Finding ourselves through our elders

It was Laos, and the elders, that taught me that we create community and community creates us

Vlai Ly is a Hmong-American writer and photographer working in Sacramento. He wrote this essay while assisting SN&R with the USC Annenburg Center for Health Journalism’s 2018 California Fellowship.

My grandmother never talks about herself when I ask about her life in Laos. Instead, her stories always revolve around the people she loved. Her struggle was their struggle. Her triumph was their triumph. Her life was their life.

This was true for all the elders’ stories I’ve been fortunate enough to listen to, a truth that reveals to us that our lives are not our own—that we create community and community creates us.

I never understood this sentiment growing up as a Hmong American. Beyond the sparse amount of partnering up and group work in school, it was individualism and competition we were taught as the foundations for success. But, because I was Hmong, I never truly understood individualism and competition. I never wanted to place myself before others or see anyone as beneath me.

Neither values from the Hmong or Western culture truly fit my identity as a Hmong American. Everything seemed to spill out the sides. But finally, after college, I found myself in Laos in an attempt to really understand what it meant to be Hmong American.

My initial Western perspective was to view the chaotic traffic and dusty roads as “undeveloped,” but my heart was transfixed by the strange beauty of intuition, trust and respect that people had for one another, foreigners and locals alike. Children still played around the city at night. There were no traffic laws besides the unspoken trust that drivers and pedestrians placed on one another. People’s lives were not defined by their jobs or salaries, but through the love shared between friends and family. Of course, personal strife and struggle was constant in their lives, but they knew that spiritual and mental well-being mattered most. They didn’t get lost in the materialistic chase that divides America so deeply.

The elders always tell me that they miss living in Laos. Despite the long hours walking between the farmland and their houses, they still yearn for that simplicity because it was a life devoted to spiritual and mental well-being for everyone, a life true to their values.

When I landed back into San Francisco, I was immediately faced with the stark cost that came with the comfort and luxury of America. Homeless people panhandling for money during Christmas week as hundreds of people walked by paying them no attention. An incoherent man being punched and thrown onto the ground by security guards as everyone watched and recorded.

The brief joy of being back home was taken over by this dense atmosphere of a spiritually and mentally sick country lacking the values of community.

Like myself, I realized that so many Hmong Americans who have struggled to find their footing within this country were always painfully sensitive to the façade of a “civilized” America, but we simply didn’t have the words to articulate what that feeling was. I think we always felt in our hearts that the cost of progress and success was the loss of a spiritual bond, not only shared between friends and family, but with the larger community as well.

So, it was Laos, and the elders, that taught me that we create community and community creates us. To nurture one is to nurture the other.

American history books always labeled Laos as “third world” or “undeveloped.” But my American home is the most undeveloped when it comes to knowing that the most important thing in life are people. Regardless of whether they are family or strangers, successful or struggling, alike or unlike you, to be Hmong American means to be there for everyone, to struggle and succeed together like our grandparents did when they came to this country together.