Thursday, January 13, 2011

31 Days in Laomerica: Or, Life in a Lao non-profit. Part 13.

Today they're expecting approximately an inch of snow in Minnesota. That's enough to close down schools and businesses in Texas and many states south of the Mason Dixon Line.

At the office, we held a meeting with our funders for the Southeast Asians Living Chemically Free Program and our new staff as we try to figure out the program for the upcoming year ahead. In the next six months, we'll be hosting several community forums, including two specifically for the youth and three for adult community members and their families.

According to 2003 figures from the World Health Organization, the Lao are the heaviest drinkers in Southeast Asia, consuming an average of 6.91 liters a year. To visualize this, imagine15 pints of milk, or 1.8 gallons.
In 2008 in Laos, government officials were concerned by trends among youth that having a mobile phone meant students felt safer when away from home, but they also were documented as a tool for students to organize activities such as group binge drinking, road racing, drug taking and truancy.

A 2008 survey found that 39 percent of Lao students regularly went to beer shops to drink. Sixty-one percent of people surveyed said drinking beer led to loss of control and involvement in activities they might later regret. According to the survey, 25 percent of people questioned continue their drinking at a nightclub after going to a beer shop. Most surveyed said the age of students most likely to go to a nightclub was 11 to 18. Only 37 percent said people aged 18 to 25 went to a nightclub. The survey also found 43 percent of students believed drinking beer causes fighting, 38 percent said it led to gambling, 26 percent stated it could result in drug abuse and 25 percent believed road racing occurred after drinking.
While we have figures like these for youth in Laos, we do not have formal figures for Lao American youth in Minnesota or full confirmation that similar trends occur in the US, and it would be helpful for us to conduct similar studies.

One of the big discussions is making it clear that we're not expecting or asking for overnight transformations of the community when it comes to alcohol. But everyone is strongly discouraging tobacco and drug use if we can, not just for the individual's health but because of the economic and social tolls they take on the community and families. Talking with many of the elders and youth, many are tired of the drama that gets caused from drunken arguments and similar substance abuse problems.
But the general thrust isn't going to be about pointing out the negative effects, but showing people how to create opportunities for healthier, happier lifestyles and creating room within Lao American gatherings for people to abstain from drinking and smoking. As people extending hospitality to others, how are we empowering tomorrow's generation to live without addictive substances in their lives?

With drugs, the bigger challenges we've seen is adults unaware of the concept of abusing prescription drugs and the presence of club and party drugs like ecstasy. Back in Laos, the community had to deal with problems involving opium, heroin, marijuana and meth, also known as yaa-baa. Unfortunately we don't get many resources to talk about them here in the US. 

In a community of 25,000+ in Minnesota, we have less than a dozen specialists really familiar with the subject who are actively able to work on community education and prevention, or to get people treatment.

On average in our offices we've seen approximately 7 to 10 people a month come in seeking advice for their addictions. We try to find them effective places for referral. It's difficult to say how many people really need to be coming in. 

We're trying to find culturally appropriate options because programs like D.A.R.E. aren't effective, and programs like the 12-step program don't dovetail well within many Lao beliefs. Even when people have tried to adapt Buddhist principles to the 12-step program, it tends to be done from a Zen or Mahayana or Vajrayana school of Buddhism rather than the more common Theravada forms the Lao are familiar with. 
Within Theravada Buddhism, the five precepts are very clear that you should avoid drugs and alcohol. Yet, we often find a contradiction across the country as people drink and smoke openly, even on temple grounds and normalize that behavior in our community.

Even beyond Buddhist ideas, the issue is that most traditional Lao Americans and their families believe it is a question of willpower, discipline and the importance of preserving face.

Our executive director, Sunny, often testifies to our partners that community members complain that the government wouldn't allow cigarettes, cigars and alcohol to be sold if it was harmful to the people. Which we all know isn't a very sophisticated belief, but it's a common one. 

But we're planning ahead, with events planned during the Lao New Year, the Boun Pravet celebration in June, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and also during Women's History Month and in February. Most of the time we have approximately 30 to 40 people in attendance who are interested in what we're discussing. If we're going to make serious changes, we need to help the community make serious connections to the greater long-term interests of the community on this subject.

No comments: