In this five part series, I talk about my mother’s childhood, her escape from Laos into Thailand, the journey from Thailand to America, her fresh start in America, and how she adapted to American culture. These stories are hard for her to talk about, due to the extreme poverty and emotional trauma that it left her with, many years ago. She is finally going to share those hardships and talk about those experiences here today…
(I asked my mother a variety of questions, but let her take the lead in telling me about her story. This was mostly pre-recorded audio, and I took bits and pieces of it and translated it into English so that I could share this with all of you.)
My Mother’s Story: Series Part 1: Her Childhood
Around January 1963
In Luang Prabang, the north central of Laos, my grandmother gave birth to her first baby girl that she would name “Good Day” in Lao. That little baby girl, of course, would one day become my mother.
My mother had a total of 10 brothers. She was the only girl. Growing up, she was raised with only 8. You could only imagine how protective they were of her.
My mother’s family was entirely made up of sales people that sold products from their home on the street. They sold rice, fish sauce, and others items that people could easily grab and go.
Their house was right on the street so people were able to walk in and out easily from the road. They set up their home so that the front of it was like a store, while the back of it was a regular home that they could sleep in.
At that time, my mother was still just a baby, and she didn’t think much of the salesmen lifestyle. She just knew that it was how they made money, and didn’t think otherwise.
Despite being very poor at her age, she said that she was very happy as a child because she didn’t know of any other luxuries. She didn’t know there was more to hope for, other than being able to eat the next day.
At that time, there was no one to take my mother to school, so she just played around in the house and on the street like a regular child.
Finally at the age of 7, her dad walked her to school for the first time. From then on it was her responsibility to attend school. She admitted to skipping school a bunch of times due to it being so far away, but if she wanted an education; it was up to her.
It was very typical for many children to lose out on the opportunity to have an education due to having to work or take care of their families. Having to walk a far distance for education was not a limitation, it was an opportunity many did not have.
When my mother was finally enrolled, she went straight into the 1st grade due to her age. She disliked school (who didn’t?) and had trouble catching onto the material; which caused her to fail her first year. Luckily, she didn’t give up.
After a few years in school, she was finally able to keep up with her peers and enjoyed learning new things.
Although she started doing better in school, she was worried because by the age of 9 or 10 in Laos, most children knew how to find ways to get money or food and she didn’t know how to take care of herself in that way.
She felt like she was falling behind in that sense. Most children could care for themselves, and she wasn’t able to.
Every morning, her grandmother, (Oun-Tha), would make her rice. She would go outside and play with her friends, then she would come back when the rice was done.
Her grandmother would hand her one handful of rice, dried fish the size of two fingers, and spicy dipping sauce (jew) to eat alongside the rice.
This was a typical meal for my mom at that age. She even said that she would get full of this meal and it was one of her favorites.
Due to the extreme poverty in Laos, most of their meals consisted of rice as the main course. Any form of meat or dipping sauces were added bonuses to their meal. They would always eat more rice while conserving meat as best they could.
Not for the faint of heart: Other fun things my mom did with her friends at that time was catch Cicadas. In America, we would only see these ever 13 years or so. In Laos, the loud buzzing bugs would appear every year.
They would play games catching the bugs, or even collected them to eat as a special treat. The way they would catch these bugs would be with a stick they covered in bubble gum, that was attached to a longer stick. They’d then reach out and try to basically fish for the flying cicadas and have them stick to the bubble gum. Then they would just collect them in a little box they had been carrying.
This odd fishing game was actually a very successful process. They would have handfuls of cicadas in just a few hours.
After they would catch a bunch of cicadas, they would pick premature mangoes. Premature mangoes are very sour and crunchy at this stage, and then they would crush the cicadas and mangoes together with other spices to make a sour crunchy snack.
(My mother said she wouldn’t be able to eat this meal today, but it was very normal to do as a child in Laos.)
Interestingly, when she had friends come over, she wouldn’t have a large variety of snacks for her friends. Instead, the way that they would host for their friends would be to boil a big pot of water with a very potent leaf found in Lao, called “bie thuei.”
Since they didn’t have tea where they were from, it was the closest thing they could get. It had a very lovely aroma, and it was something she could share with her friends.
Some games she played with her friends were just kind of made up along the way. They would play with marbles, rubber bands, and tennis balls. Anything they could find, they were able to invent a new game.
(Surprisingly, these games were very similar to games we have in America. When she explained to me how they played with a tennis ball and chopsticks, it reminded me of Jacks. See below.)
They did lots of things that are very similar to American sport like gymnastics, but they had no idea that they were doing these sports.
My mom explained how they would grab a stick, hold it up really high, and would see who could jump over them without touching the stick.
She giggled at how good they were at jumping really high.
Communist have taken over Laos.
Within the neighborhood that my mom lived in, everyone knew each other. They were all friends and visited each other often. Some of the girls in the neighborhood started practicing doing traditional dances (fawn) together to enter into competitions at events.
My mom didn’t like to dance, and she hated it when they would come over to get her to join them in their practice sessions.
It wasn’t until her attempt to leave her homeland that everything would change…
Ironically, it would be because of her traditional dancing (fawn) that would allow her to make it into America.
Editing Credits: Angelina