Waking Up in America as a Refugee

On One Family's First Days in Austin

The heat that first morning was the worst part. Their jet‑lagged bodies had finally relaxed into sleep as the sun was rising, so Mu Naw and Saw Ku woke in the late morning drenched in sweat in an airless box of a room. The caseworker had shown them how to adjust their thermostat, but when they tried it, a terrifying whooshing noise frightened them, and they turned the dial up again so that it would stop. They combated the sweltering heat by taking cold showers, a marvel of their new home. Showering in the refugee camp was a communal activity, something done in public with a plastic bucket and a ritualistic movement of the thin longyi cloth to stay covered and still get clean. The water had come from the mountains through a pipe to the corner of the camp designated for bathing; the lines were always long. In this new place, they had an entire room for themselves. They could close the door and be entirely naked. Mu Naw giggled uncontrollably after her first shower, continually catching glimpses of her body in the large mirror when she dried off with the towels someone had supplied. She had never been completely uncovered when she bathed before. She had seen movies in the camps in which the people showered in bathrooms and slept in beds. The first day felt as if she were living on a Hollywood set.

After pulling on her skirt and tunic and slipping into her black rubber sandals, Mu Naw walked back into the bathroom to comb and braid her hair. The room still felt damp; the paint on the door felt tacky under her fingers. She knew what bamboo felt like when it rained in Thailand, the way the fibers thickened on the walls of her home. This new sensation, of dampness isolated to one room, fascinated her. The lights over the mirror were bright and she stared at her face in the mirror. It’s not that she hadn’t seen her face before— they had a small handheld mirror she had propped up in the hut in Thailand every day, there were mirrors in some of the shops in the camp market—but this brightly lit enormous mirror felt almost intrusive.

She studied her face in this new light. She smiled and then frowned and noticed how her face changed. When she smiled, her eyebrows lifted and her cheeks pulled back, bringing her cheekbones into prominence. When she did not smile, her cheeks looked fuller. Mu Naw could see in her own cheeks the echo of the baby cheeks she loved to kiss on Naw Wah, who looked more like her mother than Pah Poe, who took after Saw Ku. On herself, Mu Naw had always despised those full cheeks. She wished she were taller, that her skin were lighter. In the light of the rounded bulbs above the mirror, she could see that the thanaka she normally wore when she was outside had left her cheeks and forehead slightly lighter than the skin around it. Her eyebrows were shaped like bamboo halved longwise—a gentle, even curve arching above her eyes. Her lips were not much darker than her skin. Her chin ended with a point; her face was like a heart. She was quietly pleased with her nose, the tip slightly rounder than many of her friends’ growing up. Her black hair reached to the middle of her back, and it smelled like berries from the shampoo. She parted it severely down the middle, pulling her plastic comb through it and braiding it at the nape of her neck. She decided she had had enough of seeing herself for the day and went to make breakfast for her family.

Mu Naw opened the refrigerator in the kitchen. The air inside it poured out, chilling the room. It smelled faintly of stale food. Inside, there was one roasted chicken in a plastic tub with a cardboard label she could not read, and four apples. When she peeled off the cardboard label and opened the plastic cover, she saw the chicken’s legs were tied together with twine and it was sitting in congealed fat. The apples set on the shelf beside the chicken were small. She took both chicken and apples out of the refrigerator. There was a large bag of rice sitting on the counter but, when she dug through the cabinets, she could not find a way to cook the rice. The girls, who had been stoic the night before in the face of the strangers who escorted them from the airport, were now whining with hunger, heat, and fatigue. Mu Naw cut one of the apples with a knife she found in a drawer and laid an equal number of slices on thin white plates on the table for each girl.

The chicken should be hot and should be served with the rice. She looked at the stove and wondered how to get fire out of it. In her home in Mae La camp that Saw Ku had lovingly constructed from bamboo he cut behind the camp with his machete, she had cooked over a charcoal stove in the outdoor kitchen nook in the back. Their stove was a large clay vase with a metal grill on top. She lit coals in the lower part and cooked sizzling meat over the fire. She prepared rice in the metal‑and‑bamboo rice cooker that was a staple in everyone’s home there. The coals heated the water in the metal base of the rice cooker; steam rose through the bamboo cone, trapped by the lid on top. The rice cooked evenly, retaining the earthy hint of bamboo and smoke from the charcoal fire; it was flavorful and filling. She often added vegetables, chilies, and spices. Even with the limited food available in the camp, she was an excellent cook; just thinking about the rice made her stomach growl.

