Walk in their shoes

Castlegar News bi-weekly columnist Karen Haviland reminisces about the sad plight of an acquaintance.

I first met Lin in 1977 after moving from Columbus, Ohio to Seattle, Washington to live with my young son and mother.

Lin was an exotic Vietnamese woman who moved into the apartment a couple of doors away from where we lived. She was so very young when I met her; likely not much older than 19 or 20. She was married to an American veteran who had served in Vietnam and so I assumed that is how they met. She never divulged the details to me though. That could have been because of our slight language barrier, or maybe it was simply something she didn’t care to discuss.

We would pass each other in the halls on occasion, exchange pleasantries or a smile and go on our way.

But after a while our pleasantries became friendly and lengthier exchanges. Without intent or effort we quickly became friends. Friends enough that she would invite me over to her home for tea and cozy little chats. It didn’t take me long to realize, though, that Lin was a victim of spousal abuse.

At first I simply and privately thought that Lin had married a controlling man. She never came to my apartment. For that matter, she never left her apartment except to go to the communal laundry room. She was virtually a prisoner in her own home. Here she was thousands of miles away from home, far from family and friends in a country to which she had never been before. Her English was poor, at best, and her husband was gone for long hours. The only time she went out, other than to the laundry room, was in the presence of her husband. He took her shopping, he took her to the many appointments with immigration and he was her only human contact other than those listed above and myself. I now know he liked it that way.

Not long after meeting Lin she told me, over a cup of tea, that she and her husband were expecting a baby. It was an exciting time for her, but an equally frightening time as well. Who was to help her carry out her customs, especially those concerning pregnancy and childbirth? Vietnamese, as in most cultures, have their own set of customs, one of which is not naming the baby until it is anywhere from four weeks to six weeks old.

Lin did have her baby, a girl, and so she followed through on that custom and simply called the girl by the Vietnamese name for baby girl.

When that baby reaches that milestone it is then customary to have a feast and name the baby. Because my mother and I were her only friends she invited us to the feast.

The weeks prior were filled with little excursions to local Vietnamese stores (always accompanied by her husband) in search of exotic, but to her, familiar foods.

The naming day finally arrived and that is the day I learned to love Vietnamese food. Most of it was unrecognizable and I consciously chose to not ask what was in some dishes. My mother and I were overwhelmed with the Vietnamese decorations and the food which was so laboriously prepared. I felt truly honoured to have been invited and often think back to that day.

That child has since grown and left the home, and so did Lin. You see, shortly after that ceremony I saw regular bruise marks appearing on Lin. When I asked her about it she told me that her husband had taken to drinking, staying out at night and beating her. She had nowhere to turn and no one to turn to. She was alone in the world except for her daughter and couldn’t, due to the language barrier, even secure a job to help her escape from her nightmare.

Mom and I moved up to Castlegar after that, but I kept track of Lin through my brother, who had also met her. It was a sad day when I heard that Lin had turned to prostitution on the streets of Seattle to free herself and her daughter from the tyranny of her abusive husband.

I still think of Lin, a foreigner in a strange country and wonder what I would have done had the circumstances been switched.

It’s easy to judge a person by their appearance or by what they did or are doing. It might not be as easy to walk in their shoes.