Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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Without Hli, Eileen McHugh would have been completely forgotten. It was her memories from Thailand that started the process of enquiry. Over the years, detail by detail, her recollections, minimal though still vivid, have enabled lost scenes to be reimagined and, through their assembly, Eileen’s life has been remade. The process has been far from easy, because at times Hli is reticent to the point of obstruction. The last thing she wants to do is recall a past that offers neither solace nor comfort, both of which lie squarely in the completely preferable present. It is also hard to delve into what has become a rejected past with a person one has come to know so well, since the examination must inevitably unearth much pain. It is always easier to search within a stranger.

She has no birthdate, though one is listed on the papers that formally allowed her to stay in the United States. She does not know her age but will often quote a credible figure that might vary from day to day. She assumes she was born in the late fifties and she has only a general idea of the place. Perhaps her birth was never recorded. Perhaps her family were already on the move. Perhaps they were already displaced. Perhaps they were already refugees. Perhaps they were imprisoned… She has no idea and neither, she says, does she want to know. Here and now is all that matters to Hli.

She was told by others that she was born in Laos and that she spent her infant years there. She has never known the names of her parents but will make up likely ones if pressed by an official. What is certain is that now she has no memories whatsoever of any life before the great trek she made with people she called mother and father when they fled the war. They were not a family and they were not alone. At the time, Hli walked, walked more and walked some more again. For how long she walked, she cannot remember. She knows not where she walked from, or how long it took, but she does know where they settled, because that is the point her memory starts to improve. The journey she made could have been the journey of her people, except that for many of them it was an escape that never began.

She assumes she left Laos when she was five, six or seven years old. She might have been eight. She herself says she does not recall much, and those who accompanied her always refused to provide any detail. In reality, she only ever asked a few times, since reactions to her questions were often hostile, even violent. Even a collective history, when it might be incriminating, like a sleeping dog, is best left undisturbed. She waves her hand to preclude any discussion of that era, not only because she has no memories of it, but also because it remains contentious and painful. “Buy a book,” she says, “and that is the story.” I did, but not a whole book. Sometimes in personal histories detail is provided by a general experience.

It is likely that the journey she recalls took place in the early to mid-sixties when the war in Laos intensified. We perhaps forget that it was not only Vietnam that saw conflict in those years. And the consequences were severe, complicating relationships and changing lives. Hli never went to school, of any sort, never learned to read or write until some years after she arrived in the States, when she also took classes in English, of which she already knew a little. By then, this would have been her fourth language, having used one variety of Hmong at home, another with the village in which she eventually settled and Thai with people she came to call friends. Her introduction to English, when it came, was life-changing.

What I had never known until I began the interviews focusing on this life of Eileen McHugh was that the people Hli had always referred to as her parents were in fact anything but mother and father. She herself has known that all along, but until recently had never shared it with anyone.

Her own family was killed. At least that is what she was told. She does not know where or when it happened. The woman she learned to call her mother told her the truth in an angry fit when, again, the child asked if she might go to school with the other children in the village. Hli can remember the words verbatim and, when recalled, without prompting, she automatically applies the tone, impatience and volume with which they were delivered at the time. “Understand this. We could have left you to die. For us, it would have been easier. Your father knew what he was doing. We all did. Your father was killed. Your mother was killed. Your little brother was killed. All of them, except you. I don’t know how you survived. We brought you with us. We have raised you. But the deal is that you work. You earn your keep. You do as we say. Understand!” And that is as far as Hli will go. Effectively she was a domestic slave and in return she got food and shelter, and no more.

She kept the house clean and the garden neat. She planted, weeded and harvested vegetables. She tended the fruit trees. She planted rice and other crops. She dug the soil and scared birds. She cleaned, mopped and swept the slatted bamboo floors each day. She milled grain, ground spices, cooked, washed and ironed. She collected firewood, kindled the fires, swept up and scattered the ashes. There was plenty to keep her busy without recourse to schooling.

