Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Laotian Americans in Tennessee

Here are some first glimpses of the Lao community in Tennessee, particularly near the Murfreesboro and Nashville area. Tennessee has a population of nearly 7,000 Lao who began arriving in the US as early as 1972.

Many are employed by companies such as Nissan, Bridgestone and previously Samsonite. Local residents typically cite at least five to six Lao-owned businesses in Murfreesboro, including grocery stores like the Oriental Food Market on Church Street. The Oriental Food Market has been one of the oldest businesses owned by Lao for nearly 20 years. There are two Lao police officers in Tennessee.

There are a few new Lao businesses emerging, including the Green Mango on 1513 E. Main Street. Green Mango operates as a bubble tea wi-fi cafe and international grocery store, and is owned by first-time business owners Tina and Jack Khammoung. They started the business in November, 2008.

Another interesting example of Lao-owned businesses in Tennessee is the Golden Express, a Murfreesboro restaurant located in a multipurpose building that houses several other businesses including a grocery store, a hair salon and an auto repair shop.

One of the most active and effective organizations in Tennessee is Laotian American Outreach, reflecting a contemporary energy and interest in community engagement and empowerment. Other organizations that have been part of the process include the Laotian Refugee Resettlement Association and the International Lao American Organization.

There are approximately 10 Lao churches in Tennessee, with the oldest of these being the Lighthouse Lao Thai Baptist Church in Antioch. Most have congregations between 40 to 100 people. Their activities range from revivals and hosting guest speakers from Laos and Thailand to fundraisers for the church and special causes. The majority of the Lao churches are Baptist churches.

One of the earliest locations where the community resettled in Tennessee was in the Bridge Avenue government housing projects, but eventually almost all of the families moved out to live in their own homes around the state.

Many Lao funerals have been held at the Jennings and Ayers Funeral Home and the Woodfin Funeral Home in Murfreesboro. In Nashville, the Woodlawn Funeral Home is the one that sees the most frequent use by the community.

Many Lao students aspire to go to University of Tennessee but also often choose Middle Tennessee State University because of its price and location near their families. Tennessee State University is another popular college choice.

Tennessee is also home to the Royal Lao Classical Dancers, who currently practice in the newer of the two main wats in Tennessee.

Many Lao get their news from a Lao Language program on Channel 3 public access TV.

Chantho Sourinho is the first Laotian to resettle in Tennessee, arriving in the state in 1972 as a student and remaining after the end of the war in 1975 to assist others in resettling in the US. Soy Mountry and Gai Phanalasy and their families are excellent examples of the emerging youth leadership in Tennessee, working together to mobilize the community and reaching out to other cultures across the state to build a positive understanding of one another.

The Laotian American rock singer Ketsana also makes her home here.

Tennessee is also the home for Laotian American writers Kanya Lai and Addy Willoughby, among several others. Many Lao in Tennessee have very eclectic tastes in literature and their writing reflects very unique personal priorities.

A wide range of entertainment is available in Tennessee for those fond of both urban and outdoor activities. True to form, soccer remains one of the most popular activities for the Lao here, in addition to basketball. Snowboarding is also gaining popularity.

In the nearby cities, there are several bars and live music cafes for many different musical tastes. There are no casinos in Tennessee. Most would go to nearby casinos in Mississippi or else to Las Vegas, where many hold bachelor or bachelorette parties.

Consistently, Lao in Tennessee stress the importance of education and preserving culture through language and the arts. Some, like the Royal Lao Classical Dancers, lament that many of the best programs they could present are not possible because of a lack of funding despite the great interest by many inside and outside of the community for their work. Overall, there is much to remain optimistic about, considering the significant growth and advances of the community in the last 37 years already.

I'll be sharing more thoughts soon!

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