The narrative of my refugee family is not one that I share with everyone. It usually begins with “This is going to be a long story,” “I’m not Thai,” “I’m not Lao,” “Are you familiar with Southeast Asia?” or “You’ve probably never heard of Tai Dam” — it’s a mouthful. Stories of the Southeast Asian Diaspora are very similar but at the same time, vastly different.
These are the words and stories I’ve held on to, as told by my mother, by my father and his mother, between the wrinkles of my grandfather’s face, sewn in the hems of my grandmother’s skirt.
The Tai Dam are an ethnic people of North Vietnam with a culture rich in color, song, and dance. Son La is a northern province of Vietnam, home and a soil that my family’s history is deeply rooted in. It was the birthplace of both my maternal and paternal grandparents. It was where they lived, shared their stories, passed along fables and lessons, it was where they grew their communities. In between Vietnam and Laos, Ai-Pou (paternal grandfather) held many respected positions like banker and medic, and Em-Ya (paternal grandmother) was the matriarch. They used to recount to me that they lived abundantly, that life was fruitful.
Son La is “Muang Tai,” the Tai peoples’ land, a land that couldn’t sustain us for the long term.
In the 1950s, many Tai Dam relocated to Laos in an effort to escape the communism that was occupying North Vietnam. My grandfather left what was familiar and sought a freer world. He and my grandmother resettled their family in a small Lao village where my father was raised, my mother born in the same village, two years later. In Laos, my parents’ families twisted together; the kids ran around the red dirt roads, attended the same schools and played with sticks and rocks until the sun fell.
Then, the world was dark again.
When the communist regime began to occupy Laos, my grandfather, whom I commend for his bravery and intelligence, planned his family’s escape. He disregarded the community’s doubts that home would be overturned by communists, again.
In 1975, my grandfather packed his young children and wife in a small boat, which was set to cross the Mekong River into Anti-Communist Thailand where there was promised refuge. My dad has told this story many times, and each time he describes this moment to me, I imagine the Mekong being so large, the rushing water dark and unrelenting. For a year, my 14 year old father lived in a Thai refugee camp with his nine siblings. He told me and my sisters stories of how they fished, fetched their own water, and found intricate temples filled with snakes which he felt to be sacred.
Laos eventually fell to communism and on April 30 of 1975, Saigon fell.
Under the Governance of Robert D. Ray, churches and families across the state of Iowa agreed to open their hearts and homes to provide a safe harbor for many Tai Dam people, while others went to live in Australia and France. My family resettled in Iowa.
Iowa was cold, there was no sticky rice.
The kids had never seen snow before, didn’t understand the language, and they had never been the only person of color in the room. This new home was not a life without complication. Xenophobia was apparent and remains even still.
I identify with this destitution but can’t imagine the feeling of being forced from home to a foreign land. I am grateful for the late Governor Robert D. Ray for his willingness to believe in a people without a home, for showing Iowans that opening their hearts can have lasting, progressive impacts on community and for leading the Iowan people by example.
My Asian American narrative is a culmination of my ancestors’ experiences, their actions, their movements and footprints that led me here. It was their careful decisions that brought me to a place where I can look beyond just physiological needs.
I was born free.
I was born with the liberty to stop running from danger.
I will never stop telling the story of our dissolving culture.