A Machine for Washing Clothes
Nyaa could not have known that the hot and dusty city she walked into was only beginning to wake from a long and dark slumber. In her eyes (and ears and nose and skin and mouth), it was the most exciting thing she had seen in all of her 15 years. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, and the streets were mostly empty, but already she could feel the buzz of the city coming to life.
Boys and men raced through the quiet streets pulling wooden carts laden with various objects. She couldn’t tell what many of them were carrying – one cart was filled simply with branches and sticks – but they all seemed to be hurrying to wherever they were going. Bamboo scaffolding made greenish-brown cages around buildings that were bigger than anything she had ever seen in her village. As she walked along a tree-lined street – so dusty even the leaves seemed brown – a strange device, like a bicycle but with a motor on it, whizzed by loudly, kicking up more dust.
Old men were starting to gather in clusters on folding chairs in front of tea shops and on benches in parks. Women were carrying wooden buckets outside and placing them on the sidewalks in front of their homes. Some were pulling down bamboo poles with laundry hung on them that stuck out beneath their windows.
She was hungry. The bundle with food in it that her mother had given her at her departure had gone rolling away when she had made her escape from the bus. And she had to go to the bathroom. She had relieved herself near the rice paddies, in the dark, on the long walk into the city, but that had been a few hours ago and she needed to go again. Where did the people who lived here do that, she wondered. And how would she find food? She had seen a man selling bowls of noodles from a small cart, but she knew that it would cost money and she had none. And she was nervous about the language – Tsyaayi. She had learned it, of course, as a child, when the Youth Brigade officers had come to her village and held lessons in Tsyaayi along with Marxist-Leninist thought and Correct Thinking in a makeshift schoolroom (the village children had called them the “Red Collars” because of the bright red scarves each of them wore). But that had been years ago and she had only ever used the language with her teachers and fellow students.
Despite all this, she couldn’t help feeling exhilarated. All around her was movement, and it picked up its pace as the morning grew brighter. Everywhere were sights, sounds, and even smells that were new to her. Everywhere people were doing things. Surely there was something here for her.
That something came in the form of a minor traffic accident. Nyaa stood at an intersection, looking up and down the streets trying to decide which direction to take. Just as she had made her decision, and was stepping into the street, she heard a loud crash from behind. She whipped around to see a small cart toppled over on its side, metal pipes spilling everywhere. Nyaa was surprised to see that the person who had been pulling the cart was neither a boy nor a man but a woman, about the age of her own mother, but of sturdier build. The woman stood now at the front of the cart cursing loudly and yelling at the young street urchins who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere to run up and grab armfuls of pipes and then dash off again into the shadows from which they had emerged.
Nyaa felt rage stirring in her belly and in her cheeks. Without fully knowing why, she ran as fast as she could at the urchins, screaming in her own language. She saw the wide eyes of one small boy – no older than her own little brother back home – as he looked up at her in terror, dropping the pipes he had gathered up. He scrambled to his feet to run off with the others who were already flying down the street.
For a moment, Nyaa and the woman just looked at each other. Rather than gratitude, Nyaa saw distrust in the woman’s face. Unsure what to do, she gave a helpful grunt and gestured toward the cart. The woman’s expression softened a little and, realizing that she could not right the cart on her own, she nodded and knelt down to push her back against the fallen side. Nyaa joined her and after some grunting and a little cursing, the cart was standing once again. The woman nodded to Nyaa and spoke: “Thank you – you are very kind.”
Nyaa was uncomfortable with her Tsyaayi but understood the woman and replied: “No, not at all.” She felt her cheeks turn red and immediately reached down to help pick up the pipes.
After they had filled the cart again, the woman turned to Nyaa.
“You’re not from here.”
“No,” answered Nyaa.
“Where is your family?”
Nyaa hesitated. She hadn’t anticipated questions about how she came to be here, had no story prepared. She saw the woman notice her hesitation.
“I…” she began, “…they… they sent me here to find work. I’m going to find work and send money back to them.” She felt more uncomfortable with every word. “…so they can buy a machine for washing clothes,” she finished lamely.
The woman nodded. “And have you found work?”
Nyaa shook her head. “I only arrived this morning.”
“And where are you staying?”
Nyaa just shrugged.
“Well,” the woman sighed, “you’re going to have a problem with no residency permit. If the authorities find you, they’ll send you back where you came from.”
Nyaa didn’t know anything about residency permits. She didn’t really know anything about Kripa at all. And even if she had had a permit, she didn’t have anyplace to stay. It was only a matter of time before these “authorities” found her and sent her back home. She looked down at the ground.
