Trying to leave a Laotian gathering – especially when you really don’t want to leave – requires hours of preparation. There are dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins to tell la gon, sok dee, yu dee mee hang! (goodbye, good luck, be well)
Add on another 30 minutes so Mom can pack a cooler full of food to feed you for a week.
Big Aunt wants to give you a pepper plant – anticipate 10 more minutes while she explains how to care for it (for the 20th time).
No one wants you to leave, but with a heavy heart, you must get in the car and drive 4 hours…back to reality.
With the Shire in the rear view mirror and mountains of work to catch up on ahead, I smile (and maybe tear up a little) because I have the most wonderful memories to accompany me.
When we were children, Brother and I never discussed getting married and starting a family of our own. Our dreams consisted of finishing school, getting a good job, and helping our parents in their old age. I can’t speak for him on this matter but marriage was never a top priority for me. I wanted to be successful in all aspects of life – not despite my disadvantaged beginnings, but because of it. I also didn’t want my success to be defined by the person I chose to marry.
Sometime during his first wedding (the traditional Western ceremony), it hit me: finding someone who loves you enough to share their family and culture with you is a pretty significant accomplishment. I’m not saying it’s the most important part of acculturation; but as I watched my parents’ faces from where I stood with the bridal party, I remembered my brother’s story, and the flood of tears came.
In many ways, Brother experienced the worst of our time in refugee camp. He spent his early years there, suffering greater sickness and many more days without food. They cut open his chest in a field hospital to save his life once. He was so sick that my mother eventually changed his name, in hopes that the new one would better suit his constitution.
He was responsible for me, even when hunger gnawed at his stomach so that he could barely think. He didn’t speak until he was 5 years old. If I hurt myself or cried for any reason, he took the punishment. When my parents had to discipline both of us, Brother dragged me outside to hide because he was too weak and small to carry me. At night, he escorted me to the dirt hole far from the tent that we used as a latrine.
Sure, he later did terribly mean things to me during our childhood in America. What brother doesn’t? When I think of all he went through and how much he has done for me, I forgive him.
He spent much of his life angry at how my family was treated for being “different.” I can’t count how many brawls he has been in because some idiot made a racial slur. But then my quiet, reserved, angry brother met the woman who, as of this past weekend, became his wife. She is a beautiful, genuine, fun-loving spirit. She brings out the best in him. It was only because of her that I finally got to know my brother, who is no longer so quiet nor so angry.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a family gathering without the usual drama and frustrations. None of us slept more than a few hours each night for several days. Add two weddings in the same weekend and it’s a surprise we still love one another. During the Lao wedding, there was a torrential downpour that lasted for 20 minutes at the start of the ceremony. Many of our guests were soaked, but nearly everyone stayed.
When it counted, everything was exactly as it should be. The rain cooled things down and the gnats dissipated. My family is even bigger than before, and I am still glowing from the outpouring of love from everyone who witnessed a remarkable blending of cultures.