Spring Cleaning

This essay and the accompanying art are part of our 2023 Southeast Asian New Year mini-series. While Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora celebrated the Lunar New Year earlier this year, diaCRITICS acknowledges that many other Southeast Asian countries follow a different tradition. This includes Thingyan from Myanmar, Pi Mai from Laos, Songkran from Thailand, and Choul Chnam Thmey or Moha Sankranti from Cambodia. In this mini-series, writers reflect on the meaning of their new year.

“Spring Cleaning, Dhyana Mudra” by Timothy Singratsomboune.

It’s overcast today, like every April day in Columbus, Ohio. The skies are their usual gray, but luckily, it’s warm enough for you to run around with the other 10-year-olds in only short sleeves.

“Let’s see how far we can make it spray,” you say to your friend C, while you’re shaking a can of Pepsi. Or, perhaps, she says it to you. You won’t really remember that part, nor will you remember how far the fizz actually sprays. You will remember wiping your cola-covered hands in the grass of C’s front yard, though. Going inside of either of your houses to clean up isn’t an option, you run the risk of being scolded for wasting food.

Faintly, you hear your name as your older sister calls out from your house’s driveway, next door. Her voice bounces off the trees.

You look up to see your dad’s silver Honda Civic in your driveway and start to walk back home. Without any goodbyes, as 10-year-olds often do, you leave C’s house hoping that you won’t be spending this weekend watching basic cable in your dad’s apartment.

“Okay, come on, let’s go,” your dad greets you, matter-of-factly as if you’ve been having a conversation that’s now concluding. You have no idea where you’re going. You get in the passenger seat, click the seatbelt, and you’re off.

“You get all A’s?” your dad asks, holding his lit Marlboro out of the cracked window.

“A’s and B’s,” you respond.

“Why B’s?” your dad asks, clearly annoyed.

You know “all A’s” was the right answer, but you also knew that a lecture was coming either way. The right answer would have prompted a lecture about how you need to keep the A’s, to which you could have only replied “uh huh” and “okay.” Mentioning B’s, though, prompts a lecture that gives you an excuse to argue.

Your dad begins his lecture.
You play with your friends too much; you need to do your homework.
School is how you become smarter.
You won’t make any money in the future.

Indignant, you shoot back at your dad’s digs with a few familiar gems.
I don’t need to do the homework because I ace the tests.
School is below my level.
I only need to pass my classes to move on.

Your dad pulls his Civic into the parking lot and stops the car. Like clockwork, the no-stakes argument stops with it.

You look around and notice that you’re at The Temple.
There is a large, paved parking lot with no marked spots,
a larger grass field with a few wooden picnic tables,
the wooden frame of a forthcoming sim (main shrine),
a refugee services office that houses the only bathroom for visitors,
a metal garage with karaoke equipment inside,
and a large house – half of which houses the monks, half of which houses sanctuary for worshippers.

Today, there is also a good number of older men and boys standing around the parking lot. A good portion are smoking Marlboros. The men hover around several folding tables close to the sanctuary entrance that hold two dozen or so golden Buddha statues.

“What are we doing here?” you ask, following your dad as he walks toward the sanctuary.

“We just come here for a minute,” your dad responds, half answering your current question, half halting your future questions.

You follow your dad to the one of the Buddha tables and he tells you to wait while he goes inside the sanctuary to “say hi” to his friends. You watch him walk away, leaving you with just the Buddhas, the clouds, and the men smoking Marlboros. You have no toys, no books, no friends, nor 2002-grade cellphone with you, so you cross your arms and stand there. The length of your dad’s small talk is comparable to the length of his lectures, so you know you will be waiting alone for a while.

You’re not exactly alone, though. There are the older boys and older men that you’ve seen here several times before. Many have tattoos—elephants, tigers, and various styles of Buddhas that are noticeably different from the ones you see on the tables. You’ve seen many of the older boys run around playing soccer before, and you’ve seen many of the older men sitting around playing cards before. You’ve seen all of them come to The Temple and know exactly
what to do,
where to be,
how to stand.

Despite vaguely knowing most of their faces, you know absolutely none of their names. While you’re standing with your arms folded, you hope to be invisible. Somehow everyone at the temple always seems to know your name, but you never know theirs. You don’t want to have to navigate an awkward conversation, or worse, have to say no if someone asks you to play soccer.

To fill the time, you stare at the elegant mounds of coiled hairs that sit on each of the Buddhas’ heads. The extended, elongated curves of these Buddhas’ silhouettes are so unlike the art that you’ve seen at school or in the doctor’s office—the few places where you see art. These artworks have a flowing rhythm and a bright golden shine. You’ve definitely seen these Buddhas at The Temple several times before, but you are still captivated by them now. The staleness of the surrounding drywall and aluminum structures make the gold of the Buddhas stand out even more from their cloudy, gray backdrop.