“Listen,” the woman said, “maybe we can help each other.”
Nyaa looked up.
“Come with me,” the woman took Nyaa by the arm, and stepped in between the cart’s arms. “I’m already late. We can talk on the way. I’m Chong.”
The woman stuck out her hand. Nyaa took it, saying “Nyaa.”
With surprising strength, Chong lifted the handles and began to pull the cart. Nyaa trotted along beside her.
Her husband, she explained, had fallen ill several months ago. That’s why she was pulling the cart: He couldn’t work, and even though his factory was supposed to give him sickness pay, the woman in the workers’ benefits office had told him that his family background precluded him from being allowed sickness pay.
“She told him his family had ‘bad elements’ and that if he knew what was good for him he should withdraw his application and not ask for trouble. Of course he didn’t withdraw it, but he hasn’t gotten anything.”
Nyaa was shocked. She remembered hearing about “bad elements” from the Red Collars. They had told the children to watch out for them, how they were bad, greedy and mean people who might kill a person in their sleep just to take money off of them, that’s how much they loved money and profit-making. They were told that if they ever came across a “bad element” they were to report them immediately. Even if it was a family member.
Chong continued: “One of my cousins let me have this cart, and I was able to get work hauling around supplies for some of the factories and shops. But it’s not much and I’m exhausted by the end of the day. There’s no-one to take care of my husband and he’s only getting worse.”
She stopped for a moment and turned to look directly at Nyaa.
“If you wanted, you could stay with us. You could take care of my husband during the day, do the shopping and cleaning and fix his meals – in exchange, you could live with us and eat with us.”
Nyaa was unsure. She had only just met Chong, and the casual way in which she referred to the “bad elements” made her anxious. But she knew she might not have another chance like this. She needed a place to stay, food to eat. Why not at least try it out, she reasoned with herself. If she didn’t like it she could always leave – be back on the street and no worse off than she was now. She was sure her uncertainty showed in her face as she nodded a grateful “yes!” and Chong patted her roughly on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry!” She said. “We won’t work you to the bone. And nobody will tell the authorities.” Whatever the “authorities” were, they were the least of Nyaa’s concerns. But she smiled and thanked Chong.
Nyaa went with Chong as she delivered the pipes, as she went to pick up bags of rice and then deliver them to their destination. Chong first took her to a dark and foul-smelling public toilet, and handed her a wad of pink colored rough paper that was a little stretchy. When Nyaa looked up at her quizzically, Chong said “for wiping.”
At lunchtime, they went back to Chong’s house. It was in a very big building, so she was surprised when Chong opened the door into a tiny, cramped room that seemed to be both kitchen and bedroom. To the left was a sink and stove and a small refrigerator. A window sat above the sink and looked out onto a bare courtyard outside. To the right of the kitchen was a small table with two chairs, some shelves and a makeshift bed that looked like nothing more than a wide plank of wood laid atop some boxes with a thin mattress on top. On top of the mattress lay Chong’s husband.
He turned when the door opened and gave a weak smile. “We have a visitor!” Chong announced, and he raised his hand in greeting. He started to move as if to sit up but Chong admonished him: “No, you need your rest! This is Nyaa. She’s going to be staying with us to help out. Nyaa, this is my husband, Mr. Hyiep.”
Nyaa was surprised that Chong’s husband looked so much older than Chong. His face was tired and leathery and filled with lines. He looked fragile, like an old woman. And when he tried to move it was with great effort as if everything pained him. She nodded and said hello.
When his voice came, it was scratchy and labored. “I’m sorry I can’t say much,” he said, patting his chest “…my lungs.” Nyaa nodded sympathetically.
“Don’t try to talk,” said Chong, businesslike. She had already pulled vegetables out of the refrigerator and was busy chopping them. Nyaa jumped to her side. “Shall I cook some water?” She asked. Chong laughed. “Boil,” she corrected her. “We say ‘boil water’.” Nyaa nodded. “‘Boil’, OK.” Chong handed her a pot and Nyaa filled it with water from the sink.
“Maybe you could make him some tea when I go out again,” Chong said. “It’s good for his infection. The tea is in here.” She opened a cupboard and Nyaa saw several tins of different colors.
“Which one is the Gambak?” Nyaa asked.
Chong frowned. “The what?”
“The Gambak,” Nyaa repeated. It was the only word she knew for the tea that was used in her village to cure chest colds. But maybe they called it something else here in the city.
Chong shook her head. “What is that?” She asked.
Nyaa told her about the tea made from the roots of the Gambak plant in the mountains, and how it was given when people had colds in their chest. Chong still didn’t know what she was talking about. But she stopped what she was doing for a moment.
