I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find a suitable book to read for my post about Laos (officially, Lao People’s Democratic Republic). The only book I was aware of, Mother’s Beloved, by Outhine Bounyavong, was a short story collection, and I was hoping for a novel. So when I was browsing in a used bookstore one day, I was delighted to come across A Thousand Wings, the debut novel of T. C. Huo, who was born in Laos but now lives in Northern California.
A Thousand Wings tells the story of Fong Mun, a gay man who is a caterer and cookbook author living in San Francisco. He is giving a demonstration on the preparation and serving of egg rolls in the home of a client when he meets and becomes attracted to a young man named Raymond. They discover that they are both from Laos, although Raymond was so young when he left that he has no recollection of that country. Raymond asks Fong Mun for his egg roll recipe, and Fong Mun responds by offering to show him how to make them in person. Raymond goes to Fong Mun’s house, and at that point, the rest of the book is basically the story of Fong Mun’s life in Laos.
Fong Mun’s childhood was spent in Luang Prabang, which was at that time the royal capital of Laos. Fong Mun lived with his father, mother, and grandmother on property shared with other people, including a photographer and the K. family. Fong Mun’s father, Mr. Fong, worked in a darkroom developing the pictures taken by Mr. Woo, the photographer. Fong Mun was interested in food even then, planting a garden and fuming whenever the neighbors would help themselves to the fruits of his labor, or encroach on what he considered to be his space.
The year was 1975, however, and Fong Mun’s life was about to be turned upside down. First, his family heard on the radio that Saigon had fallen. Next, pro-Communist students began protesting in the streets of Luang Prabang, and a group called the Brothers came into the neighborhood to take inventory of all the trees and livestock each household had. Some food began to be rationed, the practice of Buddhism started to be repressed, and Communist indoctrination replaced regular instruction at Fong Mun’s school. Eventually, the principal led the students on a march to the royal palace, meeting up with other protesters along the way, and the king was forced to abdicate his throne.
Fong Mun stopped going to school after that, and his parents, fearing for his future, sent him to Bangkok with the K. family. They tried to keep a low profile because they had no legal right to live there, and eventually, they fled to the countryside to stay with friends. This transitory life was summed up by Uncle Hahn, a friend of Fong Mun’s father: “From China to Vietnam, running from the Japanese. Then from Vietnam to Laos, running from the Communists. And now running from the Communists again. Running all my life.”
Fong Mun finally met up with his family in a refugee camp in Thailand, and later settled in the United States, while other people he knew went to live in France, Australia, and Canada. Although San Francisco is now his home, Fong Mun tells Raymond, “We’re all guests.” Undoubtedly thinking of his garden in Luang Prabang, he says, “We moved from country to country, from garden to garden. We adopted different tongues, went by different names – picked up different recipes.”
A Thousand Wings captures the dichotomy of the immigrant experience: a longing for the familiarity and the cherished moments from one’s home country, combined with the resilience and determination to make the best of the opportunities available in the new country.
Since the first nine pages of A Thousand Wings are devoted to a discussion of egg rolls, it was clear to me early on that I would have to figure out how to make vegan egg rolls for this blog post. I found a recipe for Lao Style Fried Spring Rolls at SimplyLaddie.com that was not even remotely vegan, but I veganized it as well as I could. I found vegan egg roll wrappers, substituted diced tofu for the ground pork, used Just Egg in place of the eggs, and replaced the oyster sauce and the fish sauce with hoisin and soy sauce.
To serve the egg rolls, I adhered to Fong Mun’s admonition: “Salad is an integral part of eating egg roll. It provides a communal experience and lets you compose your own dish.” This meant wrapping the egg roll in red leaf lettuce, along with mint, cilantro, and a spoonful of noodles.
This was quite a process, but the egg rolls turned out pretty well. Whenever I eat egg rolls in a restaurant from now on, I’ll have new respect for all the work that went into making them.
Four projects in Laos were listed on the GlobalGiving website, all education-related and all operated by the same nonprofit organization, Action Change. According to the description of the project I chose: “Laos is a country with education inequality, particularly affecting the poorer communities and young girls. Due to education in Laos only being compulsory for 5 years, the education they do receive is often poor quality and under-resourced. This project aims to tackle the education inequality in these areas by providing quality educational resources, teacher training and improved facilities to encourage children to continue their studies into higher education.”
More information about this project is available at Fund Educational Resources in Laos - GlobalGiving.
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