After what seems like an hour, your dad finally emerges from the sanctuary. He’s holding some rags, a bottle of lighter fluid, and a plastic baggie full of limes.

“Here,” your dad says, handing you a rag.

You have no idea what’s going on. You grab the rag with a slight grimace; even at age 10, you don’t like getting your hands dirty or greasy, and you feel the mix of lighter fluid and grime rubbing against each other in the cloth’s fibers. Your dad motions you to wipe the golden arms of one of the Buddhas, while he begins rubbing a lime wedge on its coiled hair.

You wipe the Buddha’s arm in the most elementary sense of the word “wipe,” simply touching the rag to the statue’s alloy, moving your hand slightly back and forth.

Like a hiss, your dad sharply says your name. It’s clear that he is unhappy. “You need to wipe it better. You need to clean off the dirt.”

Your face barely acknowledges him, but you begin to wipe with slightly more effort. Appeased enough, your dad wipes the lime wedge on the Buddha’s hair a few more times. He then walks off to smoke with the other men. The moment he takes his first step, you return to your lazy wiping.

Time passes slowly, as it does when you’re a 10-year-old boy,
who hates cleaning,
and talking to other men and boys,
surrounded by other men and boys,
while cleaning.

You do find some solace in the beautiful craftsmanship of the golden Buddhas. The long fingers, long earlobes, and the nose like a bird beak all ascend into the sharp point at the top of the hair mound. The curved eyes look half asleep, but somehow content. You are hardly wiping but are fiercely staring. Having been freshly polished, the Buddhas are increasingly dazzling as the Sun begins to set, shining with a hue that they had kept hidden before. That, and you have never been this close to the Buddhas before. You now look toward the sanctuary and, through its open door, gaze at the all of the statues inside. There are paintings of the Buddhas with a rainbow at his back, wooden carvings of a woman twist-drying her hair, and a massive sculpture of a three-headed man wearing a golden crown and a facial expression that is somewhere between agony and ecstasy.

All of the art has your gaze in a vice grip. Though you’ve seen it all before, this is the most time and the most quiet that you’ve shared with them. You have never been this close to the Buddhas before. But you still don’t know the story behind them, or any of the other art pieces. You want to, though.

A gray Columbus, Ohio breeze wipes you like a rag, rustling some loose gravel on the parking lot.

You already know that you’ll ask your dad about the meaning of today’s trip when he drives you home.
You already know that you’ll ask your dad who the people in all the artworks are.
You already know that any answers that he gives you won’t be clear or helpful.
You already know that your school’s library will only hold a limited number of books with limited amounts of relevant information.
You already know that, in Ohio, Lao identity seems to hold secrets that are so difficult to uncover.

You already know that you will be combing through every shelf and computer catalog on library day at school, regardless of anything. You are determined to find something.

You have no idea that, eventually, over a decade from now, you will come to understand the meaning of what you did at the temple today.
You have no idea that, after hour and hours and months and years, you will find books, databases, and even living storytellers to learn the meanings of so many other Lao cultural practices too.
You have no idea that you will be able to name the majority of the characters that you see in a Buddhist temple painting, carving, or hanging calendar.
You have no idea that the kids who look like they know exactly what to do at The Temple… only know what to do at the temple. They too have been disconnected from the reasons and the roots of so many rituals, having also been disoriented by their parents’ unclear answers.
You have no idea that you will come to understand why it is still so difficult for everyone’s parents to share this cultural information with their kids.
You have no idea that when you share the hard-won secrets of your Lao cultural research with those other kids, it will unleash the same epiphanous sparks of joy for them as it does for you.
You have no idea that, even in Laos, Lao identity seems to hold secrets that are so difficult to uncover – and that the learning is ongoing for everyone.

You have no idea that you will still stare, captivated, at the same Buddha statues even decades later in your life. Just now with a greatly deepened understanding of the deeply nuanced ways that they came to be.

It’s the Friday of Lao New Year weekend, 2002. You take one last look at the Buddhas out of the window of your dad’s silver Honda Civic, and you’re off.

Timothy Singratsomboune is a Lao American artist from Central Ohio. Across various media, Timothy likes to explore his Lao roots while also contorting the real and imagined borders that separate people from resources – and each other.

Timothy’s visual work has been shown with organizations like Brand New: Ohio and the Asia Pasifika Arts Collective, while his written work has been featured in publications like Bewildering Stories and Asian Americana. He also founded Lao New Queer – a Southeast Asian virtual artist showcase – in 2021.


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