A few weeks ago we went to visit our old sponsors. It’s something most Lao people are familiar with, having an American family adopt us or help bring us over from the refugee camps. Over time, we grew up and moved away, while most of them passed away. For those of you who have lost contact with the kind and generous people who pretty much raised and supported complete strangers who came over to America with nothing but the clothes on their backs–I think it’s time to reconnect and give thanks. The way things are going, maybe it’s good to think about where we came from and where we go from here.
On the drive up to that small and sleepy North Carolina town, we all spouted off what landmarks we remembered and what stories we associated with it. At one intersection, I remember if you went one way it led to the flea market, where my dad would take me to go buy comic books and of course tools and clothes for the family. There used to be a Hardee’s at the corner, and I still remember as a kid about the age of 5, going into that place alone and ordering food for my mom and dad while they waited in the car. Back then I was a bright little person, and having started up fresh here picked up the language quick. I’m sure at the time the workers thought it was so odd that a little kid that could barely see over the counter was ordering all that food by himself. It was great back then, being treated to fast food, even if ages ago, Hardee’s was(is) the poor man’s McDonald’s. It was great to be eating “American” food and that combined with musty comic books was a fine day. Not like how it is now, where the young ones are so picky that they won’t even eat their ten dollar entree at a restaurant.
On the two lane, my dad recalled travelling up and down this road to chop firewood with one of our sponsors. The first house we lived in of course was powered by logs and kerosene. We also passed by the dam, a place that I remembered having great fun at. Our entire and extended family would make weekends trips there, to catch fish that spawned in the pools of the base. I don’t know if there was a limit to the amount you could catch, but I’m sure at the time the locals probably saw a bunch of black headed foreigners giddily filling their buckets with fish.
My mom recalled how when we would drive down the road in our jalopy, the parents would ask my cousins and I what car we wished we had. Almost all of us had to agree on a red Trans-Am or Camaro with the wing. I’m sure we all laughed at the daydreaming as the windows were rolled down with the free wind based air conditioning. As we grew older, the painful feelings of inadequacies just built and built, to the point were we embarrassed to be picked up or dropped off in certain vehicles.
While we are all dressed in our Sunday best, we drove past the Family Dollar, which was amazingly still there. Nothing had changed much in town, no strip malls, no nonsensical urban sprawl with the empty storefronts that now litter our landscape. I remember when we first arrived we got most of our clothing from the church donation box or the flea market. If there was a special occasion we bought our clothes from Family Dollar. Today, my brother had on a suit and tie, and I have to always think back to a photo of his from our early days. All of his peers were dressed in Sunday church attire and my brother was dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, which was about the extent of our nice things back then.
As we pulled up to the church, it never occured to me that it really wasn’t that big. When I was a kid it seemed so humongous when me and the other little children would sit on the steps as the pastor would relate some story or lesson to us. One artifact from our early years, that I never realized existed was set up in one of the corners of the church. There was a display table, and on it a Lao textile that my mother had woven on a loom. Sitting on it were some wood carvings, two horses done by my older brothers, and a large That Luang plaque carved by my father.
Our old house wasn’t there anymore, it was replaced by a bank. On the hill above it, the elementary school was still there, and I remember my mother walking up there everyday to pick me up from school. I remember learning how to tie shoelaces and then teaching that skill to my mother. I remember playing with hula hoops. I remember enrolling in school around Halloween, and when a witch burst through the classroom door, me and my cousin bolted in absolute horror. I remember walking into downtown with my brothers to browse snacks at the gas station. I remember one of them finding 20 dollars on the street and thought it was such a huge amount of money. I remember walking here and there. The immigrants you see walking on the streets–that was us. The immigrants you see piled up in a car or pickup–that was us from a different time. My dad rode a bicycle to work at the yarn factory, and I remember I would run to him at the door and he would every now and then have a 3 Musketeers bar for me, even though his paycheck was really meager. All these memories and more came back to me as we drove around.
One memory that I’m ashamed to have is that back then there was a Mexican family that lived near the railroad track. Their house was dilapidated and small and had no running water. When the boys in the family got on the school bus, their body odor was so horrible that we dubbed them in Lao “Buc Menh,” which means “Stinky Boys.” Looking back it was quite cruel for everyone, and especially us, to not let them sit anywhere on the bus and ridiculed them for not having the ability to bathe in clean water.
As things change for this country and the world, it makes me think of how situations are relative, and how things usually go in cycles. 30 years ago we were living in a village mentality, small families, related or not, houses near each other, eating meals together, and pulling everything together to really make ends meet. Now we’re so scattered about, living in big homes that all of us can barely afford.
I don’t know if people are ready to revert to those days again, of hunting bamboo shoots behind the high school for a communal soup, but things are looking that way, at least depending on who you ask. It might be the haze of nostalgia, but it seems like we did have fun back then, even with the struggles in the early years, especially when compared to the situations in the older generation’s former lives in Laos.
Were we really poor in our formative years? I don’t know. I would like so much for my little buddies to enjoy life, and also learn about appreciating what you have, but I also don’t want them growing up poor–at least what is considered poor these days. Being poor now might be different than when we were having fun catching fish at the dam.