My stomach hurts when I step into Pad Thai for a late lunch.
The visit is at my dad’s recommendation, even though he’s only been to New Haven twice and to Pad Thai never. If this were any other Thai restaurant, I would’ve shrugged him off. What does he know about the New Haven restaurant scene anyway? Not much. But in this case, my dad does know the owner’s brother, who happens to be his bowling buddy back home in Kansas. Like me, the owners are Lao. And since coming to New Haven for school about eight months ago, I’ve yet to meet another Lao person.
Though Lao-owned, Pad Thai’s menu is filled mostly with Thai dishes: chicken satay, a rainbow of curries, and som tam, a spicy papaya salad known to Laotians as tam mak hoong. Much of Thailand’s northeast Isan region is ethnically Lao, so Lao and Isan food are incredibly similar. But it’s actually quite common for businesses to brand themselves as Thai restaurants instead of Lao restaurants, even if they don’t serve exclusively Thai cuisine. This makes their businesses more marketable to an American audience. Call it a visible invisibility.
I order the drunken noodles, which arrive in a golden-brown nest garnished with chili flakes, yellow bell peppers, and a sprig of holy basil. Wafts of steam tell me it’s too hot to start eating, but I choose to burn my mouth anyway. The food tastes like my dad’s—soft rice noodles balanced between the salt of the soy sauce and sweet suggestions of brown sugar.
I could scream and cry about how good it is, about how it sends me back to my kitchen table at home in Kansas. But I eat in silence. It’s three o’clock, there is only one other group of patrons here, and I’m mentally preparing to introduce myself to the owner.
The restaurant’s interior looks like my grandmother’s house—dim and warm, the walls decorated with a yellowed map of Thailand alongside black-and-white portraits of family members that exude nostalgia. When I’m done eating, I ask for the owner, explaining that my parents are friends with her brother in Kansas and that I’d like to meet her. In a dirty apron and worn non-slip clogs, she emerges from the kitchen with slow, heavy steps. Still, her exhausted expression melts into a welcoming grin. It turns out that my dad had called earlier that weekend. She was expecting me.
I’m always nervous when it comes to meeting new Lao people, especially elders. Seeking Laotians outside of my family feels like an unearthing, like calling out to someone you haven’t seen in so long that you’ve become strangers. It scares me, especially because my understanding of the Lao language is nowhere near where I wish it was. But Pi Mai—Lao New Year—is coming up soon. And after an emotionally turbulent start to the American New Year, one that’s left me lonely and confused long after returning to campus, I want to start again. I want to find someone both new and familiar.
“Saibaidee!” Ba Mai calls. Hello. Are you comfortable? ‘Ba’ means ‘older auntie’ in Lao—we refer to everyone as if they were family. ‘Mai’ is a nickname meaning ‘silk.’ We do not call anyone by their full first name, just the one-syllable fragment.
I rise from my seat to greet her properly.
March 6, 2020
Lao people are traditionally animists. Many of us believe that everything has a spirit, that every spirit has a home. Our bodies are home to not just one spirit, but to a collective of thirty-two that drift away from us as we progress through our lives. Every so often, they must be called back and retied to us, preserving our health, good luck, and balance. Kwan, we call them. Kwan, we reach out for but cannot see.
Nay Saysourinho’s essay, “Your Body has Thirty-Two Kwan,” reminds me of all the things that make me, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately. She was a panelist at a literary conference in San Antonio, which I attended during a trip with my high school English program. Most other panels had been canceled due to the emerging threat of the coronavirus, but it so happened that the one with Saysourinho was one of the few still taking place that day. It was also, by chance, the only panel I was interested in, a discussion about Asian exoticism in contemporary fiction.
I remember almost falling asleep at the panel, drowsy from a late afternoon slump. But toward the end, the panelists began to open up more about themselves as Asian women in writing. When it was Saysourinho’s turn, she mentioned that she was raised by refugees. I sat up, my new sense of alertness motivated by my similar upbringing. Curious, I looked back at the program and found her last name, distinctly Lao with its four flowing syllables. My heart began to race. Suddenly, I didn’t want to miss a word she said.