At some point, Mu Naw began to cry, the tears rolling silently down her cheeks, afraid to frighten the children.

She looked distastefully at the lemony‑scented chicken wrapped with soaked twine. Hesitating, she turned each of the four knobs on the front of the stove and nothing happened. She opened the large metal door; the burned remnants of the previous tenants’ dinners lined the corners with ash. Also cold. She turned all of the knobs: it remained cold. She turned them off again. She looked underneath—was there a coal compartment she could not find? Saw Ku came in and sat with the children munching solemnly on their apples at the table. They watched Mu Naw turning the stove handles; Saw Ku got on his knees and looked under the stove. Nothing worked. It was another mystery they would have to add to their list of questions for someone to address. Someone would come soon, surely, so Mu Naw sliced the greasy chicken legs off for each of the children and deftly divided the remaining meat onto the white plates. They had not eaten last night and had not had breakfast that morning; the chicken was at least full of protein and they ate their fill, sucking on the bones afterward to get the last of the meat flavor.

Mu Naw bathed and dressed the girls after their unsatisfying meal. They pulled the red and white covers up on the bed and went into the living room. They sat down on the brown couch to wait. They did not speak. They listened to the sounds of the apartments around them—children playing in the courtyard outside, their upstairs neighbors moving around, someone running up the stairs. Someone shouted out a name. They could hear cars starting and radios playing. Pah Poe and Naw Wah soon tired of sitting, so they played together quietly. They knew better than to disturb their parents. Saw Ku and Mu Naw sat stiffly on the brown couch waiting. At some point, Mu Naw began to cry, the tears rolling silently down her cheeks, afraid to frighten the children.

After hours of waiting, the sun began to set. There were three apples left. Mu Naw sliced two of them for the children’s dinner, leaving the last apple alone in the refrigerator. She thought regretfully of the chicken bones that they had already sucked clean and thrown into the small garbage can under the kitchen sink. Her mother might have dug them out for the children to suck on further, but Mu Naw knew that her mother lived dirtily and that Saw Ku’s family had been clean. She did not want to ever be dirty when she could be clean. She left the bones in the trash. They nibbled apple slices.

They took showers again to cool themselves off. They climbed into bed together. Again, Saw Ku and Mu Naw could not sleep. Saw Ku’s belly grumbled; they had not had a great variety of food in Mae La camp, but the rations of rice and golden beans and the cans of catfish that they could fry or grill had been regularly delivered and their children had never starved.

That night, lying in bed, Mu Naw felt a formidable anger rise. She had been promised a new life in this country. No one came to their house today. How would they find the food they would need if no one delivered, gathered, or harvested it? Were the stores big or small, and how would she know the right English words to say so she could ask for the things they needed? She knew theoretically that there would be jobs and food and schools in this new life, but how was she to find these things? Had they been lied to this whole time?

She felt abandoned and deceived. She tried to keep her heaving sobs from shaking the bed so that the children would stay asleep. Saw Ku’s hand found hers again and she clung to it.

*

She met Saw Ku for the first time when they were fifteen. They were both in the fifth grade, along with many of the others their age who had lost years of education to the civil war. Mu Naw thought Saw Ku was cute, with his square jaw, pale skin, artfully unkempt hair. She assumed that he would like her friend, a tall, long‑haired beauty whom all the boys in Mae La camp seemed obsessed with. So, when, a few weeks into the start of the new school year, she got a note through a friend from Saw Ku, she was shocked. The love note to her was elegantly written, though the description of her beauty seemed a bit off to Mu Naw; later he confessed that he had written the note for her beautiful friend and not Mu Naw, but at the last minute, had a sudden change of heart. He called back their mutual friend who was acting as messenger and told her he had decided to send the message to Mu Naw instead. Saw Ku and Mu Naw laughed about it together over the years. Saw Ku knew of several other boys who already liked the other girl and suddenly he realized he would rather have a life with the girl who looked fun, who was comfort‑ able in her skin, than the beautiful girl who would probably never return his affection. And that was it, a decision made swiftly in a schoolyard at the age of fifteen.

