Remembering Laos from New York

Remembering Laos from New York

December 18th, 2009  |  Published in Culture, People

By Aditta Kittkhoun

I’d like to tell you all a little about me. I was born in Mahosot Hospital to Tai-Meuang Khong parents and lived in Ban Souanemone (Vientiane Municipality, Laos) until the age of almost seven, the last years during which were spent at Sinxay Elementary School. After the completion of first grade in 1993, I “moved” with my father when he was sent to work at the Permanent Mission of the Lao PDR to the United Nations in New York City.

Fourteen years later at the prospect of my imminent return, my American, foreign friends, and even Laotian friends asked: “Pupu (my nickname), why are you going back? Aren’t you going to have a hard time fitting in with the “real” Laotians? America is all you know. Your life is here. You are a New Yorker. Stay.”

From the moment I stepped off the plane onto United States soil and became enmeshed within American lifestyle and institutions, a process of Americanization inevitably began to inform the development of my personality. My parents, very much aware of what detachment from home could do to a young child, embarked on an ambitious task to mold me into the Laotian person that I am today. Combining oral and written training, they formulated an informal yet rigorous program of language study so that I would be able to “keep up” with the rest of Laotian students back home.

Let me be a bit brief. Throughout these 13-14 years, I have cried, listened, acted, learned, appreciated, laughed, loved, hated, ignored, hurt, been hurt, assisted, faked, matured, cheated, eaten, slept and touched. Probably a snapshot of all random things that many other people have done. But while doing these things, I never forgot how my first name was really pronounced; I never forgot the soil on which I was born; I never forgot the mother tongue that I heard when I breathed my first breathe of air; I had never forgotten the taste of Padek or Tum Maak Hoong; and most importantly, I had never forgotten the people of Laos, my people…

As I struggled with much effort to recall the memories of my Laotian youth, I discovered that they were slowly becoming flashes and short blurry images, fading into the unrecoverable depths of my mind. I held on to the ones I could. I oftentimes could not distinguish between my dreams and my real memories, for the amount of time that I focused on dreaming of Laos surpassed that of my actual time in Laos. Nevertheless, I have since made new, fantastic memories during the times I have visited Laos. I then began to read books about Laotian history, politics, culture and society, which gave me much information, answered many of my questions, and fostered a new vibrant interest in my own heritage. Even after having been back to work and visit twice within the past 3 years, my relationship with the physical space that is Laos was tenuous and fragile at best. So what made me hold on so dearly to this Laos, a place with which I had very little first-hand experience?

An important issue raised in my studies of Laos was the construction of Laos as a nation. Ben Anderson said that a nation is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nations will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them….yet in the minds of each lives an image of their community. It was this image that I held on to. It is highly improbable that the farmer from Savannakhet will meet the policewoman in Sayaboury. It is highly unlikely that I will ever meet my former classmate from Sinxay who is probably now somewhere in the jungles of Xieng Khouang providing humanitarian aid. You will probably never see your former girlfriend from Lycée de Vientiane who is now married to a rich manager of a guest house somewhere in Luang Prabang. My aunt will never get to meet the vendor in Paksé who sells fruit everyday to earn enough money to feed her family. This image of Laos as a union somehow links us together as one people, which defies all notions of time, space and distance. Our current culture may not stretch as far back as the Chinese or Indian civilizations (in reality ours is a mixture of both), but it stretches far enough and is important enough to hold on to and to reinvigorate.

There are more Laotians living outside than within of what is now known as the geopolitically-demarcated Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This we all know. It has been many years since the old days but many scars are too deep to heal and reconciliation may be out of the question. Many of us don’t know each other and many of us don’t care. Many of us are too far removed from community life to give a damn. This image no longer serves to unite us. It is obsolete. What I propose to you all is to create a new image.

My point in all of this rambling, and all that I am asking is to know you, to get to know you, to understand your pain, to experience your joys, to share your ambitions, to empathize with you. To be your brother, to be your friend, to be your nephew, to be your son, to be your husband, to be your guest, to be your fellow Laotian. My dream is to build a vast network, a virtual nation that reconstructs and revitalizes this lost image of Laos in the hopes that one day each of us or our descendents can meet, communicate and rejoice in the fact that the imagined community that they have created is very much real and alive. Ultimately, this virtual online nation will facilitate the greater dream of the “development” of Laos.

I have a dream some of you may call bizarre or too unrealistic. I have a conviction at which many have been skeptical. A person said to me: “Aditta, you’ve lived in NYC for almost fourteen years, have been to Laos only a few times, and will probably not be successful there.”

When my parents brought their two sons (me and my brother) to NYC, they knew that an education in one of the most prosperous countries in the world was not something readily available to the overwhelming majority of people in developing countries. My brother and I were fortunate – very fortunate indeed. It took about eight years until I would really begin to acknowledge just how fortunate I was. I had always known that the United States of America was a rich country whose typical New York teenager enjoyed luxuries and opportunities that the average kid in a poor city in Asia could only imagine. I asked myself: why is the world this way? And why did I, of all people, get to come to America to learn the ways of modernity and to have a good life while many of my Laotian brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles endured the hardships of poverty and of studying in schools that lacked clean facilities, basic supplies, and experienced teachers? No, I thought to myself, it was not fair.

But, what could be done to implement change?  Then it hit me. I could be the change in the world. And I would. All I had to do was believe. I realized on a deeper political and philosophical level that it was not the Laotian government that sent my parents to New York. It was not the government that provided the means for my brother and me to come with them. On the contrary, it was the people of Laos that sent my parents and it was the people of Laos who chose us, provided us with the financial wherewithal to study in America, hoping that one day we would return home to share what we have learned and help in finally extricating Laos from the shackles of economic underdevelopment.

Of course, this was the precise intention of neither the government nor the people of Laos. But, I wanted to believe it. I had to believe it. I imagined it. For how else was I supposed to justify my sitting in an air-conditioned restaurant enjoying dinner worth $50 while a civil servant in Vientiane works tirelessly day and night for his $50 monthly paycheck? I did not accept “random luck” or any notion of religious “merit” as an answer. I told myself that my people suffered in the short run so that I would return and help better their economic situation in the future. Immediately following this idiosyncratic epiphany, I took it upon myself to study as much and as hard as possible. I vowed not to let my people down.

The highest calling for me in life…what matters most for me is you all: my countrymen, my countrywomen. You may have never been to Laos, but your last name says much. You may have never spent the KIP or bought “questionable” things at the Morning Market. You may not even speak Lao fluently. But, all I ask is that you remember or think of Laos as a nation and its members until the day that you are gone from this earth. I ask that you join me today in beginning to help our country Laos; because who better to help Laos than Laotians?

Adam Smith once said that no society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable. In my mind, the unfortunate people of Laos wait for us. I hope that they will not have to keep on waiting too long.

This essay was originally written in 2008. Aditta Kittikhoun is presently Managing Editor of Mahason Magazine, Sengdara Communications Ltd. He is currently based in Vientiane, Laos.