10 Painted in Red, White, and Blue

Ariya Sonethavy

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Sonethavy is the child of migrants from Laos, and yet, “Painted in Red, White and Blue” explores this context in a way that is different from Kang’s essay, “Ingredients of Education.” Sonethavy focuses on the experiences that form their context as a second-generation migrant: on the one hand, the author finds the depiction of Asianness in American pop culture contrasts with their own experience as an Asian in America, and on the other, they feel unable to connect with extended family when visiting them in Laos. Sonethavy writes: “Like an alien visiting its home planet after a long departure, the anxiety in my body is exacerbated by my lack of communication skills to carry full-length conversations with my family members, constantly resulting in my mouth being stitched together.” Thus, Sonethavy examines these experiences in the contexts of both countries, the one their family migrated from, the one they migrated to. The author underscores that are particular to their experiences and yet universally resonant, colorism and language barriers, to name a few, even while reflecting on the sense of belonging that is ultimately forged with both of their homes.

Ariya Sonethavy


ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing

Day Month Year

Painted in Red, White and Blue

I am eleven years old when something about the blonde hair and blue eyes of the beautiful people I see on television sends knots into my stomach. This subsides after watching my favorite Disney film, Mulan, and yet something unsettling sticks, creeping inside me until the face I see in the mirror is not entirely there. My pupils look like a black hole, incomparable to my white classmates and the celebrities on the posters decorating my bedroom walls. The porcelain skin of Mulan and other Asian women in movies is not claimed in my honeyed complexion. In America, the stereotypical perception of Asia is ambiguous—it becomes a place of lush green forests or populated cities where people with almond-shaped eyes and porcelain skin reside. What does a person see when they think of Southeast Asia? My mother sees it as home. I see it as a vision, a faraway world that seems to be tied with the past, of some creation myth that ended with a tale of my parent’s immigration to the United States. They were born and raised in Laos, a country that evokes puzzled looks from peers who ask about my ethnicity. I had only been there twice, both times under the age of six. I remember my grandfather’s house, a mansion lined with gold and granite, regal in my childlike mind. I remember pink flesh from my mosquito-bitten skin. I remember dirt and sand and the color green. These mental images become blurred apparitions, broken pieces of a story I would try to piece together to remind myself of my roots. Years later, I would find myself not recognizing my mother’s hometown as my own kind of sanctuary but instead emerging in the lost familiarity that I had with the country.

I am eighteen years old when I revisit a forgotten dream. The airport is a small purgatory between my dazed disposition and the destination before me, like the moment between asleep and awake. I wake up to saturation and the sun, and my sweatshirt meant for Massachusetts weather already makes me warm. The black and white fragments of the vision I manifested in my mind of my mother’s country convert into full-blown technicolor, with every aspect newer than what my five-year-old mind could remember. From childhood pictures, my conceptualization of the place is a fever dream, and upon arrival, the haze suddenly clears. The saturation in the surroundings makes my home in Massachusetts pale in comparison, as the sun casts a golden glow on every palm tree, every building, every face. I am greeted with people I don’t remember, and the overwhelming nature of this culture shock feels both daunting and exciting. There is a refuge in the beauty of the scenery and the tiny plant-filled apartment that is my home for the next two weeks. I romanticize the quantity of Buddhist temples and the bustling rhythm of the local shops and cafes, things that residents have memorized their whole lives.

Like an alien visiting its home planet after a long departure, the anxiety in my body is exacerbated by my lack of communication skills to carry full-length conversations with my family members, constantly resulting in my mouth being stitched together. The awkwardness of American adolescence was defined by feeling like an “other” in a classroom where everyone else was white. I have always been the Asian girl that didn’t even fit the stereotypical appearance of Asian people. Despite being somewhere where other people looked like me, estrangement is defined by my lack of language fluency, feeling like the “typical” American girl. The gut feeling of isolation translates through two different mediums where I don’t completely belong in either place. Instead of being a native of anywhere, I am a girl without a country, stuck in a strange limbo between two places that are integral to my identity.