They kept their relationship a secret for a year; Mu Naw’s family was an obstacle to be overcome rather than a source of pride to either of them, and the gossipy camp life was exhausting to both of them—secrecy felt easier. They wrote each other letters and slipped them discreetly to each other. Mu Naw was still quietly sure that Saw Ku had made a mistake, that he would regret declaring his love for her on a whim, but he did not. He found her insightful and full of joy. She did not complain like many of the other girls. Her mind was swift, making connections he often marveled at. Her eyes half‑mooned with mischief when she teased him. He loved her effortlessly.

The other girls, not knowing Saw Ku was her secret boyfriend, pined after him at school, whispering all the things they would do if Saw Ku asked them out, and she passed the information along, giggling, to her boyfriend in the grove under the trees where they met some afternoons. One day, with no warning, he came up and said in front of her friends, “I want to talk to my girlfriend.” She followed him, a blush overtaking her face, while her friends squealed.

When she met her future mother‑in‑law for the first time, Mu Naw was deferential and polite, eyes cast down, every movement showing her respect and docility, every line on her body communicating her desire for Saw Ku’s mother’s blessing. Later, Mu Naw would become Christian for them. She would leave her mother for them. She would raise her children to be clean rather than perpetuating the messy chaos of her mother’s home. Her mother‑in‑law was duly impressed. They were married two years later and moved into the one‑room bamboo hut Saw Ku built for them.

Saw Ku got one of the few available jobs in the camp, helping the NGO that educated people about hygiene, a critical part of living in a camp like Mae La. People who did not boil their water died of diseases that ripped through their bodies and often infected others. People who did not use the prescribed bathrooms put everyone at risk of cholera. People who did not correctly bank their cooking fires caused homes to blaze, a disaster for a camp built entirely out of bamboo. Saw Ku was an earnest part of the NGO campaigns, knocking on his neighbors’ doors to teach them or invite them to educational plays put on by Karen people with Westerners’ direction. Mu Naw was proud of her young husband, but they both chafed with the boredom and limitations of life in a permanent refugee camp.

*

On Sunday, their second morning in Austin, they ate the last apple. Mu Naw sliced it thinly so that it would take longer for the children to eat. By midafternoon, they had showered and dressed and sweated through their clothes again in the airless apartment, waiting for someone to come. Naw Wah could not stop crying, a fretting noise that was not like her. Naw Wah was not a fussy toddler, but she was hungry and there was nothing to eat. The bag of rice sat tauntingly on the kitchen counter. Naw Wah finally fell into a fitful sleep on the big bed. Saw Ku was visibly sweating through his T‑shirt. He told Mu Naw he was going to take a cold shower again. As soon as he closed the bathroom door, Mu Naw opened her hand‑woven bag and made sure the envelope that held the money the IOM woman had given them—$25 for each person in their family, $100 total—was still inside. She put the bag across her body, grabbed her older daughter’s hand and slipped out of the house, closing the door behind them. She was going to find some food.

Pah Poe was five and very quiet, exhibiting the almost stoic behavior of a well‑trained Karen daughter. She did not protest when her mother pulled her along. The bright afternoon sun bounced off cement sidewalks. The buildings were painted brick red with dark blue trim; on closer inspection the red walls held gloppy remnants of the blue trim paint and the cement foundation was splattered with dried paint in both colors. The squat buildings were situated close enough together to hold the spring heat between them. When they walked into the courtyard, a breeze picked up and lifted Mu Naw’s hair off her face. It was good to be in moving air again. She strode toward the big road that she could see past the buildings. On the sidewalk, she passed a group of young men in T‑shirts smoking cigarettes. Sweat prickled at the back of her neck. She held Pah Poe’s hand and walked swiftly. She had no idea what they said as she moved down the sidewalk littered with cigarette butts and pieces of trash that had clearly been left in the sun for weeks.

Mu Naw moved across the parking lot to the edge of the driveway. It was on a curve of the road and cars raced by. They stood there for a minute, unsure what to do, and continued down the sidewalk rather than crossing the street. She and Pah Poe walked past the edge of the red and blue apartments, past a yawning parking lot, past a tall sign with words and a graphic of a dove and a sun, past two houses made out of brick with brown‑shingled roofs. She came to the end of the block and stopped, unsure where to turn. Across the street, she saw a canary yellow sign with black writing. The first word and third word were not ones she recognized, but she knew the second word from her English classes in Mae La camp: “Food.”

