by Carl L. Bankston III
Located in Southeast Asia, Laos measures approximately 91,400 square miles (236,800 square kilometers), making it slightly larger than the state of Utah. The country shares its borders with Thailand in the southwest, Cambodia in the south, Burma in the west, China in the north, and Vietnam in the east. Laos has a tropical climate, with a rainy season that lasts from May to November and a dry season that lasts from December to April.
Laos has about 4,400,000 residents and an estimated population growth rate of 2.2 percent each year. Minority groups in this small, mountainous country include the Mon-Khmer, the Yao, and the Hmong. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of employed persons in Laos work in subsistence agriculture. Rice is the country's principal crop; other significant agricultural products include corn, tobacco, and tea. The majority of Laotians practice Theravada Buddhism, a form of Buddhism popular in Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. In Laos, however, Buddhism is heavily influenced by the cult of phi (spirits) and Hinduism.
The Laotian flag has three horizonal bands, with red stripes at the top and bottom and a blue stripe in the middle. A large white disk is centered in the blue band. Many Laotian Americans identify more with the pre-1975 flag of the Kingdom of Laos than with the present-day flag of the country. This flag was red, with a three-headed white elephant situated on a five-step pedestal, under a white parasol. The elephant was symbolic of the ancient kingdom of Laos, known as "The Kingdom of a Million Elephants." The parasol represented the monarchy and the five steps of the pedestal symbolized the five main precepts of Buddhism.
Laotians trace their ancestry to the T'ai people, an ethnolinguistic group that migrated south from China beginning in the sixth century. Originally part of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire, Laos achieved independence in 1353 when Fa Ngum, a prince from the city of Luang Prabang, claimed a large territory from the declining empire and declared himself king, calling the newly established state Lan Xang, or "The Kingdom of a Million Elephants." Luang Prabang was the nation's capital for 200 years until, in 1563, a later king, Setthalhiralh, moved the capital to Vientiane, which serves as the capital of Laos today.
The Lao kingdom reached its height in the late 1600s, under King Souligna Vongsa. After his death in 1694, three claimants to the throne broke the kingdom into three distinct principalities, the kingdoms of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Champassak. Each kingdom struggled for power, causing the weakened Lao states to become vulnerable to the more powerful nations of Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. While the Siamese took Vientiane, the Vietnamese took other parts of Laos. By the mid 1800s, almost all of northern Laos was controlled by Vietnam, and almost all the southern and central parts of the country were controlled by Thailand. Only the area around Luang Prabang remained independent.
Vietnam suffered from its own internal problems in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and in 1859 French Admiral Rigault de Genouilly attacked and seized Saigon. By 1862, the emperor of Vietnam was forced to recognize French possession of the southern provinces, and Vietnam became a French colony 21 years later.
In 1893 the French entered Thailand's Chao Phya River and forced the king to relinquish Thailand's suzerainty over Laos. Four years later, King Oun-Kham of Luang Prabang was forced to seek the help of France against invaders from China and, consequently, Luang Prabang also fell to France's growing Indochinese empire. Laos then became a protectorate, or colony, of France. By 1899, Vientiane had become the administrative capital of French Laos with French commissioners holding administrative power in all the provinces.
Although there were some local rebellions against French rule—mainly by the tribes of the hills and mountains—widespread Laotian resistance to the French did not begin until after World War II, when Japan, which had assumed control over Indochina during the war years, was defeated. In 1945 the Laotian prime minister, Prince Phetsarath, declared Laos an independent kingdom and formed a group known as the Lao Issara, or "Free Lao." Some Laotians supported a return to French colonization, feeling that their country was not ready for immediate independence. The Lao Issara, however, were strongly opposed to French rule in Laos. The prime minister's half-brother, Prince Souphanuvong, called for armed resistance and sought support from the anti-French movement in neighboring Vietnam, the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh. This Laotian political group became known as the Pathet Lao ("Lao Nation").
The Viet Minh defeated French troops at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Afterward, an international conference held in Geneva separated Vietnam at the 17th parallel to prevent Ho Chi Minh's communist government from assuming control over the entire nation. Many Laotians supported the Viet Minh and, when North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam in 1959, Laos was drawn into the war.
The United States also became involved in the war to deter the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. In Laos, American forces provided tactical and economic support to the royal government but were unsuccessful in their efforts. U.S. troops withdrew from the area in 1973 and South Vietnam fell to its northern enemy in April 1975. Later that same year, Pathet Lao forces overthrew the Laotian government, renaming the country the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Thousands of Laotians fled to Thailand where they were placed in refugee camps.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
While there was some migration from Laos to the United States prior to 1975, the immigrants were so few that there is no official record of them. Available records do suggest, however, that they were highly professional and technically proficient. After 1975, thousands of Laotian people fled their homeland for the United States; the passage of the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 by Congress aided them in this effort. Early Laotian immigrants included former government administrators, soldiers from the royal army, and shopkeepers. More recent immigrants from Laos included farmers and villagers who were not as educated as their predecessors.
While large numbers of Vietnamese and Cambodians began to settle in the United States almost immediately after socialist governments came to power in the spring of 1975, Laotian refugees did not begin to arrive in America in great numbers until the following year. In contrast to the 126,000 Vietnamese and 4,600 Cambodians who arrived in 1975, only 800 refugees from Laos were admitted into the United States. This is partially due to the fact that the new Laotian government obtained power in a relatively peaceful manner, despite fighting between the Hmong and the Pathet Lao. Moreover, the U.S. government was reluctant to accept refugees who had fled Laos for bordering Thailand, many of whom U.S. officials viewed as economic migrants rather than refugees from political oppression.
