I was 17 days shy from turning four years old when we first arrived in Minnesota from a Thai refugee camp. It was 1985.
The first month after our arrival, my mother’s youngest sister Siboon, and Mary (a member of the church that sponsored us), planned my birthday party at our duplex on Marshall and Oxford. Aunt Siboon dressed me in a crisp white blouse and a black velvet skirt. The outfit was new and not a hand-me-down. I held a Lao kahn (an ornate bowl traditionally made from silver), and stood beside a Christmas tree. Inside the kahn were candy canes and small boxes wrapped in colorful paper. It was my birthday, but I handed out gifts to my little friends and my parents’ newly-made friends (people I barely knew and to this day, whose faces do not readily and clearly float to the surface of my memory). I felt like a magnificent host handing each person their box. Their smiles were long and stretched wide. There I was, a girl whose family came with nothing, giving away what little we could.
In the third grade, I complained to my parents that my classmates at Randolph Heights Elementary School teased me about my clothes. Even though my mother, Sanouthith, carefully inspected every piece for rips, holes, stains, and odor before bringing them home, I still wished for new clothes from Montgomery Ward. After recess one day, two girls saw me scrubbing my shoes with wet brown paper towels. They didn’t say anything, only stared. “My mom needs me to take care of them,” I said. For nearly a week, I made a ritual of scrubbing off the dirt that clung to the sides and soles. One day, a Hmong classmate understood what I was doing and she handed me a paper towel.
“When we came to this country as orphans of our motherland, we came with nothing. We had our palms out, opened, ready to accept anything that was given to us. When we get better, when we have more than enough, we will be the ones who will reach out our hands, our palms facing down, and we will be the givers,” said the new friend. I’ve remembered it since and I’ve committed to making it a guiding principle.
In middle school, an English teacher gave me an alphabetized list of writers of color. She told me to become friends with their stories, poetry and essays. She told me the essay I wrote about helping my parents pick cucumbers on a farm in southern Minnesota was a strong story and encouraged me to write more. I told her I wasn’t sure how to start and she handed me a black-and-white composition notebook. I accepted it with two hands.
It took me six years to finish the Master of Liberal Studies program at the University of Minnesota College of Continuing and Professional Studies (CCAPS). My friend Lori encouraged me to design a learning journey that held space for real-world experience and my writing and affirmed my cultural lineages and socio-political identities. Through Theresa, Marlina, and Kimberly, I was given leadership opportunities at Intermedia Arts, Ananya Dance Theatre, and the St. Paul Almanac, respectively.
Last month, Dean Robert Stine shared with me that CCAPS recently received a generous gift of $32.5 million from the late Karin Larson. I was floored. Ms. Larson graduated from CCAPS in 1961 with an interdisciplinary degree. Through her gift, students will have access to the same quality education that I did, especially students who have traditionally been underserved by higher education such as BIPOC and first-generation students. Ms. Larson passed away in 2021, but her generosity will impact thousands of students and the communities and industries they’ll enter.
When I think about my relationship with giving and accepting, I often think about my silver khan of wrapped mystery gifts and outreached palms facing up/facing down. Sometimes all we can give are trinkets and sometimes that’s enough. Like, wet brown paper towels. Like, Buddhist stories. Like composition notebooks. Like seats at the table. Sometimes, we can give more.
Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay