Where do I begin?
My childhood was mostly normal, but my years growing up were also filled with strange traditions that I didn’t fully understand. For example, in the summer before the seventh grade, I had an unusual request after helping my mother’s first cousin with a ritual. She was a talented shaman in her fifties, whom I called Aunty Lee. As a spiritual healer, she worked with a spirit that presented itself through shaman tools, such as a set of baskets. After that first visit, Aunty Lee asked that I return to help her as much as I could. It was shockingly scary to hear such a request at eleven years old. Assisting her meant holding the other side of the basket for the spirit for the entire duration of the ritual, which lasted hours. Aunty Lee explained that it’s like holding the door open for the spirit. It was a very draining experience for me.
Why had the spirit requested me?
Aunty Lee said that basket spirit prefers to work with me, and that it would like to work with me as much as it could. That was all the reason she gave me.
How did a spirit request me if it didn’t speak?
After the first time I assisted Aunty Lee with a ritual, she tried to perform another ritual the same week, but the basket spirit would not come out. The basket hardly moved. She asked a few people, including adults and some children, to take the other side of the handle, but the result was the same. The spirit communicated by moving the basket in certain ways and shapes, and as
the shaman of this practice, Aunty Lee interpreted those movements and shapes as messages, people, animals, and things. The shape the spirit repeatedly created that week represented me.
My mother brought me by to help Aunty Lee on the evenings and weekends. Months later, I asked Aunty Lee again why the spirit still asked for me. She finally gave me an answer.
“You are stronger than the rest,” said Aunty Lee. “And it likes you.”
I didn’t know what that really meant. I still don’t.
Those years were not so normal now that I think back to them. I constantly had nightmares, and my friends disliked sleeping over because they would experience horrifying dreams about the dead and demons, and only from sleeping on my bed.
Recently, in the spring of 2020, I discovered that I was born into a long line of shamans. These days, many people can learn to become shamans. My mother explained that in her time of living in Laos, in her father’s time, and long ago, shamans were chosen by spirits and ancestors. The chosen ones would become suddenly ill, and it would take a shaman to find the root of the illness. The chosen ones were given a choice to become a shaman or not, and if the answer is YES,
then they were given spiritual gifts. Some people became spiritual healers, some would travel into the netherworld, and some can ferry the dead among other things. My grandfather from my mother’s side, his father, and their ancestors were chosen shamans. All three of my mother’s sisters were chosen shamans as well.
My mother studied herbs and healed people through traditional medicine. Growing up, I’ve seen her chant small spells to protect our home, and perform short rituals to bring our spirits home during the Hmong new year. I suppose my mother is somewhat of a shaman.
Nowadays, when I see her chant something I don’t understand, or perform a ritual I’ve never seen before, I’ll stick around and ask her about it afterwards. She gets irritated when she finishes a spell or ritual and turns around to find me filming her. She says I ask too many questions. I say, I don’t know enough about my heritage.
Take for example, a random night in the winter of 2020. My curiosity came after many nights of seeing my mother hang a broom beside the front door. She’s done this for a few years, but only late at night. So, one night, I was up watching a horror show, and my mother hung the boom up and spoke to it, like the night before.
“Mom, why are you talking to a broom?”
“Stop talking,” my mother answered annoyed.
She walked behind me, and I followed her.
“Should I bring the broom back?”
“No. Leave it there to watch the house.”
Really? I looked to the broom. It was just an old, handmade broom, and it was falling apart.
“Why do you need the broom to watch the house?” I asked.
“To keep evil spirits out.” She switched off the kitchen lights and slammed the door behind her.
I stood in the dark, afraid to walk over to the living room to shut off the television.
Welcome to my dark and strange world.
Art by G. S. Cheek