A Lao writer pointed an interesting fact to me last week: After 8 months and 7 free plays at the Playwrights Center with over 50 actors, 12 special guests, free food and drinks, 24 hours of driving from Mankato and 45 documented hours of writing scripts, only two Lao people came to see her plays. And I was one of them.
It’s not often we call out our community. Chalk it up to the conversational traditions of Southeast Asia, mixed in with 30 years of Minnesota Nice and folks who hate rocking the boat. The result is we rarely see a lens turned on ourselves that’s frank about our hopes and disappointments. Maybe we need to change that.
I’ve been in Southeast Asian refugee resettlement for over a decade and an artist my whole life. I’ll be the first to tell you, being in the arts doesn’t entitle you to anything, even if you picked up an MFA, a fellowship or some other acclaim. Today is today.
Just the same, when I see a community of over 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees in Minnesota, near 25,000 of them Lao, and only two of our own show up over 8 months, that has to raise some flags for me.
With this particular writer, I’ve seen her work grow for over seven years, and she performs internationally and across the country. Here in Minnesota? She can’t even get recognized as an ’emerging artist’ by the powers that be.
The Tom Waits song suggests at least, “Hey, I’m big in Japan.” That’s a small comfort for her, but it fails to address a challenge we can and must be honest about.
When I walk into work or go to other community events, I constantly hear elders and others moaning we’re losing our culture. I gave up on calling them out: “But what have you done to help the culture keep those traditions you say you love so much alive?”
Talking to our local Lao musicians and dancers, I’m always saddened when I hear how much money they make performing. It’s heartbreaking, even more so considering they’re trying to pass on a tradition that stretches back over 600 years, celebrating our community and our search for truth and kindness.
Instead, folks want to pirate an mp3 about bitches and hos.
For Lao writers, the scene’s just as discouraging. One came up to me, happy she was getting paid $13 for a column. I wanted to be happy with her, but that won’t even buy a nice lunch around here. There’s discount strippers in this city who make more than that in just 3 minutes.
Most of us have been in the US 30 years now. But we’ve seen less than a book a year come out by Laotian Americans. Back in Laos they print an average of 88 books a year even when the per capita income is little over $2,000 a year. That may not seem like much, but considering we have 200,000 Lao in America, a nation where our median income is over $50,000, and we barely have 30 books in our entire community to show for it, we need to call ourselves on that.
I’m not saying my friend’s plays this year were this generation’s “Death of a Salesman” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” She’s young and probably a long way from grabbing a Tony soon. But when our community decides it would rather play “Call of Duty” on the XBox, watch a rerun of “Friends” or shell out cash for a “Sex In The City” sequel, that’s just tragic.
A culture is held together by many things. Food, language, history, but also our arts. I suspect a hundred years from now, our children will not care that much about what a bowl of pho sold for. But they’ll look back at this vibrant age, seeking the stories of where they come from, what we dreamed and believed and they will discover most of us left them a gift of utter silence.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.