Looking back, I like to think that electric feeling, so unexpected and ineffable, was our kwan being called to each other. Growing up in Kansas, I rarely saw Lao people outside of my own family. Surrounded instead by whiteness and its elimination of otherness, I wonder if I was made to drift from my kwan rather than the other way around, the way it naturally happens. I like to think that Saysourinho, who grew up in Canada, understands me for this.
Of the kwan Saysourinho lost in her own youth, she admits in her essay, “There are souls I no longer understand.”
A secret history
Lao people have a traumatic history of fragmentation. This history was never made clear to me until after high school, the result of my family’s unspeakable memories and a lack of information everywhere I tried to look. Even when my history teachers covered the Vietnam War, not once did they mention what was happening across the border in Laos. Growing up, I knew that there had been a war—my family called it “The War”—but I didn’t know much more than that. Most of this violence, muted and long-lasting, stems from the seldom-mentioned and often redacted history of the Secret War, an unauthorized military operation carried out by the CIA on Laotian soil.
The most destructive phase of the Secret War took place from 1964 to 1973. Over the course of 580,000 total bombing missions, the United States dropped more than two million tons of cluster bombs over Laos. To this day, only about one percent of the eighty million undetonated leftovers have been removed.
The bombings were an effort to thwart the North Vietnamese Army along the Ho Chi Minh trail and combat the communist forces of the Pathet Lao. Direct foreign intervention in Laos had been restricted by the 1962 Geneva Agreement. Nonetheless, to bolster U.S. forces within Laos, American military personnel enlisted as “volunteers” of the Royal Lao Air Force to train a small group of Laotians and a larger group of the ethnically Hmong people living in the Laotian highlands. Once the U.S. withdrew after the Fall of Saigon, the Pathet Lao would go on to overthrow the royal government, persecuting the U.S.-backed allies that were left behind.
Waves of fleeing Laotians resettled in America, scattered further by a far-flung network of sponsor families and Catholic volunteer agencies. As suggested by former President Gerald Ford’s Advisory Committee on Refugees, these resettlement structures were intended to mitigate the economic strain on towns receiving these refugees. Should a concentrated ethnic enclave form, much of those towns’ funds would have to go towards financial assistance for individual families, not to mention support programs like ESL classes at community colleges. Government aid aside, many of the towns’ locals were fearful of a job market saturated by new arrivals, raising further issues of xenophobia and racism.
This is the history our diaspora carries-–a history we negotiate as we create spaces like Pad Thai, spaces where we can safely exist together.
April 3, 2022
Ba Mai gestures to the man at the host stand—her husband—who smiles and waves. “This is Luong.” Older uncle. I smile back.
“Your name is Candy, right?”
My name is Kylie. I have a distant cousin back home who happens to be named Candy. For whatever reason, I assume she knows Candy, and because I only understand about ten percent of what Ba Mai is saying, my next assumption is that she must be asking if I know Candy.
“Dawy,” I answer. Yes. I still haven’t cleared up my mistake with her.
Ba Mai goes on. “You want to meet more kon Lao, right? Your daddy told me over the phone.”
She pauses for a minute to think. “There are a lot of Lao people [in Connecticut], especially in Bridgeport and by the Walmart. [There’s also] a temple we all go to in Morris. And if you want, I can take you there to meet everyone…”
It’s an enthusiastic outpour, delivered in the musical, up-and-down cadence of our tonal language. But much of Ba Mai’s other wisdom slips past me, and I find myself focusing mostly on the words I can recognize. I take what I can from the conversation anyway: a paper bag of hot sticky rice, skewers of ping mu, and that feeling of wholeness from the familiarity of spoken Lao. That feeling of reconnecting with one of my kwan.
“Kawp jai,” I say with my hand on the door. Thank you.
April, of any given year
Pi Mai is always celebrated for three days in the middle of April. It marks the beginning of monsoon season, which is often the hottest time of the year. It is also the time of year when the Lao diaspora is most culturally visible, when we come together on the grounds of Theravada Buddhist temples around the world.
