Kanya Lai is an English teacher at Nashville School of the Arts. She spends her summers traveling to exciting locales, where she usually volunteers in underprivileged schools and/or orphanages. Her work has appeared previously in Little Laos on the Prairie, and Bakka Magazine. She joined us in Minneapolis in 2015 for the National Lao American Writers Summit where she spoke and performed her writing. We had a chance to catch up with her recently to discuss her journey and her thoughts on creating lifelong success for students.
What’s a story about your family’s journey to the US that you remember the most?
I was 5 yrs old when we immigrated to the states so I don’t remember too many memories from Laos. I know that the most poignant memory for me was the struggles and hardships my parents faced when we first arrived to Nashville, TN. I know that sounds like the standard immigrant story, but it is honestly what I remember most. When we first arrived here, we didn’t have a car and my dad had to ride in the back of a truck to get to a restaurant job. He would have to do this even when it was cold and snowing outside. He used to tell us that since he didn’t get a chance to see us kids because he got off work late, he would peek his head in our bedroom just so he could see our faces while we were sleeping. That story always stood out to me because it was one of the few times I saw my dad most vulnerable. It reminded me of the humble start of my parents’ version of the American Dream.
Lao have statistically had difficulty graduating from college. What kept you motivated? What do you think has been the biggest challenge for Lao students today and how might we help stay them in college?
As prosaic as this may sound, my biggest motivating factor was the fact that I’ve always loved school. Growing up, it was the one place where I could really be somebody: my academic excellence was a symbol of validation.Though my parents did not express it often, I knew from a very young age that they took pride in the fact that I was a constant on the Dean’s List and honor roll
What kept me motivated was actually more personal than cultural– I loved learning and school, so I continued to excel at it even when my parents were working long hours and did not always have the time to support and motivate me, I just simply had to cultivate that kind of self-discipline on my own.
The biggest challenge that Laotian students face today is the home culture. They may come from families who were never taught to value education so therefore, their parents may not readily encourage post-high school options like higher education. It’s sort of just this “work hard” mentality, even if it’s having a job that may not stimulate one intellectually. This notion of being happy and fulfilled at work and having a vocation/career may sound like a luxury in the traditional Laotian culture, especially to first generation immigrants.
Another issue is also finances. It’s much easier to “go out and get a job” as opposed to coming face to face with real struggle– whether that is working one’s way through college or spending a few years earning income first and then attending a community college. I currently see this within the Hispanic community, and I see this through the values of my own students’ parents. Survival trumps education in some cultures, and the specific nuances behind that mentality is more complex than what we see on the surface.
However, I truly believe that personal perseverance and grit has volumes to do excelling in education. It is highly a personal choice, no matter what one’s background is. It’s as simple as this: if you really want something, you will go out and get it. I know, oh so cliche!
Being an educator, my opinion on how we can help Laotians stay in college may be a little biased based on what I see in my own current work environment. As it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a whole community to keep a student in college. Parental encouragement is crucial and this is something that my parents have always given to me, even if they were never taught how to do that from their own parents. I was truly very fortunate that my parents had the means to help me financially. Additionally, it also takes positive mentorship and a visible space where the Laotian youth can see someone like them succeed academically. That example does not necessarily have to mean that that person is the best or the brightest. It doesn’t always means that the Laotian person has a degree from an ivy league universit. It can be someone that embodies a growth mindset, an excellent work ethic (which I think is something Laotians are quite good at!), and courage in the face of adversity. It’s about learning not to be afraid of failure.
How would you describe your family’s support of you as you were growing up and beginning to take an interest in the arts and education?
Though we at times disagreed about my artistic endeavors, my parents have always made an attempt to understand what I was doing with my life. Even if they thought I was being frivolous and wasting time on my hobbies such as theatre and acting, I knew they were trying to understand in their own traditional way. There were moments of tension when I moved away to New York to explore the theatre world and it was tough that my parents could not immediately see the value in me just trying to explore this very American notion of “finding myself.” I failed many times before I learned the meaning of truly fulfilling work. For them, I think they saw the struggling artist life as something that was just not sustainable, and in a lot of ways, their practicality had a point. I became tired of it all and eventually grew out of that world.
Teaching was something they could understand. You went into work, got paid for it, and you were teaching students. They saw it as something that made more sense than studying acting methods, working in different mediums, and jumping from one paid gig to the next.
