Thursday, August 5, 2010

Time Magazine "Cover Girl"

My hat is off to Time Magazine and the Afghan girl who posed for the portrait of her face after Taliban elders permitted her husband and brother-in-law to cut off her nose (and ears) for running from a beating. The photo filled me with a special form of rage, because of the extent to which my life has brought me into contact with this issue.

For years I and my wife babysat the little Vietnamese girl, Nhu, who lived next to us with both of her parents, Thanh and Trang. We loved all of them, but especially the little girl. That little one was a "southpaw," like me. In fact, she was the most left left-handed kid I ever met. She was left-eyed and left-footed, not just left-handed. I bonded so well with that little one that she could almost read my mind. She was the daughter I never had.

One day, I spied a yellow fiberglass rod in the corner of their living room. To the wife I said, "Trang, what is that for?" The wife answered, "Peter, Thanh and I will be using that to punish Nhu." I said, "What??? For what, Trang??? Nhu is the gentlest, most obedient little kid I ever met!!! You are planning to whip her???" Trang answered, "We only have to do it once. She will never forget!" I skeptically thought, "Sur-r-r-r-r-re they'll only do it 'once'!"

That night, I was called over to help little Nhu with her math homework. Her parents' marriage had been 'rocky,' and they wife had gone south to Florida with Nhu for a few weeks' separation. During that time, Nhu had missed a lot of schooling. Now that her parents were together again, trying to repair things, Nhu was in "catch-up" mode in school, and needed help.

When I entered their house, I saw Thanh, the husband, in a flowered apron doing dishes -- a startling sight, in a Vietnamese household. Trang, the wife, was cleaning house. The mood was somber. I glanced over to the corner of the living room. The rod was still there.

I set to work on the 25 math problems with Nhu, who was 8 years of age. She was a quick study. She banged through the problems lickety-split. But, 25 problems are 25 problems. They take time.

We got to Problem #25 at 9:55 p.m. It was the hardest problem with the most novel components. Just as I said, "Okay, now let's do what will look to you like the hardest problem of all," Thanh in the kitchen held out the dish towel, and said, "Nhu!," and then he gave her an order in Vietnamese. Clearly, he was telling her to finish drying the dishes.

Nhu answered in a mix of English and Vietnamese. The English portion made it clear that she said something like, "Dad, we're about to do the last math problem. I need Mr. Peter's help to do it. We are almost done. It is 5 minutes before 10. If I do the dishes first, it will be that much later that Mr. Peter will get home to Rise`. Please let me finish." She said it calmly and rationally, without begging.

Thanh exploded, and began to run toward the fiberglass rod. Trang was quiet. I jumped up and I whispered, "Thanh, she's trying to be a good person! Don't punish her for that!" Thanh growled, "This is none of your business, Peter!"

I ran to Trang and whispered, "Trang, you can't punish her for balancing things to try to be a good person!" Trang sternly said, "Go home, Peter."

After the door closed behind me, out on the front porch I heard Nhu scream.

Two days later was babysitting day. Little Nhu knew that I tried to save her. In her innocent kid way she said, "Mr. Peter, look!" She pulled the waist of her pants down and her shirt up (consistent with decency) just enough to let me see part of the deep red gash running up from her buttocks to her back. I thought, "Those bastards! They whipped a little girl with a fiberglass rod on her bare skin for being good!"

About a year and a half later, when we were still allowed to babysit Nhu, she said to me, "Mr. Peter, can I ask you a question?" I said, "Sure, kid!" She said, "Mr. Peter, do you remember the day my dad whipped me with the yellow stick?" I said, "Yes." Nhu asked, "Why was I whipped?" I answered, "You were whipped because, instead of simply obeying dad immediately, you asked to finish your homework first, before doing dishes, so that I could go home to Rise` sooner." Nhu looked at me with astonishment. "WHAT???!!! BUT THAT MEANS THAT DAD WHIPPED ME FOR TRYING TO BE GOOD!"

I quietly said, "I know, Nhu."

She added, "What did mom whisper to you? Was she in favor of me being whipped?"

I lied. I said that she wasn't.

Afterwards, I felt so dirty for telling that lie.

Nhu added, "Mr. Peter, did you know that my dad whipped me several times after that, with the stick, hangers and a belt?"

I thought, "I wonder if Trang puts up with that for the support money? Is Nhu helping to buy Trang's condo with the skin on her back?"

Soon after that, we were never allowed to see little Nhu again.

I want to take the cover of Time Magazine, and rub Thanh and Trang's faces in it.

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