“Listen,” she said. “When I get home tonight, let’s go to the herbalist’s shop. He and his wife know every plant in Tsyaana. If they don’t have this ‘Gambak’ in their shop, they will know where to get it. And it really works?”
Nyaa nodded “oh yes.”
As it turned out, the herbalists had heard of Gambak, but didn’t sell it in their shop. They knew somebody though, a man who brought them herbs from the provinces, who might be able to find some for them. It might be a little expensive, but Chong was determined her husband should have it and asked the herbalists to get some for her.
One afternoon, nearly two weeks later, there was a knock at the door. Nyaa was there alone with Mr. Hyiep and looked up with a start at the sound. She couldn’t answer the door herself in case it was “the authorities.” Her eyes met those of Mr. Hyiep and he understood. He called out in a frail voice “who is it?”
“It’s Kung, the herbalist!”
Nyaa rushed to the door and opened it. Mr. Kung stood there with a small parcel.
“I’m sorry it took so long,” he said, “but our supplier didn’t know where to find it at first. He knows now though, so if you ever need more just let us know.”
Nyaa took the parcel from him “yes, thank you! How much will it be?”
“It’s 500 yaannit” said the herbalist with some gravity. Nyaa nodded.
“Wait one moment,” she said as she poked back inside and opened the drawer where Chong kept the shopping money. She counted out ten fifty yaannit bills.
“Thank you!” She said to Mr. Kung as she handed him the money.
“You’re welcome!” He said. “I hope it works!”
Inside, Nyaa immediately set to boiling some water. She opened the parcel and the smell was just as she remembered it. She carefully pulled off a small piece of one root and then wrapped the package up again and put it up with the rest of the teas. She rinsed the root until it was clean and then pulled down Chong’s biggest teapot. She set the root inside and once the water had boiled, poured it in. A little while later, she approached Mr. Hyiep’s bed.
“Mr. Hyiep,” she said, and he rolled over. She handed him a tall cup of steaming, pale yellow liquid. She had wrapped a kitchen towel around the hot cup. He took the cup from her and began to sip from it.
“Try to drink the whole thing now,” she said. “I’ll give you some more a little later.” He nodded and drank.
After supper, Nyaa made him another cup and he drank it. Chong’s face was grim when she saw how little money was left in the shopping drawer, but she nodded her head as she closed it and said “let’s hope it helps then.”
Nyaa’s room had originally been the bedroom, but was far too small to fit a bed for two people. Now it held a small dresser for their clothes, and a little mat on the floor which was where Nyaa slept. Late that night, long after Nyaa was asleep and the streetlights had gone out, there was a sudden commotion. Mr. Hyiep had sat up in bed and begun shouting. Chong jolted up, afraid for his life.
“What’s wrong?” She shouted into his face, taking him by the shoulders. “Tell me where it hurts!”
He shook her off, shouting again: “AHHH!”
Nyaa had been awakened also and came to the door of her room. She looked on, frightened.
“Listen!” Mr. Hyiep shouted in a voice stronger than she had heard him use. “Listen!!! AHHHHHH!!!”
The two women were motionless, their eyes glued to him.
“I can BREATHE!” He shouted. “I can BREATHE!!! Listen!!!” And he proceeded to inhale and exhale loudly. They were not full breaths by any normal person’s standard, but both Chong and Nyaa had to admit, they were clearer and more full than his usual nighttime hacking and wheezing.
Later that morning, Chong could not stop singing the praises of Nyaa and her miraculous tea. Nyaa was embarrassed and assured her that she had never seen anyone recover so quickly from a chest cold by drinking Gambak.
“It must also be something about Mr. Hyiep himself,” she kept repeating. “The tea must be given for many days before a person is well again.” Chong seemed not to hear her, and gave her a big hug before leaving with her cart.
Indeed, Mr. Hyiep was not fully cured. While his excitement over his first clear breaths in months had pulled him out of bed for breakfast, he lacked the energy to stay up and soon returned to bed and pulled up the covers. Nyaa made sure he had another cup of the Gambak tea before he fell asleep.
In the days and weeks that followed, Mr. Hyiep slowly regained his full strength and the age difference between himself and his wife began to diminish. Soon, the little apartment began to receive a stream of visitors. A neighbor from upstairs had heard about Mr. Hyiep’s miraculous recovery and had a sister with a similar ailment. Could Nyaa help? The daughter of the woman who had a vegetable stand in the market couldn’t get rid of her cough. Could she have some of the magic potion that had cured Mr. Hyiep so quickly? Mrs. Seung from the building next door was worried about her mother’s lingering cold. Could Nyaa help? A friend of Mr. Hyiep’s from work came by one day to ask whether the tea could help with his father’s rheumatism.
