GUIDES TO THE BOUNTY Bunrith Pok and Mealy Khiev (in the center) with a brother and Mealy Khiev’s son, behind the counter at Haknuman Meanchey. Photo: DAVID HOLMAN
My friend from Thailand taught me how to make real pot stickers and pad Thai. Now I'm headed to her favorite Asian market for ingredients. Forest Avenue heading north from downtown Portland is so familiar I don't even see what is here: power lines swinging like garland through the town's brick buildings and cars flowing as naturally as blood cells. After the lit Domino's pizza sign, I turn right into a narrow parking lot. Asian-Americans are spilling out of a yellow building with a sign above it: Haknuman Meanchey. People are carrying bags of rice as big as couch cushions on their shoulders. We all do a good job of pretending that there's no difference between those present and me, a third-generation Caucasian-American, born in Wisconsin, accustomed to buying rice in a sack the size of an aerobics weight.
Haknuman sells an average of 50 bags of rice each day and 100 phone cards. The owner and a bank estimated in 2003 that there were close to 10,000 Asians living in Maine. (This year's census may tell us how many more there are now.) Every day about 40 non-Asians like me visit Haknuman, often inspired by an Asian friend. The store, no bigger than a coffee shop, is packed with a million things you've never seen before, like dried croaker (it's a fish), four ounces of turmeric for $1.59, and frozen small edible frogs. I want to ask questions nonstop for a year. I could spend my whole life learning in this place.
A woman whose name sounds like "Merely Q" (it's Mealy Khiev) helps me find the items on my list: Twin Marquis Shanghai-style dumpling wrappers, Thai Fruit tamarind concentrate, salted radish, Squid fish sauce, fettuccini-shaped rice sticks, palm sugar, oyster sauce, and rice vinegar. She co-owns the store with her brother. His name sounds like "Boon Drrred POW!" (It's Bunrith Pok.) He was the first to come to Maine of all the siblings in his family. (His sister, Mealy Khiev, and a brother live in Portland, two elsewhere in the US, and five are still in Cambodia.)
As a teenager in Cambodia in the 1970s, he was separated from his family and forced into a labor camp hauling fertilizer into rice paddies. He eventually escaped, walking 48 hours straight with a group of 10 strangers. He had no bag and wore rubber flip-flops. At night, he remembers, it was dark and silent in the jungle but for the sound of leaves touching one another and the wind. The group would stop every once in a while to eat quickly. They made rice in a pot and slapped dried fish straight on the fire. "No time for oil," he says. They evaded communist soldiers, thieves, and mines, and finally made it to a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand, where he lived for six years.