I have never known war but war knows me. It lives in the eyes of my mother when she glances at me from across the room demanding that I be quiet. Every parent teaches their children to sit still, but my mother did it with such urgency that I grew up believing that danger awaited us at every turn. I, who had been born and raised in the wholesome safety of a Canadian city.
I did not know the details, but I knew the contours of her story. How she had escaped civil war in Laos, a former French colony, with my father at the end of the 1970s. How she had lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for a few years. It was a story that countless Lao children knew about their parents, a story that we chose to treasure or ignore, depending on how little or how much we wanted to assimilate to our surroundings. And many of us, instinctively, wanted to assimilate. We would mute our parents’ narrative in the background while trying to define our place in a new world, like throwing fresh ink on a blank canvas.
But of course, there are no such things as blank canvasses. Even blank, a canvas is imperfect and unevenly textured. Our parents’ silence, with its absence of words, is nonetheless textured with mood swings, nightmares, tears, grief, violence, homesickness and countless regrets. If we did not name our trauma, did the trauma exist? In a way, it should not have existed because the war that was waged in Laos was not supposed to exist either. The Americans were not supposed to be in Laos and yet there they were, continuously dropping bombs on the kingdom between 1964 and 1973. The Laotian Civil War was, in effect, a Secret War and CIA operatives would refer to it as such. The covert bombings had been meant to disrupt the Hồ Chí Minh trail that transported North Vietnamese men and supplies, but instead had contaminated the Laotian countryside with 80 million undetonated cluster bombs. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of Lao people would flee their homeland when the Communists took power.
Despite a glut of books, films and documentaries discussing the Vietnam War, and much of it from an American perspective desirous to make sense of its failure, the heavy bombing of Laos remains a footnote in history. Its secrecy was such that for decades, the world did not realize that a small country had been bombed by the United States for nine consecutive years to the rate of one planeload every eight minutes for twenty-four hours per day. And for a time, Lao refugees did not speak of it, their energy consumed by new urgent demands. How to learn a foreign language, how to find a job, how to keep their families together. Many of them would be resettled in lower socio-economic neighborhoods where life could sometimes feel like war again. There was no time or space to mourn.
My mother barely spoke of her past. My mother barely spoke at all. As I came of age, I wanted to know what it was like for her, to come to a new country, to see snow for the first time, to miss the taste of home. She would answer with a shrug and then return to sleep. That was all my mother did when she was not working. She slept. The enduring image I will have of her for the rest of my life will be of her sleeping figure on the couch, swallowed up by a cheap comforter, and her hair, permed and gray, spilled over a too-thin pillow. From this quietness, I thought there would be nothing for me to pass down to my children. No stories, no explanations, no identity.
But that is untrue.
Silence is not an absence of narrative. Silence is the narrative. It is the breath taken before crossing the Mekong river, the broken heart subjected to its first racist taunts, the last glance you give someone you love before being separated. It is depression, it is anger, it is PTSD. These unspoken things that we, Lao people, carry from one generation to the next that remain unchanged until we find the right incantations to exorcise them.
Colonialism is silence. A Secret War is silence. Reeducation camp is silence. Racism is silence. Prison is silence. Poverty is silence. Deportation is silence.
Silence is a narrative imposed on us, to keep us from speaking up, from correcting the wrongs that were done to us and from taking charge of our own future. When the consequences of war are minimized, when undocumented Lao people who came to the U.S. as children are threatened to be deported to a country they barely remember and are imprisoned in Immigration Detention Centers, when Asian-American data is not disaggregated to reflect the challenges of the Lao diaspora, then our stories will either be rewritten by others, or written out.
The French colonialists, who were present in Laos between 1893 and 1953, used to have a saying about Lao people. The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice grow, the Lao listen to the rice grow. This is sometimes explained away as a benign observation, a quip about Lao people’s propensity to enjoy the simpler pleasures of life and being content with their lot. But it is also a racist witticism meant to divide and conquer. On the back of these sweeping stereotypes, France placed Vietnamese people in Laos to run the civil service. By using industriousness as a yardstick, not unlike the myth of the Model Minority which is used to pit Asian-Americans against other groups, the French implied whose story was worthy of being acknowledged and whose story could be safely ignored.
But we will not be ignored. Not then, not now. We will not have our gentleness mistaken for passivity. Children of Lao refugees, and the Lao refugees themselves, are recording stories and creating new ones every day. Plays are being written, films are being directed, songs are being composed, bills are being relentlessly lobbied. It might seem like a new legacy, but it is in fact a homecoming. Lao culture has always been steeped in oral traditions and after having suffered through war and displacement, we are mending our broken threads. We are calling trauma by its name.
I too have learned to say its name. A few months ago, I bought a digital recorder and sat across my mother in a soundproof room. I asked her about all those unspoken things that lingered between us, things that I wanted to pull back from the dark before it was too late. We confronted our memories together which, unsurprisingly, had not been remembered in the same way. I asked her about the heartbreaks in her life and when she spoke of them, I finally understood why she sought refuge in sleep. I began to understand how her trauma had been passed down to me, and how it grew within me like a grafted seedling.
When our parents fled Laos, our connection to a larger narrative was severed. Storytelling is often looked down upon as something superfluous, something to do once everything else has been taken care of, like rent or dinner or homework. Furthermore, it remains difficult to convince academia, whose gates are still guarded by our colonizers, that our stories deserve to be heard on our terms. But our stories are where our lives begin, where our individuality meets our community for the first time and informs us on the many ways to navigate the world. Our mental health depends on the meaning we find in the story of our life and the freedom we wield in writing that story.
I have never known war but war has known me. It lives in my eyes when I teach my daughter to be quiet, to dissect silence, to hold her breath. And I wonder if one day, someone will tell her that she has her mother’s eyes.