They had no appliances in the house. Hli is unclear when they first started using electricity, but even when it came, they used it only for light and had no washing machine, iron, stove or kettle, or anything else we label labour-saving. An iron was a heavy metal box with a turned wooden handle filled with smouldering charcoal. Grinding was done with stones smoothed for the purpose, and grain was milled between these heavy grinding stones, while pulses and spices were pounded in a mortar hollowed out from a tree trunk and pestle smoothed from a branch.

Water had to be drawn from streams and carried up the hill. She used a variety of containers, depending on how strong she felt and the domestic needs that day. There was a long pole with buckets on either end. There was a collection of plastic containers used originally for diesel, probably ten litres each, which she describes lashing to the same poles four at a time, two in front and two behind. But not every day needed forty litres of drawn water. Washing was usually done in the stream, it being easier for the clothes to go to the water. With determined and repeated wringing, the wet ones would be little more than a comfortable burden to carry home. The problem with water is that it does not get lighter as you walk, whereas drying clothes do. Carried water does get lighter if you spill some, of course, but then that leads to a beating from she-you-call-mother and another trip to the stream.

Cooking was on a wood fire or charcoal burner. They had their own stock of grain and vegetables. Meat and other things had to come from a shop, but Hli never went there and never dealt with money. Relations with anyone outside the home were the realm of she-you-called-mother and he-you-called-father, and both would warn Hli against social contact. These-you-call-parents were not around, obviously, when their servant went to the stream, worked in the fields and pruned the trees, so their admonitions of restraint satisfied their own desire for control, but did not affect Hli’s social life, which was as normal as it could be, without school. Though in this community she was not the only girl who stayed at home, the denial of inclusion merely heightened her sense of being an outsider.

In the late sixties she can recall the one occasion when she visited somewhere outside her village and its immediate environs. They went to Chiang Mai to see a doctor because she had cut her foot on a sharp stone on the path back from the stream. It needed some stitches and a bandage, and she was told not to stand or put weight on it for a week. It was during that week, she recalls, that there was a first show of blood from elsewhere in her body.

When she was smaller, she simply did not know that these people whom she called mother and father were strangers. A child takes reality for granted. She knew their names, but when the woman-she-called-mother revealed they had always been strangers, the name seemed to change when it was spoken. It could no longer be taken for granted and Hli was encouraged to regard her domestic slavery as privilege, without which life itself would dissolve. She knew they spoke the same dialect as herself, for obvious reasons, but it was different from others of what she was told were her own people, who were from the place where they now lived. She was an insider in the culture of her own home, where she was a slave, but always an isolated outsider when she left the house that enslaved her.

She also knew that questions were not welcome. She learned early on that even an implied question might lead to a beating, so she learned to put up, shut up and get on with whatever she was told to do. Other people came and went. There were regular visitors to the house, some of whom she recognised and sometimes even greeted. But the pattern was always the same. The people-she-called-parents and the visitors would disappear behind a closed door. She would knock after a few minutes and serve tea, be admitted, set down her tray and then leave, closing the door quietly, always quietly behind her. The meetings could go on for hours but were usually short. The door would occasionally open and the words, “Hli, tea,” would be shouted by the woman-she-called-mother. She would comply, knocking before opening the door. She was never tempted to listen. She asked no questions. She was always busy.

Hli is remarkable in that she will to this day offer no criticism of anyone. War killed her family. She was forced to flee for her own life. She crossed a border to a foreign place where she was never accepted. She was kept a virtual prisoner until her teens and carried out what was effectively forced labour every day of her youth. And yet, if asked to deliver judgment on this, her experience, her response is always a mere shrug, never any words, that says, “That’s life.” And she still calls them mother and father, by the way, but never uses their names.

