To kick off the beginning of the symposium on 40 years of Lao journeys in America, some of the Lao diaspora attending submitted their work. Today, we’re serving you some poetry by writer and teacher, Kanya Lai, who will be joining other writers, artists and community builders in Minneapolis this weekend.
Kanya Lai is an English teacher at Nashville School of the Arts, which is a fitting job for a person whose loves are the arts, education, and literature. She spends her summers traveling to exciting locales, where she usually volunteers in underprivileged schools and/or orphanages. Some of her favorite things are coffee, classical music, fashion, and yoga.
By Kanya Lai
The first moment of peace,
before the sweat creeps onto my skin,
is my daily search for a rickshaw
at 6:30 am.
The serenity ends there.
I am quickly seduced by India’s chaos and noise. I welcome it, for it matched the state of my heart: unsettled, grasping, and still desiring.
Just last night, I gawked at how this very street looked like a night circus. Without the nighttime magic and miscellaneous lights, it has transformed into a shabby, unexciting road.
As I slept, bustling conversations in Hindi tongues, chants hollered and aimed at the sky,
and pounding drums snaked its ways through the window and into my restless ears.
The tiny white fan above me whirs while I twist and turn. It’s hot and I can’t sleep.
In the morning, I am met by the dry, stale wind
muffled with Indian spices, rust, chai, and fire burning.
I climb into the rickshaw and notice
how dark and scrawny the driver’s legs are.
I point, make hand motions, tell him directions in English, and try not to look like an animated street clown as my orange balloon pants blow in the direction of the wind.
Unlike the cabbie, he does not scam me for my foreign money.
It’s always 20 rupees to be dropped off at the green mosque at the corner of the neighborhood, where I will hail a cab into the center of town.
We careen in and out of narrow streets with new condos, replete with multi-colored shingles, lined next to stone huts and corrugated roofs.
Buckets of water outlined the older shacks.
Flashes of a red cotton sari whirl by and nameless store owners set up shop.
The sound of wheels turning a triumph. I am going somewhere.
There are small children in uniform, women clad in their hijabs, and men with bare chests wearing nothing but sarongs.
I cross my fingers and hope the non-English speaking cab driver I get that day understands me when I say, “Mother Teresa house, please.”
By Kanya Lai
At the hill station of Darjeeling,
I await the vast expanse
wide open before me.
Of mountains, heights, and soaring.
I clasp the thrill by my fingertips,
and pondered the possibility of letting go.
The fog meanders in and out,
making vaporous shapes over the foothills of the Himalayas.
The driver shut his door and drove upward. I feared falling. I feared oblivion.
But we kept climbing higher and higher. I came here for this.
To be as close
to the skies as I had never been before.
The air cools
underneath me, pulls
while the India below
quickly fades away.
I’m stilled by the quiet.
Into the mountainous heights
I go up,
still searching for
peace and light.
It is dusk when I arrive.
“Where are the mountains?” I demanded of the hotel concierge Nyima
at Shangri-La Residency.
“I don’t see the mountains outside of my window.”
All I could see from my room on the 3rd floor was hazy fog
and one silhouette of a human being
on the balcony across from mine.
He smiles at me tentatively. “You are in the mountains.
This is monsoon season, miss.”
“Oh,” I croaked.
My Rajasthani slippers pitter -pattered sullenly back to my room.
A flash of bright orange, blue, and green gliding across dark, cherry wood.
All the wild colors of India.
I like the sound they make as I walk, announcing my arrival.
I turned on the tv, which was in a language I could not understand,
drank my tenth cup of Darjeeling tea,
and watched the dim light turn to dark.
My room had a persisting, damp chill.
I was hungry.
I pittered-pattered back down the steps to Nyima, who was now watching Ramayana cartoons on the TV.
“Nyima, what should I do tomorrow?”
I lean my elbows on the counter excitedly, like a child in anticipation of something great.
“Well, there are the 8 points.
Happy Valley Tea Estate, the Japanese Temple.
You can go to The Himalayan Institute… and the “joo.”
“Huh? The what? Joo?”
“Yes, the joo is close to the mountaineering institute.”
“What is the joo?”
“The joo, where the animals live. You can see Bengal tiger there.”
My fits of giggles may have woken up the whole establishment.
My first night went like so. Walking up and down the stairs for tea,
for dinner orders, and to question Nyima about how to get around town.
This is what happens, I say to myself, when you travel alone. You can’t even walk outside to eat dinner on your own.
Alone, there are comforts that find you in the unfamiliar. All that transpired around me were just the
the damp wooden interiors of my room,
the intricate noise in the daily lives of the hotel workers,
accepting the rain,
letting the distinct blend of Darjeeling tea linger on my tongue,
both bitter and sweet,
listening to my own loneliness,
befriending my only company, haunting Nepalese music, while I eat,
letting the rain crawl upon the wrong shoes,
hugging myself against the chilly weather,
observing strangers around me
talking to each other in the European-style cafe.
Want to contribute to the ongoing literary festival this week? Tweet us @littlelaos #Lao40 #BeLaod or email one hi-res photo, brief bio, and words under 500 words to firstname.lastname@example.org.