cross that river.

thud-thud-thud-scrape

thud-thud-thud-scrape


I’ve made this spicy, funky, sour, mortar-ed and pestle-ed shredded, green papaya salad (thum makhoong) dozens of times. Sometimes if the Thai chilies and garlic that I’m crushing pops out of the mortar and gets into my eyes, I’ll cry.

This time, I’m crying because I’m remembering how my dad used to make thum makhoong for family meals: very sour, not too sweet, little bit of funk from the padaek (fermented fish sauce) and extremely spicy. Lao people eat thum something (papaya, cucumber, carrots, so on) with nearly every meal.

“Am I going to do this every time?” I ask my partner, as he gives my arm a squeeze, and I scrub at my face. It was day nine post-my father’s passing, and we were managing to stay warm and survive during the worst winter storm of my life, exacerbated by Texas’ energy grid failings (but that’s another story), and I have been moving through the days in a blur. I had consistently been able to cry while listening to “Live Forever” by Billy Joe Shaver to avoid emotional constipation. For whatever reason, the lyrics “I’m going to live forever, I’m going to cross that river” magically floated to the front of my mind on the day of his death. But other moments lately, I’m quite unsure what will bring tears to my eyes.

Mostly memories make my eyes sting but the pain is moving more toward thinking about what could have been and never was. What can now only be dreamed.


On hot summer days, when pa would water the herb and plant garden in the backyard, fragrant with spearmint and Thai basil, vibrant with giant green gourds and adorably wrinkly looking bitter melon, I’d play in the shower of the garden hose water, always hoping the sun would gift us a rainbow.

When pa smoked a cigarette after dinner, I’d bat at the plumes of smoke that he exhaled. Summer nights outside feeding june bugs to the chickens and feeling the sticky heat of the day slowly leaving.

I am comforted by the scents of mint and tobacco to this day.

I used to run into my father’s arms after pre-k and kindergarten classes. How I hated to be away from home in a foreign place those days, away from my caretaker and the family pets, and the creature comforts that a 5 year-old has, no matter how sparse they were.

Pa had a temper, but he also had tenderness for growing, living beings.


I questioned him here and there, perhaps foolishly, but when you’re young, you’re naive.

“Why do you get to watch your Lao comedy shows, but you don’t let mom watch her Thai soap operas?”

Crickets.

“Why won’t you let me participate in academic clubs and sports?”

“Why can’t we visit our friends’ houses?”

The concerns of a little girl, of course.


I never got to ask him certain questions that I was sure would help us repair our relationship, someday.

“Why won’t you tell your sons and daughters that you’re proud of them?”

“Do you love us?”

“What happened in the war?”

“Where were you born?”

“What was your relationship with your parents like?”

“Do you feel any remorse for what you did to your own flesh and blood? The woman you married?”

“What happened during the interrogation by the Thai police?”

“Would you ever want to visit Laos?”

“What do you miss about Laos?”

“What’s your favorite meal?”


The Saturday before my dad’s death, my siblings and I had a Zoom call for the first time, ever. We don’t talk much but do try to stay in touch and check in every now and then. We have a group chat but somehow managed to avoid Zoom even during the pandemic that burns slowly on.

The last time we had a call with all five of us was when my mother had a minor stroke in November 2016. Our parents somehow always bring us together even if one of them (my father) tried to drive us apart.

We arranged this Zoom call because our father had COVID. He was in a care facility in Texas City where my oldest sister lives.


He’s “okay but not great” is what the woman on the phone told me when I called to check on him. She hesitated. I felt the silence.

I asked if we could arrange a time to FaceTime.

She told me that would be “hit or miss.”

That it’s her and one other person taking care of the COVID unit. Her and Laura.

I asked for her name. Nicole.

Said “Thank you. Take care.”

Hung up.

Hours later, my sister told the family “Dad just passed away!” Time slowed down and sped up. Chaos ensued. Calls missed, FaceTimes urgently popping up, having to tell mom. Having to figure out how to breathe. Having to persevere. Having to hurt. Grieve.


