I’m sure most of us have mixed emotions when it comes to thinking about the places where we grew up. In movies and tv, you see it a lot, famous people and athletes returning to their humble homes with a lit match or a bulldozer in tow. For regular followers of my work, I’m sure you know a little bit about my story; if you’re Lao or a refugee you can pretty much look to your own family’s history to see my own.
On the road leading up to the small town where we first settled, there was a dam where we used to fish for food. I remember as a kid getting really filthy in the shallows, flipping over stones looking for crawfish or other critters. We would come home with buckets full, and combined with bamboo shoots found behind the local high school made for some nice family meals. Today the area is fenced off with no tresspassing signs.
Tryon, North Carolina was the home of the church that sponsored us, and it became our home as well, in the autumn of 1980. It is a quaint small town, hardly changing at all since then. I’m sure locals back then wondered about us, the scruffy immigrant kids walking the streets. I don’t know if we ever dared enter in any of those stores, I only remember walking to the local gas station with my older brothers to get candy.
The church gave us a house, which is no longer there. I remember it was at the bottom of a wooded hill, and below the local elementary school. It was a simple fireplace and kerosene heated home, and even though I was bit beyond that age, I slept in a crib. Everything we had came from the donation box at the church. From our oversized suits to the furniture. I remember it was really cold in the bottom portion of the house, and one of our sponsors would come over to teach my mother how to can and preserve all sorts of fruits and vegetables. My dad worked at a textile mill and when he would come home on his bicycle, I would meet him at the door and he would pat me on the head and give me a candy bar.
My mother spoke no English, while I was lucky enough to enter school as a kindergartener. It was October, around Halloween actually, when I had a most frightening experience as a little kid in America. In class one day we were all having lessons when a teacher dressed as a green skinned witch burst through the door and cackled. All the other kids laughed and tugged at the make believe witch’s straw hair while my cousin and I bolted to the next room.
I remember one day in gym class getting to experience hula hoops. My mother would walk up the hill to pick me up in the afternoon. One day I had just learned to tie my shoes, and was so proud to have taught my mother.
The local landmark was the Tryon horse. I remember looking at it every time we would go into town, to church, or to the grocery store. The little theater is still ticking, and we once saw Annie there. It was an odd coincindence that I fell asleep at the same Annie did when Daddy Warbucks took her to the cinema.
In a short year, our family and extended family was growing quickly, with my parents and the church bringing over our relatives and friends. In Tryon I remember my uncle’s family living in basically a tool/storage shed on the property of an okra farmer. My cousin had a little duck toy that had a weighted base that never let it tip over. The place was so small that when he and I would jump on the bed we would have to watch out not to bump our heads on the ceiling. I think there was a crab apple tree in front of their home, I tried climbing it, slipped and a branch split open my leg, which I still have the scar from.
We then moved across the state line to Landrum, South Carolina, which was a mere stone’s throw away from Tryon. Most of us lived together in these apartments. Our lives had progressed to the point where we were now driving clunkers instead of old bicycles and had a normal life of school, work, church, and television.
This is the apartment where we lived, during the times when you really start storing memories as a kid. It’s still the same after all this time.
Back then my dad borrowed a Polaroid camera from one of our sponsors and he would take photos of us. I remember sitting on that bench with my corduroy brown pants and yellow Mickey Mouse t-shirt. We had a blue Toyota Corolla that my dad basically built with his own hands. I used to ride around with him everywhere. He was so proud when he bought a steering wheel cover from the store and I watched while he was lacing it up. I even remember the day he gave up smoking. Being from the old country and in the military, everyone smoked. One day he just pushed a barely puffed cigarette into the ashtray and that’s where it stayed.
As I was taking my own photos, I could hear little kids laughing inside our old apartment, and I thought that it was just like that when we were here. I remember my oldest brother bought Michael Jackson’s Thriller on vinyl and was playing it full blast while my uncle’s foot tapped. He was of the long hair Santana and Steely Dan era but appreciated the music. Around Christmas, one of our sponsors at the church dressed up as Santa Claus and he brought me a Snoopy toy set. I remember rushing home after school to watch He-Man on our black and white television. I remember being so afraid of the dark and would run as quick as I could to my parents’ room where I slept on the floor to grab my blanket. We didn’t have much then but the memories were still pretty good.
This was the second elementary school I went to. In our early years we would ride the schoolbus, and I remember there was a new Mexican immigrant family that would board it in front of their house right at the railroad tracks. It was a house smaller than the one we were given, without running water, so they couldn’t bathe. When they got on the bus we all pinched our noses and no one would let them sit down. We were fortunate then, and now.
This empty shell was the local TG&Y, a K-Mart type of store. We rarely got to go in to look, and even rarer, did we get a toy. One day my cousins were in town to visit and they would always remark how their mom would buy them things and how my mom was never as seemingly generous. It was perhaps true, most of my comic books and toys came from my road trips with my father to the flea markets in Greer and Spartanburg, while my mom was concerned with preparing food and saving money. That day my mother for some reason, perhaps under unwarranted pressure, took us there and said we all could pick out toys. My cousins picked cap guns and I chose a rubber and plastic toy dinosaur that was a bit out of the price range. I rarely, if ever pitched a fit in a store, but I believe I was on the verge of one, so she bought it for me anyway. My mother didn’t have an easy time in the early years in America. She had an enlarged thyroid that had to be operated on. She had numerous dental problems that caused her pain and embarrassment. One day my dad was working on one of our jalopies behind the apartment. He had the thing jacked up precariously and summoned my mother to come help him. I don’t have a full recollection of what happened but I do remember screaming, blood, and a neighbor helping my mother away from the scene. My father’s never asked my mom to do any type of mechanical labor again. Maybe that memory was just a dream, maybe this entire thing is just a dream.
We were blessed to have so many good people in our lives back then. Sadly, there aren’t too many left. One of our host families, we called Mr. and Mrs. D for short, with the inflection of dee, which in Lao, means good. Can’t really say enough about them and their kindness and generosity, people who sponsored and supported a family they’d never met before, and definitely took a gamble on how we would turn out. We spent so many good days and summers there, at their house in front of the lake. Mrs. D would call me her “Monday Grandson,” as she would take me to the local art center and restaurants while my mother was taking weaving classes or at the hospital. Somewhat embarassing but true, she can still recall the difficulty of showing me as a little boy how to use the toilet, and not always sit Indian style everywhere. She is an artist herself, with paintings covering her walls, and perhaps that simple gesture of taking care of a young boy set me on my way.
One summer she took me and my brothers out on the lake on the canoe. In trying to teach us English through experience, she pointed out the tons of water lilies on the surface. One of my brothers snatched one up and bit the stalk. She was surprised that we had lilies back in Laos, and would eat them. Sharing of culture, sharing of lives, I don’t know if those summers will ever come to pass again.
When we escaped Laos on the Mekong river, we had two families and two boats. From what my parents tell me, the boat that I was on with my mother and brothers was leaking and it was amazing that we didn’t die right there. We didn’t, and we continued to live.