Holding Pah Poe’s hand resolutely, Mu Naw crossed the street when a pickup truck stopped at the stop sign, walking carefully between the white lines as she had done two days before at the Austin airport. She watched the driver nervously the whole time, the exhaust from the engine filling her nostrils, but he waited for her. She put her hand on the metal bar of a door plastered with brightly colored advertisements that Mu Naw didn’t even try to decipher. Boldly, she pushed the glass door open.

She prayed silently that the money was enough. He handed her back several bills and a handful of coins, which she tucked carefully back into the envelope.

There were stacks and rows of things that neither of them had ever seen, entire aisles full of items that Mu Naw’s eyes slid past because she did not understand them. She smelled coffee that had been left too long on the burner, unwashed bodies and smoke, the metallic scent of air‑conditioning, the sweet smell of cakes. She wanted cake.

Pah Poe let go of her mom’s hand and raced toward the chips, ones in the same kind of crinkly bag they sold in the hut store at Mae La camp, asking in a higher‑pitched voice if they could have some.

“Let’s get some!” Mu Naw told her, grabbing bag after bag. She had no idea how much they cost, how to even measure the numbers on the small signs in front of the items in relation to the $100 in cash she had in the envelope in her purse—it would be weeks before she understood the words for “dollars” and “cents.” She held the chip bags close to her body with her left hand and reached for other items that looked familiar: packaged cakes and juice boxes. There were no fruits or vegetables and she did not know what the other cans or the other bags held in them.

She and Pah Poe took their armfuls of items to the front, waited in line behind a woman buying a Coke and a pack of gum, and then spilled their purchases onto the counter in front of the startled clerk. He said something to Mu Naw, and she neither acknowledged his remark nor asked questions. She took the cash out of the envelope inside her bag and slid it to him. He asked another question and she looked back at him expressionlessly. She would not show fear. Without another word, he began to swipe over the items with a black plastic box in his hand; a red light shone on each chip bag and, when it pinged, he would set it aside in a small plastic bag. When he was done, he said something to Mu Naw again. She gestured tersely with her chin, pointing at the money in a pile on the counter beside him. She prayed silently that the money was enough. He handed her back several bills and a handful of coins, which she tucked carefully back into the envelope.

Pah Poe carried one plastic bag and Mu Naw carried four as they walked back carefully hand in hand. Mu Naw knew she had arrived at the right apartment because there was nothing in front: no plants or towels or bikes or shoes. She set down her bags to open the door.

Saw Ku threw the bathroom door open quickly, his hair still damp from spending so long in the cool water.

“Did you leave? Where were you?” His voice was startled and relieved. “Pah Poe and I went to find food.” She gestured with her chin at the bags she had brought in as she set them down on the table.

“Food! Where did you find food? Did they come back and bring it to us?”

Mu Naw told Saw Ku about walking along the sidewalk and recognizing the word “food” on the store sign; Pah Poe punctuated the story with her own contribution: “I saw the chips!”

They sat down at the dining room table and pulled item after item out of the bags and ate with no preamble, stuffing themselves with the chips and cake, washing it down with the juice Mu Naw had found for her family. When Saw Ku smiled at her, a potato chip crumb clung to the corner of his mouth. She laughed and he swiped at his mouth, spreading more crumbs across his cheek. The children giggled and Saw Ku blew out his cheeks at them, waggling his eyebrows and his ears. Pah Poe folded over with laughter and begged him to do it again and again. Every time he agreed, until their laughter faded into comfortable, homey silence broken only by the crinkle of foil wrappers and the rustle of cellophane.

__________________________________

After the Last Border

From After the Last Border by Jessica Goudeau, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Jessica Goudeau.

Jessica Goudeau
Jessica Goudeau
Jessica Goudeau has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Teen Vogue, among other places, and is a former columnist for Catapult. She produced projects for Teen Vogue (“Ask a Syrian Girl”) and A Line Birds Cannot See, a documentary about a young girl who crossed the border into the US on her own. She has a PhD in literature from the University of Texas and served as a Mellon Writing Fellow and Interim Writing Center Director at Southwestern University. Goudeau has spent more than a decade working with refugees in Austin, TX and is the cofounder of Hill Tribers, a nonprofit that provided supplemental income for Burmese refugee artisans for seven years.





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