By: Amber Inthavong
Being a Lao-American feels a lot like being a part of an Alien race: “Laos? What is that? Is that even a place?!”
It quickly became apparent to me that no one knew where this country was, let alone in a suburb of Colorado, where my parents raised me. Growing up, I never quite felt confident being Lao and never quite confident being an American.
Laos is a small landlocked country bordering Thailand and Vietnam that has a heavy history. My parents crossed the Mekong river and fled to a refugee camp to free themselves during an oppressive time where the Marxist-Leninist ideology of communism was taking over. Laos became a society that was stateless and classless, a place where production and natural resources were of organized public-ownership. This meant people were stripped of education, religion, and all they worked for, with the goal of ridding the country of Western influences. The future state of Laos was going to be one where everyone is removed from their homes so that they could farm and produce goods for the government instead. This way, the government in turn could ration out and control what each family could have. This is the communist vision of keeping everyone in an equal status. Fortunately for my parents, after making it to the refugee camp, a generous Christian family right here in the US eventually sponsored mine to come here. My parents understood the weight of it all and quickly gained their citizenship, worked hard, and put my siblings and I in better circumstances. But this also came with a lot of trauma from their past and holding high expectations for us to carry on Lao traditions and cultures.
I struggled because it was a lot of responsibility to know how to be the way my parents wanted me to be. Laos was completely foreign to me, having been born and raised in Colorado. And yet there was yet another responsibility for me, to be American enough, for my friends and society too.
These days, I’m an aspiring outdoor adventure blogger and freelance writer. Now… I’m well aware that when people hear outdoor adventure blogger, they aren’t picturing someone who looks like me. Maybe it’s a man with a beard who’s a fly fishing expert, or a super fit white woman standing on top of a mountain, decked out in the best Patagonia gear. Either way, when I show up, it’s been made clear that I am not what they expected. No one thinks a chubby, outspoken, Asian girl can know anything about the outdoors.
I know this from my experiences of hiking on Saturday mornings and rarely seeing any people of color on the trails. I know this from the times I’ve walked into an office to pitch a new outdoor article and the look editors give me the first time we meet:“Oh hi.. so you’re Amber? Not at all what we thought you’d be, but okay!” Or when fellow campers are filled with concern once they see me pull up to make my tent and build my fire:“Uhh … Are you okay ma’am? Let us know if you need anything! Don’t be shy now!” Even from the look on my mom’s face when I explained to her that on my 30th birthday I took the day off work to take a 9-mile solo-hike. She said, “Why you do that?! Not supposed to do that, don’t you know it’s dangerous?”
I don’t expect any different at this point. In fact, throughout my life there were a series of events where these types of reactions were always happening. Reactions I get, where nothing I do, fits the way people are comfortable seeing it.
In grade school, I remember bringing my classmate to my house for the first time. When we walked through the door, met with the familiar and comforting smell of my mom’s Papaya Salad, homemade pork sausage, and sticky rice, my mouth instantly watered. She urged us to eat before homework, but my excitement quickly switched to embarrassment when my classmate said, “Ew what’s that smell?!” It dawned on me, she didn’t grow up with the fermented shrimp paste smell that I had. I was mortified and instantly felt like apologizing to her. My mom didn’t make it any easier, “It’s okay! Maybe you like! Just try it.” I hung my head down and felt ashamed to eat any for myself: “Its okay mom, we’re just going to do homework.”
When I went to her house, on the other hand, her parents took us to Wendy’s. It was a common thing for them, but it was something that I was not accustomed to. My family didn’t eat fast food. My dad took me to McDonald’s on a few rare occasions, but I had never been to Wendy’s before, so I didn’t know what to order! When we pulled through the drive-thru and everyone placed their order, my turn came and I shouted, “Umm uhh, I’ll just have the same thing you’re having!” My classmate was delighted with my answer, “Don’t you just love that sandwich? It’s my favorite!” I nodded my head as if I knew.
On the weekends, rather than going to sleepovers, I woke up before sunrise to help mom and dad at the Buddhist temple. Mom would whisper commands to me under her breath because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I was somehow was expected to. We did the ceremonial “Tuk bhat”, feeding our family members who’ve passed in the afterlife. It was a process that always felt awkward and unfamiliar to me. I also remember liking NSYNC and Britney Spears, but wondered why TRL and all the music videos never had any girls who looked like me.
And when I got my first broken heart, the white boy in gym glass laughed with his friends once word got out that I was hoping he’d ask me to the school dance. He chose the blonde-haired and green-eyed girl instead, and I came to know that is what the definition of beautiful looked like here in America. After all, that’s what they always show on TV and magazines. Later that day, I cried, begging my parents to let me dye my hair.
Finally, it dawned on me in college, while I was staying up until 1:00AM and working on a final project, alone, stuck and frustrated. Mom yelled at me from upstairs, “Ee la, why you do homework so late?!” It was at this very moment I came to the realization… I was doing this thing, on my own. I was always doing it alone. Being Laos enough, being American enough. Always. Alone. I was doing this first generation Lao-American thing for the first time out of anyone in my family. Because when the kids don’t know what country my blood runs from, when I don’t know what to order from Wendy’s, when I have to learn to be proud of our fermented food and how to practice our religious customs, and because there aren’t any girls that look like me on tv, or my parents can’t help me with school because they never went to college… I had to face it. I cannot fit in one way or another and I’m simply just a square peg in a round hole.
So, I found whatever peace and solitude I could from everyone’s expectations and images of me in the many journeys I spent away from home and from society: journeys where the tread up strenuous climbs take all I have inside me to push through, and where destinations that seem impossible to reach from the bottom are attained at the top. These are places where oddly enough I’m alone too, but the difference is…here is where nothing else matters. No opinions, differences, or ideals. I’ve hiked the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where I was born and raised, with confidence.
It has consistently provided me with the same answers every time, that true beauty lies in being authentically you, regardless of how different that may look, how long you’ve been here, or how people view you.
I spent my life recognizing the weight of what first-generation means and I embraced the love of outdoor adventure here in my home. I went from feeling alienated and never wanting to claim being Lao, to feeling like an impostor and a sorry version of an American… to now having a healthier and newer understanding that I am beautifully blended, unique, and creating my own identity. I learned to own it. It took time and growth, but I’m proud of my heritage and my unique first-generation complex now. I have written articles about the Buddhist temple in addition to my outdoor writing. I practice our customs and cook my mom’s traditional dishes. I’m full of culture derived from my roots, as well as the new practices of an American woman. I don’t have to be more of one or more of the other, and I see my chance now to shape what Lao-American could look like and define it any way that I want to.
It all makes sense now: I never had an example or someone to look up to because there’s no woman out there who has done it before me. This is what first-generation means. I take it as a blessing instead of a curse, and I get to pave the way and show the many ways first-generations can look like for future generations to come – for our sons and daughters. I am no longer lost, just grateful.
Born and raised in Colorado, Amber’s parents came as refugees from Laos. She is a proud single mom to her daughter Kaela. And MBA who’s passionate about freelance writing and outdoor adventure blogging for ColoradoCaribou.com. She is a big supporter of Asian American, women led and outdoor organizations.