* * *
Wednesday morning ‘End The War’ protesters hold up traffic on my way to work, but I was here on time. It’s just a little after ten now and the day is crawling, slowed by eagerness for the Thanksgiving holiday.
I see the Jackal coming toward us. Now what? Has the pisser struck again?
“Tomorrow is a holiday,” he tells us. “We are going to be behind when you come back on Friday.”
“Friday? I thought we had Friday off,” I protest.
“We cannot afford that luxury at Arcot.” Phon continues. “We are still behind our quota. Arcot needs 130 power packs from you today.” He looks at Hēin.
“We can do it,” Hēin answers.
If the Jackal asked for 7,000, he’d agree and do his best to fill the order. Ko gun lin, are the first Vietnamese words that Hēin taught me—Make an effort.
“Good.” The Jackal leaves us and our little group falls silent. Hēin has run out of questions for the moment, so I put my earphones on and tune in the “Robert Roberts Show.” Another listener has called in.
“What have we here?” asks Roberts.
“A Tibetan Monk,” the show’s phone operator tells him. “It’s from Lompoc, California.”
Silence. . . .
“Are you there?” asks Roberts.
“I am here, at Lompoc, but not born in Lompoc. I am from Shigatze, Tibet.”
“I see,” says Roberts, “but you speak good English, Mr . . .”
“Tahsi Gyaltsan Lama. Thank you.”
“Like the Dalai Lama?” “Hello Dolly” plays as background music.
“Yes, we are both Lamas,” comes the answer, “but he is the greatest teacher, most revered. I am, perhaps, the least significant.”
“I see. So what is it that brought you here?” Bob asks.
“We Lamas like to travel and a few of us are teaching in America.”
“Aha. Well tell me, Tashi, what’s impressed you most about the States? What is it that stands out about our culture?”
“I have noticed there is always talk of fighting: in Iraq, Afghanistan, of course, but also there is war on poverty, fight cancer, war on crime, drug wars—now the war on terror. It seems combat is the first response to solving problems. This is natural, of course, to fight an enemy, but in America—”
“Easy to tell this call’s from California,” Bob advises listeners. “Time to take a station break, but thanks for sharing with us, Tashi.” Robert’s voice drifts off into a long commercial and I take the earphones off to start another batch of castings that’s come down the line.
My fingers ache from threading bolts into their holes.
“How do you say ‘good-bye’ in Vietnam?” I ask.
“Tom bē-ah.” Hēin says it slowly, then again, “tom bēah. Is for every day. Vinh biêt is for a long time, if you are go away forever. I hope you are not plan to leave us.”
Hēin’s smiling, unaware that he has read my mind. “Are you unhappy with your work?”
“Just tired. I thought that we’d be getting Friday off. I need the rest.”
He nods with understanding. “I get up four-thirty every morning, take my wife to work, then sleep in car until the lunchroom opens.”
There’s no sign of anger in his voice . . . complete acceptance of his fate
* * *