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.

what a shame

it me

I’ve deliberated about a project that I’ve thought about for most of my lifetime: telling the story that my family carried with them away from the mountains of Laos across the Mekong River through the skies and to Texas. But I’ve mostly been still, immobile, glued to my spot, and unable to move. And I’ve been silent, afraid, pensive, anxious, sad, playing memories over and over, thinking about how best to paint these pictures as genuinely and honestly as possible and to honor the people within them.

“Why does it feel so wrong to be me? Why am I afraid for people to know who I am and where I come from?”

“The long-term consequences of trauma?” offers my counselor*, a couple of years after we’ve started digging in and doing the work that might enable me to speak. In 2018, he recommended a few books to me that I’m still working through. How on earth did I get through grad school?

True, but maybe not entirely the reason. I realize that a lot of it is shame, for things out of my control.


When I was a child, I was ashamed of being different from everyone else. Different in the sense that I was isolated and couldn’t visit with friends after school or attend the countless birthday parties and hangouts. Different because no one had ever heard of Laos. Different because I didn’t know certain American cultural references. I didn’t meet another Lao child out in the world serendipitously until college. And even then, we were legally adults. Magically thrown together as roommates at the university. I have a feeling we might have been the only 2 Lao girls in that freshman class that year. 

Growing up, I was ashamed of being poor. My refugee parents tried their hardest, and we always had food on the table and our basic needs met. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t have to pick through bags of donated clothing to find “new” shirts and pants that would fit me. (And with my tiny, southeast Asian frame, hand-me-downs, especially from strangers, never fit me correctly.) That didn’t mean that I could afford to participate in any extracurriculars that might cost anything to the family, including time for my little hands to work and help at home.

I was ashamed that people would know that my father was traumatized by the war, traumatized by so much else he couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about, and belittled in a country in which he thought he would be welcomed as a hero. And because of these things, he traumatized his entire family, the ones from whom I wish he could have sought solace. Shame for being my father’s daughter; I am sorry.

I was ashamed of my name even. Moving from grade level to grade level, class to class, apologizing that it was “hard to say” (it’s only 3 syllables), raising my hand to pronounce it correctly and feeling a burning sensation in my throat. Until I finally adopted “Laci” which doesn’t even honor the way you say my real name; it just has similar phonetics. La-suh-me. Lasamee Kettavong. Now, my heart swells when people learn my name and work to say it correctly. To me that is an act of love.

Me and my sweet mother, who gave me my name.

Shame prevents you from doing a lot. Fear eats the soul and paralyzes you. But we only have so much time to really get to know ourselves in this realm of living, so I’m shedding the shame and swallowing the fear.


I’m not certain but pretty sure that I have taken on this project because I am the last child in my family and the one born in America a few years after my family’s arrival on Halloween Day, 1989. No one’s asking for this story, but it’s one that threatens to have me implode if I let it simmer and leave it alone. There’s no pressure from any of my siblings or my mother; just support, happily scanning papers that arrived with my family in their International Refugee Committee bag of official documents when I ask for them. I feel that our family’s story is not so different from immigrant families stories today, and that we have a lot of work to do. Together, with, and for others. 

I can’t imagine the agony that my mother and father would have felt having arrived as refugees and asylum seekers only to have their children ripped away from them and kept in detention centers. It is horrendous that this has happened to so many. 

I’m not certain but pretty sure that there’s no better time than right now to do something about the horrendous things, shed the shame, and swallow the fear that maybe has kept you from moving. 

—-

*Important to note: I started going to therapy after a shitty breakup in 2013 and on the advice of a dear friend who’d also recently started therapy and it improved their life immensely. I’ve gone from counselor to counselor, for various reasons, and finally really dug in to working on childhood trauma with this particular counselor. Don’t give up if you feel like therapy will help you/your mental health but you’re not clicking with someone. Search around. It can change your life.

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