A letter to a refugee child ‘building a life on old foundations’
I became a writer after my grandmother died because there was so much about my grandmother that I wanted to remember, that I wanted the world to know about, this woman who knew so much, had walked so far, to get to this life with me.
Dear refugee child,
I grew up with only one grandparent. My grandfathers died when my mother and father were just children. In the worst years after the Americans left the Vietnam war, in the hungry years when the Hmong fled into the jungle to escape persecution, my mother left her mother behind for a life with my father.
So, growing up I only had my father’s mother, the one grandma: Youa Lee.
Grandma was a respected shaman, a medicine woman, and a healer in my community. Around her thick waist, she wore the sacred medicine bags that smelled of the deep earth, dried herbs, and spicy oils. She could read the clouds in the sky, the direction of the winds, the depth of water, but she was illiterate in America.
My grandmother had never been to school. She had never sat in a classroom, opened a book, held a pen or a pencil. My grandmother did not know how to read or write.
Of her children, only the youngest ones were literate. The older ones, like herself, tended the land and focused on the work of staying alive when the forces of the war pushed into their ways of life and crushed their villages and dreams.
One child, my Uncle Chue, had been a teacher. He’d started school in the local village at the age of 19. The family was poor. To conserve the lead in his pencils, Uncle practised his letters and numbers with a stick on the hard-packed floor of their home close to the fire. He wore Western-style shirts with buttons and kept pens in his pockets.
Even when the war came, even when he had to carry a gun, Uncle Chue kept the pens in his pockets. Seeing this, my grandmother came to a realisation that there were some things that could never be taken away: among them, an education. She knew she was too old for the schools in the refugee camp and eventually the schools in America, but she looked upon us, her grandchildren, and hoped we might become educated.
When my older sister went to law school and received her certification as a student lawyer, Grandma was so proud. When Grandma saw my older sister, a small thin young woman in her suits, Grandma’s soft lips would open wide. Her pink gums and that single tooth would glisten.
She used to say, “If I had a chance to go to school. If I had a chance to become educated. If I had a chance to become somebody. I would like to become a lawyer – the kind you’ll be.”
On the days when my sister came home from the courthouse early, Grandma would wave her close, and say, “Tell me about the law.”
‘A bubble of shared dreams’
I hold in the cache of my heart a store of memories of my older sister, dark hair smooth and straight, sitting next to Grandma’s stool on the carpet of our old home, her hands in the air, weaving words and translating laws for the old woman we loved. The dust motes floated around them and glistened in the late afternoon sun. Without walls, they were enclosed in a bubble of shared dreams.
I was not like my sister. I didn’t know yet what I would be. I was a college student, trying to make Grandma proud in my own way. I was quiet and shy and often lonely. I couldn’t tell her these things. On my visits home from college, when she asked what I studied, I tried to tell her about the books I was reading. Their stories were far away from the constraints of our lives. The language inside of them, the feelings even, were hard for me to translate. I ended up asking her for the stories from her life instead.
She told me about harvests on mountain tops that would see the entire village come together, they would tend to one field and then the next. She talked of how the women and girls would sing traditional songs about loneliness, about love, about yearning. In those songs, my grandmother said, “There was a lot of room to feel – even when I was just a girl and lost for words.”
‘Caught up in the feelings, lost in the words’
In our own way, we understood each other. My older sister was living a version of the dreams my grandmother had as an old woman. I, on the other hand, was far closer to the girl she had been on that mountain top, among the women and girls harvesting rice, pulling the fragrant stalks into bundles, tying them up and letting them dry beneath the mountain sun, caught up in the feelings and lost in the words.
Near the end of her life, Grandma would say to both my older sister and me, “I’m scared I will be forgotten when my time here ends. I will have lived and I will have died, unable to read or write, unable to transfer my knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs, my memories to anyone.”
We didn’t want to think about a time when our grandmother would no longer be with us. We didn’t want to contemplate a life without the anchor of her loving presence. We, like her, were afraid. We couldn’t conceive of a world without the rock of her existence. Even then, we had an understanding that the fierce winds of this new country and dominant culture could topple the structure of our extended family, held tight by Grandma’s ageing hands.
We told her, “We’ll never forget you, Grandma. We love you.”
She nodded and accepted our feelings and our words.
Refugee Child, I became a writer after my grandmother died because there was so much about my grandmother that I wanted to remember, that I wanted the world to know about, this woman who knew so much, had walked so far, to get to this life with me. My dreams were built on the foundations of her life. They were not her dreams for herself. They were her dreams for all of us.
I think about how long it took before I knew what I would become. I think of all the moments when those around me were becoming someone. I think of her, my grandmother, each time I set my fingers to the keys, and I call upon the stories of her past and my present, those feelings inside of me hiding away from the words in front of me. It is a game I play, a life I live because before me – there were others and after me, there will be others – and all we can do when life gets hard is remember the good times. Sometimes, in a story, we can be with those who have gone.
Remember this, Refugee Child. The stories are a gift that no one can take away from you. Your stories are yours to share, to carry forward, to gift to those who will cherish them.
A writer who was a refugee child living in the dreams of her grandmother