At first, Nyaa said that she would just charge them what the herbs had cost. But Chong nearly flew into a rage.
“I drag that cart through the streets of Kripa every day, breaking my back, wearing out my shoes for a few yaannit a day… and you want to charge them what it costs???”
Nyaa suddenly felt foolish.
“Charge them what they’ll pay!” Chong proclaimed. “Isn’t your time and your effort worth something? The herbs cost ten yaannit for one serving of tea? Charge them fifty!”
“But then they’ll just go and buy the herbs themselves!” Objected Nyaa.
“Will they?” Asked Chong. “Will they know what to buy? How much to use? How to prepare it? How much to give?” Nyaa had to admit Chong was right.
“Anyway,” Chong added, “I would have paid twice as much to cure my husband. Your tea works. You shouldn’t be ashamed to take money for it.”
Nyaa wasn’t. She announced the price for her tea preparations, and people paid gladly. And then a funny thing happened: The number of people coming to the door doubled nearly overnight. Tripled. Every hour it seemed, three or four customers came asking for the miracle tea. Nyaa could see that her supply – as bountiful as it had seemed when they purchased it – would not last much longer and one evening after dinner she made a trip to the herbalist to order more.
On her way home, she passed by the night market. She had seen the market before. It took over six blocks of SenPa Street every Tuesday evening, winding its way alongside a small section of the river that snaked from one end of the city to the other. Nyaa had never gone inside – she did most of her shopping during the day in the regular markets – but tonight she paused. She had already done the cleaning up and Chong and Mr. Hyiep were sitting happily at home, talking over the details of their day. There was no hurry for her to get back. She peered down the brightly lit street, filled with makeshift stands and carts, steam rising from some, strange sounds from others, and everywhere the sharp shouts of vendors hawking their wares. She stepped in.
Up ahead a huge wok sizzled loudly and orange sparks jumped to the pavement. The smell of garlic and Hachaa chili stung her nose and eyes. Everywhere bright white lightbulbs cancelled out the night’s darkness and the strange sounds and shouting made it seem like the middle of the day. Nyaa walked forward as if in a daze. Everywhere around her there was something new to see: A stall with used jackets and pants hung all over its walls, another with pots and pans, and another where a woman sat and repaired torn or damaged clothing. There was a long long line in front of that one.
At the street crossing, a small restaurant had been set up. It was only a few small folding tables and chairs, and a portable stove, but people were lined up to take one of those chairs and sit down to a plate of fat greasy noodles and shrimp, or a deep bowl of soupy noodles swimming in thick fish broth with chunks of lime. Nearby, a young man flipped oily onion pancakes. Another stretched and twisted noodle dough so fast Nyaa could hardly see his hands moving.
Nyaa felt a little giddy. She had never had money before. When she first arrived in the city she would walk past the big plate-glass window of the Kripa Number One Department Store and gaze at the things inside: A blue knit sweater with glittering tinsel sewn into it for winter, a set of dishes with flowers painted on them, a shiny metal teapot. All of these things had been far out of her reach, but she dreamed of one day having her own home, her own kitchen, a table where she could set out beautiful dishes for visitors and serve them tea from a shiny teapot.
At home, in the village, her parents had taken care of her needs, and since coming to the city she had been in the care of Chong and Mr. Hyiep. Having things of her own like this was just a distant dream. But now that she was making herbal teas and selling them, she was starting to make money of her own and the dream seemed just a little closer. She had insisted on paying Chong a portion of what she made, as her work was taking time away from taking care of the apartment and Mr. Hyiep. Chong had laughed.
“Thanks to you, he’ll be returning to work next month!”
But she took the money.
Chong half joked that Nyaa would soon be able to move out into her own apartment. But Nyaa knew that there was still the matter of a “residency permit” and the “authorities.”
Nyaa kept walking, entranced by all that was around her. Just ahead was something strange. A group of teenagers, all in Chop Ko jackets and caps, were standing around one stall, laughing and talking. A strange noise was coming from the stall, a strange kind of music. Nyaa stepped closer. Perched on a shelf was a long black box and coming from the box was a kind of music Nyaa had never heard before. It was loud and bright and made her feel like jumping around.
Nyaa looked at the cardboard sign propped up against the device that was making the music 10,000 yaannit – more than she could make in six months! Nearby were stacks and stacks of little boxes with pictures of people singing. The boy behind the counter took one of the boxes, opened it and pulled out another small black plastic box. He opened the device, removed a similar little box and put this one in. Now a different kind of music played. This time a woman singing sweetly in Tsyaayi.
