Before bed one night, I read The Whispering Cloth, by Pegi Deitz Shea, to my children. It is a story about a little Hmong girl, named Mai, who lives with her grandmother in a refugee camp in Thailand. This story takes place after the Vietnam War. Mai learns to embroider her own story cloth while watching her grandmother and widows sewed their stories into paj ntaub (flower cloth).
When we discussed this book, my children spoke as if Mai’s story is something of a distant past, something that you only hear about in storybooks. Because that is not true, I let them know that many refugees of the Vietnam War are closer to them than they may realize. My kids looked at me with inquisitive eyes.
Little Mermaid said, “Mommy, what do you mean?”
“Well,” I began. “What I mean is your Niam Tais (Grandmother), although she did not make a story cloth, her story is very similar to Mai’s.”
My children’s ears perk up. Mini Mermaid, laying in bed, about ready to fall asleep, sat up. Both children looked at me to continue.
“Niam Tais was born during the Vietnam War in Laos. After the United States pulled out of the war, Niam Tais Laus (Great-Grandmother) took her family, your Niam Tais included, and fled the soldiers the same way Mai’s grandmother did.” I turned to Mini Mermaid, my 5-year-old, “Niam Tais was about your age. Dab Laug Suav (Uncle Soua) was only a tiny baby. They were captured and lived in Vietnam for several years. When they escaped, they trekked across Laos and swam across the Mekong river to get to the refugee camp in Thailand.”
“Was that where you were made?” Little Mermaid asked.
“Yes. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and I lived there until I was almost 3,” I replied.
Although I’ve told my children my birthplace many times before, I had not told them the circumstances about why I was born in Thailand and why my family came to the United States. It always seemed weird to them that I was foreign-born since their father and they were born in the US.
My kids looked at me for a couple of seconds in silence. The wheels in their heads turning. Finally, Little Mermaid said, “What happened to Niam Tais‘ daddy?”
“He died in the war. He was a soldier and fought on the American side.”
“He died like Mai’s parents?”
“Almost like that,” I replied.
I tucked my kids in bed, gave them kisses, and said good night. As I turned to walked away, Little Mermaid said, “Mommy, is that why you guys came to America? Because there was war and people died?”
“Yes. We came to America because we had no other place to go. This was the only place in which we saw freedom. Now go to sleep. We can talk in the morning,” I said as I turned off the light.
It is hard for me to answer my children’s questions about death, war, or any negativity in the world. If I could, I would close them up in a bubble and never let them know about all the bad things out there. But that is not to be. My children hear and learn things. They ask questions. I have already had to explain what war is to them earlier this year. I realized during that conversation that I cannot tell them my immigration story without talking about death and war. If I exclude both from my story, my mother’s, grandmother’s, or father-in-law’s story, it would mean that our stories do not exist. Sometimes I wonder if my children know that the long pauses between explanations is me holding and gathering my emotions before proceeding so my voice doesn’t shake too much or so that I do not start crying.