Where #ImFrom: A secret war

By Haylee Thikeo

You ask me, “Where are you from?” and begin guessing with China and Korea. After going through a list of Asian countries, you somehow end up at Hawaii. In a desperate attempt, you tell me I look Hawaiian to try to prove you know me.

Haylee with her grandmother and great grandmother in Boston, MA. (Photo courtesy of the author)

But you don’t know me. You don’t know my history. I’m not here to accept what you think is a compliment about my “exotic features” when you’re really trying to otherize me.

I am a product of a secret war. A time when the United States decided to use Laos as a pawn during the Vietnam War and dropped over 200 million cluster bombs over my parents’ homeland. Over the course of 10 years, cluster bombs rained every day, making Laos the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history.

But no one talks about it. Except for the people who were there. You know of Korea, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan. But when will you know Laos?

It’s the land of a million elephants, a rich history derived from the beautiful Kingdom of Lan Xang. Laos is magical, full of culture, buddhist traditions, art and life. Her beauty has been taken for granted so many times, first by the hands of colonial imperialists and then by American warlords. Today, her scars are the 80 million unexploded bombs and remnants of war buried in her soil. She’s hurting, and parts of her can never heal.

If the U.S. took more than 20 years to finally begin cleaning up the dangerous remnants, how can you possibly know where I’m from in the 20 seconds it takes to ask me that dreaded question?

Is it because you had the privilege to backpack through it? You got to drink your way on a floating tube down the river from Vang Vieng. You got to sit on an elephant and take selfies with the buddhist monks in Luang Prabang during a traditional Thuk Bhaat ceremony. Do these activities mean you know me? You can turn my parents’ country into a playground, but you can’t play me.

Haylee as a newborn baby with her family in Boston, MA, five years before the birth of her brother. (Photo courtesy of the author)

You don’t know that where your tour boat glides through the Mekong River is also where my dad lost his youngest brother as the cops shot at him and his family for escaping the re-education camp.

You don’t know that in markets of Pakse, where you tried to haggle a few pennies from the locals, my mother stayed for 12-hour days, trying to sell vegetables. She had dropped out of school during 7th grade to help her mother and grandmother make ends meet.

You don’t know that across the river is Thailand, which today is a party destination for you, but for my parents, refuge. Many people lost their lives trying to swim to the refugee camps in Thailand.

You can’t know that I grew up in a city where my safety depended on telling gangs apart by color, avoiding certain clothes on certain streets and not looking too long at someone. A city where street smarts meant survival and book smarts meant privilege.

You can’t know that I grew up watching my parents eat eggs and rice for dinner because they wanted my brother and me to have the American Happy Meal from the symbolic golden arches. They wanted us to eat like Americans and taste the American dream.

You can’t know that I grew up responsible not only for my parents’ hopes and dreams, but the dreams they carried of those left behind in the homeland. If it wasn’t for my friends, helping me through some pretty dark thoughts, I wouldn’t be here right now sharing my story with you.

This is part of a series called #ImFrom, where members of the AJ+ community share personal stories about the question, “Where are you from?”