How does one forget 30 years’ time? It happened to me. During a recent conversation, I realized that my family had been in the US for 30 years now, as of this winter. As of Thanksgiving, actually. I have no recollection of our arrival in America, which city we landed in, how long we waited in lines, or who met us at the airport. How strange it must have felt, scanning the metal and concrete buildings for something familiar: a scent of greenness, sun-warmed wood, broad brown faces and dark, tender eyes. Maybe my parents we listening for a few words they might understand. I have no memory of any of this. I imagine I was probably either fast asleep or crying. Crying in my sleep, perhaps.
What I know from others is that it was a very cold winter. There was already snow on the ground. Snow. The world must have unzipped itself in my parents’ minds when they stepped into the icy air outside. To grow up all your life in a tropical village you’ve never dreamed of leaving, then muck through the detritus of war to end up in a crowded refugee camp. So many bodies, so many lives on hold. And then to make the impossible decision: to leave, possibly forever. This haunts me when I think about it. The pain of making such a choice.
But soon we were flying like a bird through the air. And then landed at the noisy airport, some Americans coming towards us, trying to pronounce our names. And probably somebody bowed. And then perhaps someone said, “Sabaidee.” And a new life began. The world expanded all around us.
Our sponsors tried their best to teach us English, show us how to work the light switches, the faucets and toilets. The stove. They helped arrange jobs for my parents–a janitorial position for Dad, and a bakery job for Mom. They also gave us our first Christmas. I wish I remembered it. Perhaps someday it will all flood back. But for now, all I have is this newspaper photo of Dad with a box in his hand. I think the spine says “Monster Puzzle”. Maybe it’s for my brother or myself. My mother is letting Dad choose and open the gifts. My brother and I are on the floor, waiting for something. What? Our small tree is leaning under the weight of handmade ornaments. Hanspeter, one of our sponsors, leans in, elbow on the table.
I gather it was a joyous party, our family the honored guests. There was probably cider and cookies, nuts and cheese. Some coffee. I’m sure it exhausted us, and confounded us. We’d been in America for a month. We were the only Laotian refugees in Brattleboro, though that would soon change. And though we were far from our family, we’d found ourselves in a close group of people who seemed to love one another. They didn’t speak our language (except for a few) and they had no reason to love us.
I suppose that was the greatest gift we received. Love. Welcome. Hope. Kindness. A Future. All those new friends we’d made in the early 80’s were so generous. Beyond the gifts of clothes and toys. Beyond what we can touch. They gave us their hearts. I speak for my entire family when I say we are truly grateful.