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Lens Behind a First-Generation Lao-American

The Standing Committee for Social Equity blog posts series is an extension of the committee members’ personal perspectives and narratives. Related to diversity and inclusion in the hemp industry, this committee is as versatile and diverse as the plant. Our objective with the blog post series from the SCSE initiative is to bring awareness about social disparities in our industry and how we can celebrate diversity and create opportunities for the BIPOC and underserved community, together.

“And then I swam across the Mekong River.”

It was a climactic line our Dad would tell his four doe-eyed children when he told his story about how and why he immigrated from a small mountainous region in Laos to America. Navigating through the thick foliage of the dense jungle of Vang Vieng, my Dad had no choice but to flee the country that he loved and all he knew, due to war. But before we uncover the terror of what my parents went through, let’s revisit how life in Laos was before the destruction of war.

Saibai Saibai

Newly immigrated parents

Buzzing with rhythm and good vibrations, you could witness a young man on stage strumming on his guitar and singing to the locals of Vang Vieng, a small town a couple of hours away from the Capitol. Beer bottles clanging, laughter erupting from one table to another, with the aromatic scent of ganja, this was just an ordinary night in the village. Happiness and the simple life were the Laotian lifestyle – a Hakuna Matata type of culture was prioritized over work. My Dad was an entertainer and enjoyed being a musician alongside his brother, living by the mantra “Saibai Saibai” — an expression that means “Go with the flow.” Shoulder-length shaggy haircut and a care-free attitude, my Dad was a total hippie living his best life.

On the other side of the country was a free-spirited, but take-no-bull, type of gal living in the city of Pakse. Quite opposite of my Dad, my Mom’s family ran a tight ship and was business-oriented. My late grandfather was in the oil industry and my late grandmother ran a store on their 7 acres of property. Mom would help around the shop, but most importantly would do what any teenager would do, and that is run around the city with her closest friends. Mom was bubbly, beautiful, and highly charismatic and shared stories on how all these men with high socioeconomic rankings would want to marry her. She too was living her best life.

While growing up, I would flip through pages of my parent’s photo albums as they shared memories of the Polaroids behind a clear adhesive sheet. I would slide my pointer finger between the corner of the plastic protector sheet and thick cardboard, peel it back so I can pull out the Polaroids for closer inspection of my parent’s cataloged life. Candid photos of my Dad in front of an 8-track stereo and a corded mic attached would have to be my favorites. My beautiful mother would take photos like she was featured in Vogue with a large perm and eccentric patterned outfits — she was always the main attraction. These photos were taken here in America, several years after fleeing their home country after the Vietnam War.

Before immigrating to the States, my parents lived in a landlocked country in Southeast Asia called Laos. Surrounded by mountainous terrain and with the sixth-largest river in Asia, the Mekong River, running through Laos, it was breathtakingly enchanting. Laotians lived a simple life with generosity close to their hearts, warmth in their hands, and happiness within. At the shoreline, you will witness the hypnotic sunrise with silhouettes of the fisherman in their sunhats catching fish, watch hard-working women traditionally weaving hemp fibers, and those that are carefully mindful of their surroundings can hear someone in a hut butchering fresh-picked papaya with a stainless-steel machete knife. A few years later, the sound of the stainless-steel machete turned into the deafening sound of bombs pounding into the fertile earth.

 

Two Million Tons

A recovered cluster bomb. Photo: Boon Vong

A war that went on for almost two decades has and continues to devastate the citizens of Laos. The Vietnam War lasted for 19 years that have killed over 50 thousand Laotians in the span of 9 years during the war. Laos is the most bombed nation in history thanks to the two million tons of bombs dropped by the United States. Currently, there are cluster bombs littered throughout the country that has caused injuries and fatalities to innocent Laotians. Cluster bombs are deceiving because they look like play toys to the untrained eye, especially for children.

Throughout farmland would be imprints of wide and deep craters of dropped bombs that leave a haunting memory for people who have lived through this terror. Those who lived through it consider white Americans to be evil. Younger generations have forgiven Americans for what they have done to previous generations. “I was ten years old hiding in a bunker with my family when the bombs would drop.” My mom said meekly over the phone. My mother is the type of person who views the glass half full. Optimistic and full of life, she would paint her journey to America with gratefulness, disregarding the actual horrors and dangers of what happened to thousands of others. “My friend convinced me to go to America that day. I didn’t have time to go back home and tell my Mom I was leaving, so I left with her. We were in the jungle three days before we arrived at the camp in Thailand. My friend and I were lucky we weren’t raped or killed by Vietnamese soldiers. I made a lot of friends at the refugee camp..” and the memories that she recreated and retold about her lifelong friendships overtook the traumatic experience of her immigration journey. My Dad had a similar story and swimming in the sixth-largest river in Asia to reach Thailand for refuge creates an image of what you’ll do for survival.

