Thursday, February 17, 2005
Memory Box

How about something new here at PrairieTide? Down in the basement, I've kept a box labeled "Memories." I've been wondering what's in the box, but I've also had this reluctance to go through it. Sometimes it's easier to leave memories tucked away in the basement. This morning, I asked Randy to help me carry it upstairs. My mom sent me the box when she moved last. It's full of a bunch of stuff from when I was growing up, old report cards and art projects, that kind of thing. Every now and then, I plan to reach into the box, pull something out at random, and write about.

Right on top of the box was a Hmong coin purse that was given to me when I was probably in the 8th grade. Back then, my family was participating in a church outreach program for the growing Hmong and Laotian community in Modesto, California. Each Sunday, we went to a small Mormon church service with a community of recent immigrants who were deeply engaged in learning English, learning their way around their new California home, and adapting to a new way of life. I always considered it a real honor to grow up as a kid getting to know this wonderful group of people. Both the Hmong and the Laotian communities have rich cultural traditions they brought with them to California, and growing up we were lucky enough to learn more about their lives.

The Hmong women had long practiced a traditional needlework form called ???, and in California they began adapting their handiwork to a new market. Recently, I've seen beautiful ?? artwork displayed in museums and art galleries. There are different types of ??. Some pieces use pictures to tell a story, often the epic journeys the Hmong made, leaving their homeland in Laos during the aftermath of the Vietnam War, finding temporary shelter in crowded Thai refugee camps, to making new lives the United States. Other ??? pieces use more geometric symbols, overlying strips of fabric combined with colorful cross stitch in traditional patterns.

The Hmong artwork I've seen lately uses a pallet more adapted to modern tastes. Rich blues and subtle grays with hints of rose. What strikes me about the little coin purse is the funky colors. The brown, green, and gold fabric pocket set off by the red, white, and blue pompoms. Maybe it's my imagination, but it looks to me like a melding of two traditions. The Hmong way of life with it's earthy colors and traditional symbols, contrasting with the brash American red, white, and blue jangles along the edges. Together is is a collage of two worlds coming together.

A few years back, I found a book called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It's a non-fiction book about a Hmong family with a daughter who has severe seizures. The book portrays the difficulty the modern medical doctors, social workers, and other careworkers have understanding the family, which leads to a tragic outcome. It's a fascinating exploration of the way two different cultures view health and medicine, and it also portrays the California Hmong community as a resilient force that continues to exhibit a strong, sometimes stubborn, cultural identity.

As I study the little coin purse, I'm not sure who gave it to me. Members of our church group gave our family a number of handmade treasures. At one point, I was even given a dress with elaborate stitches around the hem. Looking at the little coin pocket, I hope I was a grateful receiver, though I'm pretty sure I never used it. The purse is only big enough to hold a few coins, and at the time I probably thought it didn't match my cool '80s fashions. Since I moved away from California during my college years, I've completely lost touch with most of my old friends. This, I admit, is one of my deep regrets.

Hmong culture is such an interesting addition to the American way of life. I like to imagine that in a few years a new generation of artists will emerge from the Hmong community, writers and painters and filmmakers who will bring this culture more recognition and understanding.

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