ADAM CAME TO SEE MY NEWBORN SON just a few days after we brought him home from the hospital. He was so excited about Sam’s birth that he jumped up on the crib rail and pitched forward, tumbling in so that he was nose to nose with him, the cardinal violation germ-conscious health care professionals had so gravely warned us about. The die was cast: Adam was almost three years old, Sam was a little more than three days; their friendship—and my lessons in the modern melting pot—had just begun.
Adam is the son of a Laotian woman who worked for me intermittently before Sam was born; she had been recommended by a friend who called her Chanh Pheng, which I assumed was her whole name. In what would be the first of many cultural misfirings (and many mysteriously cashed checks), she waited a year before delicately informing us that her last name was actually Lianekeo; “Chanhpheng” was just her first name. During those early days, she arrived at our house shy and accommodating and cleaned the place with a dizzying swiftness—before I really knew she had been there she was gone. In snatches I learned the outlines of her history: She and her husband had left Laos in 1980 while that country was swept up in the tumult that still defined Southeast Asia. The communist takeover of their home deeply concerned Chanhpheng’s husband, Thinnakone—“If I had stayed there, they would have either taken me to jail or killed me,” he says—so with his new bride, he swam the two-mile-wide Mekong River and found refuge at a camp in Thailand before moving on to the Philippines, Philadelphia, and then, finally, Houston. Thinnakone the surveyor became Thomas the carpet layer; Chanhpheng supplemented their income by occasionally cleaning houses. They had three children: Annie, born in 1981, Anna, born in 1983, and then Adam, five years later.
Before meeting the Lianekeos, my knowledge of Southeast Asians was pretty much confined to Vietnam War protests and one Thai restaurant on the Westheimer strip. I was, from the beginning, inspired and comforted by their story. They seemed to me brave and hardy, proof that the American dream still existed: They had come here with almost nothing and, within a decade or so, mastered the language and purchased a small home; they could boast that all their children were honor students. It was easy to view them through the lens of cultural stereotypes—those ambitious Asians—and I could see myself playing my own stereotypical role: I would be the benevolent American who would help the family find their way in their chosen country. It seemed a fair and impeccably correct exchange in this, the multicultural age. I taught Chanhpheng about mortgages and health insurance; she brought me spicy noodle dishes and “lucky” plants from her garden. It would not dawn on me until much, much later—when Adam came into my life—that the culture she and her family were really teaching me about was my own.
Ever resourceful, Chanhpheng swiftly used the occasion of Sam’s birth to promote herself from occasional housecleaner to afternoon baby-sitter—at her house. I was a work-at-home mom, she lived only a few blocks from me, and she had to be home with Adam in the afternoons anyway. The deal was struck before my husband had time to quibble over her salary. Soon enough, Sam was speaking a smattering of Laotian and even asking for kao (“rice”) at mealtimes. (“If you sing at the table,” he told me, quoting a lesson from Chanhpheng’s school of table manners, “you’ll have an old wife.”) When he began going to preschool several mornings a week, the teachers praised his sharing skills, a quality I immediately attributed to his exposure to the Lianekeos. American kids seem to learn (and claim) property rights almost before they learn to talk, but Chanhpheng and her family were, for cultural and economic reasons, more communal and less acquisitive. I congratulated myself on my instinct to hire Chanhpheng and gladly accepted the one small price for my success: Given a choice of social contacts, Sam almost always chose Adam.
Wiry and athletic with, for many years, an abbreviated fade haircut, Adam was a far cry from his two older sisters. Where Annie and Anna were the archetypal Asian children—poised, articulate, inquisitive, and self-effacing—Adam was unruly and, well, a bit of a slob. As a toddler he stained the upholstery with his milk bottle and broke items that were not placed beyond his reach. As the only male child in the family, he carried with him an air of privilege. He was, in short, a typical boy—which made him an early and primary object of Sam’s adoration. “How about a trip to the zoo with Natalie?” we would ask him. “Uh-uh. Adam,” Sam would reply.
“Adam, Adam, Adam.”
How could we object? They had been together for most of Adam’s life and all of Sam’s. When I was not hovering over the two of them, they played quietly together at whatever game a two-year-old and a four-year-old, and then a three-year-old and a five-year-old, could dream up. They buried treasure in the back yard. They floated feathers over the air conditioning vents. They opened a restaurant on the front porch. If Adam was shy with us, he was patient and kind with Sam, willing to share the finer points of Super Mario ad infinitum. When Sam had to get allergy shots for his asthma, it was Adam who cried the most. When Sam jumped into a swimming pool after being forbidden to do so, Adam swam for him as fast as I did. Sometimes I thought of him as Sam’s bodyguard. “Sam looks weird with glasses,” the child of a friend of ours taunted. “No, he doesn’t,” Adam insisted. In short, he won me over. And, not so coincidentally, he increased my opportunities to play the benevolent American.
Our first clash came over food. Chanhpheng is an excellent cook, and her diet is still that of home—fresh vegetables, noodles, and rice, with small amounts of meat and fish. When Adam nixed the mashed potatoes at Luby’s despite my encouragement—he doused them with sugar after I promised, “They’re good, try just one bite”—I thought it was because he had a palate similar to his mother’s. I was wrong. “He only eats pizza,” Chanhpheng confessed, exasperated. That wasn’t entirely true. Adam also ate grilled cheese. He stood at my elbow painstakingly instructing me how to make the sandwiches to his specifications. “You need Kraft American slices,” he informed me.
