Learning To Love You More




Assignment #14
Write your life story in less than a day.

Souvankham Thammavongsa
Toronto, Ontario CANADA



I don't remember what it was like when I was born except for the things my parents told me when I was growing up or that my parents' friends told me. Before I was born my parents lived in Laos, and there, they built a raft made of bamboo and used it cross the Me Kong River and into a Thai refugee camp. Their birth certificates and everything they have before this time that belonged to them was lost or damaged by the water. What was saved was a red basket and an old pot to cook food in. Shortly thereafter, I was born. My mother said it was an easy birth and I came out immediately. At first everyone thought I was dead because I was so small and quiet. I never cried. My eyes were open and I was just looking at everyone. This really frightened my mother. She tore the umbilical cord with her teeth and tied mine into a knot that fell out after several weeks. The doctor told my parents I was small and premature. I weighed two pounds. The size of a pop can. He told my parents to take me to a real hospital otherwise I wouldn't survive. My father took off the shirt he was wearing and wrapped me up in it and took me home. They left me in a hammock for several days but then they noticed a wet spot and my mother said, "Eng! It looks like she's living" and she then gave me some breast milk. My first word was water, or in Laotian, it's "Nam." My parents often fell asleep in the refugee camp but made a spot with their two bodies such that there was room for me to sit in the middle and not crawl away. A friend of theirs told me I looked like a strange child because I was so pale and had no hair on my head, not even eyebrow hair. She said I'd sit in that spot my parents made with their bodies and while they slept I chased away the flies that landed on them. She thought I was a good kid who took care of my parents. We ended up in Canada where there was a lot of snow and we lived in the basement of a kind church-going couple named Olga and Earnest. My parents said Oma bought clothes for us but it was too big. There is a picture of us in Canada for the first day. My parents are wearing oversized winter coats and they look twelve years old. I am wearing a blue snow pantsuit and the hood is shaped like a cone. It's pointy. And I'm serious looking. In the background there are mounds and mounds of snow. I don't remember much of this time except from pictures I've seen. I am always wearing green overalls and a white shirt. My parents moved out of Oma and Earnest's basement but we'd go visit them for Christmas or Thanksgiving or our birthdays. My favourite memory of presents was when I got a real Barbie doll. Most of my Barbie dolls were made of plastic but the kind you can press on and then the plastic would sink into something flat. The Barbie I got for Christmas had a real solid plastic. I remember going to church too and learning the Lord's prayer. Whenever I got scared I'd cite the Lord's prayer. I do remember when we were living in Oma and Earnet's basement, I had knocked on their door and asked if I could live upstairs with them because they had chocolates. They wouldn't let me and I cried and cried. They then gave me a puzzle to finish that had a thousand pieces and when it was done I was sitting on top of the world. I think this incident of wanting to live upstairs with them was a feeling that never went away. Throughout my adult life I would always feel like I'm living in someone's basement and always wanted to be upstairs in their world where it's perfect and fun. My first real relationship felt that way. He had other lovers and I always thought he was having more fun with them. Maybe he wasn't but because I wasn't there I just assumed he was. I felt like I was living in his basement and anytime he wanted sex or friendship or attention, he'd open the door and take me in, but while there I always had this uneasy feeling that I'd be sent down or back to where I left. I was happy sometimes but that happiness always felt like the backside of an even greater unhappiness. It didn't work out with him but looking back I'm glad I was there when I was because the experience hurt and it made me fearless. He was what it would have been like if Oma and Earnest let me live upstairs. I really always belonged somewhere else and to someone else even if I didn't want to. In grade seven, I was asked to write an autobiography. We were supposed to fill a cardboard with things like baby pictures and birth certificates. I remember hating this project because I had no birth certificate and there were no baby pictures. I also hated to tell people where I was born because it sounded so alien. I wanted to be born in Mississauga or at Sunny Brook Hospital instead of something like a refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand. I hated when people asked where that was and I'd have to point all the way to the other side of the map to show them where it was. I asked my parents where my birth certificate was and they said, "You were born in a refugee camp. You don't have one." Years later they would show me an old paper of my immigration status and how it said "Stateless." I think that fostered the idea that I never belonged anywhere even where I was supposed to belong.
When I was sixteen we lived in a van because my parents lost their jobs. The savings account that my father set up for me when I was twelve was cashed in to buy an industrial building where my parents work and started their own sign-making and screen-printing business. I worked there in the summers when I was in high school. We weren't allowed to live in the building because it was classified by city as a residential building. It was illegal. Sometimes we would sleep in the building but it would smell of paint thinner so we'd sleep in a van. I took a bucket of water to a drain at the back of the building for a bath. I mostly slept in the front seat passenger side. I got to school at 7:30am and when a teacher asked me what I was doing there so early, I'd say I loved school and was so excited to be there. After school, my mother would be waiting in a mall parking lot. I hated the van and didn't want her to drive up to the school in that thing. Late evenings we'd park in the parking lot of malls so I could do my math homework while listening to a hockey game on the radio. I felt at the time I was owed one. That the team I was cheering for should win the Stanley cup