Nyaa continued down the street, taken in by the sights, sounds and smells. The market was getting crowded now and there was a loud chatter as people bargained for books, trinkets, kitchen gadgets, bought roasted ears of corn, cups of frozen fruit and sticks of congealed pig blood. She kept walking, with no particular goal in mind, just soaking up the excitement she felt around her.
When she finally turned around and started walking back home, her head was dancing with the images and sounds from the market. An idea was starting to form in her mind and by the time she opened the front door it had solidified.
“You’re out late!” Chong was smiling. Mr. Hyiep sat across the table from her, also smiling.
Nyaa was ready to burst and didn’t even hear her.
“Chong! Your cousin who got you the cart – do you think he could get one for me?”
Chong and Mr. Hyiep were silent for a moment and then both burst out laughing. Nyaa just stood there, and then smiled at herself. She told them what she had seen in the night market, and explained to them her idea.
“If I could rent the cart from him, I think I could pay him back with what I make selling tea in the night market. And it wouldn’t just have to be the night market – I could take it out in the streets during the day.”
“Do you think there are that many people with chest colds?” Asked Mr. Hyiep.
“That’s just it!” Exclaimed Nyaa. “I wouldn’t only make Gambak tea. I would make all different kinds of teas for all different kinds of ailments. And I would even have some teas that are just for drinking. Really delicious ones. Teas they don’t have here in the city!”
Mr. Hyiep and Chong looked at each other, both skeptical but neither wanting to be the one to trample her enthusiasm.
“Alright,” said Chong finally. “I’ll ask my cousin. But he may not have the kind of cart you need. One with a little stove where you can boil the water. But I’ll ask.”
As it turned out, Chong’s cousin did not have the right kind of cart. But he knew someone who knew someone who did. It was old, and one of the wheels was sticky, but it was a noodle cart, and came with a little stove burner where she could boil water. It also had a thick plastic sheet on the sides and on the front. There was a large “window” cut out of the plastic in front, where customers could be served. Nyaa liked the plastic walls very much.
“It’s more personal,” she said. “They’ll see how it’s made and will feel more like they are a part of it.”
Chong and Mr. Hyiep just looked at each other.
There was a deposit required: 6,000 yaannit. Nyaa only had 2,000, but Mr. Hyiep had a colleague from work who had quit the factory to start a machine repair business. He had enough money now that he could lend Nyaa the balance.
Finally the day arrived when the cart was delivered to the apartment. There was a storage shed just off the courtyard where residents could store personal belongings and that is where it would stay at night and when it wasn’t being used. The friend of a friend of Chong’s cousin stood warily in the apartment as Nyaa handed him the deposit. He counted it out three times, licking his fingers each time and never smiling. He stood just as warily as she pulled the cart away from him in the courtyard.
“Remember,” he growled, “any damage and you won’t see your deposit again!”
“I understand,” smiled Nyaa, unable to contain her excitement even in the face of his sour demeanor, even when he spat on the pavement as he walked away.
“You’re sure he said it was alright to paint it?” Chong asked.
“Oh yes,” said Nyaa. “He said it was fine, and it will wash off the plastic part anyway.”
By now a crowd had gathered, and it seemed to Nyaa that there couldn’t possibly be this many people in their apartment building, nor this many people who didn’t have to do some sort of work during the day on their entire block. They stood and watched as Nyaa and Mr. Hyiep painted the base of the cart a bright, cheery green.
Then, Nyaa handed Mr. Hyiep two smaller brushes and she opened some little cans of paint: Green and red and black for the outlines. Mr. Hyiep had studied calligraphy in school – before the universities were all closed and the professors sent out to the countryside – and he still had a good hand. He dipped the first brush and stood ready to take her instructions.
Nyaa stood still for a moment, taking in the empty canvas that was the big, front sheet of plastic. Then she spoke:
“Have it say: ‘Teas to Cure All Ailments”!”
Chong insisted that she carry a weapon with her when she took her cart out.
“It’s not safe for a young girl to be out on the street by herself like that, dealing with money. Everyone will know you have money with you and there are some who won’t mind trying to take it from you!”
Nyaa was surprised that Chong knew what to carry, and knew where to get it. She gave her three things: A wide kitchen knife, just small enough for Nyaa to wield but big enough to do damage; A tire iron; and a can of spray for killing bugs.
“We’ll attach the knife under the counter so you can grab it if you need to. The tire iron can go on the other side. And the bug spray… that should just go alongside your supplies. It will look natural and nobody will suspect what it’s really for. If you’re ever in real trouble, use that one. The others are mostly to scare someone off.”
