My life changed with a single telegram. A young soldier brought it on foot. My mother read it, wept. The soldier stood helpless in front of her, his face full of empathy, but not knowing what to do, he let his arms hung awkwardly by his side. I was a child of six. I watched them from behind the doorway unseen. As young as I was, I knew what telegrams and weeping mothers meant.
Against my worst imagining, the telegram wasn't news of my father's death. It was far worse. He was imprisoned in a communist camp.
Like all able-bodied men in Laos, my father and his brothers joined the army and went off to war. And it wasn't even their war. North Vietnam invaded their country, and now they were in a crossfire between North Vietnam and its enemy, the United States. B-52's were unloading bombs every eight minutes. When it was over, more than two million tons of bombs would be dropped on this Southeast Asian country the size of Utah.
So that telegram. My mother was instructed to take her children across the Mekong to find safety in Thailand. Dad predicted the fall of his beloved Laos. We know today his prediction came true. Laos is now one of the five remaining socialist states in the world.
It was a full year before we were to see my dad again. He was given up for dead. But he pulled a dramatic escape. He swam across the Mekong, using a wooden log to rest and hide himself until he reached the shores of Thailand.
After my dad surfaced, he began his new chapter of freedom, somewhat ironically, in a Thai refugee camp. There were still guard stations and barbed wire fences but one was free to go outside its walls.
As you might imagine, life inside a refugee camp was hard. The obvious, of course, was the poverty, hunger, disease, misery and waiting. Waiting for protein packets. Waiting to see Jesus. The movie. Christian missionaries were a huge part of daily life. And for ones refusing to believe that their country was lost to them forever, waiting to go home.
These things did not enter fully into my child's mind then. As an adult, I can now offer up some added perspective but not by much. When pressed for details, my parents will only speak in vague terms about this chapter in our lives. I believe that in itself is telling.
I can only imagine how difficult it was for them, especially for my dad. He was inside a refugee camp, shouldered with a pregnant wife and three toddler daughters, and all the while, he was still dealing with his own demons after returning from war and escaping from a prison that meted out unimaginable torture.
But he and my mom did the best they could to shield their children from its harsh realities and made it a thing of adventure.
The greatest gift of one's childhood is adaptability. And if one is lucky, this gift is carried into adulthood.
Inside the refugee camp, the richest of experiences happened to me here. Joy found its way here. Faith took seed and blossomed here. Hope watered and fed everything else.
No matter your circumstances, if you ever feel imprisoned or caged, I offer up these three lessons on joy.
1. Never take a day for granted. Refugees lived with a great deal of impermanence. They understood that nothing lasts. Each day was a chance to try and make it better than the day before. I believe Westerners called this mindfulness.
2. Seek out simple pleasures. There were no toys, games or other luxury, only our imagination. As children, we took baths by the public well, played hopscotch in the street, climbed trees. Adults sat, talked and laughed for hours over their children's antics. Being great tribal storytellers, they embellished ordinary happenings to mythic proportions, and went to great lengths to get a laugh.
3. Have the audacity to see beyond your current circumstances. There was a phrase I heard over and over in that refugee camp, and it was oht jhai. It has no literal English translation. The closest meaning would be: "This, too, shall pass." Laotians believe all circumstances are temporary, and if you have the patience to wait them out, you will turn a corner. Something better awaits. If not, that too shall pass.