Speculation is always dangerous because it is usually wrong. But I sense that Hli has also concluded that this couple had originally lived in the same village as her original family. And the events that killed her family had probably devastated the whole community. These-you-call-parents probably lost their own family, or indeed the families, for she does not know for sure that the people who saved her were in fact married. It could be that her adopted mother and father had survived partial destruction of their households as well herself. They had probably moved as a group. She has vague memories of a group of refugees, as she now calls them, but nothing is clear. What is clear to Hli is that without those two people she would not have survived and for that she remains grateful to them. The least she could do to repay their sacrifice was to work. And so, she did.

But like all human beings, there comes a time when the individual emerges from dependency. There develops a need, not just a desire, to obey a force that separates, that demands the exploration of a personal path. Hli admits to having experienced these changes in herself in her early teens. Obviously, the onset of puberty changes our minds as well as our bodies but, until then, Hli had merely accepted her daily lot, completed her tasks, did as she was told. But then a hint of rebellion appeared. She would dawdle a while, not deliver the tea immediately when ordered by those people behind the closed door. Now they could wait until she had finished what she had been doing. And then there were other teenagers who would stop by the house for a chat. She would meet them on the road and sometimes walk through the village with them, but always returning promptly whenever she heard her name called from the house she called home. And then there was Don.

Hli and her adopted parents had lived there for a while, maybe a year or two, when a new face - and not the first white one - began to appear at the house. Don would arrive on a motorbike, not a luxury, shining advertisement on which an old man in America might hallucinate rejuvenation at the weekend, but a small two-stroke, beaten and battered, smelly, smoky and noisy. He came every week, sometimes twice, his approach announced by the groaning drone of his bike as it snaked through the mud of the unmade road up to the village. Hli used to feel a certain excitement when this foreigner came and would stop her chores to watch him arrive, switch off his engine and dismount in front of the house. He always seemed to wear the same clothes, Hli remembers, as if it might be a uniform. Always there was a baseball cap, which he never took off, a tee shirt, jeans and flip-flops. The cap had Yankees written across the front and there was a brown label on his behind with the words Levi Strauss. The tee shirt was memorable for the teenager, because it had a strange sign, which she thought might have something to do with the white man’s religion. She remembered it so well that sometime later she researched its origins and found, to her confusion, that it meant ban-the-bomb. It was a sentiment with which she agreed, wishing it might have applied to those that fell on her family in Laos. Soon afterwards, of course, she would become familiar with that and other hippie symbols, because in those years they were much in evidence in northern Thailand.

But the American who came to the village to visit the people Hli called parents was no hippie. For a start, he spoke the language and understood the culture, not only in the village, but also the national culture. Hli often saw him greeting and speaking with other men who came to the meetings and they were all Thai. The sound was a distinctly American version of whatever he spoke, but he was understood, and he understood others. But her parents reacted differently towards him. There was no banter, no overt greeting and no small talk. He arrived. They shared sawasdee and then shook hands with hello, cultures consciously crossing. Then they went behind that closed door and talked, but when Don came, there was none of the noisy, animated din that often seeped through the thin bamboo walls. Meetings with Don were often quiet and usually short. He would take tea but would rarely stay to eat and was usually not invited.

He had been coming to the house for a year or so, perhaps longer, when Hli remembers his asking about her. She did not herself speak and she remembers he specifically asked about her as a ‘daughter’. She was afraid to tell the truth and went along with whatever her parents-in-name-only said. She told him she was sixteen, which she might have been. To this day Hli remembers blushing that day and rushing away into the kitchen to hide her embarrassed laughter. She had lived the life of a near recluse, but she had sufficient contact with people her own age to be fully aware of how the world worked, though none of these boys had ever tried to touch her.

Don started bringing her presents. There was something strange about this and her parents-in-name-only were uncomfortable but had no language that could express their wish he should stop. He brought her pieces of cloth, trinkets from the market, sometimes sweets and drinks. At first, she thought he was just another customer for whatever it was that these regular meetings traded, whatever it was that these regular visitors took away in plastic bags, but Don only ever brought things. He never took anything away, which made him even stranger in Hli’s eyes.