Chong smiled and slapped her on the back.
“You’ll be fine!” She said. “Just don’t do anything stupid. Always stay around crowds, don’t stay out past dark unless you’re in a night market or somewhere where there are lots of people. And always have a way to get home where you won’t be alone.”
Over the next few weeks, Nyaa learned the best places to take the cart. She learned to call out to crowds and what words most caused people to stop and approach. She learned that in the night market, people had already staked out territory and trespassers were not treated kindly. She found a spot for herself at the far end of the market, well beyond the sizzling woks and pounding music boxes. But it seemed not to matter. Slowly, as people learned about her teas, they found their way to the end of the market and the line in front of her cart grew longer each night.
Nyaa noticed that some of the other food vendors had little collapsible seats and even tables for their customers to sit and enjoy their food. She asked a young man selling noodles where he got his seats and he told her. She had enough money by then that she was able to buy two very small folding tables – really more like little stools – and four smaller stools to go with them. Because they were so small, she could fold them up and tie them to hooks she had asked Mr. Hyiep to attach to the back of the cart. She hoped the owner would not mind, but she also knew that she was making enough money that she could buy the cart from him soon if she wanted to.
One night, after putting away her cart from a night at the market, she walked into the apartment to find Chong sitting at the table counting money. She looked up at her.
“Was it a good night?”
“Mmmm, yes!” Chirped Nyaa. “More customers than last time even!”
“That’s wonderful!” Said Chong. “You know, you haven’t mentioned it, but I know you wanted to send money back to your family…”
Nyaa was suddenly uncomfortable.
“Oh…” she said, “maybe sometime in the future. I want to save up some more first.”
Chong nodded. “I don’t mean to interfere,” she said. “It’s your business. I can help you do it when you want to. Just let me know.”
Nyaa thanked her and Chong never mentioned it again.
Nyaa’s cart had been in the night market for a few months when one night a man in a uniform approached. Nyaa thought nothing of it – all kinds of people came to her cart and bought her teas, warm and cold. She got ready to take his order but only when he spoke did she notice his demeanor: Cold, stiff, unsmiling. Scowl lines were dug deep into the skin around his mouth. He must have been fifty years old. He spoke to her as if she were a personal enemy of his, or a criminal. It took her aback, especially as she had never met the man.
“Where is your permit?”
Nyaa tried to maintain her smile. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t play dumb!” He barked. “You know you need a permit to operate a stand in the night market!”
Nyaa felt the blood drain from her face. In fact, she had not known that a permit was required for her to be here. Somehow, in all of her discussions with other vendors, with Chong and Mr. Hyiep, nobody had thought to mention it. She just stood there, trying to think of a response. The man continued.
“I can have your cart seized!” He shouted at her. “Where are your documents? Your residency permit?”
In a split second, Nyaa’s life as she knew it flashed before her eyes: Her wonderful cart, the money she was making, her dreams for the future, her life here in the city, her friendship with Chong and Mr. Hyiep. She saw herself being thrown into a cold prison cell – or worse, on a bus back to her village. Tears started to well up in her eyes.
And then another voice called out.
“What do you think you are doing?” Barked a younger voice, but with just as much authority. The uniformed man spun around angrily.
Before him stood a man in his early twenties, dressed in the usual blue-grey jacket and pants, but his clothes were clean. He was not a laborer.
“Who are you?” Demanded the man in uniform.
“Never mind who I am!” The young man shouted back with vigor. “I know the law, and I know that you are violating Directive 113 by trying to interfere with the business operations of this tea cart!”
If the man in uniform was stunned by this, Nyaa was even more so. She had never seen either man before. Who was this younger one and why was he standing up for her, a stranger?
The man in uniform was speechless for a moment. He appeared to shrink back a little. The young man continued.
“You know as well as I do that Directive 113 declares that people shall be able to operate their own businesses, and that those businesses shall not be interfered with! The old rules don’t apply any more and you know it! You’re just trying to harass her!”
The man in uniform seemed to turn a little pale. But the younger man was not slowing down.
“Who is your boss?” He demanded. The other man’s face grew red with rage and he spat back.
“Now listen here…” he began to shout into the younger man’s face.
“Is it Trieu Seuk?” The young man asked cooly.
The older man froze for a moment with his mouth open.
“I know him,” said the young man. “I had lunch with him only last week.”
With great effort, the older man tried to soften his expression. Attempted a smile. What appeared instead was more of a pained leer.
