MY FAMILY MOVED to the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1990, just as the country emerged from Cold War isolationism into an era of international development and commerce. No paved roads or traffic lights; hammers and sickles hung in every storefront window. At night, our Soviet air conditioner rumbled through the sticky heat; at dawn, we woke to Party broadcasts, blared across municipal grounds.
"Life, Opportunity, Hope" was the slogan of my parents' organization, a faith-based humanitarian agency that served at-risk communities throughout the developing world. The term "poorest of the poor" quickly took on a life of its own and assumed a permanent seat at the dinner table, like an adopted older sibling whom I both adored and despised. Growing up, I often questioned the Life I'd been given, skeptical that my displaced upbringing translated to either Opportunity or Hope. Nonetheless, the pursuit of these ideals sent my parents into the landlocked heart of former French Indochina, where the shadow of empire lingered in bilingual street signs and the francophone spellings of cities. That first year, however, their calling's only significance — from my perspective, at least — was that on my fifth birthday the cake was lumpy, unfrosted, and punctuated with three stubby candles. The cards from my grandparents, ferried halfway across the globe by international post, arrived several months late, just in time for Halloween.
Growing up, I often questioned the Life I'd been given, skeptical that my displaced upbringing translated to either Opportunity or Hope.
When we first arrived, my family lived in a neighborhood steeped in government paranoia. Officials kept close watch on our activities and ordered us not to interact with the local population. On moving day, I picked a scarlet hibiscus from the garden and offered it to the landlady, but she looked at me coldly and continued her tour. Until my parents knew better, they invited swarms of village children into our home, hungry-looking boys who stared at our American toys and slipped them into their pockets, speaking a language I didn't understand.
I quickly learned to be cautious about certain things. To say "I don't know" when asked where I kept my tooth-fairy money. Not to shout in the street or leave the front gate open after dark. To be wary of stray dogs and to check my stool for tapeworms. I had intense, primal fears of things like rabid dogs and centipedes and, during monsoon season, lay in bed, terrified that a nest of centipedes would erupt through the floorboards, writhing with legs and tentacles. I had nightmares about this and would wake sweating, hands clenched into fists. I knew a girl who had been attacked by a centipede that wrapped itself around her face, stinging repeatedly, until her father ripped the arthropod off, suffering nasty injuries himself.
Amputees with torn-off limbs, victims of unexploded ordnance dropped by American pilots during the Vietnam War; bands of street kids who sniffed glue in back alleys and roamed the marketplace, eyes dulled by addiction and poverty. So many things I witnessed as a child were beyond comprehension.
So many things I witnessed as a child were beyond comprehension.
Even so, I stole my father's journal and filled it with long, zigzaggy lines punctuated with dots and dashes, reproducing the alphabet in strings of letters written backwards in an obtuse, left-handed way. I wrote stories about the world around me, and when I didn't know the word for something, penciled in an empty speech bubble to indicate the presence of something that couldn't be articulated.
I had many feelings about the people my parents appeared to love — the "poorest of the poor" — but at age 6, didn't know the words for jealousy, ambivalence, or fear. For years, the pages of my journal were shot through with inexplicable, impossible silences.
Though I grew up confusing "color" with "colour" and "gray" with "grey", I made friends at the international school and spent my afternoons collecting stamps with my neighbor, an Australian girl who first appeared as a fringe of dark bangs peeking over the balcony railing next door. Her father brought home stacks of manila envelopes, which we submerged in pans of warm water and spread on tea towels, peeling the stamps off and drying them on the kitchen counter. Indonesia, Guinea, United Kingdom, and Zambia — our collection spanned the globe.
Once, on Anzac Day, she taught me the words to her favorite folk song: "I came from the dreamtime, from the dusty red soil plains. I am the ancient heart, the keeper of the flame", a tune we sang long and loudly, straining at the high notes and bellowing the rest. "I am, you are, we are Australian." The words gave me a deep sense of connectedness, allowing me to tap into a national root that, though not my own, helped compensate for the nagging rootlessness that characterized my childhood.
The words gave me a deep sense of connectedness, allowing me to tap into a national root that, though not my own, helped compensate for the nagging rootlessness that characterized my childhood.
My best friend lived next door for three years, but I knew our time was up when her mother began plastic-wrapping furniture and boxing kitchen appliances, readying the house for their imminent departure — a move back to Brisbane. I still remember her father's blue Mazda; how, when it pulled down the street for the last time, it sucked the marrow from my bones and left me feeling dry, brittle. A numbness set in, the sort that comes from a pair of dark eyes looking backwards through a rearview window, holding your gaze until the last possible minute — and then — not looking anymore. Afterward, when I wandered to school, lonely as a ghost child, I took to checking over my shoulder thinking her shadow might reappear, though all I ever saw was my own, bleeding behind me like ink.
My family lived in Laos for 10 years. By some miracle, our visas were reissued term after term, despite the fragility of our status with the government. Every two years, we flew to the United States, where my parents spoke at churches to raise funds for their work. By the end of each trip, my brother and I could recite our parents' presentation by rote and set up their "Mission to Laos" display of tribal headdresses and textiles without a second thought.
