My family has never been wealthy but through hard work and resourcefulness, they were able to purchase 25 acres of land back in the ’90s. Of course, that was when land in this area was a lot cheaper than it is now.
Driven by a little horticultural knowledge and the strongest sense of community I have ever seen, my aunt and mother spearheaded a garden project. It has grown tremendously over the years and contains a range of produce, from basic vegetables (cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, collards) and fruits (apples, peaches) to more exotic fare (pomegranates, persimmons, gooseberries). There are items typically only found at the international farmer’s market, herbs that most people mistake for weeds but are essential in Lao cooking. If they have English common names, I don’t know them.
My mom also has a passion for decorative plants.
We affectionately call this little piece of earth The Shire (yes, like in the Tolkien novels) and describe it to outsiders as a magical land full of jolly, little people who seem to want nothing more than to feed you until you are fat and equally jolly. My dad wants to give you multiple shots of cognac and a Heineken.
The water from the well is sweet here; the soil is black beneath the red clay and incredibly fertile. In this place, my family can be mostly self-sufficient. Most importantly, they are able to preserve our culture.
Here are things I do when I return to the Shire: sleep, eat, repeat. Sometimes I convince myself to go running. Intertwined into that routine are long conversations with my mother, in which she reveals more stories about our past. I always think, How is it possible that there are more stories? She adds on layers to familiar childhood memories. We speak in Lao and at first, I have a little trouble; what comes out is more like Lao-lish (Lao + English). Eventually I find the correct parts of my tongue and my first language pours out. It’s not that I ever really forget it, but the particular tones are difficult to create when you are accustomed to forming English words on a daily basis. “Use it or lose it” applies here. The price you pay for assimilation.
When I visited Laos in 2006, all my relatives chuckled at my funny pronunciations for the first 3 weeks or so. After a short time, it was as if I had always lived there, and words I never knew I knew slowly crawled out of the subconscious recesses of my brain and found their way into my vernacular.
When I am home, I hardly think about the troubles on the “outside.” The Shire feels secluded, its own little enclave. There is safety and nourishment and unconditional love here. No matter how far I go or how long I am gone, my heart will always yearn to sit down at my mother’s table in the Shire.