The Americans - Phayvanh

Today, August 7, 2018 marks the launch of my blog series, The Americans. Through this blog, we will celebrate the rich diversity of Americans and the extraordinary lives of ordinary people who call this nation home. We are still the land of the free, and the home of the brave, and we will not allow the hate and ignorance of a few to destroy what this country stands for - opportunity, tolerance, and acceptance. Let's show the world who we really are. 

WE are the Americans. 

Phayvanh

Oh, the U.S. and our propensity for war. And the ease with which we forget. We’ve had our hands in so many global conflicts and genocides over the past century, it’s hard to keep track. Case in point, the conveniently named Secret War, which devastated Laos and has been largely forgotten around the world. I’d be willing to wager that many, if not most, Americans don’t even know where Laos is. Shameful, considering that we dropped more aircraft weapons on Laos than on all countries combined during WWII. 

In fact, we dropped so many explosives on this landlocked country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam that upwards of 300 Laotians are still being killed or injured every year. When the war “ended” Laos was left with a parting gift of 78 million pieces of unexploded cluster bombs. For nine years (1964 to 1973), the U.S. dropped the equivalent to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24-hours a day. In addition to mass death and destruction, the Secret War resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Laotians. 

Many of those displaced by violence in the 1970s eventually emigrated to the United States during the late 70s and 80s, but not before spending months or years in refugee camps in Thailand, where there was no shortage of atrocities to fill the day. By 1980, the United State’s Laotian population had reached more than 47,000, increasing to 147,375 by 1990.

Phayvanh (Pronounced Pie-Von) lives in Vermont. I met Phayvanh through a mutual friend—an equally fascinating, charmingly-eccentric Brit who now runs a Vermont pig farm and a publishing company called Whiskey Tit (but more on her another day). Phayvanh invited my daughter and me to her home in Central Vermont for a traditional Laotian dinner of sticky rice with eggs and chili sauce, and some equally-traditional American dessert, cheesecake and whipped cream. 

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My Life-Long Addiction to Asian Cuisine

I’ve visited, eaten in, slept in, and even lived in the homes of many Asian-American families over my 40 years. There was my childhood friend, Dinh, whose Vietnamese mother’s cooking was my gateway drug to a life-long addiction to the smell, taste, and emotion that is so lovingly chopped, pressed, and rolled into any authentically-prepared Asian meal. There was Michelle, my ridiculously beautiful and athletic (still, at 40) Filipino-American high school friend whose mother’s egg rolls could have been offered as a substitute for ransom money. There was my Vietnamese ex-husband’s family home, where every Saturday I would join a dozen-or-so men around the long dining room table, happily lost in a cacophony of Vietnamese voices I didn’t understand; we’d eat duck eggs and endless bowls of pho, down Heinekens and squint to make out each other’s faces, ever-obscured by poor lighting and heavy cigarette smoke. I loved every minute of it. 

These homes of my past all had a warm, lived-in feeling—not particularly orderly or clean—that I quickly came to love. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in such a home (except my own, of course), and I miss that feeling. Living amid the vastly-white landscape that is Vermont, I sometimes feel as though I’ve been dropped in the center of a cultural black hole.

Walking into Phayvanh’s home, I immediately felt at ease, like I’d been there before. Her kitchen counters and sink were full of dishes and cooking implements, but not in an “oh, I haven’t been able to clean for days because I’ve been watching t.v. and scrolling through Facebook” way. Rather, it seemed as though she had literally used every one of those plates, utensils, and rice pots that day, and would probably use them again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. And when you’re doing that much living, who has time to put shit away? When I step into the house of a person who is really living her life—appreciating the scents and the wine and the laughs and the coffee and the adventure and the art and the music, and even each grain of sticky rice—I feel at home.

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Phayvanh was still preparing dinner when we arrived. There were several “stations” going simultaneously—an exotic strain of spinach from her Malaysian friend’s garden sizzled on the George Foreman grill while sticky rice steamed in a woven bamboo basket, and eggs became omelets in a sauté pan, as she lovingly spooned homemade chili paste into little porcelain bowls. As Phayvanh moved from one station to the next, she told me her story.  

She emigrated to Brattleboro, Vermont in 1979 at the age of four. A Quaker woman with whom Phayvanh is still in contact today, sponsored her family of four. Apparently, the woman had gone to a community meeting simply to learn more about the plight of Laotian refugees, and left the meeting having volunteered to sponsor a family. She came home to her husband and was like, guess what I did?! Phayvanh and her family were the first Laotians to be resettled in Vermont. In fact, her father was also the first Laotian to be naturalized in the state. 

Phayvanh’s father, who just passed away last year, had been a Buddhist monk since the late 80s. Having lived through the horrors of war, Paitoon, was struggling with his emotions, wanting to process what he had been through and manage some of the pain. Therapy was helpful, but Paitoon eventually realized that becoming a monk would bring him the most peace. When I asked Phayvanh about her own spirituality or religious practices, she said, “I don’t have rituals, but Buddhism is a way of life…it’s still very much a part of who I am.” 

She doesn’t love living in Vermont, but she doesn’t hate it either. The world is wide, it’s not like I can’t go places. But when I asked her where she would go if she could live anywhere, she responded by saying, “Well, I don’t know if it’s really about desire…I mean, I guess that’s the Buddhist in me…why would I choose one place over the other? I don’t need to be anywhere, and I can be anywhere. My life has a limited span, I can make friends wherever I am.”

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Simply Complex

My favorite thing about Asian food is how it can be simultaneously so simple and so complex. Traditional Laotian-style eating means eating with your hands, which was terribly exciting for my 11-year-old daughter, Caroline, who was there as my substitute photographer. We’d grab a little ball of sticky rice, then—rice in hand—add a bit of omelette, a piece of spinach, and top it off with a dip in the super hot chili sauce (which consisted of fish sauce, peppers from her aunt’s garden, tomatoes from the local CSA, and garlic chives from her Malaysian friend’s garden). Caroline, who is by far the pickiest eater of my three children, doesn’t eat eggs. Yet, at the prospect of eating with her hands, she couldn’t resist. Low and behold, the kid now likes eggs. 

But Phayvanh is more than just a really good cook with an interesting history. She’s also a poet. 

In the early 2000s, laid off from her full-time job, Phayvanh decided to give herself a year to try her hand at writing poetry and “see if it was something I was good at.” For several years, she stuck with that plan, becoming a fellow at the Kundiman foundation, an organization focused on cultivating Asian-American creative literature. Her work was even published in an anthology called Troubling Borders, which showcases the writing of women of the Southeast Asian diaspora. And today, Phayvanh’s poetry can be found as a floor-to-ceiling installation at the Latchis theater in downtown Brattleboro. 

The Starving American Soul

Just like the arts and recess are the first things to get cut when the school budget is tight, three-hour meals shared with friends and family are the first things to get cut when time is tight (as it always seems to be in modern-American culture). In our busy lives, with school sports and meetings and appointments monopolizing every spare moment, most Americans have traded a big table for a packed schedule. But it’s the big table (or the mat on the floor, or the picnic blanket in the park) that keeps us feeling alive and connected. Food shared with friends and family doesn’t just feed the body. The modern-American soul is starving. 

Sitting around Phayvanh’s dining table, sharing small plates of food and using our hands as utensils, it took us twice the amount of time to finish a small meal, we ate less, and we talked more. We were aware of every bite, and every moment. This is why cultural awareness and appreciation are so important; there is so much beauty and magic around us at all times, in the simplest of things. But only an open mind can see it. 

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Amy Carst