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.