Familiar

When I was a little girl, I used to say things like, “I’ve eaten that before, in Laos.”  It seemed to be one of those “kids say the darndest things” moments that always made my relatives laugh. They told me I had never been there, but I was not entirely convinced.

The processes of the mind can be unsettling at times – one hears things repeated so often that they develop into surrogate memories, infiltrating the genuine bits of one’s subconsciousness.  Essentially, I can’t remember what was told to me and what I actually experienced.

It has been nearly 7 years since I visited my family’s native country.  Life and responsibilities have kept me away for this long.  I kept a journal during that trip, which I only picked up again just the other day.  Part of me thought it was too late to form a story around the experience, worried I had lost the essence of that trip to time. Fortunately, my stream-of-consciousness words were able to transport me right back to those moments.

Tuesday 31 October – Thursday 2 November 2006

(Atlanta –> Seoul –> Bangkok –> Vientiane)

Thanks to Dramamine, I slept during most of the flights. I vaguely remember: eating sushi in Seoul, interesting Korean in-flight meals, pretending not to notice Mom praying during bouts of turbulence, and napping at Suvarnabhumi Airport for 4 hours. I was a cranky, groggy, greasy mess. As soon as we stepped off the Airbus in Vientiane, I was smothered by intense humidity; everything seemed to shimmer behind a veil of heat. Mom quickly led me inside the tiny airport, anxious about her bags. She seemed to know every airport employee, who addressed her as “mother.” We were directed to a cart already loaded with our luggage. She sighed with relief – all four suitcases were accounted for, each one marked with orange satin ribbons (“because we left on Halloween,” she explained with a snicker).

She miscalculated and thought today was November 3, which meant that we were a day early and no one was at the airport to greet us.  Not exactly the homecoming I was expecting. But no worries – she had made this journey before, and she quickly took charge.

She found a taxi, the saddest vehicle you will ever see.  The driver said he’s had it 40 years, and this December they will finally get him a new one.  He and Mom chatted as if they were old friends. The drive through Vientiane was chaotic and disorienting. I was crammed into the backseat with some of our luggage, since they were too large for the trunk.

As we arrived at our destination, our taxi was rear-ended.  Not surprising, considering the state of the roads.  I had never seen so many people on motorbikes, some riding tandem, with small children clinging to parents’ backs.  Mom felt bad for the driver and gave him a large tip on top of the fare.

“Jumbo” taxi. Little boy on the back of a motorbike.

We were in Ban Dong Palan, the town where Mom grew up. The houses, a mixture of relatively modern buildings and shanties, are pressed close to one another, connected by a network of narrow alleys. The roads are gravel and dirt.

Since it was the middle of the day, most of our relatives were still at work. Mom asked the taxi driver to unload the luggage at a house belonging to one of her childhood friends, Somboun. The front doors opened and Somboun appeared with her youngest son, who took our bags inside while our mothers excitedly exchanged greetings.

Mae Boun, as I came to call her, is tall for a Lao woman, and her jet black hair is impeccably straight, cascading to the small of her back. She is sturdy, a no-nonsense woman. Her face is wide and strong. She is from the North and speaks with a lilting accent that gives her away immediately. Mae Boun is what you would call well-connected: her husband, Paw Ton, works for the United Nations; her cousin is a former Prime Minister. She has a wardrobe full of traditional silk outfits that make me envious, most of them worn to state affairs.

Mae Boun instantly offered to feed me and take me shopping. My sinuses hurt; all I wanted was to close my eyes, so Mae Boun sent me to nap in her room for a while. When I woke up, it was night. By now I had completely lost all sense of time. Mom rushed me out the door and down the street – I had no idea where I was going as we hurried in the dark. Suddenly, I looked up and we were entering the front gate of a temple. This was Wat Dong Palan, and my grandfather’s ashes rest here. Lighting incense, we paid our respects.

My grandfather’s ashes sit in a stupa behind the well at Wat Dong Palan.

When we returned to the neighborhood, Mom introduced me to her relatives. They were waiting for me at my grandfather’s house, which now belongs to my uncle, Loung Thone. Everyone still calls me “Goong Nang” here, a name my parents stopped using by the time I was a teenager. I recognized all their faces from photographs Mom has shown me over the years.

Grandfather’s house

At the Vientiane airport, I thought people were staring at me, unsure what to make of this Lao girl in Western clothes. I am larger than most natives, and my accent is odd. Would they think I was just another petulant, foreign-born child on vacation? I was caught between familiarity and strangeness. But now that I was there among my family, I realized I had been accepted long before my arrival. Just as I had anticipated meeting these people, they had been waiting for me all these years. It was such a surreal feeling, like coming home to a place you have never seen.

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