By: Meh Sod Paw
Agnes Scott College, GA, USA
During my first summer in America at the age of 11, I was preoccupied. I spent my days trying to figure out ways to return to the friends whom I had left behind in a refugee camp in Thailand. I missed the summer fun of collecting any water we could find, splashing one another during the Water Festival holidays in my new home in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I sat around inside of the apartment, waiting for the monotonous summer days to pass as swiftly as possible. To avoid the emptiness in my life, I agreed to walk with my mother to Dollar Tree, a store that we had recently heard about. As we walked in the searing Georgia heat, she said, disappointed, “Yah-leh-ta-mu-ler-mu-mae-nya,” meaning that she preferred to “travel in front of the sun” to avoid the heat on her face. It bothered her that I woke up late that morning, that we were unable to beat the sunrise. I just hated the summer for arriving before I could make any new friends at school or in the neighborhood.
Walking on the road to Dollar Tree introduced us to the busy life of America. It involved so many cars. In the refugee camp, we had one small road of paved concrete. Cars did not arrive one after another. In the United States, neither my mother nor I knew how to cross the street. I saw the way that my mother navigated her life here. She ran at the traffic light intersection as soon as the walking signals came on, and all I could do was follow fanatically.
After crossing, we encountered our very first nail salon, which surprised my mother. She laughed looking at her hands–the cracks, wrinkles, and lines that mapped the contours of surviving a farmer’s life. From a young age, the life that she knew consisted of packing lunch and going to the rice farm before dawn. Nail enhancement was a weird, unnecessary concept. With those hands, she dragged me away from the wall of compelling advertisements that captivated my young eyes.
Our excursion in the heat made it feel good to walk into Dollar Tree’s two-door entrance and breathe its soothing, cool air. I liked how all of the items knew which section they belonged to. Everything had its own place. I stood in the aisle where the kitchen tools hung neatly in their own spots. Like them, I wanted to be found and placed where I would fit in. Big bottles of soda on the shelf brought back many etched memories of the small shops in the refugee camp. Each shop in the camp had a cooler filled with ice cubes and cans of soda. I learned to never walk to the cooler, knowing that there were never enough coins in my hand. Once, my mother gave me a cup of soda after she bought a bottle to offer to an important guest. To show appreciation to the people whom we respected, we offered them something more costly, like soda. It was fun for my siblings and me to watch the bubbles rise to the top of the bottle when my mother opened it. I thought about how lucky the kids in the United States must be, since they could see and taste the fizz much more often than I could. Things that were highly priced in a refugee camp only cost a dollar at Dollar Tree.
The very next day, after the first trip to Dollar Tree, my mother asked me to go out again. This time, we invited families in the neighborhood who were also Karen, an ethnic group from Burma. There was the man whom I called Uncle (Pah Tee) and his children. They never refused to come along with us on the walk. Since we were among the earliest refugee newcomers in the area, we did not know anyone who had a car. None of us really understood the new roads and streets, but we enjoyed being able to walk miles without seeing restricted signs like the ones back in the camp. When we all gathered to plan our trip on the street, everyone wanted go to Dollar Tree. No debating was involved. It was the closest store to our neighborhood and cheap enough that everyone could afford something.
Making our way to Dollar Tree as a group served as a time of sharing between the young and old. Pah Tee would mention how much he loved chicken; he cooked it for three months straight when he first arrived in the United States. Now, chicken no longer tasted as good as before, since he had been standing and working long hours at the chicken factory. The elders showed us their painful nails, blue from competing with the machines at the chicken factory. All summer long, their stories kept me busy, so I started worrying less about how lonely I was. All of us were trying to push through the land of unfamiliarity. Despite our dimmest phase of life, we were still walking on the busy street, being overly cautious and running at the crossroads to make it to Dollar Tree. When we got inside, it was a time of satisfaction. Pah Tee admitted that “America was truly the land of plenty.” On every trip to Dollar Tree, I always made sure to get my favorite snack: spicy Cheetos. Eating them made me happy. The spicy taste was the first thing that I found in the U.S. that was not foreign to me.
We visited Dollar Tree countless times that summer. After many trips, we noticed that the poster advertising flip flops had changed to one with falling snowflakes. By looking at the seasonal goods, we became aware of the special holidays that many Americans celebrated in the United States.
Without our realizing, years really had passed. We started going to stores that sold our cultural food and went to Dollar Tree less often. It became very easy to spot other Burmese on a street. Soon, our Karen neighbors could buy a car and move out of their apartments and into a house. We helped them carry their things out. Later came the day when my family also decided to move.
While my mom never entered the nail salon, Dollar Tree has become just another store. Walking on a street to Dollar Tree turned into staring at it through the window of my car. Each time I spot a Dollar Tree, my memories of navigating through the door of the unknown return. I feel a bit of heartache when I realize that happiness can only be found in Hot Cheetos once in a lifetime. I know now what I didn’t know then: that crossing traffic from the Dollar Tree to home was a one-way trip.