Giving Thanks… Through the Arts

As families and friends gather round and feast over latest gossips and well-kept family recipes this Thanksgiving weekend, I am reminded that I have been away from this blog for several months. Not that I have been idle, on the contrary. So I have decided to write a series of posts about things I am most thankful for. This year in particular, I have much to reflect on and be grateful…

This past summer, I was involved in the first ever 6-week long Cultural Exchange to the US with the National School of Music and Dance from Vientiane, Laos, for projects I am most passionate about: Kinnaly – Lao Traditional Music and Dance Troupe and the Annual Summer Camp in Seattle, both programs of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of Lao Heritage Foundation, a national non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve, promote, and transmit Lao culture through the arts (www.laoheritagefoundation.org). This was an extension of the historical Summer Cultural Exchange to Laos 2011, the result of hard work of all officers, board of directors, and volunteers, coupled with generous financial contributions from organizations, businesses, and private donors. By staying true to our mission and believing in the boundless potential of our programs, we overcame challenges from the onset of the project…

My quest to learn about our cultural practices and to maintain the language began with my journey away from the homeland at an early age. This life altering flight separated me from my parents and everything I had known, and transported me to Le Havre, France. There, I was thrown into 4th grade with minimal French vocabulary taught by Jacques, my favorite Velcro guy, a distant sound learned in a faraway land. My aunt’s family, who took my younger brother and me in, became the cultural broker that facilitated a rather quick language acquisition and adaptation to the French way of life. I remember landing in Paris before Christmas, where 10 AM outside of the airport looked like night in Laos. I was disoriented. But by end of school year, in 6-month time, I was able to communicate very proficiently, played with and understood other children without being made fun of; granted similar sounding words were used interchangeably. My two younger cousins became immediate siblings. Vimala turned into a younger sister I never had (by the way, she also writes a food blog: www. toulemondencuisine.wordpress.com, product of environment or do certain things run in the blood?). My first memory of Vinarom was of him finishing my first French school lunch, where no-one was released from the canteen for recess unless everyone at the table cleared their plates: for the life of me, I was not able to swallow ham and mashed potatoes: what a strange tasting food!

It was within the walls of this second home away from the house on the Mekong that I learned to embrace my Lao roots. I was writing sporadic letters to my parents to keep them informed of my brother and my growing up away from them, words that tied me to them. They in turn taught me valuable lessons in fairly formal Lao language through cherished and anticipated hand written mail: to be helpful around the house, to be respectful of the generous hands that fed us, to be thankful for the educational opportunities, and to be a productive member of society. I was fully immersed in community building where my uncle, a medical doctor, held the position of president of the Lao association for many terms. My aunt began training Vimala and me in Lao traditional dances, and we performed everywhere! I fell in love with it at first move. It inculcated in me the gentle nature of the Lao people, aspiring to live in harmony with nature, celebrating humility and simple beauty, respecting those who have come before us, and accepting that our actions have far-reached consequences… The essence of being Lao was manifested through the haunting melodies, the slow flowing moves, and the nonchalant but purposeful choreography. I was blessed to have flourished under such nurturing circumstances, rooted while exploring limitless possibilities.

When I moved to the US to finally reunite with my parents and older sisters after 15 years of living parallel lives, I became more aware of what it meant to be grounded in our unique heritage. It was what helped me adapt to life changing events, and shielded me from extreme cultural shocks. I was thrown into the adopted home’s school system. My brother and I stood out like sore thumbs in our rain coats and sweaters tied around our shoulders! This time it was my last year of high school; the hallways were filled with slangs and school spirit, short skirted cheerleaders, driving seniors, and bonded cliques. What a difference with the 2-hour French café lunch breaks, the scooter riding, cigarette smoking, coffee drinking, and sworn lifetime friends we had. 30-minute lunches of burgers and fries out of a brown bag seemed uncivilized! Coming home to sticky rice and spicy food was the only constant through it all.

In college, I began teaching traditional dance to members of the Lao Student Association. It was the rope that kept me afloat once more as I was navigating campus life. I retired from performing after I got married, but never ceased to learn and train from leading masters in the field. Shortly after, I began teaching a small group of teenagers. The five girls called themselves “Kinnaly”, named after our signature dance about mythological creatures, half bird half women, daughters of the sky God who occasionally escape their father’s celestial gardens to come down and enjoy earthly pleasures, such as bathing in the cool river. Youthful and beautiful, they are known for their artistic qualities, as graceful dancers and talented musicians. Since then, Kinnaly – Lao Traditional Music and Dance Troupe (www.kinnaly.org) has grown exponentially, to include boys and a full traditional orchestra.

