It was another day in the home improvement center. Half of the people I asked if I could help them said no because they were embarrassed they could not speak English.
I met Tan in the Hardwood flooring aisle. He was with two other short Cambodians, and each smiled a lot and seemed to be always tugging at their shirt front, a habit fat people often developed so their clothes didn’t become tucked into belly creases. One of Tan’s friends pushed a cart, and they spoke a lot and buzzed around the cart, hurrying here and there.
Tan asked for me by name, and said the manager sent him over. Right away he started telling me about a tile project he was undertaking, and handed me a sheet of paper with all his measurements on it. Like all my Latino customers, he expected me to calculate how much tile he would need. Tan and his friends shared such enthusiasm for the work that I too got caught up in the excitement.
I would tell him something, and he would translate to Cambodian and the three men would discuss it, each shooting back some quick words as the shuffled around the cart in plastic sandals, looking at this and that tile.
As I went through my calculations I began forming an idea of what I thought Tan’s house must look like, and what the tile job would look like. All total I guess I spent over an hour helping them, pulling down another pallet of tile with the forklift, and then having the communal discussion about what type of thinset he should use for the job. At times I felt I was back in Cambodia dealing with village elders, and not in a busy Home Improvement Center in the U.S.A.
Finally he had two carts loaded with the supplies I helped him with, and he turned and shook my hand. From his notes he took a photo of his house to show me.
“Your tile make my house very good,” he said.
I looked at the photo and was shocked. I had imagined a California bungalow, something I knew, a house I felt a bond with, a house from my culture, like so many I had worked on during my contractor days. But the house he showed me was a direct transplant from Cambodia, with multiple little pagoda towers, totally foreign to anything I knew.
After Tan left, I continued to think about our interaction, thinking about how different we were, each coming from countries so different and strange to the other, meeting in a home improvement center in the U.S.A. But no matter where we met, each retained our culture, a pair of sunglasses through which we see the world and measure everything by, calculate right and wrong, even our idea of what a house should look like, what is eaten in that house, the relationship between the man and woman there. Then I realized that Tan carried all that with him because he had been raised in Cambodia. But his children who are born here would have a different pair of sunglasses, a different culture. Before I started my closing chores, I wondered how difficult that must be as a parent, to see your own children with foreign values, foreign likes and language.