Everything feels fragmented and disjointed when I try to think about the reality of what is happening right now. Like I don’t know how to use words and form sentences properly. Like I have brain fog, but I’m not the one infected.

Have I done all that I could? Probably not.

Would it be enough for me even if I did? Never.


Many things have come of this upheaval of life.

For one, I trust my cards, and I trust my intuition. The two times that I have felt a deep calling from the universe the way that I have regarding my mother’s health and my father’s death will remain distinct, incomparable, and telling.

This sense of urgency and inexplicable connection to them, to the universe, to some web of our collective unconscious, that struck me as “something profound is happening” comforts me, even if historically it has been a harbinger of bad news. In the future, should this sense overtake me again, I will know that I need to act.

I have to believe in the power of this sense and its source. Or else I can’t believe that my father knows that I forgive him, can hear me tell him that I love him, and I’m sorry. And that he loves me still, too.

My siblings and I have talked more than we ever have in the past few weeks, the five of us, as far as I can remember. We’ve shared emotions and tears that we never did when our father was alive. This has to mean something too. Thanks dad.

Kettavong family

sometimes you get rejected

Below is a personal history statement that I submitted for something that I really wanted, but I know that I’ll look back one day with perspective and not feel so disappointed. It’s important to talk about rejection (and accept it) just as much as it’s important to shoot your shot.

Going to college seemed impossible and out of reach for me from a young age, especially after watching one of my older sisters denied the opportunity despite being valedictorian of her class. My father prohibited her leaving home for school, set in his old world and oppressive ways.

We are a Lao family, and I am a Lao-American woman, meaning that in a traditional Lao household, I would have very little choice, no voice, and expectations to be married off. Because I was the youngest of five children, having been born a few years after my family’s arrival in the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand, I was fed, clothed, and had a place to sleep. But nurtured I was not. We survived, and it would be well into my adult years away from home before I could consider myself healthy and have the potential to thrive.

My mother worked achingly hard to support our family of seven, and my father stayed home to take care of my siblings and me. He did not adjust well to life in America. I would say that the PTSD and other untreated mental illnesses also hindered him. “My father has horrific PTSD and cannot be around people,” is something my therapist suggested that I say when I do not want to elaborate upon the horrors that he inflicted upon my family in various settings. He has been out of my life in any meaningful way since I was 15.

My father fought in The Secret War in Laos, which continues to affect the country (and my family) to this day. This topic leads me to the challenges that I have worked to overcome with years in therapy, personal research, joining the Lao community later in life, and trying to shed light on subjects like The Secret War, intergenerational trauma, mental health, low literacy rates for Lao-Americans, and more. In recent years, I began volunteering with DFW Lao Heritage, a non-profit group that aims to preserve and highlight Lao culture in North Texas. More recently, I’ve participated in the supportive, community offerings of the Laotian American National Alliance (LANA).

Being between worlds is a strange existence. Not one or the other, but both Lao and American. I have struggled with what this means and hope that I can move closer to the answers in a program of academic study. I was noticed as an intelligent, bright child despite feeling invisible and in some ways unwanted and unwelcome. My secondary education and onward was in magnet schools for the academically gifted in Dallas, Texas. Through the generosity and care of my teachers, I began to believe that I could move myself and perhaps my family upward from our places in life.

Education seemed to be key; I would study, work hard, find a career path, and live out our Lao American dream, in theory. The road is still rough, but we are farther on our journey and closer to security than we were when I was a child.

However, none of my older siblings had been able to “go off” to college (at least until my father was out of the picture). Attending college seemed financially impossible which nearly stopped me from even considering applying. In high school, I was fortunate enough to receive guidance from a school friend’s aunts: they took us both on a college tour in California and afterward sent me a $300 check so that I could pay for application fees. It was encouragement that I’m sure my own mother would have offered me if she had the experience, resources, and capacity to do so.