“We’re on the same side then,” he grinned. “I’m just trying to do my job, trying to uphold the leadership’s directives. If I have misunderstood the situation then I am grateful for your correction.”
Nyaa expected the young man to tear into him again, to tell him he knew he was lying, that he knew the law as well as he did, to tell him again to stop harassing Nyaa and leave her cart alone. But instead, he simply nodded.
“Very well then,” he said. “Maybe it was just a misunderstanding.”
“Yes,” grinned the man in uniform. “Of course, just a misunderstanding. Thank you for pointing it out to me. There is no need for this to go any further.”
“No,” said the younger man. “I can see that you mean to do well. There is no need to take this any further.”
There was an awkward pause and then the older man touched his cap and nodded slightly to the younger one.
“I should be on my way then,” he said.
The younger man nodded back at him, and without even looking at Nyaa, the man in uniform turned and walked stiffly away.
Nyaa’s fingers felt cold. She could not even force a smile. She just stood there at the window of her cart, trying to digest what had just happened.
The young man turned to her and approached.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “A lot of the older ones still don’t understand the changes.”
Nyaa had no idea what he was talking about. She just nodded vaguely.
“Why did you help me?” she blurted out.
“I don’t like seeing those guys bullying people,” he answered. “I want to believe that’s all in the past.”
“Is it true that he’s not supposed to interfere? And that I don’t need a permit?”
The young man smiled. “Well… not entirely true… but true enough. Especially if you know some of the right people!”
“I see,” she said, even though she didn’t.
He laughed a little. “So I guess things haven’t changed that much then!”
She still had no idea what he was talking about, but felt she had to say something.
“It’s a good thing you knew about ‘Directive 113!’” She said cheerily.
He pulled back, squinting at her. “Everyone knows about Directive 113! Where have you been?”
Nyaa grew silent. The young man looked a little more closely at her.
“Never mind,” said the young man, smiling, “Directive 113 is just the order from the Party’s Central Committee that allowed all of this to happen,” he gestured around at the marketplace.
“It’s the order that says ‘you can do what you want to do now – you don’t have to just work in the factory you’re assigned to anymore. If you want to start a noodle shop you can start a noodle shop, if you want to work for someone else you can do that. Nobody tells you where you have to work anymore, and nobody can tell you you can’t start a noodle shop – or a tea cart!”
He saw her nodding and grew bolder. “It’s the reason that someone like me can be manager of Kripa’s first washing machine factory!”
Nyaa gave a start and then asked “you make washing machines?”
“Yes!” He said with pride.
She started to laugh. It wasn’t the response he was expecting.
“Is that funny?”
“No,” she said, feeling her cheeks grow warm. “No, it’s not funny. It just… made me think of something.”
He looked at her quizzically.
“Never mind,” she smiled, “thanks for helping me out!”
He smiled back. “Glad to!”
She glanced at the crowd that was starting to form once again in front of her cart.
He nodded and turned to walk away. “Goodbye then!”
“Goodbye!” She turned to start taking orders and filling cups.
A week later, just as the market was getting started and before the crowds had gathered, the young man returned. She didn’t recognize him until she was taking his order. She almost jumped when she did.
“Oh! It’s you!”
He smiled. “I had to come back. I just had to find out what’s so funny about washing machines.”
She laughed. But it was a harsh laugh, almost angry. She hadn’t really meant for it to come out. She tried to think of something to say, but nothing would come. She just shook her head.
“It’s nothing,” she said, “there’s nothing funny about washing machines.”
“OK,” said the young man, undeterred, “then tell me what brings a young girl from the hill tribes all the way to Kripa on her own. My name is Dru by the way.”
He stuck out his hand. She paused for a moment and then slowly reached out and shook it. She looked up at him and answered his question:
Nyaa had no customers yet, so she sat with Dru at one of the tiny tables while he drank his tea. She told him about her family. She told him about running around free in the forests, hunting lizards and climbing trees. She told him about her mother who beat her for running in the woods instead of looking after her little brothers, who screamed at her that no man would ever want to marry her. About her father who smiled and patted her on the head but just lay on the floor smoking chuuba while his wife yelled and hit her again and again.
She told him about the day the washing machine arrived in her village, and how badly her mother wanted one. How she could hear her in the night hissing at her father in hushed tones, her voice desperate: How they would never find anyone to marry that wild, filthy daughter of theirs and they would be stuck with her forever. How he must do everything in his power to get for her a machine for washing clothes so she wouldn’t have to spend her days pounding them at the riverbank. And how there might be a way to solve both problems at once.
