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Lao heritage and the emerging generation of culture-builders

I remembered Lao School like it was yesterday. Getting frustrated at how my stiff little fingers never bent gracefully during ‘fawning’. Crushing packages of Mama instant noodles for lunch and eating it like chips with my friends during class. Passing time with Lao ‘then yang’ (jump rope game) and always feeling too short to jump high enough. Lao heritage was part of my life growing up. I wanted to fit in being American so badly that I forgot how much I missed paying attention to my elders as a child.

Now, I remember more than ever. With every stroke of the Lao alphabet, every turn of my feet on the dance floor, and the intricate textile draped across my shoulders, I felt my grandmother’s aura. Smiling over me in pride. I think of how graceful she must have been as a child. And maybe how much her elders must have scorned her too.

My favorite summer memories were created at the Lao Assistance Center of MN, where we lived in the Harrison neighborhood of Northside Minneapolis.


We had elders who taught us the Lao language, women who showed us traditional dance, and men who played classical music.

Then it stopped. 20 years later, after funding ran out and our elders moved on to good-paying jobs or their health deteriorated, seeing cultural programs like today’s Lao Heritage Foundation (LHF) reminds me of what our heritage means to us as a generation. We were once lost and disconnected, trying to balance our west vs east culture clash. Today, there’s an emerging scene of culture-builders scrambling to hold on to the lost traditions from the past.

Without the arts, our history, identity and culture is always at risk of being forgotten and erased. It can be an afterthought, shuffled under America’s mainstream love of the latest pop sensation. Today’s youth get to choose which cultural pieces; traditional or modern, they want to connect and identify with. Our elders are teaching and sharing Lao arts to the youth in their basements because the space to do so is no longer supported. We should be up in arms about it.

With every passing generation, will our next generation have the chance to grow up with access to practicing Lao dance, music, and language? If we value and appreciate our history and the journeys of our ancestors, we have a responsibility to invest in it and preserve it.

We’re a village raising our children. We must nurture and encourage our youth to not only remember what yesterday was like, but why those who came before us matter, and what our identity means today. We can begin to understand the issues and progress that defines our community.

Thanks to our photographer, Alex Phasy, he took a trip over the weekend to LHF’s summer camp in Virginia to capture these moments of our Lao youth.

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-Chanida Potter


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