Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Home in a New Place: Making Laos in Morganton, North Carolina

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Home in a New Place: Making Laos in Morganton, North Carolina

Article excerpt

"When you live your life, it is like going to a rice paddy. Your focus is on the rice, hut along the way you may pick up a cricket or see a snail. You take what you can along the way: life is not tunnel vision."--Lao proverb, as told by Noubath Siluangkhot

"It is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and, in every sense of the word, to bring us home."--Eudora Welty, "Place in Fiction," 1957

Food is the sensory landscape of Laos. In the city streets of Vientiane, smoke rises from grilling fish, chicken, and pork. Lower to the ground, vendors turn soft and short bananas evenly over charcoal. A fruit vendor rings his bell as he bicycles down the street. There is no explanatory sign or text; the gleaming fruits declare themselves on their own terms. Red and spiny rambutan, green raw mango (paired with spiced salt), and pale, chewy yellow corn gleam from behind the glass. Mopeds dart in and out of traffic, which slows as drivers judge the pineapples for sale on the back of a parked truck. The talats (markets) overwhelm you with a kaleidoscope of produce. Maneuvering through the heavily laden tarps, tables, and bargaining shoppers is a feat. Herbs and bitter greens lie beside parts of plants you never thought to eat: the leaves of squash and galangal flowers. Vientiane embraces a bend in the Mekong River, and even here, in the country's largest city, men and women fish in its waters. You see them heading home at dusk with shining silver fish in plastic crates. Venture just beyond the urban center and the landscape opens into lush rice paddies. Green papayas hang on drooping branches just steps from the kitchen and the mortar and pestle that will pound flavor into their flesh.

This is the world the Phapphayboun family left behind upon moving to the United States. Toon Phapphayboun, one of three daughters and a son, was the first to leave Vientiane. She did so by canoeing and swimming across the Mekong, fleeing a repressive regime heralded by the rise of the communist Pathet Lao party. She arrived in Los Angeles in 1981. Eleven years later, she successfully helped the rest of her family leave Laos for the United States. After living in California and Connecticut, the Phapphaybouns almost entirely reunited in Morganton, North Carolina, in 2003.

It was in Morganton, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, that I first met Toon and her family. At the time, I was seeking connections to the Hmong community in western North Carolina to investigate current textile traditions. Instead, the Phapphaybouns' enthusiastic welcome and love of their country pulled my work in an entirely different direction. Between November 2013 and May 2015, I visited Morganton ten times and I overlapped with some of the family in Vientiane for six weeks during July and August 2014. I completed over nineteen interviews, many with Toon acting as translator. I continue to be great friends with the Phapphaybouns, who are generous in both their stories and their hospitality. As so often happens during fieldwork, my initial questions were answered patiently, but it took months of spending time with the family before I began to understand the heart of their way of being in this world.

Looking for textiles, I met the Phapphaybouns. Throughout the course of my fieldwork, I have found more similarities than differences between textiles and foodways. Each art form is an indelible part of our everyday lives. We wake in the morning, dress, eat, and our day begins. By examining a weaving we can learn about a culture's taste preferences, technological developments, the influence of trade, and social norms--and the same can be said of the foods on the dinner table. Both humble and sublime, each art speaks of histories complex and intertwined. By seeking to understand such everyday arts--through the generosity of those we interview--we seek to understand life itself. …

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