These conversations with my parents were tough. Deeply curious about their childhood, I yearned for family history, yet wanted to respect their wishes when they no longer wanted to continue the conversation. Reflecting on what I’ve learned makes me appreciate the life they gave me and my siblings.

 

Living in America

We befriended and bonded with others in our melting pot community

My Mom enrolled as a student at Hollywood High while my Dad held numerous jobs when he immigrated here – from server to an English tutor. They were adjusting to their new life in a different country with a vastly different culture and language. They’ve met each other through mutual friends and became new parents in 1984. Being new parents is hard enough, but being in a different country with a language barrier was tougher. Living in California with an extensive support system helped, but according to my sister, we lived in a rough neighborhood. My older sister would retell the story of running several blocks to the corner store to fetch milk and basic necessities. At seven years old, she braved the dangerous route by walking past unsavory characters. As she was the first-born, she bore the responsibilities of taking care of her younger siblings. Which I believe is one of the first moments of our family being exposed to these socioeconomic disparities. Instead of intergenerational wealth, we were given intergenerational trauma.

Because of the Vietnam War and the emotional damage it has caused my parents, that trauma trickled down to their children. With the emotionally draining combination of paranoia, anxiety, and fear that me and my siblings endured and carried, we as children didn’t have much of a traditional American childhood. More sheltered than others, we stayed indoors the majority of the time because of trust issues amongst white Americans. Extracurricular activities were certainly out of the question and weren’t encouraged by my parents to do so, if anything we were discouraged from joining any type of club or organization. But there were many factors that were involved in extracurricular logistics – time, money, and commitment. My parents’ main goal was to keep us fed, healthy, and safe. The language barrier was a hindrance from opportunities as well. From permission slips to other forms, my siblings and I missed out on events and the opportunity for educational growth.

What they did encourage was our creative skills to express ourselves, whether it’d be drawing, singing, or writing, they supplied us with tools that honed our innate ability to create. My favorite pastime was walking to our local library and checking out books with our Dad. The plastic library card with our name on it was the first feeling of ownership and part of a club. My imagination was fueled by fictitious books about adventure, magic, and freedom. An escape from what my reality was. Though we didn’t have the best and newest toys or gadgets, we had our imagination and ability to create.

Fortunately, we grew up in a melting pot community. Growing up we bonded with the Spanish community whom we can relate to in terms of similar struggles without judgment. I have memories of visiting my Dominican friend whose Mom would offer tamales and empanadas or any food really. Glass hutches filled with Jesus Christ figurines and beaded rosaries hung with care as prized possessions. Even today, I feel more comfortable approaching those in the LatinX community versus any other ethnic group, including my own.

 

Asians in Modern America

Snapshot of growing up in America. 1990-2020

Our role in American society isn’t prominent in terms of mainstream recognition in achievements, talent, struggles, and culture. According to World Population Review, there are currently over 20 million Asians living in the United States. The Asian demographic living in the states is made up of the Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, Bangladeshi, and Burmese. I’ve felt like our ethnic group was perceived by others as submissive, quiet, and docile. In my culture being respectful, ethical, and giving back to the community has been instilled in me as a child in which others have taken advantage of. Stereotypes of being Asian create additional stress to the existing disparities we already deal with. Hell, with Covid-19 being labeled as the “Chinese Virus” and the “Kung Flu” by our 45th American President, prejudice and hate crimes against Asians have risen. Asian elders are being attacked because of that racist label. If the most powerful man (then) in the US can state that on live stream television and not be reprimanded for it, those who are racist against Asians won’t face the consequences of committing a violent crime against us, hypothetically.

We are rising against the hate and have support from government officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, who formed an Asian Hate Crime Task Force. Protests throughout the nation shedding light on these despicable acts is becoming noticeable and louder. We are drawing attention to racism, social inequality, and injustice towards our ethnic group and those in the BIPOC community.

Whether you are Asian, Non-White, White, — we as a whole, have a duty to stand-up against wrongdoings fueled by racism and hate. Voice your opinion against social inequality through art, protests, individual actions, etc. Your silence contributes to continuous violence.

 

Written by Anna Chanthavongseng, Standing Committee for Social Equity

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