A moment that changed me: I patronised a refugee – and he taught me an invaluable lesson

<span>‘What defines you is that you have lost your place in the world …’ Paul Moss and Mr Tienh at Phanat Nikhom.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Paul Moss</span>
‘What defines you is that you have lost your place in the world …’ Paul Moss and Mr Tienh at Phanat Nikhom.Photograph: Courtesy of Paul Moss

It says something that I only remember him as “Mr Tienh”. The small man who taught me such a big lesson may at some point have told me his first name, but it was not one I ever used. Mr Tienh must have been in his 50s, while I was only a few years out of school. So, out of respect, “Mr” he was introduced as, and “Mr” he remained.

Back in his home country of Vietnam, the younger generation would automatically have accorded him the same courtesy, particularly given his position as a schoolteacher. But Mr Tienh no longer had a teaching job, nor any job at all. We met in the refugee camp where he was stuck, and where I volunteered, about 70 miles east of Bangkok.

This was 1988, and Vietnamese refugees had been showing up in Thailand for more than a decade, and from Cambodia and Laos as well. Phanat Nikhom camp had been erected hastily to accommodate them, a concrete and wood mess with a barbed wire fence and guard tower to make sure no one escaped.

The life back home that Mr Tienh described to me had been a cosmopolitan one, the Saigon cafe culture intellectual and boisterous. He had been a vocal opponent of South Vietnam’s military dictators, but was no fan either of the communist North, which eventually took over. So he packed a few possessions and fled the country, escaping into what turned out to be incarceration. By the time we met, he had been in the camp for six years.

It was his idea to give me French lessons, an idea that at first I resisted. After all, it was I who was supposed to be teaching him, and his fellow refugee camp inmates. The hope was that a knowledge of English would give them more chance of being accepted for resettlement, in the US perhaps, or Australia.

This work was effectively part-time, though, and my French was definitely in need of improvement, so I agreed to come to his hut every morning at about 11. There, he took me through a few fundamental points of French grammar, teaching me to conjugate verbs in the parfait and imparfait tenses, and even the subjonctif.

I did make an effort, but still tried even his admirable pedagogic patience. One day, he suggested we should take an early break: “How about I take you for lunch at the canteen?”

I presumed he did not quite get the connotations of that turn of phrase, to “take” me to lunch. I certainly could not imagine that he meant he would take care of the bill. Refugees had simple meals supplied to them for free. The camp canteen, by contrast, was expensive, and mostly catered for the resident staff. I myself rarely ate there, my work being unpaid and my funds rapidly diminishing. Lunch for me usually consisted of snacks I bought from a shop in the nearby town.

Mr Tienh must have sensed my hesitation, as he made clear that his lunch offer was indeed intended to be just that. “It’ll be my treat,” he said.

I declined, with all the faltering embarrassment that we British so often display when discussing matters financial. I tried to make clear that this was nothing personal, but that I could not possibly expect a refugee to shell out for me, a relatively privileged native of west London.

“Paul,” he said, with contrasting matter-of-factness, “I have a cousin in Nebraska who sends me $100 every month. The main problem I have in my life is not money. My problem is that I’m a refugee, and I’m not allowed to leave this camp.”

He glanced at my cheap clothes, the young westerner-in-Asia uniform of a grubby T-shirt, drawstring cotton trousers and flip-flops. “And to be honest,” he went on, “you don’t look like a guy with much money.”

That was when I understood my implied insult to his dignity – that I, a directionless drifter half his age, had rejected out of hand an offer of lunch. But then this, I realised, is what it is to be a refugee, constantly to suffer a whole bundle of patronising assumptions about your poverty, helplessness and overall lack of any agency. Of course, poverty is often an aspect of being a refugee – homelessness too. But what defines you as a seeker of asylum is that you have lost your place in the world, which means that naive people like me accord you no status at all. I felt deeply ashamed.

Fortunately, Mr Tienh was made of sturdier stuff. “Come on,” he said. “You really do look hungry.”

And so I paid him what I now understood was a compliment. We went to the canteen and ordered large bowls of Thai curry, with spring rolls to start. I wolfed it all down, and Mr Tienh picked up the bill, his face beaming with pride.

More than three decades have passed since that November day, during which time my work as a journalist has taken me to refugee camps around the world: in northern Iraq, Jordan, Colombia and Bosnia. I have also interviewed refugees in countries where they ended up: Italy, France, and Britain too. And whatever stories they have, whatever horrors they have been through, I try to remember that they, too, could be people who would like to buy me lunch.