There’s an old Lao saying that “Language tells you about someone’s country, manners tell you about someone’s family.” I think the stories we tell ourselves says a lot about who we have been and where we might go.
This month the Lao Assistance Center is getting ready to hold its very first Lao American Storytelling Festival in North Minneapolis as part of its 30th anniversary celebrations. They’ll be sharing both traditional stories and personal stories reflecting our different journeys since the end of the war. When you take a close look, almost no two families’ stories here to Minnesota are fully alike.
When I visit my nieces and nephew I want to be very careful to explain to them learning Lao traditions isn’t about remembering only one point of view and way of doing things. If you look at Lao arts, uniformity isn’t what’s celebrated, it’s diversity. We see many different ways of approaching life as a strength. When we’re at our very best, Lao Loum, Lao Sung, Lao Theung traditions and languages can all work together to build something greater. That’s something that applied in Laos, and can apply in the United States, especially in Minnesota.
Minnesota has such an exceptional tradition of storytelling, but Lao can do more to add our voices to that journey.
My family didn’t get to bring a lot with us when we left Laos. The most important things were the treasures within us. Money and jewels you could lose. But knowledge was yours. You could never lose that unless you wanted to. Sometimes it was overwhelming trying to remember all of the traditions and customs of Lao culture, especially when you’re young, learning the American systems. Even now, there are still so many new things I learn from other Lao about our heritage.
Over time I realized: None of us is a one-stop shop. But it’s important to commit to learning as much as we can about who we’ve been and might become. We grow from that.
I recently interviewed Nor Sanavongsay for Little Laos on the Prairie, who often visited Minnesota to talk about his dreams of bringing the Lao folk hero Xieng Mieng to life as a childrens book. It’s taken him over a decade to come to this point. But he’s making it happen. Lao Americans doesn’t have many childrens books to pass on to our children. So this is an amazing step.
I can see that in his process of creating this story, he’s not only telling a story but changing his community, and changing himself. Stretching, growing, taking advice, making new friends. And dealing with the occasional critic or two. But he’s pushing himself because as he became a parent, he could see the stories he thought would be there for his children aren’t. So he has to tell the stories he wants to see. And he wants to share it with other parents and families too.
Our stories are among the first things a child encounters to answer those eternal questions: “Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?” They teach us what we value and how we deal with others.
Do we pass on tales of people who use violence to solve problems, or do we preserve the tales of people who stood up for justice peacefully? Do we teach our children the stories of friends who always gave each other hope, or do we tell stories that tell you to shut up and do as you’re told, never questioning your fate or situation? Will we celebrate the scholars and thinkers of Lao myths and legends or just point to the people on “reality” TV?
No one can predict the future, but we can at least take steps to give our children great options to choose from.