Listening to a Wonderful Immigrant Story in the Walmart Parking Lot while Everybody Was Stocking Up on Bottled Water


I was sitting in a Walmart parking lot, a few days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO. It was back when stores weren’t yet limiting the number of shoppers. People were still hoarding toilet paper and making a big deal about how people were hoarding toilet paper, and there wasn’t much of it left in the stores by that time. I had a list in my pocket of things to buy, but I stayed in my car for a while listening to NPR as I watched shoppers file out with their carts piled high with their necessities—bottled water seemed to be a must-have that day. I was in the middle of a Moth Radio Hour and I wanted to hear the end.

The edition playing that day was called “When We Were Young,” and in the second segment, “Sandwiches & Neighbors,” Oanh Ngo Usadi tells about her family of seven leaving Vietnam as refugees when she was twelve. They ended up in Port Arthur, Texas. and she introduces us to their landlords, Mr. Water (not so nice) and Mrs. Water (much nicer). “Water” wasn’t their actually surname, but that’s what Usadi’s family called them. She shares how her father opened a sandwich shop to give McDonald’s “a run for its money” and how they were introduced to the significance of April 1 (the hard way) and how a trip to Costco brought about an unexpected affirmation. And that brings me back to Walmart.

I didn’t have a mask with me, because we weren’t doing that yet, but I had in my head all the reminders to wash my hands and not touch my face. Regardless, I found myself wiping my eyes as Usadi reached the end of her poignant story.

You can listen to the entire episode at The Moth site, and I hope you do. It starts with “Is Love Wild, Is Love Real?” from a man who grew up outside London. His parents were Pakistani Muslims who didn’t believe that love was a useful ingredient in a husband-wife relationship. As he is looking for love anyway, his mother is looking to set him up in an arranged marriage. Enlightenment comes by way of Bruce Springsteen.

And the third, and final, story is “Kid Religion.” In it, the speaker tells about his time as a child in western New York, attending a small Methodist church. His mother, a “labor lawyer from a Catholic Puerto Rican family in the Bronx,” volunteers to teach his Sunday-school class and gets fired for how she answers a question. Years later, after developing a relationship with a girl in a school play, he comes to believe that his mother’s answer was the right one.

If Usadi’s narrative makes you want to hear more about her life, you can read her memoir, Of Monkey Bridges and Bánh Mì Sandwiches: from Sài Gòn to Texas.

[photo: “Walmart,” by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license]


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