We’re on a long road, navigating low hills and wet fields, when I finally hear my beloved uncle’s story. The end of the road is Luang Prabang for a business trip. With my life in Laos coming to a close and acceptance finally hitting me, my emotions decide to dance erratically between an Olympic sprint and some major marathon. Upheaval and migration does that, I guess. Three years of turbulence and injustice gush out of me, pouring out in a sloppy, slushy rant. My uncle continues to drive. He stays quiet for a time before turning to me and, with a steady look, begins to tell me about his humble beginnings.
“Listen kid, you ain’t got it so bad and you’re going to realize that one day.”
Those simple words coupled with that calm gaze of his settles my electric youth down, immediately.
“I was born down south, the second son to a Jek (Chinese) mother and a Keo (Vietnamese) father. They were dirt poor immigrants who came here with nothing. My dad somehow got himself killed while I was still in the womb. My mom followed him a year after I was born due to some illness. It was rough back then because of the prejudice Lao people held towards us immigrants.”
I snap out of my self-piteous episode and listen to his story, intently. I’ve always known he’s had a rough past but was never quite sure what it was.
“After my parents died, my brother and me became penniless orphans. We were in luck though, my parents’ friends sent us up north to live with someone that would take us in.”
“The kind couple who took us in did their best to take care of us, but they were also only poor farmers. We lived off a few crumbs of salt sprinkled on sticky rice a day. Rice was rationed at the time so some days we went without. The rice we managed to produce, at the time, was sent to Vietnam and what was left was scrap that they deemed unfit for the Vietnamese to consume.”
“I knew from an early age that the only way I could improve my situation was through education. It was rough from the beginning, always on the edge of starvation, but I never gave up. My brother on the other hand, didn’t do so well. He gave school a try, but it didn’t work out. His empty stomach was higher on his list of priorities than math and the alphabet. He went straight to work, as soon as he was able, to put food on the table and put me through school.”
Staring out of the window as we glide through the wild, free wetlands of Laos, I can see my uncle more clearly than I ever have. I see the young skinny boy with dark eyes wearing battered, secondhand rags; with nothing, not even the faces of his father and mother to shine a light. Nothing to lose and so much to gain. I imagine he must have seen it on a day the sky was a crisp blue and the wind was but a breeze; at least the shadow of it, the man he could become.
“Eventually, I graduated with a civil engineering degree from the National University. I made it, against all odds. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I was so hard up that when me and a couple of my friends were able to share one boiled egg, we considered it a feast!” He chuckles after telling me this. I can tell as he’s looking at the distant road ahead he is lost to memories. Looking at him now, you would never guess at the struggles of yesterday he had to overcome to be who he is today.
After graduating college, he landed himself a job at a construction firm, starting from the bottom of the ladder. Just as he was getting his feet on the ground, he met my aunt and they fell in love. Armed with nothing but his love and honest intent, my uncle, a poor orphan with no family or status, wished to marry my aunt. Now, in the Lao culture; family bearing, wealth, and future prospects are all considered when it comes to marriages. Families are very particular about this. Though it is not as tough now; back then, it was a different time and another matter. A friend of mine in Laos told me once, when two people fall in love, sadly, it’s not just between them.
“Your father never liked me from the beginning, and he still probably doesn’t like me now. Your father was scared that I was only marrying your aunt to rise up the social ladder and that my intent was to exploit a portion of your family’s fortune entitled to your aunt.” My father’s nature has always been to overthink things. I turn to look at my uncle, I can see behind his smiling eyes the pain and sadness hidden underneath. “I wish things could have turned out different and that your father understood me from the beginning. Nonetheless, I still love and respect him as family, no matter what he might think of me. I just want you to know that, kid.”
In the end, love won. My uncle and aunt got married. Still, the enmity my father has held against the match stays strong. Over the years, in his drunken stupors, he’s never failed to remind my uncle of what he was; a poor orphan who came from nothing. A little piece of me still hopes that my father will one day untangle himself from the web of unfound hate and loathing enveloping him and see my uncle for who he really is.
Growing up, I only knew the soft-spoken and reserved man who helped my aunt take care of me everyday after coming home from work. I know the honest man whose soul cuts cool and clean as clear ice. Everytime I see or think of my uncle, I see a man whose steadfast morals guide his conduct unerringly down the right path, no matter its difficulty. That arrow points in the right direction as strongly as the ground it was forged from.
For years, my uncle has labored, waiting and preparing for the right opportunity. After years of accumulating experience, credibility, connections, and savings, he took the plunge and started his own company. Currently, my aunt and uncle own and operate a company specializing in road markers and traffic signs. It’s a modest company, employing around 15 full-time staff, but continuously growing, nonetheless. They own their home and live happily together with their three children. He’s a good husband, an honest man, a fair boss, and a loving father; all things I strive to become one day.
“The world is not such a dark and hopeless place, kid. There is always a way out no matter how bleak it may seem. There is always a light at the end. You might not realize that now but when you do, it will stay with you forever. I learned long ago that it helps to just focus on the fight. The weight of the world won’t weigh you down if you forget that it’s there. Look at me, I’m doing okay. If you had seen me back then, you would never have guessed that I’d make it this far, so chin up. You got a hard fight ahead of you, but you’ll be okay.”
We both become quiet, lost in our own thoughts; my uncle thinking of the hard fight he has been fighting since his beginning so long ago, and me, fired up and excited for my own fight ahead of me. Whenever I feel like life is beating me down, I think of my uncle and I know that I’m not alone in this fight of mine. I’m walking the path that better men than me have traversed before. It really seems to be the case, that, when you have nothing but the earth beneath your feet, you own the world.
By the time we reach Luang Prabang, my emotions are steady but raw. My uncle’s story gives me hope that an impoverished orphan can become a great and respectable man, creating value for his family, the staff that relies on him, with time to spare for an impulsive nephew. My uncle: an inspiration and my secret source of strength. I hope that one day I can be half the man he is.