In my hometown of Kansas City, Pi Mai looks like this: the open field by the temple where lines of tents sell sinh skirts of bright blues, purples, and greens; cheap bubble wands and cans of silly string for the kids; steaming bowls of pho that lace the air with anise and cardamom. There’s a main tent where the uncles’ bands play mor lum on electric guitars and keyboards that appropriate cheesy 90s synth with a rhythmic Lao flair. The aunts, meanwhile, sway and arch their fingers in a traditional fawn dance, floating their hands along like flowers on the dance floor.
Pi Mai is a cultural beacon, a welcome-home gathering for the local Lao community as well as a few curious outsiders from nearby towns. Tucked in the quiet of its own little corner is the temple itself, where monks in saffron robes perform su kwan, the long-awaited ceremony that calls all thirty-two of our spirits back to our bodies. Finally, those spirits are bound to us when a monk ties to our wrists a bracelet of delicate white thread.
April 4, 2022
I’m in my room, talking to Luong Janh over the phone during his half-hour break at work. He is Ba Mai’s older brother and, according to my dad’s text from the day before, he is a community leader who can give me a broader sense of the Lao people living here. I have never seen his face.
Our call is mediated by my dad back home, splitting and mending our conversation from the Northeast and the Midwest. In real time I watch my transcription app incorrectly record Luong Janh’s spoken Lao as “Caitlyn Jenner longtime mean young lady,” “how to play an accordion with gun,” and then, “I’m a Libra. I’m a Libra. I’m a Libra. I’m a Libra.”
“Okay Kylie,” my dad says, then Luong Janh through my dad: “the Lao people are the people who want to reach out and help others. It’s not just about our community—we want to reach out to everybody. We want to share. We want people to see our weddings and to visit for Pi Mai.”
There are over fifty Lao families living in the New Haven area, according to Luong Janh. When he resettled in one of the first waves of Lao refugees, there were only about thirteen. And where they have contended with fragmentation, they also move continuously in the direction of wholeness.
“Every time more people arrived, we would try to get in touch. We’d share our things with each other so we could all get by with what we had.”
As my dad translates, I wonder if he is thinking the same about himself.
April 12, 2022
Luong Janh, Ba Mai, and the rest of the Lao community are not the only ones currently reaching for wholeness in New Haven. Within the city, there is a growing momentum towards connection by broader groups of Asian Americans. On Zoom, I spoke to Jennifer Heikkila Diaz, Christine Kim, and Caroline Tanbee Smith, three leaders of aapiNHV (Asian American & Pacific Islander New Haven). The group was established about a year ago, spurred by widespread community grief in the aftermath of the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, along with the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes that made clear the need for AAPI spaces in order to see and be seen.
“This group started as an action to overcome the great fear and anguish that a lot of us and I personally felt, especially after the shootings,” said Kim. One way to overcome these feelings was to come together. Like the Lao people, to reach out and gather and share. Like our kwan, to join a body seeking a feeling of peace.
“Part of the way we did that was just by really holding space for each other’s experiences and stories,” Smith chimed in. “And that was a way of building a foundation of respect and acknowledgement of the complexity and differences that we all experienced moving through the world…”
Heikkila Diaz said the group finds itself in uncharted territory, as it is a non-hierarchical organization. They aim to grant all members the same amount of influence in group activities, from youth to elders, and from East Asians to South and Southeast Asians—who have historically seen less representation in pan-Asian groups.
I looked at the square on my Zoom screen and its four subsections. Me. Jennifer. Christine. Caroline. Perhaps, in their own ways, they also embody our Lao patchwork of thirty-two.
April 14, 2022
I write my ending at the beginning of Pi Mai.
Tonight, I will catch up with a friend at one of the dining halls. Tomorrow, I plan to call my parents and grandparents. On Sunday, I hope to go to the temple with Ba Mai and Luong Janh. Over the course of this piece’s creation, I’ve been called to a gathering of kwan that I did not expect to find. This weekend, I will call to mine and welcome back a body of thirty-two. I think of everyone I’ve met in this process and wonder if I can make room for their kwan too, joining a body of sixty-four, one hundred twenty-eight, and maybe even two hundred and fifty-six. Maybe even more.
I will tie us all together—for now—with a small white thread.
—Kylie Volavongsa is a first-year in Silliman College and an Associate Editor of The New Journal.