By day, every aspect of the city floods with light from all directions, grazing the roofs of unfinished buildings and the tanned skin of locals and tourists alike. By night, this light changes hue through neon lights in the face of cold beers and bowls of Pho. I enjoy feeling small in the chaos that wasn’t as vast with capitalism as American cities. Travelling at the same time the world turns into the new year bred an unspoken vow for spiritual inspiration on my way across the globe. In return, moments of revelation occur throughout these two weeks—some are rather neurotic, ending in impulsive tears in the bathroom of some relative’s house during a family gathering, and some redefine my idea of family. I wonder why I’m unable to speak my family’s language and realize that the barrier between me and the place where I’m supposed to belong is a thin veil in which I can see everyone else, but they can’t see me with the same clarity. It feels like being mute, able to completely understand a foreign language and not have the right wires connected in your brain to respond in that language. The insecurity of this reverts me to a shell of a child that was too shy to be happy-go-lucky, uncomfortable to the point of tugging my mother’s sleeve asking to go home.

It is strange to become familiar with the unfamiliar once again. I was so used to the routine of being a part of something simply because I was supposed to. However, my lack of knowledge of Buddhism as a religion doesn’t hinder my mother’s insistence on my participation in the ceremonies. Her ways of answering my questions had always had the effect of telling a story to a child. The ceremony of uncle becoming a temporary monk was explained as a necessary sacrifice for good luck in both life and the afterlife. I endure hours of preparation and uncomfortable pain in my legs from kneeling during the actual ceremony, but the ordeal is rather beautiful—from the ornate bowls of fruit to the vibrancy of the monk’s orange robes, to the Buddha statue with his hands closed in prayer the same way everyone else’s is. Here, too, the sense of exclusion for lacking the emotional and religious context that my mother has forms a lump in my throat. My mother is next to me with soft whispers of prayer repeating the monk’s foreign words. The drone in my ears is like a gong until it turns into a hum vibrating inside my chest, evolving into a lulling kind of calm. Something about this feels right.

These are the moments of complete serenity that convince me that the constant Laotian sunlight developed a sense of belonging within me. It made me want to stay, to escape the depressing, busy lifestyle of America. There was a certain simplicity in reading a book for hours on a balcony overlooking my aunt’s house and the temple next door, a paradise where summer never ended. It was easy to manifest this honeymoon state of mind into therapeutic practice, and the exoticism of my surroundings only felt more alluring when I compared it to my unhappiness in the frigid New England. The roots of my cultural identity that wilted within years of growing up an American suddenly bloomed into something new. Laos became a new home, or at least, a strange alternative vision of home. My culture shock did not overshadow the undeniable warmth that this city exuded, making me comfortable with my surroundings as everything around me existed in its own rhythm.

The tanned faces of schoolchildren on their break from school is a refreshing sight compared to the desolate enclosure that was my old high school back in America. The quaintness to Vientiane’s rhythm was what made it so calming—there was never the impending sense of doom that was always tied to American money, possessions, and stress. There was only the bright green of palm trees and the ocean licking land, and by night the sun would fall as the tempo of the city went faster. Marketplaces flooded the streets with goods, and the smell of my favorite soup inviting itself to my sense. There was never a closed storefront in Vientiane—every market, shop, or cafe had its doors open or had none at all. The colored light and the comfortable nature of feeling like a local made the streets like a dollhouse, each shop exposed in the front to show the different stories inside. I wanted to bask in it, breathe it in, and hold it inside me until the feeling would grow into the comfort of feeling a level of frequency that balanced between my nationality and my ethnicity.

I am eighteen years old when I feel like I am on top of the world. I am overlooking the city of Vientiane from the top of Patuxai, Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe, and my aunt and uncle smile at me with a camera. I wear red, white, and blue on the jacket—one sleeve the American flag, and the other the Lao flag. Inside me, I feel these colors in two different forms, and within myself, I allow the disparity between my two countries to dissipate. There is a balance between my American upbringing and my Lao roots, and with the seeds of acceptance planted inside me, I cultivate harmony. Culture is an ever-evolving term, and I think I’ve come to terms with my own eclectic definition of it.

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