One of my most favorite childhood memories were the nights I got to sleep with my “Gux Taaix” (great grandmother). I would curl up in her full-sized bed, tuck my little body in right next to her, pull the covers up above my ears, and ask if she was ready to “gorngv gouv” or story tell. She almost always said yes. What I remember most in those moments, was how these stories; more like fairy tales, made me feel. My highly active child imagination craved the comfort and familiarity of her voice but even further, I admired her ability to captivate me with nothing but her spoken words. As I grew older, I began to realize that this remarkable talent she had was not just specific to her, but something that was a result of years of tradition, something that is also inherent within me.
Iu Mien and Khmu people have always carried our stories with us. In some ways, it’s hard not to feel that these stories are only small pieces informing a much larger picture; our plight as peoples native to lands that no longer recognize us, whose histories have been overshadowed by narratives that were never ours to begin with, who have survived centuries under systems built to erase us. Our words, our voices, our stories are what remind us of who we are, especially in moments where we are pushed and pressured to forget. Sharing our stories connects us. They bring us together and remind us that we are not alone.
Very recently, a good friend of mine reached out to me with exciting news. She told me she met a man, a fellow staff member at her work retreat who shared his story as a refugee of the Secret War in Laos. His story moved her so much, she decided to approach him during their break to chat more about his experiences and as they continued their conversation, he mentioned that his people were indigenous to Laos. Immediately she asked him, “Are you Khmu?”, to which he responded, “Yes, how did you know?” “Because my friend, Janit is Khmu too,” she said.
As she shared her encounter with me, I couldn’t help but notice the proceeding flood of emotions I experienced. Feelings of curiosity, excitement, safety, but most of all, so much joy. I thought to myself, “Wow. We found each other.” I wondered if these were the same feelings my family felt when they were finally reunited with their people after escaping the war. In my experience, coincidentally crossing paths with another Khmu person very rarely happens. Two of many reasons being because of our small population and also as a direct result of erasure. So I said a little thank-you to my ancestors for blessing him and me both with the gifts of courage and resilience, and the dedication to storytelling, all of which led us to the knowledge of one another.
These encounters have been happening more frequently lately, bringing me to cross paths and create connections with more Iu Mien, Khmu and Southeast Asian folks in my life, now more than ever before. The world is listening and remembering who we are. WE are listening and remembering who we are. I can only attribute it to my peoples’ undying dedication to ourselves and each other.
For me, storytelling has and always will be an inherent form of resistance; a way for me to bring myself, my people, my ancestors all into a room with me. It is an evolving tradition, one that has been passed down yet continues to transform as we unceasingly return to it, generation after generation. In the ways of our people, we are still telling our stories through song, through performance, through craft. We are also adopting new ways of storytelling, such as social media and through platforms such as this. But regardless of the method, I hope that we always return to it. For remembrance, for resistance, for revolution: let the sounds of our voices as we share the stories of our people lead the way.
—Janit Von Saechao, email@example.com