Uncle pulled the truck to the side of the road for a break, and I closed my eyes and whispered “thank you” to God. I’m not Christian, but I thought it was as good a moment as any to thank the celestial being. We had been speeding across the Thai countryside on the open bed of a truck. It must’ve been about forty minutes, it felt longer. With each turn, Uncle took us higher into the foothills where the roads became wilder and more dangerous. Where, nestled in a valley, sat the little village where I was born. Each time he made a turn, the truck threatened to throw us into the side of the hills. I pictured myself rolling down, never stopping again until I reached the very bottom, wherever that was. Let’s just say it wasn't quite what I pictured my winter vacation to be, but that trip to Thailand taught me an important lesson about what it meant to come to America. I’ve spent most of my life running from my past, but I realized that until I faced it--until I owned it--I couldn’t run toward my future.
Facing the past
My memories of Thailand are like the scenes of a dramatic movie trailer. The camera pulls up behind me, music heightening as the audience sees a dark, smoky valley below. It pans out to show Dad and I are the only humans around. Next, I’m skipping around in the shaded courtyard of a Buddhist temple. Then almost drowning in a waterhole near our village, the water swallowing me up as I grasp for something to hold on to. The scene switches to a preschool full of kids at the Phanat Nikhom Refugee Processing Center. Are these real memories? Dreams? Or maybe just made-up stuff? Your guess is as good as mine.
When my sister first brought up the idea of going to Thailand, I hesitated--okay, to be honest, I stalled. I stalled for two years. Sister is one of the most courageous people I know. She was the reason I had the guts to go on a three-week trip to Europe, the place of my dreams. Ever since Jo March talked about Europe in Little Women, I’ve wanted to go to Europe. Against the wishes of everyone, Sister had gone to Spain to study abroad for a year and that gave me the courage to follow. When she first mentioned Thailand, I told her I couldn't go because I didn't have the money. I told myself I couldn't afford to take the time off work. I couldn't leave Alex and Toby alone. But the truth was, I was scared. I️ was scared that I might not have the courage to face the enormity of the past.
Going back to a place meant I came from that place, and that meant I wasn’t from here. I was a faux-American. I’ve studied identity—I even wrote a thesis on it in graduate school—and I thought I fully understood my feelings toward my refugee identity. I thought I had accepted and even appreciated who I truly was, but maybe I really hadn’t. All I knew was the idea of going back to my village left a nervous feeling deep in my chest.
The legacy of our family
We did some sightseeing while we were there. We took a meandering bus ride from Nan to Chiang Rai because there was this white temple that I wanted to see there. We climbed all 300 steps of Doi Suthep, a temple built in the 14th century that is still in use today, and took selfies at the edge overlooking Chiang Mai. We visited the Grand Palace in Bangkok where there were so many tourists, we might as well have gone to a Beyonce concert.
We even built up the courage to eat street food. We discovered khao soy in Chiang Rai and had the best papaya salad of our lives in Bangkok and, as a result of our courage, stayed close to the toilet during our last day. But the most eye-opening and fulfilling part of the trip to Thailand was not the sights or the food. It was what we learned in the village where we were born.
Not long after arriving in our village, we took a walk and Mom showed us the spot where our house used to be. The government had moved the village about half a mile away and now that spot was someone’s garden. She showed us the tree where Dad had left some of his tools in case we didn’t make it to the United States and had to come back. My aunt pointed in the direction we had walked when we left the village with everything we owned on our backs. I thought I heard an echo of sadness in her voice as she remembered that moment.
I was a Vue, but I’ve never thought much about it. In the U.S. we were minorities lost in the thick of minorities. Back at our village, we quickly learned that we weren’t just Vues, we were the Vues. After our family left, most of the Vues went to live elsewhere, but the legacy of our family was still there. Every person we met had a story—a history—associated with our family. My grandfather was wise and smart, my father kind and helpful. People remembered his generosity and his friendship. On my relatives’ faces and in their eyes, I saw myself and my future. It was in our village that I understood this: it was good to come from somewhere.
There was an unexpected tranquility to the way people lived in our village. They still woke and went to bed by the light of the sun...mostly. Some households had one light bulb, and although they had no fancy sinks like we did in America, they had running water. We had come to the village after the harvest, so in the daytime, men and women sat around and chatted. Their laughter and conversation filled the air with comfort and community. In the evening, as we settled around the fire to warm our hands, we heard the neighbors eating dinner and getting ready for bed, almost as if they were in the room next door.
I didn’t know what to expect from our relatives. I had heard all sorts of stories about Hmong in Thailand and Laos hating Hmong Americans. I had heard stories of jealousy and poisoning, of barely-related relations coming out of nowhere to ask for money. What we received was the exact opposite. They fed us boiled chicken and fresh rice at almost every meal, and no one asked for money. Soon we began to feel as if we were infringing upon their kindness. We ate so much chicken, we yearned for vegetables. I soon realized that the longer we stayed in the village, the more chickens they were going to kill to feed us, to give us the luxury we were used to, and suddenly I didn’t feel too good about myself.
I had always thought the reason why people didn’t go back to Thailand was because they didn’t have money. Now I wonder if people didn’t go back because some part of them felt guilty for leaving--or perhaps for surviving and thriving in America while their relatives struggled in Thailand and Laos. Perhaps going back meant infringing upon the kindness of people who didn’t have as much as we did, but were still kind enough to try and provide us with the best. Perhaps going back meant possibly facing the guilt, and people weren’t ready for it. As for myself, going back taught me that I should never feel guilty about coming to America. And I should never feel sorry for the ones who stayed behind because they made the best decision they could. Everyone did the best they could with the information they had at that time.
Our trip to Thailand was supposed to be a vacation, but for me it was actually an opportunity to remember who I was and where I came from. And just because I now live a more advantageous life in America didn’t mean what I had in Thailand was any less important. Perhaps it is even more important. The Hmong people don’t have a country. There is no Hmongland and no HmongAir to fly us to Hmongland. But to know that your soul has roots, and those roots were cultivated in a generous people and a courageous history, meant that no matter where you end up, if you are always true to yourself you would find your way.
Tell me. Have you gone to Thailand? If not, are you planning to? And if you were honest with yourself, what do you think is stopping you?