She told him how, after she had already boarded the bus and it was well on its way down a strange and dark road, she learned the truth about where she and the other girls was being sent. How the other girls cried softly to themselves and how she waited for her opportunity and then took it – jumping off the bus when it slowed to take a turn. She told him about walking in to the city in the early morning light, about meeting Chong and curing her husband and getting the cart…
And when she was done talking she realized that she was shaking. Dru noticed too but he just sat there listening, unafraid. She looked across the table at him and he looked back. There was nothing more for her to say. She felt like a great vessel that had been filled to the brim with mud and slime and dirt, but was now empty. Completely empty. And it felt good, clean. She smiled a little.
Finally, he spoke.
“You’re very strong minded,” he said. “I could use someone like you in my factory.”
She laughed. “I have my own factory!” She nodded at her tea cart.
“I know,” he said. “But it can’t hurt to ask!”
An elderly man had stepped up to Nyaa’s cart and was looking with great care at the menu. Nyaa jumped up.
Dru stood too, and waved at her as she took her place behind the cart and approached the old man.
“I’ll be back again!” He called out.
She smiled at him and waved back.
He did come back, to Nyaa’s surprise. She had lain awake that night feeling foolish for having told him so many intimate and ugly details of her family life. A stranger – and a nice one too. She had never spoken about these things to anyone. Not to any of her friends in the village, not to the other girls on the bus, not to Chong. She didn’t know what had caused her to speak so freely with Dru. But she was certain she would never see him again after all she had told him.
But only a few days later, when she had her cart parked near a busy intersection, he came. He asked her if she was busy the next morning and she said she wasn’t. He asked if she’d like to go with him out to the old temple ruins just outside of town. She looked up at him with a frown and said “what for?”
It was his turn to laugh.
“To get out of the city,” he said, “to see something nice, breathe some fresh air. We could bring something to eat and have lunch by the river.”
The idea was so completely foreign to Nyaa’s mind that she had to stop and think about it. Every bit of her energy had been focused on survival, on making her teas and getting her cart and going around the city selling them, on finding ways to do it better, spots to park where she might get more customers, and being sure she was safe. The idea of spending precious time on something that was just “nice” took some getting used to.
She was glad that Dru had come back to see her though, and she realized something else: She had not been outside of the city since the day she walked into it after jumping off the bus. The idea of just sitting by the river – the same river that flowed past the night market – and breathing fresh air suddenly sounded very appealing. She smiled and said yes.
The next day, Dru met her at the wet market in the city center. He had bought an enormous box of fresh strawberries that took both of his arms to hold. He nodded when he saw her.
“Let’s get a taxi!” He exclaimed.
Nyaa was stunned. She had never ridden in a taxi before, and assumed that they were only for people who had a lot of money to spend getting from place to place. There was no place she had to go that she couldn’t walk or take a bus. They stepped to the curb and Dru told her how to hail one.
“You just wave your arm up when you see one. They’ll stop.”
Sure enough, one did. They got in, carefully maneuvering the box of strawberries, and Dru told the driver where to go. The scent of strawberries filled the car as it lurched forward and veered wildly around the city streets – the driver turning off the gas at every stoplight – until they were on the road out of town. Nyaa smiled to see the same rice paddies she had passed on her way in, nearly a year ago now.
The old temples had been looted and ransacked during the Glorious Cleanse, but somehow retained their essential beauty. Wooden carvings had been burned or secreted away, but the stone structures remained intact as did a number of stone Buddhist figures. A few still even had their faces. Despite the spot’s violent history, there was a sense of peace and tranquility there. There were a few other visitors but they walked along slowly by themselves, far from where Nyaa and Dru had set up their picnic.
They sat there on the grass overlooking the river, and this time Dru told Nyaa a little about his own life: How, after the reforms, all of the upper managers at Kripa Number One Heavy Machinery plant had left to start noodle shops or to sell smuggled imports in the night markets, and how he had ended up in charge of the whole plant, at the age of 23. How he had decided to stop making tractors and start making washing machines. And how that one decision – along with a lot of hard work – had made him one of the most successful businessmen in the New Tsyaana.
The reflection of the sun on the river was starting to turn rosy in the early dusk. It had been a long time since Nyaa had been out in nature and it reminded her of her old life, of running through the forests, catching lizards and eating berries… and of the village and her family. She felt so much older now, as if an entire lifetime had gone by. She wondered what her family was doing now, whether they ever wondered about her, why they imagined no money had ever come from her. She wondered what her mother was doing – probably chasing after her brothers and yelling at her lazy husband lying on the floor smoking his pipe. She wondered whether she had ever managed to get herself a washing machine.
Fiction and commentary about the beauty of civilization and the evils of the coercive state