This podcast was recorded, edited, and produced entirely by a team of currently incarcerated people in the San Quentin Prison Report and the San Quentin ROOTS program. This episode explores Anouthinh Pangthong’s early childhood experiences as a child refugee, intergenerational traumas experienced by him and his mother, and the power of poetry and learning to express oneself. Hosted and edited by Adnan Khan. Transcript by Andrew Cheng.
As a young’un, I was tryna find myself. Asian in America, how do I define myself? Cause labels, they do nothin but make me confine myself. Conformity demands that I deny myself. Never again…
Adnan Khan (AK): This story is about a juvenile lifer named Anouthinh Pangthong, better known as Choy. He is a Laos immigrant who was born in a refugee camp. Choy comes from a culture and upbringing where expressing oneself is not taught or shown by family.
In this story, Choy takes us on a journey of finding the power of poetry and spoken word to finally express himself. For the San Quentin ROOTS program, I’m Adnan Khan with that story.
Anouthinh Pangthong (AP): My name is Anouthinh Pangthong. I’m Lao, I’m thirty-five years old, and I’ve been incarcerated since I was fifteen, going on twenty years now. I committed a first degree murder, and received a twenty-five years to life sentence.
I shot and killed a man. I was fifteen at the time. That first night, in juvenile hall, was probably like, most scariest night of my life. You know, my mother came and visited me. And here was this woman who I detested right, here she was that night visiting me. I remember, just, the look on her face, you know. And growing up, we didn’t talk about feelings or emotions, but that night is probably the most powerful night of my life, you know. That was the night where I first gave my mom — me and my mom, that was the first time we hugged each other, you know. And she’s this itty bitty woman, you know, and I’m this itty bitty kid, you know, like, sobbing. And my mother, so strong that night, she literally held us up.
Self doubt, it all began at birth. Little refugee baby born into the madness of this world. Moms cross continents to provide brighter future, but I was out pulling licks and hits and snatching purses…
It was almost like a revelation to me, where: dang, this woman, for all that she did and for all the stuff she didn’t say, for all the stuff that she didn’t do, that night, she did everything for me, and it gave me much more material to write about.
They say: to know your history is to know yourself. Well, I was severed at the roots and so my leaves couldn’t branch out…
Writing about that stuff in juvenile hall, now I started writing more about family life and, you know, my future, about myself, what I learned about myself. Even at fifteen years old, you know, learning that family, the family that I ran away from, right, these were the people that loved me. Even though we didn’t express that love, these were the people that were behind me.
In the confines of her womb, I was created in her likeness. Slanted eyes, black hair, ten toes and fingernails. In the confines of her womb, connected by a cord of nutrients and oxygen, she carried me for nine months passing on the genes of generations before her…
My mother, she was twenty-three, twenty-four. She and a friend, you know, were escaping the civil war in Laos. They crossed the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand. She used a bicycle inner tube to help her stay afloat, you know, because the current is pretty strong. And at the time, she was two months pregnant with me.
Connected by a cord of nutrients and oxygen, she carried me for nine months, passing on the genes of generations before her.
When my mother crossed to Thailand, she reached a refugee camp, and she was two months pregnant with me, so at the refugee camp, she stayed there for a while, and that’s where I was born.
She raised and nurtured a child of war, a refugee baby born of bullet shells and napalm bombs…
Day-to-day living at that time was very difficult, right, and so, I remember she was telling me a story about her harvesting rice. And just having to do it during the daytime because during the nighttime, there would be raids, nightly raids, you know, and so there would be these bombs dropped at night. And she gave names to the planes that was flying over head, right, she called them spooks. Because you know, at nighttime, all right, this is at nighttime, so it’s like they’re haunting the countryside. They’re haunting the countryside, overhead and they’re dropping bombs.