When I look back at my guinea pigs, the OK’s (Original Kinnalies), I can’t help but beam with pride in the accomplished young women they have become. Kathy (aka Amela) is pursuing a demanding career in New York City as buyer for a giant retailer. Jennifer (aka Latana) is following her aspiration of leveling inequality in education and I sense an upcoming request for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Katherina (aka Poupee) just landed a job after just graduating from a prestigious fashion and design school in Los Angeles. Olivia (aka Veravon) changed track after college and just received her diploma from a leading culinary arts school, working with talented chefs. Phonetip is working full time and putting herself through college. They have become role models for the younger Kinnalies and are giving back by their continued involvement in the program at varying capacities. The Kinnaly students’ eagerness to learn motivates me and their talent amazes me, keeping the creative juice flowing in my veins. It was only my hope that the small drop in the ocean will ripple and generate waves…

My commitment to provide opportunities for the younger generations to explore their cultural identity through artistic journeys, have permitted me to work with incredible people who share the passion of fostering growth. Meeting recording artist and song writer Ketsana (www.ketsana.com) whose love for the performing arts and pledge to support young musicians has led our organization to make history with the first ever Summer Cultural Exchange to Laos 2011 where our American born participants of Lao descent were given the opportunity to train with traditional music and dance masters from the National School of Music and Dance. It was a huge undertaking! Euay Ketsana’s extensive reach within the artistic community made possible a culminating show at the National Cultural Hall. Her leadership and tireless devotion made it all possible, realizing one of LHF goals.

This summer 2012, the Pacific Northwest team received with great anticipation a delegation of 7 masters from Vientiane to teach over 100 Sixth Annual Summer Camp participants; 2 of those traveled to D.C. Metro area to teach the first Summer Camp there. Hosting the dance masters and being surrounded by the daily creative energy, I found renewed inspiration. For 4 weeks straight, I polished old tricks, learned new techniques, developed new skills, and furthered my knowledge of historical and folkloric contexts. I was blown away by the level of expertise and master pieces that were created. New music and dance choreography graced our end of program Cultural Showcase. The community was on its feet in awe with the beauty before them.

Their stay was filled with long hours of work, packed with laughter, and included a vast array of cuisines. I was blessed by visits from friends who have become dearest: our encounters were far and few in between, but our hearts always beat to the same rhythms. It was our passion to pass on traditional family values to our children that connected us instantly. They are the girlfriends who rolled up their sleeves without being asked, who cooked and cleaned without complaints, gently pushing me out of the kitchen so that I could take care of other responsibilities. Nana came before camp started bearing fresh vegetables and spices from Fresno, California. If you are a passionate Lao cook, I am sure that you can feel the excitement of finding boxes of freshly picked chilies, fragrant lemongrass stalks, and bags of green kaffir lime leaves! Find her cooking some of the most traditional dishes at http://www.youtube.com/user/nanaks801. Kham brought her sweet daughter Amily to camp from San Francisco. She rolled out some of the best senh khao pierk (homemade noodles) late into the night to be ready for breakfast, and even lent her sewing skills to create new costumes for the show. Phet flew in from Elgin, Illinois, with her son Boon, drove around town grocery shopping, served lunch at camp, and pounded out some of the best jeo (chili based dips) to accompany our meals… I am most indebted to their helping hands and support of me always, no matter the distance.

The journey of paving the way towards the preservation, promotion, and transmission of Lao culture through the arts had generated precious memories and friendships with like-minded individuals. I am thankful to my family for instilling in me the love of our ancestral heritage and for keeping me grounded. I am grateful for each of the Lao Heritage Foundation officers across the nation whose countless volunteer hours and selfless dedication have brought our programs to where they stand today. I am truly blessed to have met some of the most amazing women through this work, which has produced many scrumptious encounters, lively exchanges of ideas, as well as recipes. For that and so much more, I thank you for being a part of my journey to advance our community through artistic expressions, a graceful pace to the beat of the drum towards a beautiful dance. Growing from our roots has yielded so much beauty that will continue to brighten up our world…

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This entry was posted in Family and Life, Festivals, Traditions, and Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Giving Thanks… Through the Arts

  1. Toon Phapphayboun says:

    Such a heartfelt piece and I am so grateful to know the many people you mentioned in this piece. Please continue your passion and continue to inspire!

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