The garden of life

In East Dallas' Little Asia, a community blooms in fields of litter

A whole lot of people came. Quickly.
And whether it was emergency or expedience that dumped so many of the first ones into the area around Peak and Bryan streets, between Gaston and Live Oak in East Dallas, the impact on the refugees was the same. They came here from hell. But East Dallas scared the hell out of them all over again.

Down Fitzhugh from the Live Oak garden, past Jimmy's Foods, Bobbye Hall's Hobby Shop, and the Binh Minh Market, in another Asian garden, Khomang Chunang is kneeling at the border of one of her two family plots and breaking up little clods of East Dallas gumbo soil with her fingers. She's wearing a magenta windbreaker, knit cap, aqua slacks, and neat white tennies. She plants green onion sets someone manages to bring in for her from Thailand.

"They are more fragrant and sweeter than the ones I can get here," she tells me through an interpreter.

She tells me about her two teenage sons who go to Spence Middle School. They're doing well, she says. Pretty well. They speak no Cambodian. She speaks very little English. She looks a little worried when she talks about them.

Khamhou Khamphong, head of the Lao Women's Association, has already told me that the mythology of industrious Asian youth hurrying home from school to do their homework and honor their parents comes to a bitter end with the ones who are born here. She says 60 percent of the American-born Asian children in DISD are dropping out before graduation. Many succumb to drugs.

Khomang Chunang doesn't garden only for her health. She needs the money she gets from selling these onions to help support her family. I ask her to pause in her work and humor me with a hypothetical question.

If she could raise her sons anywhere on earth, in any place she chose, where would it be? The translator puts it to her a couple of times to get it right. She smiles at me (a look that says, in part, "You're a little nuts, aren't you?"). She puts her head back to dream. And then she says:

"Garland."
Ah, Garland! It's where many of the more upwardly mobile Lao and Cambodians have gone. But they have also gone to Richardson, on the heels of the Vietnamese, the Chinese, and the Koreans. And some have gone much farther, many to small rural outposts far from the city.

Now I ask her a question I know she won't want to answer, because she will worry that her answer may seem impolite or ungrateful. I ask her how she felt on that very first day in 1986 when she stood on the front steps of her new home--some junked-out stewardess apartment building, I'm sure, with winos and hookers in the front yard--and got a good, long look at America.

Her hands come together in front of her. She knits her fingers and knits her brow. Still smiling but with a rueful dip of the head to the interpreter, she says, "I was worried. Worried and afraid."

Peter Pich, now a teacher in the Dallas public schools, was 16 years old when his family landed in East Dallas from Cambodia. He met me one evening in the back room of the East Dallas Police Storefront. Founded by Ron Cowart when he was a patrolman in the early '80s and funded in part by the Meadows Foundation, the storefront is the unofficial City Hall of Little Asia in East Dallas.

Pich tries to explain what it was like for him to come here. The larger experience of leaving his life in Southeast Asia and coming to America in the first place was disconcerting enough, he said.

"Just try to imagine yourself," he says, "if you were 16 years old, and you had nothing but the clothes on your back, if they picked up you up one day and put you down on the street in China."

Pich, a handsome, intense young man, has mastered the American habit of bluntness. He talks about the specific experience of coming not just to America but to East Dallas.

Obviously he came from a very bad place at the time--a teeming refugee camp in Thailand, with death and horror lurking just beyond the barbed wire. But that's not exactly what we are talking about this evening, sitting a few feet from each other in the police officers' desk chairs at the back of the storefront.

"In Laos," he says, "America is the most wonderful place in the world, the very best place. It's what everyone believed in the refugee camps."

He remembers his first day in East Dallas. Maybe I saw him then and didn't know it. I used to drive by the apartment buildings and marvel at the crowds of bewildered people in sarongs and saffron wraps. They would come out and stand in speechless throngs in front of the junked-out apartment buildings, staring--staring at the hookers, staring at the Hispanic mothers leading their kids to school by a tightly held finger, staring at the Bonfire 500 motorists, staring at me as I passed with eyes that asked, "Where are we? Are you a good man or a monster? Can you tell us anything?" I never got out of my car.

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