One day, when she heard the distant pop-pop of his bike, she felt both panic and elation. She remembers the day well, because she was alone in the house. Her parents had told her they were both going to Chiang Mai, which was unusual but not particularly special, and would be away all day. Surely, they would not have arranged a meeting with the American knowing they would be away in town. Mid-morning Don arrived with a parcel for her, which remained with its string tie undisturbed until over an hour after Hli had lost her virginity. He started coming more often, coinciding with her parents’ more frequent absence and Hli developed a traffic light system for him - clothes drying in front of the house when the parents were out. She was pregnant less than three months later.

Obviously, there were as yet no outward signs, but Hli’s mother-in-name-only knew the score. In a small house, where washing was done by hand and almost always by the maid, Hli, there had to be a place where things could accumulate. It was only a few weeks later when Hli was sorting through the soiled cloths that she noticed how her mother-in-name-only was taking extra careful note. That afternoon, Hli deliberately cut her finger while her mother was in the other room and then set about bloodying the cloth she had previously tucked into her waistband. This, once convincingly smeared, she added to the wash pile. Later that day, mother-in-name-only grabbed her by the forearms and stared at her. She drew up Hli’s left hand and inspected the knotted strip that was still tied around her forefinger. “You cut your hand,” Hli remembers her saying. It was far from a question. It was equally far from observation. “You cannot hide,” said her mother-in-name-only, words that conveyed judgment as well as reality. “The extra mouth should be fed by its father.”

Under five minutes later, still dry-eyed from the shock, Hli for the first time in her life had money in her hands as mother-in-name-only thrust a whole ten baht into her palm. “Get the bus to Chiang Mai. Ask in the bars opposite the main entrance for American Don. They will tell you what to do.” And, just ten minutes later, with her things wrapped in a cloth she knotted across her shoulders, she was walking, now tearful, down the hill towards the main road. She had never before been alone so far from the house.

The bus took over two hours, stopping, it seemed, at almost every house along the way. It was crowded. There were people standing, jammed along the aisle, some carrying several bags, women with giant sacks of fruit, rice vegetables, cardboard boxes stuffed with trussed live chickens, but next to Hli there was an empty seat onto the very end of which, occasionally, someone might perch, keeping a safe distance. No-one wanted to sit next to a Hmong. She had learned several new facts of life recently, but this caused a pain she could not have anticipated, a new kind of rejection for a girl whose life had been repeatedly rejected.

Alone in the town she had visited barely a handful of times, Chiang Mai seemed bewildering, noisy, dirty, crowded and dangerous, because the bicycles and tuk-tuks seemed to head wherever and whenever they wished. She was not used to looking for traffic, to getting out of the way, or even negotiating a path through a crowd. The main entrance to the bus station was easy to find, because there was only one, and a line of bars opposite had signs in Chinese as well as Thai. A man at the till, himself Chinese, refused even to acknowledge her question, refused apparently even to acknowledge her existence, but a woman sitting near the open front of the restaurant heard what she had asked and pointed to a bicycle rickshaw, spoke to the driver from where she sat and told Hli to give him one baht. It took ten minutes to make a couple of right turns and enter a long, quiet road with tall trees. The driver stopped at a gate and pointed.

There was a small garden with bougainvillea and small bushes in front of a low wooden house with a large roofed patio in front. There were steps up to the veranda and doors to rooms on the other three sides. Don’s tee shirt and jeans were drying on a rack. She called his name and he appeared in the doorway to her left. She pointed at her belly and said one of the few English words she had already absorbed, “Baby.” It was only then that she suffered a moment of doubt, because the man standing before her, she realised, was only vaguely familiar. This man was dressed like a monk, in robes, flowing baggy trousers and sandals. He had a shaved head with a strange little ponytail of dark brown hair at the crown, held absurdly upright by a tight elastic band. It was Don, all right, but this was the first time she had seen him without his hat.

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