I want to tell you of a young man who entered my life briefly in 1981 and why I still think of him. This is also a story of gratitude, hospitality and human dignity. For the life of me I can’t remember his name much less spell it. He was a Cambodian who had lived through the unspeakable horrors of the Pol Pot regime, had been in an overcrowded refugee camp in Asia for two years waiting to emigrate and had finally realized his dream.
When I met this quiet fellow, I had just begun working at Sooter Studios in Winnipeg. It wasn’t a bad place to be, although we Canadians grumbled from time to time that we weren’t getting paid well enough. Mr. Sooter however was thick-skinned and got around that little annoyance by hiring new immigrants who practiced gratitude more frequently than we few native Winnipeggers. There was a happy, noisy and enthusiastic Filipino contingent, a smaller focussed Indian group by way of Uganda, the result of the purge by Idi Amin of anyone not native born African, a smattering of new Canadians from eastern European countries and of course, my young Cambodian fellow employee. To my delight, I soon found that the various ethnic groups had worked out a schedule whereby they would take turns at month end to cook their native food for everyone else. It was a lovely custom! We became good friends while sharing pots and pots of noodles and vegetables spiced with sauces and bits of meat. We had samosas to die for, curried dishes and wonderful soups of root vegetables with hearty loaves. The whole event was always edifying as well as gastronomically wonderful. Breaking bread together bonds people. It loosens the tongue and makes a person inclined to share their story. Well, for most folks. What about the young man from Cambodia?
One day I was taking late lunch due to a rush job that had to be finished. I noticed that the young man had also just arrived in the lunch room and so I greeted him with a smile. Up to this point he had been painfully shy, possibly because his English was still limited, possibly because we were such an overwhelming, boisterous group, I just don’t know.
To my delight, he began to tell his story in sparse yet elegant words. He told of his joy at arriving in Canada, of having plenty of money now for rent and lots to eat. He told me how cheap his clothes were because he still fit into a boy’s size 12 on which there was no tax. I laughed out loud at that because at the time of telling I was still slim enough to do the same. That broke the ice. But the kick in the solar plexus came when he insisted on sharing his tiny rice bowl with me. This was a young man who had starved and suffered most of his life. At first I declined but he insisted. He explained that he wanted me to know what Cambodian food tasted like. How could I refuse? We sat together, enjoying the very best bowl of rice I have ever eaten. It was spicy and delicious but best of all it was shared and more importantly, there would be plenty more in the future.
When I look back, I see how essential it is for me to remember the importance of sharing. I hope that I will always have enough to share and that I will remember the dignified young man from Cambodia who gave me so much to think about by sharing.