I received the Emerald Eagle Scholarship, which benefits those in financial need, from the University of North Texas as part of my offer letter and acceptance package and that paid for much of my undergraduate studies. I graduated in three years, having earned credit for my core classes through Advanced Placement exams in high school. I discovered that I could indulge in learning about my heritage and family’s history while also writing academically in my last undergraduate semester with the help of a philosophy instructor whom I’d admired. I wrote about the Mekong River, partially to learn about what my parents and siblings had had to face to get to safety and also because the term paper requirements were that I write about a topic from the course, philosophy of water.

I had made a connection between my personal and academic life that would continue in my graduate studies: bridging my two worlds through study in disciplines directly related to my family’s history and that of other Lao people and refugees. I studied philosophy with a focus on environmental ethics and professional and technical communication. I earned an MA from each program.

Mom and me at undergrad. commencement
Mom and me at undergrad. commencement

The entire six years that I was a college student, both undergraduate and graduate, I felt guilt and a deep sadness for what I had and what my immediate family and ancestors did not. Impostor syndrome plagued me, but there was comfort in looking ahead and thinking that the next generation might not experience this as much as I did.

One year after graduating with my M.A. in Professional and Technical Communication, I spoke on a panel during Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) month alongside other AAPI professionals in film, journalism, and education. Looking out at the audience and seeing AAPI students with expressions of hope, eagerness, and intrigue, likely in a situation similar to my own, made me understand that giving back to my community and being of service would lessen the guilt, sadness, and impostor syndrome that I had associated with my own education.

When I worked with students at the first DFW Lao Heritage camp in 2018, it was hard not to feel pain for what I never had growing up juxtaposed with immense joy for the Lao students who had the opportunity to connect with their heritage. For this summer camp, I developed a storytelling workshop in order to help the students better understand where they came from and what their parents and grandparents had endured, as Lao families often share multigenerational homes. Their preliminary activity was to interview the elders in their households prior to the workshop. Then, they created an eight-frame storyboard depicting what they’d gathered with collage materials or illustrations in a comic book style during the workshop itself.

DFW Lao Heritage Camp, 2018!

At DFW Lao Heritage, we’re working on developing grant funds and a program to similarly help Lao youth know that they can achieve academically and apply for and attend college. I am honored to have been part of DFW Lao Heritage since its beginnings in 2018.

More recently, I’ve become involved with LANA, and they have helped me better understand what Lao Americans currently face. In the U.S., approximately 27% of Lao Americans live with educational and financial disadvantages. Of the 265,000 Lao Americans here, only 14% have earned a bachelor’s degree. Many Lao Americans arrived in the U.S. as refugees from the Vietnam War and the Secret War, and parents and siblings survived but higher education was lower on the list of priorities. Personally, I would serve as the first person and woman in my family to earn a PhD. For my community, I would be an example and a resource to those who also might consider higher education as out of reach. I hope that in the near future more people will know about Laos as it stands alone, not only in relation to other Southeast Asian countries. I want to see efforts to have Laos cleared of the 80 million cluster munitions remaining from the wars increase and grow strength, though organizations like Legacies of War and Mines Advisory Group are working as hard as they can to do so.

With my work and writing, I intend to help heal through story.

It wasn’t until 2015 that I serendipitously came across a memoir by a Hmong author, Kao Kalia Yang, titled The Latehomecomer. Her family had been through the same refugee and processing camps as mine in Thailand, just a couple of years apart in the late ‘80s. Finding and reading that memoir profoundly and irrevocably changed my life.

It is significant that I use the word “serendipitously.” One can find memoirs from authors from other ethnicities on the shelves; it is rare that you will find a memoir from a Lao author if you’re not in the Southeast Asian studies section (and even if you are). I plan to change that.

Mom, fourth from the left in the back row, in a refugee camp in Thailand
Mom, fourth from the left in the back row, in a refugee camp in Thailand. She is pregnant with my brother, Vinat, in this photo.