How did you develop a love for literature? And has that fit in well with your love of travel?
My love of literature actually began in school. Fancy that! I can remember being a voracious reader from a very young age. I relished in words and their power, and literature and books have shaped a huge part of my identity. Whether it was drinking up a beautiful passage, relating to words in a poem, feeling empathy with the emotional plight of characters in a narrative, I felt the most alive when I read. I understood the world around me from what I read in books.
That sustained love has most definitely has fit into my love of travel. It was a classic called The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett that ignited my love for England and eventually, my fondness for British literature. It was through reading Wuthering Heights that I learned what doomed love looked like. I took pleasure in the drama of it all—the stormy characters and the bleak Yorkshire landscape. The Bronte sisters were women who wrote some of literature’s greatest themes that could transfer to anyone anywhere. And I haven’t even started on the Romantic Poets yet! Ha!
Nonetheless, all of these passions propelled me to take my very first trip to England when I was 19 years old. I wanted to see the Yorkshire moors where Mary Lennox ran and the place where the forlorn landscape of Wuthering Heights took place. These travel endeavors showed me that I wore traveling well and I fell madly in love with seeing the world.
I know that so many times in my life, I have wanted to go somewhere because it was something I had read about in a book. Books made me curious about the world and it also helped me understand the many faceted sides of human nature. It created in me a love for different cultures and perspectives.
What was the hardest poem for you to write so far, and when are you most satisfied with a poem?
The hardest poem for me to write was a poem I wrote about 2 years ago called “Darjeeling.” In full disclosure, it was a very confessional poem and about my own personal retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. I was so frustrated with it because the experience was too close to me, and yet I felt that somehow the poem also took a life of its own. It was difficult to write about that memory in a physical form. It would sometimes feel mawkish to me. Emotionally, I was experiencing quite a bit– the fatal illness of my grandmother, the grief of an ended relationship, and trying to navigate my first year of teaching.
The poem kept feeling like a narrative though I wanted it to be in a more clipped form. I was trying to fit into the poem the immense joy of visiting India and also trying to capture the huge loneliness I was also feeling at the same time. There was just a whole lot going on in the poem, and it was challenging to keep it to a few words.
I don’t have a surefire method I use as an indicator that I am finally satisfied or finished with a poem. I just use my instincts. Sometimes I would go back to a poem years later, maybe switch around certain words and play with punctuation, but the heart and theme of my poems usually remain the same.
How do you balance it all?
Quite frankly, I think the word balance is boring. Balance is a lot of hocus pocus talk. When you give yourselves fully to one thing, another thing is going to be off balance. I’m not a believer in having it all and I think priorities can shift at different periods in life.
I do, however, try to remain healthy mentally and physically. What helps me do this is a regular yoga practice. I’ve finally accepted that I am a person that gives herself fully to something that she loves. When I do this, I may not see as many friends, be able to go out and socialize a whole lot, and it also means I have to be mindful of cultivating valuable relationships in my life.
Rest is a big part of my life mantra. I have to take time to reflect, breathe, and just be. Even if it’s just for 5 or 10 minutes daily. As a teacher in an inner city school who teaches both English and EL (ESL), I have to be careful that I do not let the sheer exhaustion and emotional drain get to me. Another thing I’ve learned is to say NO, even to the good things. It’s about ordering my passions and knowing my own limitations. I absolutely cannot lose sight of that.
What’s your next big project for yourself?
My next big (which I am not sure I can even call big) project is just reworking old poems and having them published together in one volume.
What’s your advice for emerging artists and teachers who want to follow in your footsteps?
Please don’t laugh but I am going to quote Rumi:
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”
Personally, what has worked for me is just trying out all my passions without fear. My advice would be to really know oneself and then to work outward from that. Take on the challenge of letting failure shape you and try something that may not have huge monetary gains. What I have been discovering more and more is true acceptance of my own capabilities, even limitations, and also taking advantage of my talents– there is power in that. There is power in realizing who one really is and then going out into the world to share that goodness with others. Sometimes, you may have to try out different masks, outgrow a few, and then one day, when you arrive to that place of recognition, you can say to yourself, “This is work worth fighting for. This is who I am.”
-Bryan Thao Worra, firstname.lastname@example.org