Stranger on the Doorstep
A very strange thing happened this afternoon. I was just sitting at home with my parents, who are over from the UK for their annual visit, when my Dad noticed someone at the front door. I opened it to find a youngish Asian woman standing there with a letter in hand. With her head down, eyes averted, she tried to communicate something to me in extremely broken English, showed me the letter, which was in a foreign language (it looked like Thai or Vietnamese), and pointed to a phone number scrawled on it.
After a few minutes all I could establish was that she lived up the street (towards the cul-de-sac, so it likely was not a scam), that her own phone was broken, and she was asking for a few minutes on my cell phone. Well, who knows where she was planning to call, or how much it would cost? But I agreed to let her use my land line since even if it was an overseas call, a call of a few minutes would not have cost very much, and she did appear to be quite agitated about something.
Given that it took at least ten minutes to get this far, it seemed to me that she really did need to use the phone quite badly, and when it became clear that she was only calling a local Austin number, I was happy to oblige. After a four minute call, she then asked me–almost begged me–to let her make another phone call–all the time still refusing to look me in the eye — even after I had squatted down (she was not very tall). I was beginning to worry that she might have some sort of mental disability and should not really be out on her own.
Anyway, I agreed to let her make another call–”a few minutes” she insisted–and after she had a brief conversation in her very broken English to another local number, she was passed on to another native speaker. What proceeded for the next half-hour seemed to be more like a monologue than a conversation, she spoke into the phone with hardly a single pause of more than a second or two–I have no idea how or if the other person at the other end was getting a word in–she seemed to have an awful lot to say. All this time she was standing on my doorstep while my parents and I just looked at each other wondering what the heck was going on!
Finally, once it was fairly obvious that she wasn’t dealing with any sort of emergency, I tapped her on the shoulder and suggested it was time to end the call. A couple of minutes later she did, handed the phone back to me, and with the curtest of thank you’s just marched off up the road–towards where she said her house was–without so much as a glance back at me.
Somewhat curious as to whom she called, I went online and checked the phone log to find out that she had first called a local private address of someone called Tran (a Vietnamese name) and then an acupuncturist on Bee Caves Road. So I am still completely baffled as to why she would spend what was obviously a very awkward and difficult ten minutes communicating her needs to a complete stranger on the doorstep of a house she had never been to before, just to have what seemed more like a regular conversation than anything else.
As for her extremely demure manner–I’m beginning to wonder if she might be one of the Hmong people, like those featured heavily in Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, Grand Torino. According to the film, looking directly at a person is considered extremely rude and they avert their eyes as a sign of deference and respect, and I don’t believe the young woman looked at me once even though by the end of the encounter I got the impression that she wasn’t a shy person. I don’t know enough about Vietnamese culture in general to be certain, but I don’t recall seeing similar, eye-averting, behaviour in other Vietnamese immigrants I have met since coming to America, and according to Wikipedia, there are many Hmong people who do live in Vietnam.
So, it’s all a bit of a puzzle really. I’m guessing that she really did have a fairly urgent need to phone a friend or relative, but had she really tried all the other houses on the street between her home and mine (she must live at least five houses away) or did she just happen to pick my house at random? It would be nice to know more, but her English was very broken, so there was little chance of her explaining her predicament in any detail. My Dad suggested I called the acupunture parlor to find out what was going on, but I wasn’t sure it was any of my business really, and she didn’t seem to be in any serious distress. I just hope that she managed to sort out whatever it was she needed to call about, even if it was only to get her phone service restored.
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