By Ruth Ticktin
Most days before she went off to school, Dara was home alone with Matu, her grandmother. Matu was busy cooking for her husband and grandchildren, doing laundry, cleaning, mending clothes and sheets. Matu took Dara shopping with her, they walked to the market daily, and she made sure Dara was bathed, fed and put to bed. Dara spent as much time as possible down the road, looking at the ducks playing in the pond. When she was little, she couldn’t go on her own, though it was only a few hundred steps away. When her brother Keli was home from the local school, he’d go with her. Usually he was busy skipping stones or counting and piling up the stones. Dara would practice putting her head underwater like the ducks did; with her head on the surface of the water, pretending to eat, then out to breathe, and another smooth in-out, down and up. She quacked with the mallards, kept track of their numbers and markings, and counted the babies. In the evenings Potu, her grandpa, would let her sit on his lap. He would listen to the radio, sometimes relaxing and other times talking back to the radio, agitated.
Her mother used to come home on her day off, once a week. Ma laughed when Dara told her about the ducks, “Tadorna, that’s the science family name of the orange ducks you see here. Your pa told me this, he knows about ducks and geese and birds. That’s why we named you Dara. Pa made up a song we used to sing to you, “Ya Dara, Fly Tadorna.”
Because of her behavior at the pond with the ducks, Dara’s family gave her the silly nickname “Ped pen k-ped.” Keli was the first to start calling her “Duck like a duck,” because he would watch her imitations down at the water, and the name stuck.
When she began to attend school, she forgot all about ducks or following her grandparents around. She imitated Keli who was doing his schoolwork, his math, reading and drawing.
One hot humid day, just before the rainy season in 1975, mother came home and sent the children out, “Go play at the pond.” But they stayed near the house, hidden, and listened. Their mother explained to matu and potu that the situation was bad in Vientiane. The fighting stopped temporarily, but she’d lost her job.
“We’ll have to leave soon,” Keli whispered, “Ya Dara Fly Tadorna,” he sang.
Dara was born in Vientiane, Laos in 1965. Her family lived in a non-dense area south of the capital, not its own village, not a suburb, they called it a suan. Roads were unnamed, but the rues were walking distance. Those streets had cars and pedicabs, but no buses or trains. She lived near the Mekong River, the lowlands, very different from Thailand just on the other side of the river. She knew there was a war, heard about soldiers and took in the tension that entered their lives, when that occurred. There was much history and current events of her birthplace of which Dara was mostly ignorant in childhood. She didn’t know the history of the monarchy, about the Lao peoples of the highlands, nor of the French cultural influences. She didn’t know about clandestine armies formed with hill tribesmen, the Pathet Lao rise from rebel to government, the control commission, nor the permeation of US agencies, AID and CIA in Laos. Visitors have observed the unique personality of Lao people, where tension is not sustained. Writers remarks note that Lao have an air of apathy and a kind of anti-stress aura. This attitude of ambiance was true of Dara’s childhood and family life.
Dara did know that American influence in war and in aid existed, because her mother was a live-in housekeeper for the U.S. embassy’s staff. Dara’s oldest brother, Boun was at school in the city and lived with their pa. The rest of the family didn’t see either of them often.
Ma went on to explain that a lot of the diplomats were sent back to the US, only a few stayed on, and she was informed that working was no longer safe. Living in Vientiane area wasn’t out of harm’s way either. At night they heard bombs, usually in the distance. Once it was close to the capital and they were forced to hide in the center room, with only Matu allowed to go to the kitchen, the outer room.
The children began to see ma more frequently, but she was tense, and still went back and forth to the dense parts of the city. Finally, ma told her parents and children the decision she’d made. Her friend Mai, her former co-worker, was among the eight Lao who still worked for the US embassy, after so many had repatriated back to the U.S. Mai had spoken to the US consul, with whom she’d previously worked. She explained that there were many Lao who had lined up daily looking for visas to exit. They were mostly the rich but this consul, kongsun, was trying to arrange visas for them to enter the United States as asylees.
“Kongsun is more than his title. He has those special connections. He can arrange things, he’s connected, a powerful man.” Mai spelled out and the adults understood.
They were trying to get these ten former worker’s families to jump in the front of the line, or make it into this strict quota, but they had to wait. No word in May and in June they were told to try going to another country first and if that failed, they’d reconsider. In July there were anti-US demonstrations and an AID official was detained. In August, the US brought in a new ambassador who understood little of the dynamic of the changing government or coalition, or the US role of aid, if any.
Months went by, and the family waited. They ate rice and vegetables every day and tried not to stand out in the eyes of any officials. They all heard rumors of the re-education camps but were hoping that being lowland Lao and living so close to Vientiane, they were of less concern to their soon-to-be-new-government. Ma was trying to gather together money for the flights, selling the little bit that they had, and borrowing from other family. After the rainy season when the water levels in the river were high, they received good news from ma’s friend Mai. PaMai, aunty, the children now called her, was a widow with no children. She had succeeded in getting documents for herself and ma to travel with one family member each to accompany them. Ma explained,
“PaMai will protect one of you and I will protect the other. We four will travel together.”
“What about Pa and AiKeoa?” Keli asked.
“They will travel soon and join us in Amelika.”
“What about Matu and Potu?” Dara asked
“I hope they will come,” she looked down, “they don’t want to leave their home.”
Dara and Keli were sad, excited and scared. They began to listen to the radio for songs in English and practice the words that they knew.
The capital was going to be filled with soldiers, their mother explained to the children when they went to see pa towards the end of the year. The soldiers, big brothers, all wore green uniforms, with caps instead of police hats, and baggy pants. Many people had already left the capital, mostly crossing the river to Thailand. Few had been able, so far, to get to the United States. PaMai kept telling the children how lucky they were.
Finally, early in 1976, the four of them rode to the airport after tears goodbye from Matu and Potu. Instead of driving along on Rue Thadeua, they veered left onto waterfront and Dara thought that she saw the Mekong River for the first time. Maybe that wasn’t true, but she knew that she had to remember the sights because she may never return. She was already eleven years old, no longer a little girl. Everything was frightening at the airport, which continued on the long flight to Washington DC.
Ruth Ticktin has coordinated programs, advised students, and taught English in the Washington DC area since 1977. From Madison and Chicago, a University of Wisconsin graduate, Ruth encourages sharing stories. Coauthor: What’s Ahead? (ProLingua Assoc. 2013.) Contributor: EnglishClub, ThinAir, Niveous, BendingGenres Anthology18-19; PleaseSeeMe, Art in-Time-of Covid-19 (SanFedele Press.) https://rticktindc.wixsite.com/ruth