As most everyone gathers into the living room after the New Year’s meal, the clanking of dishes being washed by aunts drowns out the buzzing of the heater. On the back porch, the older uncles huff into semi-long PVC pipes and puff circles into the cold air. A circle of metal chairs are arranged and the married and widowed relatives sit side-by-side conversing in the sing-song language of Hmong.
One of the elders turns to my aunt and asks why her son is not with us today. Her response was short and soft like an escaping last breath, “He is with friends.” The elder turns to an uncle and says, “Why can’t her son be smart and good like your son? Born in America and in college; he is very obedient son.” The elder turns back to the aunt and continues, “Your son is in gangs fooling around with the wrong types of people. He has no respect for what we went through to get to America.”
My aunt nods her head. She knows this. She has heard it all before. She knows of this world that the older ones remember so well. The years of what seemed to be endless marching—the endless trail to freedom—to freedom which the Hmong rightly deserved, as we’ve laid our lives and homes on the line for the United States of America.
Morning and night, days and weeks; it felt like they were running for years. The weak were left behind so that the strong could escape from the Vietcong and start a new life for their family.
You may not believe it, but the truth is that many lost their lives because they believed in this corrupt society we call America. The Hmong were sold the lies that you could be “free” and have “opportunities of your life.” And because they believed that we would be treated as equals, they helped America to suppress the Vietcong.
How can you describe fear? How can you describe the stench of putrid flesh or the lingering smell of sulfur from empty casings from bullets and bombs?
As my aunt closes her eyes, she’s taken back to those young years in Laos. The smell of scorched earth and decomposing bodies grow noxious, permeating the recesses of her mind as she dredged along clutched onto her future–her son.
Look to the heavens because you travel by night and hide by day. You will never see the sun until you reach your destination. Look to the endless starry sky, but remember to not take your eyes off of those in front of you.
Mommy, where are we going? Mommy, why did we have to leave our fields that were filled with rice patties? Mommy, tell me where father went? Why did daddy leave us?
Hush little one because there is no time to waste. Gather your clothes and wear them. We need to run and keep away from those who took your father. He has gone to visit great grandpa and will not be coming back. Hurry and put your sandals on because they are coming to get us like they did father.
Keep your eyes to the ground because it makes you sad to see that your life will never be the same. Keep your eyes to the ground because you are leaving your life behind you. You were promised the world of riches and gold, but really it’s filled with corruption. Don’t believe everything the Americans tell you.
The sound of dishes crashing onto the ground brings my aunt back from the nightmares. An uncle leans backwards and yells towards the kitchen, “Don’t kill yourselves,” and chuckles. As the children zoom through the hallways yelling and screaming into the kitchen and into the back room, my aunt sees her son; young and obedient again.
A single tear forms like with the luster of a diamond, and silently descends upon her sun burned cheeks. Her dreams of enjoying a peaceful life with a beautiful farm is unrealized as that farm in her dreams is one for which she slaves on. Hands which are blistered and chapped were once smooth and supple.
For my aunt, her march has never stopped—this endless trail to freedom. For my aunt, her freedom was to see her family thrive and grow—hoping that coming to this “Land of Opportunity” promised her this.
But this dream will never be realized. She will work until her dying day because she will never tell us that her son was shot and killed, two days earlier, in a drive-by shooting—as he was walking home from his night class at the city college.
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