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Sunday, 11 November 2012

#12: Just the Khue of Us: Part One

Khue was different. There was something inexplicable about him that made me uneasy. From the moment we pitched up at the same time to scan an off-campus apartment he acted shiftily, as if he had something to hide. I felt like he wanted to case the joint.

He didn't say much. I’d come across more talkative statues. Upon arrival, Khue had croaked a faint “Hi” – at least I think he did; perhaps the pint-sized fellow had just been clearing his throat – or it was the distant cry of a bird overhead.

As Chuck, my landlord-to-be, showed us around what would become our home for the next four months during the 2003-2004 fall semester at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville (UWP), Khue remained tight-lipped; asking questions was clearly a waste of energy. The only vaguely communicative gesture he made was swinging his necklace key-chain like a lasso – an incredibly irritating habit.

“So you interested then?” barked Chuck. “Sure,” replied Khue, sounding like E.T. after he’d been at the marijuana. I was getting a seriously bad gut feeling about Khue. For all I knew, I’d never see him again.  I mean, if he wanted the room he’d have to negotiate with Chuck. That would mean saying more than one word – and I wasn’t sure he was ready for that kind of commitment. Hand signals were an option, though there are only so many ways you can swing a key-chain. But something told me our paths would cross again.

I decided to take the room, as it was probably the best option I was going to get. Twenty four hours later I moved my stuff in – and discovered evidence that Khue was now also resident. Magic.

He re-entered the house as evening drifted in, dragging a bag of rice the size of a small cow in his wake. The carcass was hoisted into the hall cupboard, leaving room for my tin of baked beans.

Khue came from Laos, I later discovered, a mighty stone’s throw from Vietnam. He was about 5-foot 4, and couldn’t have weighed much more than four stone (56lb) dripping wet – probably less than the bag. Strangely enough, the rice would turn out to be his staple diet (along with chicken – mainly legs and thighs, I think budget dictated he couldn't be much of a breast man) and, despite the fact he was having it for breakfast, dinner and supper, the bag was likely to supply rations for the next five years.

To be fair, Khue did venture into the unknown on occasion. A personal favourite became cheese and vegetable ravioli – though he struggled to decipher the timing mechanism of the microwave – and the heat-up requirements of the ravioli (studying some kind of engineering didn't seem to offer much practical support here).

The contents of the tinned concoction usually ended up plastered decoratively across the walls and ceiling of the microwave – perhaps he should have been studying fine arts? – his three minutes on full power a slight over-estimation. I did try explaining it only needed around one minute, thirty – though the advice appeared to fall on deaf (or unintentionally ignorant) ears as, the next time he treated himself, the microwave was bedecked in similar style.

Living with Khue was looking like a challenging prospect – but was still never going to compare with the experience of my first 12 days in Platteville, Wisconsin.

As a foreign exchange student, I was told I’d have to share a room in one of the university’s halls of residence. My room-mate was called Brad – and he appeared to model himself on Captain Caveman (I didn’t realize they’d shown this in the States).
He hadn’t arrived straight away, so I’d had the room to myself for a few days. About five days in I had a phone call one afternoon – it was Brad and he was arriving at 6pm.

Going by the tone, accent and decibel-level of his voice, allied to an earlier warning from my RA (Residents Assistant), Jon, the forging of a life-long friendship seemed a bit of a long shot. “He's a funny guy,” Jon had said with cagey enthusiasm. “Funny, ha-ha or funny, ga-ga?”, I enquired. “Well, it’s hard to describe, but you’ll find out when you meet him.” Thanks Jon. Say-no-more.

After devouring a hearty meal in the college’s swish new refectory, I noticed the clock tick past 6pm. “Oh sh*t, Brad’s probably arrived,” I thought out loud, before deciding to savour every remaining mouthful of my blueberry bagel. I then, reluctantly, headed back to the room.

When I got to the dorm hallway there was a thick-set, vacant-looking guy, with the chilling air of a serial killer, coming the other way. I didn’t recognize him, so knew there was a chance it could be Brad. I let him go ahead of me and then followed him… into my room. CRAP.


To say Brad was a little on the loud side was like saying Roman Abramovich (Chelsea FC’s multi-billionaire owner) was doing OK financially. Not only that, but he pitched up armed with a giant TV, computer, VCR, X-Box and new bed – HELL KNOWS where it was all going to go. I later returned to find he’d rearranged the room – and I could just about make out where I used to live.

The following day, I went for an early morning run after leaving Brad swearing at his Hewlett Packard. I had to get out. Though I was told sharing a room on campus was part of the exchange ‘deal’, within 48 hours I’d negotiated with the powers-that-be and been granted permission to rip up my contract and get the hell out from under Brad’s feet.

Later that evening I went to look at a room for rent not far off campus. Later that evening I realized it was going to be harder to find a new home than I’d thought.

There was better news the next day. A member of the international students’ support team told me he’d seen an apartment for rent opposite campus which sounded ideal.

We arranged to meet the landlord at 6pm – whereupon we were joined outside by a pint-sized, shady, Vietnamese-looking guy who, annoyingly, kept swinging his necklace key-chain like a lasso.


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