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December 23, 2011

Town Donuts

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places."
- Ernest Hemmingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929

I'm working on a project out here in California's "Central Valley". The Central Valley used to be a desert, but they figured out how to irrigate it, and now the Central Valley is the nation's "bread basket". They grow grapes, artichokes, asparagus, rice. You name it.

Stockton is the county seat of San Joaquin County. This is the heart of the Central Valley, but it's famous not because of the produce. Stockton is famous because it leads the nation in foreclosures. Over the last 2-3 years, 1 in 10 houses have been foreclosed.

During the day, the only people in Stockton are those that can't make it on their own. An entire city populated exclusively by the mentally retarded, the physically handicapped, drifting drug addicts, and others who, for whatever reason, settled into Stockton but couldn't manage to extract themselves from this little trap.

Everyone that passes me on the street at lunch is in a wheelchair, motorized or not. Or they're hobbling by on crutches. Those that can manage to walk unassisted stumble by drunk and high on Lord knows what, driving their worldly possessions through the streets before them in broken shopping carts. The upper crust of this human crisis procures bicycles, and ride proudly through the streets of Stockton. 5 or 50, it makes no difference. A bike serves them equally well.

Stockton is also famous for being the murder capital of California. On a per-capita basis, Stockton leads the state. 56 murders in 2011 and counting, in a town of less than a quarter of a million people.

At night, I leave work and walk a block to my car wearing a suit and tie, looking over my shoulder like a hunted animal. Dark people on bicycles dart past me in the night like shadows.

All the buildings are boarded up, ensconced behind more razor wire than the Western Front ever saw. Surprisingly, there's a little store across the street from my office with a simple sign that reads "Town Donuts".

I tend to eat lunch here because I'm not allowed to eat at my desk for whatever reason. So I sit in this little Spartan store and choke down a hamburger or some fried chicken for lunch (they serve more than donuts, it turns out).

I'm so scared by the local criminals that I jaywalk intentionally to avoid the idle gangs loitering on the sidewalks. They're seriously considering instituting Martial Law in Stockton. I'm not making this up.

So I dart across the street and dash into the safe harbor that is Town Donuts and this little Asian woman keeps the store.

"How is it that you run this business here?" I ask her, incredulously. "Are you afraid for your life? Have you been robbed?"
"No," she explains in broken English. "We never been robbed."

"How long you've been here?" I ask, thinking she's probably not understanding the gravitas of the situation. Probably they've only been off the boat for a few months and her days are numbered, I figure.

"We been here 14 years. We have never had no trouble. Everyone they knows us. Don't give no trouble."

I believe her, of course. It's just hard to understand how this could be true. How this little dainty asian mouse could be here, running a profitable business in the middle of what is essentially, a war zone.

"I need to get some donuts for the office," I explain.

"OK. Which one you want?" she asks.

There aren't a lot of them. Some cow-pattie sized apple fritters. Some twists. Maybe she has 18 donuts in all.

"I'll take them all. Just box them up and I'll take all of them."

I don't even ask her how much it is. I mean, honestly, I feel bad for her. Her store looks like something you'd see in Russia. Like, way too much empty space. A few donuts for sale. Some potato chips. A menu where they sell everything from hamburgers to fried rats for lunch. A few tables, and a lot of empty space.

So she starts putting all of her donuts into little pink boxes and then she puts the pink boxes into bags. At some point, she turns and barks orders to the cook through a small window.

"What language is that you're speaking," I ask.

I like to ask because the Asians speak so many different languages. They're all lost on me, so I always ask what language they're speaking, if I get a chance. They'll usually tell you. Probably most people don't even bother to ask, so they never know. But I ask.

"Cambodian," she smiles.

I think about this for a minute. This is a winner. I've never met anyone from Cambodia. But I know the story well enough. Pol Pot was a brutal dictator. He killed millions of people. I've seen 'The Killing Fields'. It wasn't a pretty scene.

"That's where Pol Pot was from," I offer, searching her eyes for a glint of recognition. Now, I'm wondering how old she is. Would she have been old enough? Old enough to be in the middle of everything that went down. When the jungle rivers ran red with the blood of massacred civilians.

"Yes. Pol Pot. He was a bad man. Very bad."

"You were there when he was in power?"

"Yes. It was bad. So bad."

"He killed a lot of people," I offer.

"They killed my father, right in front of my eyes. Because he worked for the city, you know. Everyone who worked for the city, they just took them out and shot them in the street like dogs."


