spoken self & sisterhood

Lao word of the day: euy (sound out each letter and then say it, real fast) and you’ve got it. It means “sister.”


“Describe your sister. In Lao.”

I’m sitting cross-legged on the couch in my counselor’s office and not as present as I should be, confused as to why I’m irritable and miffed about my relationship with my eldest sister. It’s a late fall day, and I’ve been hating how short the days have been getting as we approach winter. I don’t feel like cooperating.

But I’m in therapy for a reason, so I take a deep breath and start.

“She was loving. Kind. Thoughtful. She used to let me pick out my outfits when I was getting ready to go to school in kindergarten.”

I stop. My vocabulary in Lao isn’t what it used to be. I don’t know the verbs and the adjectives to describe my memories in Lao like I used to. It’s hard to think of what words to say. But it’s not the words that get me.

“Go on,” he urges gently.

“She raised me. She was my best friend growing up. We did everything together. I followed her like a shadow.”

…silence… weight. the familiar feeling of heat in my throat. I can’t swallow. Clear as day, in my mind’s eye I see me and my siblings piled into an old tub pretending it was a pool in the backyard on a summer day, an activity engineered by my eldest sister for her kid siblings.

“I miss her.” I choke this out in Lao and then I say it in English. (I mean, this dude has been listening to me speak in Lao for a few minutes after all, so throw him some familiar words right?)

And now I’m fucking sobbing. I keep on sobbing. I suck in air. I breathe. Now I guess I’m just crying, normally. OOP nope, sobbing again. It’s a painful however-many minutes for me. It’s the kind of cry that aches from deep within that spans time and space and what I know and don’t know.

My counselor is quiet, supporting me from across the room. Listening. Waiting. Patient. It’s not the words that get me; it’s the language I’m speaking.


When I was young, my sister inspired me to (eventually) write song lyrics by once encouraging me to “make up the words” to songs that I didn’t know that played on the radio when she was driving us somewhere. It was a lightbulb moment for little me. It delighted me and stayed with me forever. I wrote then, and I write now.

She would make something out of nothing – in a good way. Cutting and pasting pictures from junk mail to make collages with me. She even made an entire card deck so that we could play Go Fish (money was tight) and to me, she was an incredible artist. In so many of our family photos, she’s holding one of us in her arms. The best big sister we could have.

She was always there for me. Until she wasn’t.


When I say “my sister ran away” many people ask, “Well, how old was she?” and I stop and think … she was at least 18. Leaving home is common for 18 year olds in American culture. But not for my family, and definitely not under my father’s controlling watch. To leave was to break a family, household rule.

There were circumstances that I didn’t understand that lead her to go. I realize now that I forgive her. Was there anything to forgive in the first place?

Suddenly, I was alone. I didn’t have that kind of bond with my other siblings (not yet at least). I felt abandoned by someone who was the world to me. Left behind. And I held on to that feeling for decades.

I missed her. But who could I tell? So I held it in. Until that seemingly normal, “I’m grouchy” day in therapy.


Language has the power to unlock memories and emotions.

“Discovering your Self in language is always an epiphany, even if finding the words to describe your inner reality can be an agonizing process.”The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk

I’d been hitting a wall with describing how I felt about my eldest sister. Why was I so annoyed with her? What couldn’t I understand? She experienced so much pain and trauma; she did what she had to do. How could I continue to be upset with her for something that I felt like I understood now, as an adult? How had I forgotten this initial upset that was followed up with so many other things I could. not. understand?

Until my counselor asked me what language I spoke growing up.

Lao and English, interchangeably, was my response. My parents mostly spoke Lao, and my siblings were the ones who taught me English until I entered grade pre-school.

How much I had loved and adored my big sister when I was a little girl, and the pain that I felt when one morning, the family rises, and she is gone … returned to me only when I described her in Lao.


She and I have lead very separate lives for a very long time it seems. But we’re okay. We’re re-building our relationship. And I miss her. I finally told her so.

Love you, fam.

-Lasamee

Our most recent hangout, post cry-fest in therapy: my sisters (the one closest to me in age & the eldest), me, and ma.

“don’t call me pa”

Warning: this is both a sad and happy story.

There’s mention of domestic violence and related things.


It’s Father’s Day and yesterday was World Refugee Day. Today, I share with you a story about my father and my family who are Lao refugees.

I release this from me and to the world because it has been a weight to carry these last couple of decades. Those near to me know, and some do not.

If a bomb is hidden and buried and you stumble across it, you might lose a limb, or your life, or part of your soul to it. If it is uncovered, you can detonate it from afar. This is an allusion to Legacies of War and the honorable work that they are doing to clear Laos of unexploded ordinance (UXO) dropped on the country during the Secret War, 1964-1973.

This is part of my discovery.


In Lao, you call your dad “pa” (pronounced like “paw). The last time my father was in our family home, he told me not to call him dad. I was stunned, and knew that he was in a mood. Nothing was out of the ordinary, aside from my late return home from school because of a volunteer activity. I am done trying to rationalize his behavior but for years, I spent energy on trying to do just that.

“Don’t call me pa” was a warning, and my instincts told me that things were about to go south. Go south they did.

For my father, a mood could be:

  • Grumpy silence
  • Stomping through the house
  • Yelling about something or someone to anyone nearby
  • Cleaning and loading his shotgun
  • Aiming said shotgun at family members, like his 10 year old daughter, and asking “Do you want to die?” (What a peach, amiright?)
  • Waving a knife around and threatening to kill family members

That night, he was in that last mood in the list. My older sister, mother, and I managed to calm him down somehow. Or were we pleading for our lives, but in different words? It felt like hours.

Finally, he put himself to bed in the living room. (If you’re wondering, I am and have been in therapy for quite some time and have made slow and steady progress in unpacking all of this.) I stayed in touch with my best friend, messaging her that I might have to ask her to call the police to my house. My sister told me to discreetly pack a bag, pack a bag for mom, and be ready not to return to the house after school/work the next day. I still do not know how she could think so clearly. I doubt anyone in my household slept at all that night.

And that was it. The last time he was ever a part of my life in any kind of meaningful way.

We filed a police report, and he was picked up. I don’t know the exact details of how that happened, but it makes me sad to think about it. I have compassion for my father despite many, many episodes like the one described above in the years he was the oppressor of his own family.

He is a strong but broken man. He is a monster but also my father. He is a veteran of the Secret War. I am certain he has PTSD that has never been addressed. He is a Lao refugee in a land that is so far from home to him, literally and figuratively. This is what I think about on Father’s Day.

Nai Kettavong, my father
My father, Nai Kettavong, veteran of the Secret War, refugee living in the U.S. photo taken in Laos in the late 60’s or early 70’s for his military documents

It’s not all darkness, violence, and family secrets though.

I have two amazing, funny, smart, and loving older brothers. And they are incredible fathers to their children. I am in awe and admire that they are so caring and supportive of their kiddos despite not having known that growing up themselves. I am proud of them for breaking the cycle.

I am fortunate to soon have extended family that includes fathers who protect and provide for their loved ones, rather than the opposite.

I see love all around me, and I am ever thankful for it.

with love and light,

Lasamee