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Tai Not Thai, Laotian not “the Ocean”

May 7, 2021

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I wish I could say there was a time in my childhood when I did not feel ashamed to be Asian. I wish I could take back the things I used to say about being Asian. The thing I wish the most, though, is that I could go back and tell the little girl I once was that being Asian is a strength, not a weakness.

My family’s home was destroyed many years ago. According to the Des Moines Register article, Iowa is Capital of Tai Dam Free World, “Exactly 60 years ago in Southeast Asia, an infamous battle called “Battle of Dien Bien Phu” also decimated the indigenous Tai (Tai Dam) people…Unlike the Cambodians, a miracle has not happened [in their homeland] for the Tai Dam.” There are roughly one million of us in the world, but no one knows how many are left in the homeland. Because of this battle, which took place in Northwest Vietnam, my father’s family fled to Laos where he would later be born. Then, the Secret War in Laos happened, displacing both of my parents’ families and bringing them both to the United States, where I would be born into a world of whiteness.

When you grow up in a predominantly white neighborhood, go to a predominantly white school and have mostly white friends, you get trapped in a bubble of white people. You want to assimilate, you do not want to be different, to be the outcast. Yet, that was exactly what I was. People called me names and asked me questions with answers that could never satisfy them. I felt alone.

The c-word is a word that is no stranger to me. It has followed me to many places I’ve gone. I’ve been called it, one of my sisters has and my parents have. Most young children do not know that word, though. Instead, they use words like “small eyes” or assumed my ethnicity and mocked, “Ching chong.” I hated being Asian outside of my house. I hated walking into the bubble of white people, into the bubble of harsh words and hatred. I had faced them all of my life. Children are curious but they can also be mean. Even my friends would sooner or later join them.

It was not just the names that got to me; it was also the questions. I did not mind answering questions, but my answers could never satiate the prejudiced, curious minds that belonged to the people that asked them. If they asked, “Where are you from?” I would answer, “I’m from Des Moines. I was born here.” Most of the time, their face would twist a little before they ask, “No, where are you from? You know.” Before I understood what the question meant, I would keep answering Des Moines until they got annoyed and walked away. It took time before I understood that they were asking what kind of Asian I am. After a while, I would tell them, “My parents are refugees from Laos and Thailand.” That answer, while not completely accurate, satisfied them for a time. As I got older, though, I was met with a different response.

Instead of being satisfied with the response of where my parents are from, they would keep going with the questions and comments. What followed my answers would be, “Oh! I thought you were Chinese!” Or, “Oh, really? You look Korean to me! Are you sure you’re not Korean? Wait, you’re a little tanner. Of course, you’re not Korean. You’re too dark!” There were even people who said, “You’re from the ocean? What ocean?” These are true statements I have heard from adults and children alike. They still hurt all the same. For some reason, they still asked me to speak Chinese to them or Korean. “Say something in Chinese!” they would say. I later decided to learn Mandarin Chinese and Korean (mainly out of spite, but also) so that I could finally satisfy the crowd of people who asked. I was just tired of the questions. 

All of the questions, names and comments made me afraid to be Asian. I hated going outside of my house of Asian people into a bubble of white people. I was frustrated with the fact that I am not a “normal” Asian. I am not Chinese, Japanese or Korean. I am Tai Dam, an ethnic group whose homeland was destroyed during the Vietnam war. I am Laotian, from a country that had 270 million bombs dropped on it during the Vietnam and Indochinese war. It took me far too long to be proud that I am a part of a group of warriors and survivors. I am a daughter of refugees. I am the granddaughter of prisoners of war and a former government liaison for the Laotian government wanted by the CIA. I have the blood of fighters running through my veins. I did not see it until someone showed it to me.

Former Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray used to tell me to be proud of my ethnicity. In all honesty, I hardly ever listened. He was the man who advocated bringing 80% of my people to Iowa and was close with my father’s family. I had known him since I was a baby. He always made a point to remind me that it was not the words of other people that made me who I was, but the things I chose to do and be. A loud reminder always rang in my ears: I am never alone. His words echoed in my ears for so long, even when I visited him in the retirement home. He hardly remembered me but I would never forget him or his words.

Furthermore, I am not alone. Tess Gerritsen, a bestselling author, wrote “I’m Asian-American, and I was the only Chinese girl growing up in a white school in San Diego. So I understood what it was like to be different, to always want to fit in and never feel like you ever could.” It took me far too long to realize that I was never meant to fit in, although that used to be my biggest wish. I am too different to ever fit in, and I do not want to anymore. 

I am finally able to say that I am proud to be Asian. I am proud of my ethnicities. It is Laotian, not “the ocean”. It’s Tai, not Thai. Not all Vietnamese people are communists, and the fact that I am not fully one of any of these does not make me any less one of them. 

The c-word, g-word, racist names and comments no longer get to me. This Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, I will stand tall with the rest of my Asian brothers and sisters. I am proud to be Tai Dam, Laotian and Vietnamese. No matter what happens, I will always have my Asian pride.

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    Matthew BlumbergMay 10, 2021 at 9:03 AM

    Serenity, simply put, you are awesome! Without your leadership this year we wouldn’t be nearly as strong, steady, and the class wouldn’t be producing the best yearbook this school has ever seen.

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