Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Appreciating Lao American stories

I grew up in many different places as a child. Missoula, Anchorage, Ypsilanti, Saline, and summers in Wisconsin. My father was a pilot, while my mother worked at home. I went to Otterbein College in Ohio in 1991 which seemed far from home at the time, some four hours away. It was nestled in a quaint little college town that laid claim to being the birthplace of Prohibition, and having a donut shop that opened up at midnight just down the street.

My real education was spent largely outside of class when I began searching for my roots among the Lao refugees in diaspora across the United States. As one of the children who'd been adopted by Americans in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, I'd known of my nominal roots, but I also knew that I knew very little of what that entailed outside of what I could find in a few copies of National Geographic.

Growing up, the Vietnam War was interpreted to me as a war for Southeast Asian democracy and freedom, and that the US veterans had been undermined by pro-communists, hippies, and left-wingers who forced the government to turn its back on our allies. It was a very fear-driven narrative, but one in which the US was the clear protagonist, a friend helping friends.

The story of Laos was always presented to me as a side-war by my family, with very little of the conflict considered important except stopping the flow of arms and troops on the Ho Chi Minh trail, missing POWs, and fighting drug traffickers. It took a long time for me to finally find people who could speak of the full experience beyond footnotes. In the textbooks of my time, you almost never found our story or even a mention of our country.

There was a retired farmer working for USAID during the war in Laos named Ed Buell who once remarked that anyone who spoke English in Laos didn't have a clue about the problems there. That's lingered with me because it seems so little has changed in Lao development almost half a century later.

I was raised among American holidays, with a big emphasis on Thanksgiving and Christmas as the times family got together. In hindsight, I spent most of the time a little distant from everyone. There was a lot of it that bored me waiting for the turkey and ham, the mashed potatoes and lefse, the cauliflower, casserole and jell-o. There were stories that were told about the family and those who weren't there with us anymore. At the time, they were really abstractions, and I didn't really feel like those stories were fully mine, despite all of my extended family's best intentions.

As I began my journey back into the Lao community, I discovered many of the youth had few of the stories of their families that they remembered at great length either, and we were losing even those few stories they had as the years passed on. It was hard for many of them to see or appreciate what their family stories could mean in relation to our larger histories and how many gaps we had. And it was hard for them to understand that telling their stories was something that could make a difference in preserving Lao culture as their elders asked.

Decades later, with so many of my aunts and uncles passed on, I'd since learned to appreciate the brief time we have with everyone, and how few stories really stay with us in the end, yet how vital those stories are. It ties us together, and it creates a line of continuity in our human effort. It is a means of healing, and it is a way of creating a guidepost to decide where we go next. Without stories, change is very difficult.

In "The Prophetic Imagination" by Walter Brueggman, there's a discussion of the prophetic vision. One part of this is recognizing the world's pain. The other part is recognizing the world's possibilities. It is a combination of hope with a critical eye that provides the impetus for change and transformation in society.

As we mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the 40th anniversary of the Lao Diaspora, I think we've been fortunate to see so many efforts emerging now who recognize the importance and vitality of sharing Lao stories internally in our community and externally.

Lao culture is in a historic transition period as we transition to a democracy after over 600 years as a monarchy. Traditionally our values have embraced harmony, the search for wisdom, and diversity as we built a community with over 160 ethnicities in the borders of Laos.

As might be expected, the transition to life in Minnesota has had many unique opportunities and challenges. The same is true for Lao in many other states, and I think our efforts have suffered sometimes because non-profits have often had difficulty accessing funds that allow them to build projects that really serve families that are scattered so far across the country in pockets. This is very different from how many Lao households were raised and adapting to the American lifestyle can be a very disruptive change.

But we need to start somewhere and part of that process comes from valuing our stories. A Lao proverb that sticks with me, to this end is "If you know, teach. If you don't know, learn." In the coming months ahead with the Lao Assistance Center and a grant from CURA's ANPI grant, I hope to work with many emerging storystellers in our community to build our collective body of knowledge. We still have space, so come join us!

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