It was a statement of preference, but it might as well have been a declaration of cultural identity. Like every child whose parents are immigrants, Adam had a foot in two cultures, but you could see which way he was heading. He didn’t need me to teach him how to be American; he went to public school, he watched videos, he went to the mall with his sisters. The Buddhist temple his mother attended just off U.S. 59 North didn’t have much of a chance to infuse him with Asian culture: Adam lived for Michael Jordan, Nintendo, and Nikes. “I want to be a lawyer,” he told me one day. “Really, why?” I asked, already drafting his Harvard letter of recommendation. “Because they make muh-neeee,” Adam said.
I adopted a fallback position: I would teach him to distinguish between good and bad American values. When our family was invited to a Passover seder, I thought he might find the story and the customs interesting and brought him along. As part of the celebration, Adam was asked to read a section from the Haggadah, the great story of Jewish liberation. When he finished reading in halting, slightly accented eight-year-old English, the crowd burst into spontaneous, self-esteem-building applause. He peered around the table uncomprehendingly; all he had done, after all, was read a story. That the rest of the people might have seen him as an extension of the Passover story was lost on him. He had always seen himself as just a boy, not a symbol. Likewise, when Adam was rewarded with $20 for winning a holiday game, my stomach fluttered. The day before, a neighbor had given him and Sam $5 each for washing her car. In both cases I’d been too confrontation-averse to refuse what I knew was too much money for a child. Not so Chanhpheng. “Don’t take money from strangers anymore,” she told Adam after he had returned home and presented the cash as a gift to his mother. I began to worry that Chanhpheng and Thomas might begin to consider us a bad influence.
I was beginning to see our culture through the eyes of Adam and his parents. They came to stand in stark contrast to the more financially fortunate people we spent time with. Adam was frankly aghast at the fits of temper other children displayed—sometimes his jaw literally dropped. What I saw in his upbringing were things that were sometimes missing from families that were more privileged: Praise came with genuine accomplishment, incessant buying was out of the question, and no was no. With Adam around, it was easier to set limits for my own son. And I began to question some of the notions Sam was learning in his public we-are-all-one elementary school. On the day Chanhpheng went to the hospital to have her fourth child, a daughter, I picked up her kids from school. Adam was ecstatic that day: He was brandishing a red ribbon he’d won for finishing second in a track meet. His sister Annie eyed the ribbon coolly. “Who won first place?” she asked. As relative newcomers, the Lianekeos knew they could not afford the luxury of noncompetitiveness. What made me think my son was any different?
In fact, Adam wasn’t so different by then. He’d put in his time at the zoo and at NASA, he’d been to the IMAX and could show me the kids’ playroom in the basement of the science museum. His parents had used credit to buy the kids a computer; they’d paid for swimming lessons at the Y. In what was probably the most telling attempt to bring him into the mainstream, the school had arranged for a “pen pal”—an engineer at an oil company downtown. (“Hey Adam! Are you keeping up with the Rockets?” the man wrote from just a few miles away.) Adam may have been initially shy when visiting the homes of our friends—“Just two people live here?” he asked when we pulled up in front of a two-story home in Galves-ton—but within minutes he usually joined in the play. His parents had given him the confidence to belong.
But belong in what way? While the kids at his mostly Hispanic public school were busy celebrating Dies y Seis and Black History Month (Annie played poet Gwendolyn Brooks in a program a few years ago), Adam was still being referred to by other kids as “the Chinese Boy.” Even strangers had interesting ideas to explain his presence in our midst. “Those are two fine-looking boys you got there, ma’am,” a concessionaire at the car show said to me last year. My husband and I exchanged glances—like many before him, the man assumed that Adam was our adopted Southeast Asian. It was hard for most people to fathom that he was just a friend of the family. In America, I gleaned, it is more normal for a kid to have an Asian sibling than an Asian friend.
I suppose for a long time I too was guilty of treating Adam as an object lesson rather than just as another boy around the house. I was so bent on being correct—obeying the dictates of multiculturalism—that I was caught up in acknowledging our differences instead of being natural. This was brought home to me the time we took Adam to San Antonio to visit my parents, his first trip away from home. The house my parents lived in was large—“Pop-pop, you’re rich!” he declared over my father’s embarrassed protests—and Adam was nervous as night came on. He asked to sleep in my mother’s room, and then with us. “No,” I said, thinking he would welcome the privacy, “you and Sam can have your own room.”
That night I made them a pallet on the floor, and Adam curled up next to me and listened solemnly to my rendition of Green Eggs and Ham. He wanted all the lights on when it was time for bed, so I made sure every bulb was burning. An attack of shyness kept me from giving Adam a good-night kiss—his mom would have given Sam one. After I checked on the boys later, I found that Adam had fallen asleep with his arm around Sam’s shoulders. Never again, I thought, would I treat him as if he were anyone but my own.
I still have the impulse to do things for Adam, but I think now it has less to do with politics or good works than with the unceasing adult desire to live vicariously through children and, simply, a gratefulness for the love and loyalty he has shown Sam, for being the best role model our son could have. I dream we could afford to take him wading in the ice cool waters of the Delaware River, near where our friends have a house. I would like to show him the Empire State Building and—why not?—the Statue of Liberty. I imagine taking him on his first plane ride and seeing his face as the engines gun and we take flight, with the whole wide world below.