When all around her, destruction and war, despair and sorrow, but in the belly, a fetus incubates and awaits the day of exile into a nation not of control. She fled the land of her mother and father, an infant child in her arms, she migrated to a land of unknowns, escaping the camps and self-deprivation…
So I know my mom, she doesn’t say much, especially about her feelings, right, she doesn’t share, at all. But growing up, I get a sense of disconnect sometimes you know, and just, you know, depression, right. And so, she’s here in the States, her family, mother and father they’re over there in the country still, and so, I know she worried about them a lot, right. And I remember she used to get migraines.
Her sweet demeanor and humble approach mask the tears, but her eyes are the windows to her soul and despite what they say, they cannot tell lies. She exhales love like carbon dioxide not only to her sons, but to the sons and daughters of others. And in the confines of her womb, I was created in her likeness. I pray, I will create in her likeness…
Those were the visible signs, the visible things I seen, what my mom go through, but I also seen her being withdrawn from me, my brothers, and my dad, right, it’s like, she just wanted to be left alone.
Her sweet demeanor and humble approach mask the tears, but her eyes are the windows to her soul, and despite what they say, they cannot tell lies.
I express myself raised like, it was so non-constructive, it was so destructive, right. It was more with violence and more with my hands, and fighting with other kids and with my brothers, you know. At the time, I was just confused a lot, you know, especially growing up having to look for my own self-identity, where I belong, where I fit in, and not really having anybody to help navigate that, to help me navigate, you know, my own being, right. So, a lot of times I was confused, and so, you know, being confused, and not finding answers, I became frustrated.
As a young-un, I was tryna find myself. Asian in America, how do I define myself? Cause labels, they do nothing but make me confine myself. Conformity demands that I deny myself. Never again…
I was twelve years old when I joined a gang. I wanted so much to fit in. I wanted so much to be liked, to be accepted. All of this played a major part of, you know, me joining a gang. And I literally subjected myself to, like, probably the worst thirty seconds of my life, right. And these guys were seventeen, eighteen years old, you know, jumpin’ on a twelve year old. I was twelve, bro, you know?! And I’m gettin kicked in the face and punched in the face, and thrown! I remember gettin’ thrown into the air. Both my feet was in the air and I landed on my head, you know, and I remember, right when I landed, somebody just stomped on my face. Twelve years old! You know? And I subjected myself to this. Why? Because I wanted to fit in. And so, after that thirty seconds, you know, I got the hugs. And it’s like, aw yeah, this is what I wanted! The hugs, the daps, you know, like… “Yeah, you’re one of us now.”
And now, I’m nineteen years removed from the life I once knew, I, I ran them streets, heels pounding like heartbeats on pavement and concrete…
Writing for me at that time, it lifted like this boulder that was on my chest, right, and it just allowed me to just express more of my feelings. It opened me up, it allowed just the emotions, the raw emotions, right, the tears that I cried that night with my mother, that translated, you know, to paper. To words. You know, I was able to just express, to just let it flow, you know, and so, that’s what the poetry did for me at that time. It was my companion in juvenile hall. You know, it was my companion. And I wrote almost every night. It allowed me to say the things I wanted to say for the whole fifteen years of my life.
I embrace the streets and everything that it gave. Ditched my own family in search for that street fame. But all I found was empty promises and broken bottles, desperate faces of the wasted, spotted on every street corner. From the camps to the ghettos, we had no chance. American dreams replaced with pipe dreams, we can’t go back. The blood of a nation that courses through my veins and it kills me to say, it’s the home I know only by name. Stateless.
Through my writing and through the work I do in finding myself, right, I know, I know who joy is, you know. I no longer have to subject myself to the thirty seconds of beating, right, to be accepted, you know. Because I know who joy is.
As a young-un, I was tryna find myself. Asian in America, how do I define myself? Because labels, they do nothing but make me confine myself. Conformity demands that I deny myself. Never again.
You know, I am this compassionate person. I am a brother, I am an uncle, I am a son, right? All these things, all of these characteristics of what joy is, is who I am. So now I’ve accepted that, right, and so that allows me to be me. And accept myself. I no longer, like I said, I no longer have to look for myself outwards, because I’ve accepted myself inwards.
AK: For the San Quentin ROOTS program, I’m Adnan Khan reporting for SQPR.