I knew in my heart something was different about me when I started first grade. I don’t remember kindergarten, because I went to school in my neighborhood in Sacramento. My life is complicated, but basically my mother remarried when I was 5. We relocated to Tupelo, Mississippi. I spent alternating years in Sacramento and Tupelo. My first day of 1st grade, I wore Jordans and didn’t know the alphabet. When I knew the answer I rarely raised my hand, because I knew every answer. I wanted to give the other kids a chance to talk. Every teacher thought I was a mute and tutored me for five hours after school. Race relations was strange, because no one in my school knew what Lao was. They didn’t know how we are born of the land and are reflections of the land. I didn’t understand why my classmates didn’t share food like me. My mother is a survivor and she taught me to fight back no matter the circumstances. Everyone was appalled at school when I beat up girls or boys. I also ate flowers and fruits I found.
I’d look at pizza restaurant workers talk to my grandpa and I wonder if they see what I see. I wonder if they can see how many people my grandfather killed. Do they realize they are talking to an orphan, head monk, and general in one? My grandfather rejected tradition and modern society, because he was a child of the jungle and a child of the slums. I never realized the silence in his life until I grew older. People cannot even imagine how his life was like due to it being different from anything written or orally recorded. I felt this silence more and more in my own life as I aged.
Lao means human. I was raised Lao. I was raised to think for myself and question tradition and modern society. I realized I belonged to a half in my community who consider themselves Lao In America. We choose to do good without even pondering if it goes against traditional rules or U.S. laws. With good reason I will never have to struggle with my own actions. We do not have hope in our culture. We do not hope, because we believe in action. Hope doesn’t work towards a goal. I’ve never had hope in my life. I’ve stayed committed.
My life as a Southeast Asian male is common, but others are unable to imagine what it is like. I’m in the life at the same time in the context of Lao culture. Lao people are of the land. I was born in a land of concrete and asphalt. One thing I can speak of is the traditional clothes.
When I was young before I grew into what I am, I remember visiting the temple every Sunday. The temple for us isn’t about religion. We welcome all peoples and cultures to worship and come to our temple. It is more of a community center. We would pray all day and also run around outside. We played with water and watched traditional plays. We learned to play traditional instruments and dance. Sometimes we became monks at the request of our families. The younger generations usually wear street clothes. A majority wear traditional clothes though. A need item is a embroidered sash. Women usually wear shirts now, but some choose to wear bigger sashes horizontal across their chests. Women usually wear an embroidered skirt called a sinh. Males wear a sinh of shiny silk of one piece. It goes around a person one time then is straightened then twisted and pulled between the legs. It is held by a belt and accompanied by a french formal collared shirt. A more country item is a pah sa long. Pah sa longs are similar to female sinhs as one sheet stitched to a circle and folded to the body. It lacks embroidery and consists of simple patterns. At funerals, some men are cremated with their sinhs covering the coffin.
The production of our cultural clothing is different than the Ao Dai. As a community, we mostly never return to Laos. We do not keep in contact with the culture or our families in Laos. Truthfully, I believe it is due to our poverty. Our traditional clothes is acquired from peddlers who can afford to go to Laos and buy clothing. Many times items are custom made or produced by seamstresses in the garage of their homes. My grandma use to make clothing until she had arthritis. Leshkowich states, “So much of the ao dai’s cultural currency steams from its aura of supposed indigenous authenticity that too much discussion of the impact of foreign ideas, or even overseas Vietnamese tastes, might contaminate the article and threaten tailor’s and stallholder’s positions as its purveyors.” (105) Lao people are “sabai sabai”. It means a sense of peace and calmness. Most of the elders say it is the reason we are not ambitious. We are already at peace with everything in our lives. It reminds us we are humans first and everything is auxillary. My grandma says her creations weren’t about the money. It was art to her. With this ideal, I feel our sense of culture and tradition is rarely questioned. No one can tell us what is and what is not except ourselves.
Childhood friends turned into killers is what I see looking at traditional clothes. Two friends who I watched grow up in high school. Eating pho and playing at the park at a young age. They went in for a few years friday. A few have warrants and will eventually go in. Sometimes I think of our youth at the temple. I think of fishing at a young age. We will have our children wear traditional clothes. We will teach them from our rights and our wrongs. They will achieve in college. Our parents could only teach us to survive. We were never destined for college or a normal life, but maybe one day we can teach our children with our experience. Traditional clothing holds a place in the hearts of my generation. We still wear our pah sah longs even with stares at Walgreens for wearing a skirt.
Update on Compact Challenge:
I’ve been saving money not shopping at stores. Getting gas from a Quick Market. I broke and bought 3 packs of cigarettes this week. I’ve smoked a cigarrette every 30 minutes. It’s just the life in my community. I’m coping with something, but I don’t know what it is. There is so many things wrong in my past and present that I could go on for hours.
I remember watching Baby and it reminded me it was never what I wore. It was who I was and how I carried myself. Anyone can wear anything as long as they’re respected. The fashion of my community is an expression connected to the nature and the lives of the people of this land. It transcends only one community and is connected to the people who previously inhabited this area and those who inhabit surrounding areas. I’m trying to survive, so I haven’t thought about fashion as much. I think that’s how my parents feel also. Baby constantly changes his clothing and hair but it isn't what preoccupies his days.
Baby. Juwan Chung. Lionsgate. 2008. Film
Niessen, S. A., Ann Marie. Leshkowich, and Carla Jones. Re-orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress. Oxford: Berg, 2003. Print. 105.