since that's what I was wishing for even though I needed a home to live in. I loved doing my math homework then because you could always arrive at an answer or you would be given tools to arrive at an answer. My math binder was absolutely exquisite with beautifully drawn diagrams and graphs in coordinating colors and my test scores were usually 100%. I worked hard at this because my math teacher always called out our marks in front of the class and I didn't want anyone to know I was poor and living in a van. Maybe if I did real well my teacher wouldn't call a parent/teacher conference. Plus it always felt amazing when I was thought to be perfect or when I could make something perfect by my own terms and hard work. It felt like I had all the riches in the world and like I was pretty. I did eventually go to university. Because I worked with my parents in the summer they promised they'd pay for my tuition. I remember my father couldn't spell Ôthree thousand dollars' so he asked me to write the check for myself and also balance his account book. I remember there was only $34 left when I wrote the check for myself. I knew this was the reason he broke those bamboo branches, tied them together and used it to get across the Me Kong river. I was their lottery ticket. When I was in university, I just remember feeling embarrassed. Like I was from a basement knocking on a door for a place. And I was. I felt like I was behind in every way. I didn't know Dante or Ulysses or the sonnets as well as the people in my class did. I felt like dropping out of school because I didn't want to be there. I wanted to work but I needed to finish and do this for my parents even if I had the privilege to drop out. At the university, there was a tiny church that seated about ten people and I'd go there every day just to sit in that quiet space to think or enjoy that silence. In the last two final years of university I had to pay for it myself. I applied for a few jobs and ended up working for a financial newspaper as a research assistant. It turned out that I was really good at paying attention and being alert while performing tasks that others would consider mind numbing and absolutely boring. I loved this job because like those math problems you just had to work through it. You had to get across the river in the boat you were in and figure out the velocity you'd be traveling in. That was clear and it was simple. Things like who your family was and where you were born or how well you spoke English or how much money was in the bank or the color of your skin wasn't there and didn't have to be factored into the equation. It was simple. The velocity. The answer. You never had to do anything with Bob once he got across the river. Didn't have to find him a home or food to eat or a job to have. And he was always named something simple like Bob or John. I've kept this job and have been working there for the last seven years. When I lost friends or my family was falling apart or when I didn't have a place to go to it was always there and solid. There were so many numbers to type and so many things to do and get done in those hours that I never stopped to think about things outside of it that were hurting me or bothering me. My parents fought a lot when I got older mostly about money. My mother was a gambler and often gambled thousands away. She said she liked gambling because sometimes in a day she could make two hundred or five hundred or more than any job she could ever get. But what she never seemed to notice was how much she gambled to get that five hundred a week. My parents fought a lot during this time. My father beat her at an even bigger gamble. He bought a house because he said he was almost fifty years old and he was still sleeping in the living room floor. He wanted them to have their own bedroom. A place to call their own. My mom stopped gambling after that. I moved into a little apartment on a street called Grace. It snowed a lot that winter and it always looked so beautiful and pure outside on top of the trees. I worked two jobs. The one I love at the financial newspaper and also at a bank across the street. I worked from 9:30pm to 7:00am in the basement of a bank and walked across the street to my real job on the seventh floor and stayed there until 3:30pm. I soon got fired from the job at the bank. Well, laid off actually. They said I was just there to help with the Christmas rush and they'd call me back again. It was a weird time. I was sleeping at my own apartment on top of my winter coat as mattress and then going to the basement of the bank. Finger printed and criminally checked. I counted millions of dollars in cash, sorted out the twenties and fifties and hundreds and piled them together, stamped and labeled each package. I wrapped and bundled my garbage in case something was accidentally thrown away. The people I worked with were my parents' age and were from east or south asia. We worked the night shift counting cash deposits made by grocery stores. They came in large deposit bags and we'd cut into them with a knife so it didn't look like employees at the store messed with the deposit. Around 3am we'd leave our work space and make a square around the basement and dance to music that had a lot of beats. We'd stretch our arms out and swim or kick our legs out and jump. I was the youngest there. We celebrated Christmas and New Year's there with buffet food. After a month of counting live cash and working in the basement of the bank I got fired and got a lot of sleep. I remember waking up in my own first apartment and loving it. The hardwood floors and the sunlight and the closet that belonged to me. The new mattress on the floor was mine to sleep in alone. I'd watch television at 3am and feel like I was being comforted. I was disappointed I lost the bank job because it helped give me a little extra money but looking back now it was the best thing that ever happened to me because if I wasn't fired I'd never have time to go out to dinner with my friends. I did just that a few weeks after being fired and was introduced to a man who would, in three weeks, become my husband. I knew he was going to be my husband on our first date. He was so happy and delighted that I was there. I was too. In all of this, my job was still there for me. Loyal and perfect and solid and kept out of my way while I figured out how to set my life a little right. The velocity. The answer. For the first time I feel like I'm living upstairs and having fun and laughing and traveling.