Giving as a Lao tradition

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December makes me nostalgic, and of course reminds me of gifts and presents. It’s a time we spend looking back and looking forward. How do we appreciate what we have properly? There’s an old Buddhist saying I learned, that it’s “the giver who should be thankful.” And when we give, we should give freely.

I appreciate good presents as much as anyone, but I also try to teach the young children in my life that the best fortunes aren’t a reflection of how much you get, but how much you are able to give, and to improve the quality of life for others.

Lao often teach their children that we aren’t supposed to be attached to material things. Things are just things. They come and go. Holding onto possessions was destructive in so many ways, especially for those who thought owning things gave them status and importance. (Spoiler alert: It almost never works out that way.)

My mother was a teacher who taught me to value the knowledge and spirit I carried within me, whether we were in Laos, the refugee camps, or Minnesota. When you value internal things such as knowledge and compassion, I learned my wealth and opportunities increased the more I shared with others.

I found it interesting to learn recently that 2012’s Miss Minnesota USA, Nitaya Panemalaythong, was invited by the U.S. Embassy in Laos to help promote ties between Laos and the U.S. particularly charitable work in January. This is a great honor.

This month she has been asking community members to donate to this special opportunity. That, to me, is a wonderful part of her journey as a Lao American: To come as a refugee with her family, to get an education, to achieve success, and then to remember those less fortunate and to give back to something greater than just yourself. The people she’s trying to help are in need of school supplies, toys, shoes and clothes. She’s also raising money to assist the staff of the schools, orphanages and non-profits she’ll be visiting. I think this is a good example to set.

This is her very first visit to Laos, and Nitaya Panemalaythong will visit remote villages near Luang Prabang with the non-profit organization Pencils of Promise to distribute badly needed school supplies and hygiene materials. She’s very passionate about issues of education and health. She’ll also be working with the charity Peuan Mit, which is supported by the U.S. Embassy. Peuan Mit provides assistance to Lao street children.

There are so many non-government organizations operating in Laos that she could see while she is out there, such as COPE, the Lao Project Group, Village Focus International or the Mines Advisory Group.

Hopefully she’ll get a chance to see many of them in action. I respect that she’s trying to give so many of her friends, family, and community a way to be a part of her journey while giving back positively.

One thing that stood out to me was how much she’s doing her fundraising online at http://www.gofundme.com/hok38 .Back in the old days, I don’t think many of us could imagine how much we’d be using computers and technology to do good.

But whether we have access to technology or not, whether we’re famous or not, one thing I always want to encourage my nieces and nephew, and every member of our community, is that we must remember the importance of compassion, if we’re going to preserve Lao traditions, and if we’re going to be good citizens in the United States.

Charity comes in many forms. Some give their time. Some give their skills and knowledge. Some give money. Some help spread the word. But we can all make a difference.

For those of us who have been refugees and immigrants, I think we remember this because we’ve been on the other side. We know what it’s like to need hope. That there was a time in our lives when we could not do all we wanted to do alone.There were so many generous people in our lives who took a chance on us. But there’s also a time when, if we are going to become truly human, and truly reach our potential, we also give back, and continue that tradition of compassion.  We need to give back and pay it forward.