The High-Bun Lady and Her Teaching…

The following was written for and published in SatJaDham’s Collective Writings, Volume IV: Values, Voices, Visions, in 2000, and my 2012 edits and additions were included as I type. It seems like ions ago that I was an aspiring writer, when putting my thoughts on paper, or more so in a Word Doc, was second nature. In light of recent news about family deaths, I pondered about how we live our lives and thoughts of my grandmother and her teachings came to mind…

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My grandmother had always been a prominent figure in our family. She was very petite, not taller than five feet on her greatest of days, but her posture commanded full respect, and her gray eyes pierced right through your soul. She spoke very softly, almost like a whisper but her tone firm. Her words were meaningful, her demands sacred. She had been central in keeping the traditions flowing in our veins. She refused to speak any other languages but Lao to her grandchildren and great grandchildren. We suspected that she understood every word of French and English we spoke, but chose to ignore them… She had lived both in France and in the US in the latter years of her life. Never once in the coldest of winters have I seen her in pants or thick stockings. She proudly wore her ‘sinh’ (ສິ້ນ, a traditional hand woven tubed skirt wrapped around the waist) and high-bun (ເກົ້າຜົມເທິງ) everywhere she went. Traditionally Lao women kept their hair long and wore them tied up into a high pony tail, then twisted into a bun, slightly tilted to the right: actually, you were able to tell what region and/or ethnic group the woman was from by how she wore her bun and dressed her head – my grandmother was Vientiane (ວຽງຈັນ, capital city of Laos) born and raised. Her dry comments about our above-the-knees skirts will forever be etched on my conscience.

At the same time that she told us to be Lao women from the tip of our toes to that of our hair, she never tolerated much of our moments of weakness. We were too soft, crying for nothing, and whining at the slightest of problems, she said. Then she would start with “When I was your age…” episodes. We were expected to cook, clean, tend to the male members of our family, study, and excel in everything we did. And how do you supposed we do all that? If we failed, we would hear series and series of lecture. But if we succeeded, we would receive mere recognition. We were reared with discipline, almost like an army, or a special task force. At times we would joke at how easily we could become spies with our light footsteps as if walking on clouds, how we could probably crawl faster than we could run and, how our neck and back would hurt when walking pass our elders. We were expected to know at a young age my grandfather’s nap time, so we knew to avoid running pass his bedroom doors by fear that the old wooden floor would creak and crackle under our feet, disturbing his peaceful rest before going back to his civil servant office. We also knew to crawl in to say hello and ‘nop’ (ນົບ, joining the palms of our hands and resting them on the chest, bowing our head so slightly, the tip of the nose almost touching those of our fingers) when my grandmother had company, most of the time to play card games while chewing betel nuts (ຂ້ຽວໝາກ) and drinking black iced coffees (ນໍ້າໂອລ່ຽງ) from the usual street cart on the Mekong.

We were taught to always take into considerations other persons’ feelings, to always give the best of what we have, to always choose the most beautiful garden fruits to give away to neighbors, to always present the best morsels to the guests, etc. We were asked to practice ‘metta’ (love and compassion to all you meet), ‘karuna’ (kindness shown to those who suffer), ‘mudita’ (being happy for others without envy), and ‘uppekha’ (to accept others as they are)… We were asked to forgive and let go. I thought it was outrageous to not be able to fight back sometimes!

For example I was driving my grandmother one day. We were going just over 20 mph in a 45 mph zone. Some young guy decided to cruise around at the expense of my patience and enjoyed it very much judging from his waving hands at my furious face, steaming head, and smoking ears! She said “Think as if I was the one driving, or perhaps your mother. Would you still be upset?”. I didn’t think the comparison was very funny, but decided to give a semblance understanding nod. The guy obviously should just get off the road and go cruise somewhere else! I just wanted to vent my frustration. On the contrary, I was forced to hold it in. My grandmother was not the type that would go to the temple every chance she got, to recite blindly Buddhist teachings. Instead, she applied them daily and enjoyed the inner peace they brought to her life. She told me that afternoon that practicing what you preach in small ways is more valuable than not walking your talk.

Because my grandmother only had daughters and mostly granddaughters, her worries seemed to us almost justified and legitimate. Being one of the youngest, however, I have always had it difficult: there were foot steps to follow, big shoes to fill, mistakes not to repeat, etc. Little by little, I started to resent the “don’t” without explanations. I questioned the “do” without obvious reasons than “just because”. After a while, I was left with more questions unanswered than responses. I was called the “rebel”, I did not “listen” (ບໍ່ຟັງຄວາມ). The pressure to always perform well seemed to grow as the days went by. So, often, I would get into these rhetorical debates with the supreme authority, not that others didn’t try it. But my challenges caused more noise because I had a hard time holding back.

After high school, I moved away to college and stayed in that city after graduation where I found a job. I would come home from time to time, but it became rare that I made the 3 hour trek to see my family. The encounters with my grandmother became more and more like inquisition sessions. Why didn’t I move back and stay home? It wasn’t safe and/or appropriate for me to be out there on my own, away from the nest. We never came up with anything that would satisfy either one of us. As I became a little more vocal with my thoughts and independence in life, she grew more and more silent. We would grow further and further away. But somehow, every time, feeling guilty, I would always end up giving in to her demands, except this one time. For some reason, I do not recall her exact request that had always befallen me as an order, but I will always remember the end result. After she proclaimed her verdict of a firm “no”, I gathered all of my strength, stood up very straight, walked pass her with my head held high, my eyes directly looking into hers. Never have my footsteps sounded louder. It was the ultimate confrontation. The whole incident was closed by a resounding slam of the door behind me. I bit my lips to bleed. I knew my act would be irrevocable. She knew, too.

