It’s 5am. Mom quietly shuffles in to pick up baby Coraline. Her hands plagued with age and diabetic stiffness carefully cups Coraline’s little head against her chest. She sways and sings a lullaby. Mellow and sweet, it pierced my memory bank. Where did I hear that before? Familiar. Comforting. An hour passed by. Then I woke up wondering how I fell asleep.
Mom laughs. Then quietly remembers.
“When the soldiers drove us to the labor camps, you were only a year old. You broke out in hives and couldn’t stop crying. I tried everything. The driver threatened me that he would put a bullet in your head if I didn’t soothe you in one minute. Then I sang and sang and sang my heart out. You finally stopped crying. It was the only lullaby that saved your life.”
There’s a Lao saying that your first guardian, your first teacher, and your first love is your mother. My mae was my earth and my moon. That’s the power of being a woman.
So when we think of Lao women role models, why is it that most of us can barely count them on one hand? While it’s true that there’s a lack of prominent ones in mainstream media, we tend to forget those that work tirelessly for the Lao community on the ground, behind the curtains, over the cubicles.
Left: Chanida Phaengdara Potter
After this year’s election results came in, the American public started seeing a surge of female politicians, including many Asian American women taking office for the first time. The political landscape is shaping up as more and more AAPI female voices are being seen as necessary and valuable. And the American public is taking notice.
So let’s take notice of the inspiring women right next to us fighting for the Lao community’s causes. Channapha Khamvongsa, Elizabeth Tolzmann, Saymoukda Vongsay, the list goes on. One runs an organization that devotes to funding UXO-related organizations in Laos. One is an immigration attorney and community volunteer. One is, well, a badass Lao American playwright. They’re the ones you see shopping at your local grocery store like any typical person but you had no idea that they helped steer changes in the Lao community bigger than the carts they push.
Did you know that a Lao woman was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize? Well, I didn’t either. Her name is Kommaly Chanthavong. She was a nominee for the 1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Back in 1976, Kommaly started the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative, a textile and silk production organization. Focusing on women, the cooperative teaches them traditional skills in raising silkworms, making natural dyes and weaving traditional patterns. Through this artisan training process, hundreds of families are able to get a fair and stable income—through women themselves.
There definitely isn’t a lack of Lao women role models. These women not only put Laos on the map but they’re the Lao women defining that map. The reality is, they’re not given enough credit or spotlight. Usually the ones making the most impact are always in the back of the limelight. It’s called having humility; one of the most admirable traits of a Lao woman’s soul and one that drives herself, her family, her community.
Next time someone asks about Lao women role models, make sure you can at least name one. There’s plenty out there. You just need to look behind the curtain.
Top photo: “The Lao Mother” (Photographer: Khinaphanh Phaengdara)