"Because they worked for the city. So they didn't trust them. They killed them all right away. Shot my father right in front of me. Shot him here, here, here, here, here."

She points to her upper left arm, then to her chest in several spots. And I think about that. About how that video must be indelibly etched into her brain. She'll never forget that as long as she lives, and I'm sure she'd like to.

"They were going to kill me to. Kill the whole family. But the neighbors they said 'No. She's just a little girl. What good it will do to kill her?' So they let me live."

"Wow. That's got to be pretty intense", I'm thinking.

"What you did then?" I ask.

She stops arresting the donuts in the little pink boxes and looks up at me.

"They put us to work in the jungle," she explains. "We have to work all day. ALL DAY. We sleep only for three hours maybe at night. No food. They give us nothing all day but maybe some rice. About a mouthful every day. Everyone walking around just skin and bones....they look like....." her voice trails off here, searching for the right word.

"Skeletons?" I offer.

"Skeletons. That's what we were. Walking skeletons. No food. We were starving.
If you found a frog you would eat it. And we would be so thirsty. In the jungle, maybe we would find water on a leaf and drink it and not tell anyone. But in the summer, it didn't rain. And we were so thirsty. The girls, when they got their period, we so thirsty, that they'd drink their own blood. And they died. Because they had no minerals, you see" [sic-I may have misunderstood this part. I wasn't perfectly clear on what she was saying.]

"And we couldn't talk. Not at all. Not one word. If you speak. If they see you saying one word, they take you and shoot you right in front of everyone. Kill you on the spot for talking."

She's stopped getting donuts now. I don't really care about the donuts anymore. I never did really care about them. Mostly I just wanted to get out of the office for a minute or two.

"What were y'all doing? What were you building in the jungle?" I ask.

"We digging a canal...this deep...this wide...higher than the ceiling."

She gestures to show that they were digging a canal that I'd roughly estimate at 10-20 feet deep, probably 20 - 30 feet wide, and who knows how long.

"Y'all were digging it with what?" I clarify.

"By hand," she explains. "With shovels and picks. No gloves. Nothing. All day. My hands made blisters. These blisters turned clear and they popped. Then the blood ran out. But it didn't matter. You no stop. If you stop, they kill you."

"There weren't any tractors or bulldozers?" I ask incredulously.

"No. Nothing. Only by hand. With picks and shovel. We worked all day every day for three years like this. Digging canals."

"And this clothes that we wear. Only like this." Here, she makes some gestures I couldn't quite grasp. Probably they didn't have enough clothes, and they were never washed, I assume.

"How did you get away? How did you end up here?"

"Finally, the Vietnamese came in. They come into our country. And I escape. I run away into the jungle. I go across a river into Thailand. I run to escape. In the river, I go across the river. And dead bodies, you see? They floating all around me coming down the river. But I not scared. I not afraid at all. Only I keep going cause I want to live you see. I want to get out. To get away from digging the canals."

"We supported Pol Pot," I offered, regrettably.

"Who did?" she asked.

"The United States...we backed Pol Pot."

"Why? Why they supported Pol Pot?" she wanted to know.

"Well, see...we were in Vietnam. We'd been in Vietnam since 1959. And we lost that war. We pulled out in 1975. And so then, we didn't want their government to expand. So, when they invaded Cambodia, we supported Pol Pot. Not because we liked him, but more because we didn't want a Soviet-backed Vietnam to spread their communist party over South East Asia like they did in Eastern Europe.

"Oh. That's bad." She grimaced. She made a face like she was licking a lemon.

"You the first person asked me about this. I have this store 14 years. No one ever asked before about this. You the first one I've ever told. My daughters. They ask me about my past. But I no tell them. They too young."

"My name's Rob. Many thanks for sharing your story with me. You're the only person I've ever talked to that lived through that. I'm glad you made it."

She told me her name and thanked me for buying the donuts and then I walked out into the streets of Stockton. And suddenly, Stockton was different. I wasn't afraid of the city as much anymore. Now, I could sort of see the city through her eyes. Stockton is like a theme-park compared to the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Now I know how she makes it in this town.

How serendipitous that I learned conquer my fear of Stockton from a little Asian woman selling donuts.

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."
- Ernest Hemmingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929

Posted by Rob Kiser on December 23, 2011 at 11:10 PM


Perspective is everything.

Posted by: Genius on December 24, 2011 at 11:04 AM

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