Having had a busy social calendar and being involved in the community, I didn’t go home for 2 months after that. One summer morning I received a phone call urging me to go home. My grandmother had just passed away in her sleep. I packed up the best I could, grabbed my keys, and drove off. My last encounter with her kept on flashing before my eyes. Torrents of tears were running down my cheeks. I cried out loud. I thought that maybe she would forgive me for this moment of weakness. I remember picking up the phone and calling home. I remember every time rejecting the idea of asking to speak to my grandmother and ask for her forgiveness. It was too late.

Suddenly I heard someone honking at me. I have just realized that I was only driving 45 mph on a 60 mph zone. The car behind me must have honked so many times, but I didn’t hear a thing. He sped up to pass me on my left waving the middle finger at the same time that I sped up to the speed limit. Then in less than five seconds he cut in front of me, slammed on his break, and sped away leaving only a trace of smoke. Panicked I slammed on mine, which sent me spinning round before coming to a full stop. I was facing the oncoming traffic. I closed my eyes and waited to wake up from this nightmare. I slowly opened my eyes while I could not feel any part of my body, to see cars stopped on the shoulder of the freeway and people running to check if I was OK. Luckily, the traffic was still light for it was early. No one was hurt. I cried hysterically, not knowing at this point whether it was because of the shock of the accident or because of my grandmother’s death.

Though we didn’t see eye to eye on what being a Lao woman was all about, I have found within myself the belief that she had forgiven me, that she had slowly accepted the changing times through her increasing silence. After all she had saved me. I have never forgotten the accident or her words. I was subject of a road rage because the driver didn’t think that his grandmother was driving, or that I was just having a horrible day…

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To this day, I still see her sitting on the thin padded mat that we custom made to fit the top of a coffee table to imitate a traditional sitting bench (ສະແນນ). On top of it sits a rattan basket (ຂັນໝາກ) with little boxes that contain her treasures: chewing tobacco, cloves, cardamom, cut areca nuts (ໝາກ), long pieces of acacia bark (ສີສຽດ) and its special cutter (ມີດສະນາກ), fresh betel leaves (ພູ, when the local market can snatch them) spread with a dab of lime paste (ປູນ), the whole thing pound lightly in an elongated brass tube-like version of the mortar and pestle (ບອກຕຳໝາກ), a tall tin can with lid turned spitting container (ງ້ຽງ), small enough to fit in her basket, a homemade lip balm (ນວດ) that she applies to her lips after spitting out a dark reddish liquid, some nail clippers, toothpicks, and white handkerchiefs to wipe her lips off stains. She sits most of the time in her favorite pose, the knees to her chest, perched on top of that bench next to the kitchen, her back against the wall so that she could see all who come in and go out, all the while awaiting the weekends for her grandchildren and their family to come visit so that she could enjoy some of her favorite social past-times: talking about how to live life to the fullest, keeping the traditions alive, remembering where we come from, chewing betel nuts, and playing card games. And if betting is involved, it never fails that all grand-daughters’ husbands, or suitors alike, will loose money to her so that they could climb to the top of her favorites’ list…

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5 Responses to The High-Bun Lady and Her Teaching…

  1. Vanhmany says:

    Khid hod

  2. Vanhmany says:

    Every time I see the house, tear comes out

    • All of my childhood memories and stories happened at this house. If the old walls could speak, they would have tales to tell about so many of us, about our love and struggles, our innocence and happiness. An important part of our life was spent there, and I can’t thank you enough, euay Vanh, for loving and taking such great care of it for so long…

  3. Manivong says:

    Great reminiscence and teachings. Your grand-mother was a precious woman and her culture much better than that of impatient drivers.
    What is the method to make a high bun Lao style, I wonder? I love the lao costume and style.

    • Indeed, my grand-mother was a treasure! Her teachings still resonate loudly in her offsprings’ lives.

      The Lao high bun begins with a pony tail. If hair is long and full, there is no need for extensions, but most of the time, they are still needed to give the buns a fuller and nicer shape. Traditionally, I believe that the extension is tied to the pony tail. The hair can be used as whole (one step) or halves (in two steps). The whole pony tail is twisted around your hand to form a loop, while the rest is wrapped around the base, then you fold the hair (from the loop) down and over the base – if you do it properly, the hair will stay on its own (or with the help of hair pins). If doing 2 steps which give a smoother cone shaped bun, you can use the first half to form the loop and folded down just like the above. The other half is then used to wrap around the knot-like hair (that you have formed with the first half) to give it a much cleaner look.

      My grand-mother had an extension that was made from her own hair. As far as I can remember, she used it everyday of her life to do her high bun. She combed and smoothed it out with some type of pomade. In one quick swoop she formed her bun and kept it up with one single large gold hair pin (long U shape) that was a gift from my grandfather.

      Nowadays when I see women wear the fake ready-to-wear bun over their hair for special occasions, it worries me that an important part of our traditions is fast disappearing…

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