Wichita is a city of 400,000 people in the heart of the Kansas plains. It is known as the air capital of the world and is the hub of giant manufacturers such as Boeing, Cessna, and Spirit. It is also home to a large Lao community that lives and works for these companies. Today, the Lao community is thriving with a brilliant new temple, restaurants, and markets. However, like most immigrant communities, there is an underdog culture with deep layers of crime and discrimination. Lao people were known as the ghetto people. In the news, when there was a gang related shooting, the shooter had a Lao last name and was the son of the family down the street. The girls would get pregnant at sixteen and the boys would go to jail. There was a low high school graduation rate. A college education seemed foreign when most ended up at the aircraft companies. My grandparents owned a Lao grocery store and restaurant, south of Hillside, so we knew everyone and their business. The mae thous, the Lao term for elder women, would come every day to get their groceries and gossip. I grew up in Wichita and when I had the chance, I moved as far away from my culture as possible. Little did I know that four years later, this community would give me the strength and support I needed.
It was six in the morning when I received a text from Uncle Air. It said, “Uncle Hum died in jail last night, police said it was a suicide.” There was no time for questions and no answers. No one believed the police but they knew not to ask any questions from experience. I went online and booked a trip to Kansas for the funeral. The whole time, I was thinking about how to break the bad news to my brother. He and Uncle Hum were close. Uncle Hum kept his school picture in his wallet.
When I arrived in Wichita, everything had changed. We had a brand new airport and a new house. I had thirty minutes to settle down before I had to face my family and the whole Lao community. According to Lao tradition, when someone dies, we have to throw a pre-funeral party at their house to honor them and gather donations. Usually it lasts for a week, but since his death was so sudden, we had a weekend. It is similar to sitting Shiva in the Jewish faith, but there is better food and a lighthearted celebration. I went to the backyard; it was just as I remembered it. Everything was dirty and broken down, the chickens were roaming around, and my uncle’s punching bag hung tattered and sideways. All the mae thous were in the kitchen cooking to literally feed our whole village. I could smell the funk of fish sauce and spices brewing for a coconut soup called kapun. There was Hennessey and Budweiser to soothe the loss of my uncle. It also helped the money flow as people gambled into the morning hours. Everyone was loud, drunk, and reminiscing about life. As people trickled in to give donations and prayers, I saw so many faces I recognized. They were wrinkled but still the same. They were all so happy to see me. The mae thous commented on my weight loss and how fat I was as a kid. Family, especially a Lao one, has no filter.
Every day was a rush and nothing felt real. I was running on four hours of sleep and strong coffee, making sure the flower arrangements were in place for the funeral. There was no time to mourn. Everyone was pressuring me to be the voice of the family because I spoke the most English. I was scheduled for an interview with the Wichita Eagle in between the flower shop and Kinkos. When I approached the house, both my uncles sat outside on the porch. “Is Mr. Potter here?” I asked. They nodded and pointed inside. When I opened the door Tim Potter, the reporter, was sitting there with my aunt while she translated the events leading up to my uncle’s death. The last clothes my uncle wore were laid out neatly in the middle of the floor. The bright orange prison jumpsuit was torn at random spots and stained with dark blood. The stiff form it once had was now depleted and wrinkled. His socks were dirty and soaked in even more dried blood. The jumpsuit had a dreadful glow in the grave scene of injustice. All I could see was Uncle Hum helplessly bleeding out on a cold prison floor alone and scared. This was no suicide. For the first time, I felt sick to my stomach with grief and regret.
Tim Potter looked at me and said, “Tilly, let’s start the interview.” My hands shook, but I tried to appear calm as my family gathered behind me crying, then I looked strait into the camera and spoke about the tragedy. My mind went blank with the silent sobs and heavy expectations. I could only hear my breath. I ended up regurgitating the script that I wrote on the ride over. After the interview, we viewed the body and there was no sign of a suicide. There was no bruising around the neck or wounds on the wrists that would pool that much blood. He had been beaten to death. They left him with a swollen black eye and a gash on his head. I held in my tears to help support the weight of my aunt. Her screams were piercing. The interview made it to the local news but I could not bear to watch it.
The morning of the funeral, I became a nun and my brother a monk. I wore all white and he shaved his head. We received the blessings from the monks to raise my uncle to heaven. The ceremony was beautiful. The funeral home was filled with colorful Lao decorations and prayer mats. Sun poured into the space illuminating the silver tins of water and flowers. The smell of the incense was intoxicating. As the monks were chanting, my legs and arms grew numb from the prayer position. I fell into a grateful trance as they repeated the last stanzas. When we poured the water to cleanse my uncle’s soul, I felt like I was washing the negativity away in my own life. They wore bright orange robes, the same color as his prison jumpsuit, but this time they were a force for good providing an eternal peace. The whole community showed up from young to old. There were not enough seats so people sat on the floor. When I gave my English speech, I looked out at all the people with pride and truly thanked them for their support. I could feel the love of the community and the strength they had given me. We all walked to the crematorium together holding onto the white strings that connected us to the casket. My grandma threw money wrapped in tin foil to bless the people who were still living. That was the first time I have ever seen her cry. A flow of tears ran down my face.
Finally, I was moved by my culture and appreciated the place I grew up. Before, I would not identify myself as part of the Lao community but now I am honored. Although our culture has some bad stereotypes, nothing compares to the compassion, strength, and hope that is shown by the people in this community. When times get tough, I know I have a whole community behind me. They are my people, my community, and my culture.
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