Dear Aunties and Uncles:
I now know the purpose you served…
For years, growing up, it was never properly explained to me. Perhaps my parents lacked the words I would understand. Perhaps it was more than that. Because of that communication gap, I genuinely believed that everyone my mom and dad introduced me to, was my blood relative. That meant that when I went to my American grade school and people asked me about my family, I inadvertently lied. “I’m the youngest of 8. I know, big family. Both of my parents have like 13 brothers and sisters each. I haven’t even met all of them! Well, some died in the war, of course. I never knew my grandparents.”
I guess I should be happy I grew up in a state surrounded by Mormons and Catholics. Big families weren’t anything new to them. But, for the skeptical others that dared to question my authenticity? I was sure self-righteous in my defense of my village-like family!
At a certain point, I reached an age where I started questioning the insane number of aunts and uncles I had and why some didn’t seem to even know of my existence. My parents altered their answer only slightly. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that this auntie or that uncle wasn’t blood-related. They were family. I was to treat them the same way I would any of my other aunts and uncles. All the aunties and uncles in front of me were as real as any I could ever have. While they understood my curiosity, they also pointed out that it was very disrespectful to accuse my elders of being fake. Say what, mama?! Are you telling me that woman that seems to always glare at me is someone I should respect? What about the one I heard say something mean? Or the one that laughed at my ripped shoes? Sure, there were some nice aunties and uncles, too. In the end, it was all so inconsistent.
I didn’t understand the criteria being used.
Still, I was that kid. I persisted. Every single time a new person was introduced to me, I staunchly asked if this was a real one or a fake one, like one of the many others I’d met throughout my childhood. In time, they learned to apologize for me to this auntie or that uncle, and they would answer me honestly. When we took a trip down to Texas and Kansas; I finally got to meet my real blood aunts and uncles, some great aunts and great uncles, and various cousins from my mom’s side. It felt like I’d finally arrived. For so long, I’d wanted to know what that was like and to know who they were, what they looked like, and maybe…find me in them. Maybe that’s all I needed to feel less lost. I wanted the American and biological concept that I was being taught, not the peripheral people that were always there.
Strangely enough, last month, while driving my mom to Seattle on errands we started reminiscing about the past. I was a painfully shy child in group settings (with wit reserved only for those close to me), far too aware of my differences everywhere, and unable to bridge the gap between the two worlds I resided in. It always felt like a decision had to be made of: being Lao or American, of being respectful or free, of being some version of me here and that version of me there. I didn’t like losing, so making a choice was nearly unfathomable. Especially in a game with rules I couldn’t decipher. Welcome to the diaspora, huh? So I bided my time in purgatory until I could figure out a solution. I had a childhood friend whose siblings were close in age to mine. We all lived about a 4-hour drive from Seattle, in Eastern Washington. My mom carpooled daily to work, with his parents. It wasn’t to save the environment. Cars were a luxury. Thank god seatbelt rules didn’t apply to refugees. When my friend had an accident at school, it was my dad that picked us both up from school, because it was our number his family used for emergencies. He and his parents were not the only people we’d work together with in this new world to survive, and our story is not the only story, within the community, that hearkened back to this model of family.
It all felt like a puzzle. I was missing something simple. A pattern not quite replicable despite similarity between different Asian cultures. Some pieces gently floated into the atmosphere around me while other pieces kept slamming aggressively into my face. Never that item I needed to connect the dots, though. In college, I learned that the Filipino culture also used the “Uncle/Auntie” forms of respect. After a visit to Singapore, I learned to call my brother-in-law’s parents “Auntie” and “Uncle” as well. These, and other revelations created a more complete picture of an overall Asian approach to family, but it didn’t seem to sing with the same feeling as what I’d been educated with among my own people. Lao people. It still felt different. While our cultures intersected in using it as a term of respect for all elders in the community, Lao culture takes it further, the core of which was tied deeply to our history.
The community we knew was made up of many different tribes located in a small, landlocked country. Our community, forged through: ongoing contention and disputes with neighbors, once upon a time under colonial rule, decimated by civil war, then hosting a war it seems we never should have lost; just couldn’t seem to find footing in the once fragrant earth, that grew our beloved khao niew. All that’s left to the remaining survivors is a land rife with ordnance scattered and left all over the country to explode at will. So many of those families lost relatives, who would once have fulfilled particular social roles our customs and traditions call for, during that Secret War. Events like funerals, weddings, births, education, job connections, or other rites of passage. Our community worked more closely than even our neighbors; and the Lao folks furthest from the more civilized cities, showed even more ingenuity and sacrifice. More than the rest of us would even fathom when they continually chose to champion the brightest child in the village.
What does all of this have to do with all my faux “aunties” and “uncles” you ask? It’s simple once the pieces fall into place. Not only has our culture, especially those numerous folks that live in the countryside, relied on the social construct of “it takes a whole village” but it, in part, applies to how we view these elders of our communities. We were all in it together. Buddhist ideals emphasize the importance of community, and seeing our mutual interest in helping one another make it through a difficult world is what we lived and breathed. It was never the backbiting and selfish ideals that war and fear assaulted our communities with. It was never a community meant to splinter into irreparable shards scattered about new worlds, new rules, and a resultant diaspora that created new versions of how a community could devolve. If we let it. So I choose to keep close the aunties and uncles that tried their best despite incomprehensible odds. I like to remember that glaring auntie that gave me one of my first feminist lessons or the gossiping auntie that yelled at anyone daring to mock my torn shoes because she knew they were the best ones to be had in the village. Those are the parts I choose to focus on.
I haven’t seen my childhood friend since I moved from that city in the middle of second grade to a city just across the river. Seems strange, I know. I heard about him once or twice through the years, but we never reconnected. On our last day in Seattle, Sunday, the day after reminiscing about his family together with my mom, we were sitting at our 2nd choice lunch spot (the first having too long a wait). My mom got up to go to the bakery next door while we waited for our food to arrive. About 10 minutes later, I see her with 3 other aunties in tow. My brother remarks that our mom has run into people from our old hometown. I make a joke about how he could possibly know such a specific thing when I didn’t recognize any of the faces. My brother just sits smug. My mom excitedly reintroduces everyone by their first name. Some of the aunties clearly knew I didn’t recognize any of them and remarked on it. One excitedly asked if I remembered her. I politely said no. My mom bursts in and says, it’s your old friend’s mom! The one we were just discussing yesterday! Count me creeped out. Regardless, she sat next to me at lunch and I had a chance to reconnect a little and pour her some tea. It was slightly awkward and very much rewarding.
So, to all my faux aunts and uncles…I get your place in our history now. I understand how relevant you really are. I also hope that you can forgive the ignorance of a child torn between two worlds, trying to make sense and connect both worlds through inconsistent dots…and dashes. Nevertheless…
Kop chai. Kop chai, eelee.
P.S. There’s this old picture we have, a black and white. A man in white military uniform and his wife. Last night, I’m watching the Olympics with my mom. We just solidified plans to take out one of my oldest living relative for lunch (we call him Pa-tu) this coming weekend. She says Pa-tu mentioned how beautiful my grandmother was and she says she wishes she had a photo to show me. I looked over at my mom like she was crazy and mention the picture we have that hangs on the wall, the black and white of the man in uniform and his wife. Apparently, the photo I’ve always thought were my grandparents, are instead–my grandfather’s brother and his wife. #micdrop
—Saysomphorn Sisavatdy, firstname.lastname@example.org