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Beyond walls

Seated across from me is Marge, the North American in its best incarnation. But in many important ways she could just as well be Tan, the eight-year-old Vietnamese boy whose family she is discussing with me. She has his energy for exploring a new culture, his insistent joy, his disregard of walls.

She is telling me about a picnic. By all standards it should have been a very successful picnic -- Frisbees, fried chicken, a fire for late night stories , and no rain. But she wanted more. She wanted her special guests -- the Phans , her college students, and all her other friends -- not just to feast together, but to listen to each other.

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As Marge talks about her student friends, I find a lot of myself in them. "I thought they'd compete to spend time with the Phans," she says. "But when it was dinner time they left us. You know how loneliness -- even more than jobs or finances -- is the number one problem of families relocated in the United States. What does it take to make people care?"

"Marge, loneliness is the number one problem for a lot of college students, too, you know," I say, hoping she'll be satisfied with the irony.

"Well, they could have helped each other with their number one problem."

I should have known she would not be willing to let walls remain walls. But then Marge is an expert at scaling and demolishing walls.

Not long ago I had been a raw recruit for one of her wall-scaling expeditions. Needing volunteers to help with the tutoring sessions in the English language program for Vietnamese resettled in our area, she had taken me to the Phans' home. It was just after breakfast, and the house smelled of a rich, sweet, but unfamiliar meal. Mrs. Phan greeted us with her few words of English.

From behind her skirts. I saw a small dark head appear and disappear. "And this is On," Marge told me, catching up this youngest of the eight Phan children in her arms. "On, will you dance for me again?" She had wooed this child ever since the family had arrived, talking English to this little one who was too young even to know her native tongue. Finally, just a few weeks before this visit, Mrs. Phan had told Marge quite unexpectedly, "On would like to dance for you."

Now, with coaxing and laughing from her family, On danced again. It was a lilting poem, eloquent in silence. While her family sang and clapped an accompaniment, the child moved among the pieces of hand-me-down furniture as though she were on some familiar, quiet village street. After the dance, she skittered out of the room, but Tan, her brother, took over, bouncing in rhythm from couch to chair, spreading grins until his mother could stand no more.

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this came Tan and his two younger brothers were to be my students in the tutoring sessions. The three boys and I leafed through magazines, pointing at pictures of motorcycles, baseball games, televisions, and fast cars. We took walks, pointing at street signs, houses, shop windows, repeating numbers, names, and directions. The boys charmed me with their jokes, raced me down the street, and challenged me to play tag.

One morning when the rain kept us from our walk and they'd had enough of magazines and word games, Tan wandered away to a bookshelf in the corner of our classroom. "Come back and guess what this is, Tan," I said in my most teacherly voice. He came back, but he shoved a book under my face. I opened it to find a delicate tracery of characters, completely unintelligible to me as a language.

"Vietnamese," he said. "Read Vietnamese."

I sat for a moment, fumbling, wondering desperately if there was some way to explain why I could not enter his world as fast as I wished him to enter mine. He and his family had crossed battle lines and treacherous waters to reach my world. Yet I could not, at this moment, cross the rough seas of my ignorance.

It had been so easy to give his family clothes and furniture, to paint and fix the house for them. We'd all helped neighbors before. But when the Phans needed the less tangible, the unaskable companionships -- someone to talk with and to listen, in order to stave off loneliness -- I had faltered. I felt the illiteracy of my difference more than I felt the absence of a common language.

As I sit listening to Marge now, I long to tell her what I could not tell Tan. I might try to find the words, something like: We have to learn another kind of language -- the one you and On and Tan speak. You hug without embarrassment. On dances, Tan acts with courage. Tan reaches out and pushes at the edges of loneliness because he recognizes the same need: to diminish our own strangeness by diminishing the strangeness of others.

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