only in the taxes I pay but in the small attempts I make to change the world one student at a time? I doubt it.
Just as I doubt that knowing this man’s story would have helped you wipe that ugly smirk off your face as you were shoving two bags of beans in his face, your head tipped sidewise, your eyes rolling as you demanded, “Do you want red beans or black?”
It was when the oldest son stepped up to the counter to help out that I noticed his soccer jersey. The lettering said something in Vietnamese, something about Saigon.
It was at that point, dear impatient checker, that I almost lost it, almost began to cry in your line.
You seem to be my son’s age, maybe early 30’s. Unless you had a passionate U.S. History teacher in your junior year of high school, I doubt you have any idea what “Saigon” means to someone my age, someone who lived during that war in which we promised the people of South Vietnam we would help them… because their Communist neighbors to the north were coming to get them, to murder and enslave them… and after we promised to protect them we failed… and then fled, leaving behind “the killing fields” of South Vietnam. I watched the fall of Saigon from the safety and security of my comfortable home, saw the chaos at the U.S. embassy as hundreds pleaded for sanctuary, sat anxiously praying as cargo planes were loaded up with children who were brought here to escape the threatened blood bath. We had begun the adoption process. One of those planes could be carrying my future child. And when one went down, killing all aboard… all those beautiful, sad, terrified children, I was sick for days.
Who knows what this father is going through, trying to feed his sons, trying to make his way in a new world as he learns a new language—at his age, which I guess to be late 40’s, perhaps a decade older than you. Who knows what he endured in his country before he came here, what he has had to sacrifice to come to the U.S., land of the American Dream. You can’t know. You can’t possibly know.
If you did, would it have made a difference? Would you have been able to muster a bit more sensitivity to his predicament, his lack of English skills? Could you have been just the tiniest bit more civil as you shoved the receipt and his modest change into his hand?
Could you, please, the next time he steps up to your register?