I know the reason why my mother and father loved their home country of Laos. They often talked about living in the mountains. My mother once watched her family’s bull fighting during a new year festivity and as the other bull over powered theirs, it slowly toppled over, tears streamed down her eyes. She loved and cared for it like it was her very own pet, just like many people care for their own dogs and cats.
She woke up before the break of dawn to feed her chickens and pigs and made sure there was a fire started for a hot pot of water to use for the day, be it a shower or for steaming a pot of rice.
She walked miles to her garden where she tended to her various vegetables, fruits and herbs. She scoured the jungles for barks and unnamed plants to use as natural remedies that healed ailments. Til this day she still carries a large duffel bag full of her dry barks wrapped in rubber band and although they all look and smell the same, she knows exactly what each one does and how it has the power to heal like no other prescription medication can.
She only rarely stepped below the mountains to fetch for salt, pepper, and a few essentials that couldn’t be found or made in the mountains. She grew fields of flowers and harvested the opium that seeped from the buds as she sliced thru each one. They used this opium like currency to trade for other essentials that they needed. It was their cash crop.
Life was busy, life was hard, but life was simple.
There’s a song called Tshua Kuv Lub Teb Chaws by the classic Hmong band, Xanakee with a verse that sings ”Peb lub teb chaws tsis thaj yeeb” – “Our country is no longer at peace” and the word Yeeb – which directly translates as “Opium” is symbolic of the euphoria that inhaling opium brings. Peace. It was the life my mother and father would long for even as they aged, their dreams like many Hmong elders was to always “go back to Laos.”
The Hmong lived this way for many years, isolated, independently self-sufficient, until war slowly started to break out. Suddenly the world changed in an instant, every inch of their land became a war zone; bombs dropped everywhere, some waiting to burst with every step that they took.
When the war started and abruptly ended, they found themselves stepping forward into a new time period, almost overnight as they became refugees of war and were relocated to America. Flushing toilets, talking TVs, light bulbs that switched on, stoves that lit up at a switch of a dial. These were all things created by the greatest inventors to make our lives easier and yet they wanted none of it.
The air was polluted and too industrialized. They couldn’t freely hunt and fish, you need a license for that. Things were too complicated, learning how to drive was terrifying, why were those fluffy white things falling none stop from the sky? The weather was too cold, their body’s felt frozen in this new zone.
Their chickens couldn’t run freely. They had no where to grow their food and herbs. Their plants didn’t grow well in this climate anyway. Most of all, they looked very different and they spoke very differently from their new neighbors.
They started to feel like depressed outcasts, overwhelmed by the realities of learning a new language, new skills and finding work. Even their children struggled with school, fitting in, and balancing the clash of two very different cultures:
I understand now that growing up was like having an identity crisis every day. One day I’m killing chickens in my garage and the next day I’m watching an episode of Full House where none of the characters look like me or talk like me. In order to grow and be prosperous, we have to be willing to change and let go of a past life.
Hmong traditions run deep. Clan leaders hold the authority and everyone below it obeys. The chain of hierarchy is hard to change, in any society. In order to succeed professionally and academically, I have to learn to be independent, outspoken, a thinker with her own views and opinions and theories. To be out spoken and independent means stepping out of that hierarchy; stepping out of that cultural norm. In order to fit in, I have to think and speak like them. But in order to be more Hmong, I have to speak more fluently in Hmong. They laugh at you if you don’t. They point their fingers and say “She’s too white” or “She’s too Hmong.” What am I?
I know my parents longed for their simple and peaceful life. I get it now. We all want comfort. We all want to fit in. We want to be good at what we do, and we all want to love what it is that we do. Most of all, we want that peace.
“Hmong Everyday Life in Laos” Hand Illustrated and printed with premium heat dye technology on plush velour, low piling rug with a non-slip underside.
Available in 3 sizes, in my shop.