A CHILD WHO WAS DIFFERENT

 By Vian Tran

          In the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, the narrator describes social misfits – like Boo Radley and Burris Ewell – who, for different reasons, don’t fit into society. Thinking about those literary characters and of my own childhood reminded me of a very different girl - the daughter of my grandmother’s neighbor, who was different from all the other children. I encountered this girl when I lived with grandma while my Mom was at work.  In Vietnam, although we lived in the middle of Saigon, one of the biggest cities, we didn’t have big houses with big gardens and streets or courts between them as in America . The rows of single-story houses were divided by small alleys and their windows faced each other. Each evening, while doing my homework, I could look through the window and see the neighbor kids outside, playing hopscotch, hide-and-seek, or jump rope. That was when I first noticed the girl. Back then, I was six or seven years old and that girl was two or three years my senior. Her name was Nga. The first time I saw Nga, I was threatened by her odd behavior. She didn’t speak or act normally. According to my grandma and the neighbors, Nga was not mentally ill but mentally retarded.  I didn't dare approach her for a long time but observed this pitiful girl through the window. Sometimes while playing outside, Nga would suddenly rush to the window where I was sitting and grin at me.  I nearly jumped out of my skin, but I would look back at her, and I gradually got to understand her better.

Nga appeared to have lots of strange characteristics. When I looked carefully, I could see her flattened round face was freckled and had beads of tiny moles. She carried a vague look on her face. Her head of hair was always tangled and bushy as if she never brushed it. Her two big eyes with dark circles around them were glassy, indicating a lack of sleep. A pug nose above thick lips and two little dimples on her cheeks expressed her naiveté and meekness. Her skin was lumpy and reddened from sunburn. Being slightly deformed, she didn’t walk straight. Nga seemed to be tall for her age but her mind was similar to a kid’s, innocent and benign. Nga really liked being outside, and she tried to join other kids and play with them. Although many of them were scared of her and even teased her, that innocent mind didn’t care about that. She was outside all the time and wasn’t properly cared for; her body was always splattered with dirt, and she smelled as if she didn’t bathe much. However, she was always contented and full of energy.

Unlike other retarded children, Nga lived with her family; and of course, she had a mother. However, this mother, a nearly-thirty-year-old woman then, was rich but terribly cruel. She had a son after Nga. This boy, who was just as normal as the other kids, was overprotected and highly indulged. Due to Nga’s mental differences, her mother felt ashamed of her and didn’t like her; but she was, however, Nga’s mother, which made her unable to mercilessly ignore her own daughter. Nevertheless, she wasn’t considerate and kind to Nga. She let her wear old thin clothes and old plastic sandals. There were many times I saw the mother beating  Nga for carelessly breaking things, or just because she refused to return home from playing. Every time Nga was beaten, she embraced herself instead of crying and wailing, not knowing how to entreat her mother not to beat her anymore.  Many a time, the neighbors had to intervene in order to stop Nga’s mother from inflicting serious injury. I felt sorry for Nga.

In spite of being different from others, Nga had her own special activities and loved to be friendly. Everyday about 3 p.m., I would see Nga returning home from school, carrying a small backpack. (I don’t know what kind of school she attended; she had the demeanor of a kindergartener.) Every time Nga got near me, she usually said something, which was unclear and incomprehensible.  Every time she appeared at my window, she would spread her hand to show me some candy and stutter,  “Ea…eat i…it.” I was wary of doing so the first few times, but later on, I took the candy from her and said thanks. She grinned spontaneously. As Saigon was still poor and backward in the early 1990s and people still used coal stoves for cooking, every evening before dinner time, the women would bring their stoves and coal outside, light a fire and fan the flames with bamboo fans.  Nga would go around and ask to help them fan the fire. Since most of them were compassionate and couldn’t find it in their hearts to refuse her, they let Nga take care of their stoves. Nga was obviously happy that she could be useful. I grew accustomed to this nightly ritual in the alley.

            Two years later when my brother got older, we moved out of my grandmother's house. Since I was no longer living with my grandma, I usually visited her on weekends and holidays. As time passed, the families up and down the alley were rising above poverty and backwardness. My grandma’s neighbors gradually became more comfortable; they remodeled their houses step-by-step, bought new motorcycles, and used modern appliances. Of course, people no longer used coal stoves for cooking and I didn’t see the familiar scene as in the old days: people lighting a f ire in front of their houses. Everything had changed. However, Nga stayed the same; she never changed a bit. Her condition seemed irreversible. There was still the freckled face, the tangled hair, and the same deportment. She was taller and bigger but remained childlike. The only difference was she no longer had the chance to help people fan their fires for cooking. Once, I chanced upon Nga on the way to my grandma’s house. I smiled at her. With her usual  spontaneous grin, Nga spread her hand to show me some candy and stuttered with difficulty: “Ea…eat i…it.”