Posted on our last day in Chiang Mai, Thailand
It was over 15 years ago that I first learned about Laos. My mom, a guidance counselor at Central High School (255!), was assigned to the students whose last names began with the letters "Gr" all the way through those whose last names began with "Lao." I will never forget the piles and piles of recommendations she painstakingly put together for her students, the hours she spent at our dining room table stuffing envelopes and contemplating the higher education choices of her students, or the fact that many of her students were originally from Southeast Asia, and had, through some combined miracle of fate and really hard work, made their way to Central.
When I was about 12-years-old, my mom had a student who truly tugged at her emotional heartstrings. Kaoli was 15, a sophomore in high school, Hmong, and engaged to be married. While Kaoli expressed interest in pursuing a career in nursing, family and culture dictated otherwise, and Kaoli was instead intending to drop out of school so that she could have a baby. My mother worked tirelessly to persuade Kaoli's parents to let her continue with her high school education, and for a time, my mom's best efforts prevailed. Kaoli continued to see my mother, and even at that age, I knew that they had a bond that went beyond a counselor-counselee relationship. It was one of the few of those bonds my mother made with her students of which I wasn't jealous, and I curiously sought out time with Kaoli every time I went to visit my mom at school.
One year, Kaoli invited our entire family to attend a Hmong celebration. It might have been New Year's, it might have been another festival, I honestly don't remember. But I remember that everyone marveled over the curliness of my hair, and generally made me feel welcome amidst a sea of people whose language I did not understand. It was the first time I was immersed completely in another culture, and while I remember feeling nervous about feeling so different, I can still close my eyes and see the colors of the clothes that the Hmong women wore, and the smell of the food I'd never before eaten.
Kaoli ended up transferring from Central to a high school in Detroit, where her husband's family moved sometime during her junior year. She kept in touch with my mother for a time, but they lost touch when my mom got sick. Through her few remaining connections to Philadelphia and Central, she learned of my mother's death and sent a touching note to our family. She didn't become a nurse, after all, but she had two healthy and beautiful children, and I couldn't help but smile at their picture, one which I still have, tucked away in box somewhere.
It is fitting then, that on January 9, 2008, fourteen years to the day that my mother died, I will be setting foot in Northern Laos for the first time. Matt and I planned to be in Laos for this anniversary, and the timing has worked out in our favor. We will be in a country that my mother, purposefully or not, introduced me to. We will visit a place that made an indelible impression on my young self, a place that perhaps helped to inspire my desire to learn about new cultures and new foods and new people, even before I could properly locate it on a map.
While spending this annivesary in Laos is really quite different from the way I usually mark this date, it feels totally appropriate for this time in my life. I think that in some small way my mom would be happy to know where I was, and that she may even be there with me, smelling the smells, experiencing the colors, right alongside us.
So it is with these memories in my heart that I set out for our three-day journey to Laos today. Thailand has been wonderful and beautiful and spiritual in ways that I can't quite even begin to grasp. And starting tomorrow, I will have a whole new country to absorb, to soak up, and to experience from every angle.
** The spelling of Kaoli's name was wrong in my original posting. Many thanks to Harriet, who remembered the proper spelling and emailed to let me know that she had a dream where she could see my mom's papers with Kaoli's name on them. I can't quite explain how grateful I am that Harriet has dreams like that, but it makes me feel amazing to know that there are people in the world who are still so very connected to my mom.