Barbed wire in winter • Wikimedia Commons

As the holiday season is in full effect, many in our community are gearing up for family gatherings to catch up with loved ones or busy holiday shopping, spending countless hours searching for that ‘oh so perfect’ gift.

Christmas lights will illuminate the streets, while Mariah Carey sings her classic tune on every radio station. Pumpkin spice everything taking over our community. Yes. It’s that awful time of year again! Of course, I’m only joking. We all love the holiday season, right? Well… right?

When I was a kid I loved this time of year. Two weeks off from school, sleeping in on the weekdays, fantasizing about all the rich kid presents my family could never afford.

In some weird way, maybe I loved Christmas so much because it was the only time that my Buddhist family of Lao refugees did “normal” American things — experiences I could finally relate to and share with my classmates. I don’t think we even knew that it was a Christian holiday. It was just something the neighbors did, so we followed suit. Sorry, Jesus.

I remember fondly all of us congregating at my grandma’s house. The plastic Christmas tree we put up every year was adorned with the handmade ornaments that my aunties glittered our names on to, along with peppermint candy canes that, according to my Auntie Noy, were “for decoration only.”

All the American food that we only got to eat this time of year: turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, and some weird jello my Auntie Phet just couldn’t get enough of. I credit my grandma as the originator of the fusion food craze because all these dishes had a Lao twist to them, served alongside traditional Lao dishes like spicy green papaya salad and sticky rice.

And though I usually got boring school clothes for Christmas presents instead of that Sega Genesis I always fantasized of, I was grateful. I still am, always will be. Plus, there would be next year, right? The good ol’ days.

Christmas has been very different for me since my incarceration began back in 2010. No new school clothes. No special fusion meal. No ornaments.

Just another day the mail doesn’t get delivered. Sadly, for many of us incarcerated, this time of year is the hardest. It’s a reminder of the isolation, the loneliness, the broken promises. A time of year when mental health issues and depression become much harder to ignore, when help is usually nowhere to be found, when many of us wish we could just forget.

But I swear, this is not a sad story. I promise, y’all.

This is a story of a community coming together. Though many of us in prison face our own individual demons and traumas, we have still found a way to lift each other up, even if for a few short moments. For me, that community is the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG) — my family. Throughout the years, it is this family, consisting of my closest brothers, that makes being separated from my outside family for the holidays bearable.

Billy brings snacks to the yard with the skinniest of all skinny jeans on. Cisco whips up our special beverages with the baggiest of all baggy jeans on. Time always with his two packs of ramen, no jeans on. AZ with another update about the “work.” My cousin Phon coming through in the clutch with the perfect rice bowl. This is what makes my family here special.

Although I’ve been shipped to a different facility and separated from my chapter of the APICAG at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, our bond is something that can never be broken. It’s that bond that means more to me than any restrictions the Department of Corrections can ever put on us. For this, I’m forever grateful, and I cherish the opportunity to persevere with our new chapter here at the Washington Corrections Center.

As we get ready to bid farewell to 2023, let us be reminded that it’s on us as a community to not only celebrate the holidays, but to make sure that all of us survive the holidays. We each have a responsibility to spread compassion this time of year. That’s what makes it great. It’s not just the food, or the presents, or the pumpkin spice. It’s about being together.

To all our IE readers, to my family, and to all the homies still thugging it out ‘on all the fence line,’ I send you love and warmth. We’re all doing what we can to make it through yet another holiday season. Let’s look after one another because we’re all we got. I miss all y’all with all my heart.

Until next time, keep dreaming.

Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. You can reach him with questions for “On the Fence Line” via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, PO Box 900, Shelton, WA 98584.   

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