At the same time, how we dreaded the day of our departure. One year, at the airport, my cousin gave me a broken heart strung on a gold chain, engraved with the word "Best." Her half of the necklace, with a jagged edge like mine, read "Friends." I wore the pendant home, a journey involving 22 hours in the air, three flights, and an overnight train to the Thai-Lao border. After finding myself back in Southeast Asia — pet chickens brooding in the backyard and the ka-thunk ka-thunk of wooden water buffalo bells echoing from nearby rice paddies — I hid the necklace in my jewelry box, unable to reconcile the two worlds that laid claim to my life.
I came to dread these airport encounters, painful fissures between the persistent Here and There of my childhood. One summer, seated amid a crowd of cousins, aunts, and uncles at San Francisco International Airport, I buried my face in my hands and refused to look at or speak to any of the relatives who had come to send us off. For me, every arrival demanded a gut-wrenching departure; each departure held within it the promise of home. Tightly entangled in the coils of this ouroboros, I simply accepted the terms of my reality. As a child, what choice did I have?
For me, every arrival demanded a gut-wrenching departure; each departure held within it the promise of home.
Later in life, I discovered others who identified with this high-mobility upbringing: military brats, business kids, the children of parents who worked in the diplomatic corps, whose lives ebbed and flowed across continents with each two- or three-year term. Hong Kong, Cairo, Rio de Janeiro. Like myself, they grew up roving the globe; their sense of identity tied less to a specific geographic location than to a transient community of international expatriates. Their allegiance, like mine, lay with a Third Culture that belongs neither to host nor home country.
• • •
When I leave Southeast Asia for the last time, the U.S. Arrival stamp in my passport is strangely unaccompanied by a Departure, and I find myself thrust into a new reality. To have Arrived without an imminent Departure; the concept is strange. Uncomfortable, even. I am suspicious of Americans, their ignorance and ideologies, and even more skeptical of their churches, which I imagine to be filled with the kinds of people who asked me if I rode elephants to school as a child. These were the people who, when visiting Southeast Asia, arrived fresh from the first world, suitcases packed with bottles of imported water and phobias of tropical maladies; or who would ask, as one woman did while I stood mute and disbelieving in front of my family's "Mission to Laos" poster, "Do you like pa-pa-yas?" And her voice rose even higher, even louder, "Do you like ba-na-nas?"
I am suspicious of Americans, their ignorance and ideologies, and even more skeptical of their churches.
I despise these people. And yet. As time passes, I come to understand and even trust friends whose upbringing, unlike my own, has been bound to a single zip code. For many, I learn, the transition to college instigates the very questions that I have asked my entire life, allowing me a vague sense of kinship with this otherwise foreign tribe. Where am I from? Where do I belong? I feel, for the first time, that I might not be alone in the world. I even meet my future spouse, from whom I learn just how wide and undivided the human heart can be. Though by this time I have formed a slick, protective layer over my heart, hidden and engraved with the word "Best," his tender constancy teaches me that home is no myth. He is my first best friend since I was a child in Laos.
• • •
How often I've wished I could go back and guide my younger self through the pitfalls of my childhood — bewilderment, loss. A loneliness I found unspeakable, partially because I had no one to express it to, but also because, as a child, I couldn't articulate the complexity of a liminal existence; how, in crossing the threshold from one reality into another, the contours of one's identity are erased then redefined by an altogether unfamiliar culture. A broad range of counseling and member care services now exist for families serving overseas, but unfortunately, mine received none of these benefits.
At the same time, I now recognize the fraught gift of my childhood. Though it was not always easy to embrace, my upbringing is what allows me to recognize feelings of displacement in others. So many are without a nation, feel alienated in their own communities, or are simply lonely. The challenge, of course, is to allow this inheritance, so complexly laden, to materialize into compassion.
Though it was not always easy to embrace, my upbringing is what allows me to recognize feelings of displacement in others.
As a high school student, I remember standing in the shadow of the Ark, a wooden building used for summer youth events in the Santa Cruz mountains, watching the camp speaker's son awkwardly kick pine cones off of a wooden ledge. A missionary kid from Malaysia, he stood conspicuously apart from the crowd, hands thrust into his pockets, sweatshirt hood pulled over his head like a monk's cowl. He wants to be alone, I told myself. He prefers it. I'm ashamed to say that, insecure as I was about my status in the American youth group hierarchy, I didn't bridge the narrow gap that lay between us. How easy it would have been to cross the path and identify myself as a member of a common tribe.
Lord, have mercy. By Your grace, may I learn to extend compassion to those in need, a gift shaped by fire in the crucible of my childhood experience.
By Mia Ayumi Malhotra
Illustrations By Maggie Chiang
MIA AYUMI MALHOTRA is a poet from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in “Mid-American Review”, “Greensboro Review”, “Best New Poets”, and elsewhere. Read more of her work at: miamalhotra.com/poems-etc.
MAGGIE CHIANG was born to a Taiwanese family in the City of Angels and is a full-time artist and part-time dreamer. Inspired by places both real and fictitious, her illustrations evoke a longing for adventure and the pursuit of the unknown, exploring impossible landscapes and places unseen. You can find her online at hellomaggiec.com.