In 1976, 10,200 refugees from Laos, who had fled across the border into Thailand, were admitted to the United States. The number of Laotian refugees dipped to only 400 in 1977 and then climbed to 8,000 in 1978. In the years between 1979 and 1981, the number of Laotians entering the United States increased dramatically, due to international attention given to the plight of Indochinese refugees in the late 1970s and to the family unification program, which allowed refugees already in the United States to sponsor their relatives. During these three years, about 105,000 people from Laos resettled in America: 30,200 in 1979, 55,500 in 1980, and 19,300 in 1981. Although migration from Laos to America never again achieved the stature of this period, the resettlement of Laotians in the United States continued throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.
According to the U.S. Census, in 1990 there were about 150,000 Laotian Americans living in the United States. (This figure does not include the Hmong and other minority groups from Laos.) The majority of Laotian Americans (58,058) lived in California, primarily in Fresno (7,750), San Diego (6,261), Sacramento (4,885), and Stockton (4,045). Texas held the second largest number of Laotian Americans (9,332), with the majority living in Amarillo (1,188) and Denton (1,512). Minnesota and Washington State had the third and fourth largest Laotian American populations, with 6,831 and 6,191 residents, respectively. Thirty-four percent (2,325) of Minnesota's Laotian American population lived in Minneapolis and 46 percent
Acculturation and Assimilation
While few Laotian residents live in cities, Laotian Americans are an overwhelmingly urban people, with most living in large metropolitan centers. Of the 171,577 people in America born in Laos (this figure includes both ethnic Laotians and Hmong and excludes members of both groups born in America), 164,892 people (96 percent) lived in urban areas in 1990. The remaining four percent lived in rural communities. This is largely due to the fact that the vast majority of Laotians who immigrated to the United States were unaccustomed to an industrial society and spoke either very little or no English; they migrated to urban areas where they could find work that did not require many skills or language proficiency.
As a group, Laotian Americans are substantially younger than the national average. In 1990, the median age for Laotian Americans was 20.4 years while the median age for other Americans was 34.1 years. Moreover, Laotian Americans have larger families than other Americans. In 1990, the average number of people in each Laotian American family was 5.01 members, compared to an average of 3.06 members in white American families and 3.48 members in African American families. These figures demonstrate that Laotian Americans are a dynamic, rapidly growing community.
Because Laotian Americans are relatively new members of American society, it is difficult to predict to what extent they will assimilate. According to interviews given by Laotian Americans, however, it is apparent that many individuals have had to alter their viewpoints considerably to better adapt to American society. For example, such common "American" acts as touching, kissing, slapping someone on the back, waving, pointing one's feet at another person, and looking directly into someone's eyes are considered rude in Laotian culture. As Saelle Sio Lai has explained in John Tenhula's Voices from Southeast Asia, "Some of the Laotian customs I can use in my own way and some I must forget."
The majority of Laotian Americans have maintained a low profile in the United States. Consequently, few Americans have much knowledge of Laotian culture and people and, as a result, there are few stereotypes—positive or negative—regarding Laotian Americans.
A Laotian refugee, cited in Voices from Southeast Asia: The Refugee Experience in the United States, edited by John Tenhula (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1991).
"M y children will surely be influenced by their scholastic environment and be Americanized very fast. I can't and don't intend to stop this natural process. I just want them not to forget their own culture. The ideal is the combination of the positive traits of the two cultures."
Many Laotian Americans have retained the values they brought with them from their homeland. Most significant among these values is the practice of Buddhism, which pervades every aspect of Laotian American life. While individual Laotian Americans may not follow all Buddhist teachings, its philosophy serves as a behavorial guide.
The family is also highly important to Laotian Americans. In Laos, where the majority of people work in agriculture, families often work together to produce the goods necessary for their livelihood. In the United States, this practice has been altered somewhat since the majority of Laotian Americans work outside the home in urban communities. Nonetheless, Laotian Americans often live in close proximity to their extended family and such family values as respect for one's parents have remained constant. Laotian American children are expected to respect and care for their parents throughout their adult life.
Education has also become extremely important among Laotian Americans. Often, the family's future is dependent upon their children's success in school. "My husband and I always remind [our children] to study first, study hard, not play, not go out without permission from us," explained one Laotian American woman in Voices from Southeast Asia, "We tell them that we want to go to school, too, but we have to work to feed them. We sacrifice for them, and the only thing they can pay back is to study well."
Laotian proverbs often express an earthy and practical sort of folk wisdom that is rooted in the experiences of generations of hard-working farmers. The Lao have brought countless proverbs to America with them, including the following examples: If you're shy with your teacher, you'll have no knowledge; if you're shy with your lover, you'll have no bedmate; Don't teach a crocodile how to swim; Keep your ears to the fields and your eyes on the farm; If you have money, you can talk; if you have wood, you can build your house; Water a stump and you get nothing; Speech is silver, silence is gold; Follow the old people to avoid the bite of a dog; It's easy to find friends who'll eat with you, but hard to find one who'll die with you; It's easy to bend a young twig, but hard to bend an old tree.
Most Laotian holidays and festivals have religious origins. The Lao word for "festival," boon, literally means "merit" or "good deed." Scheduled according to the lunar calendar, festivals usually take place at Buddhist temples, making it difficult for Laotian Americans to participate due to the limited availability of monks and temples in the United States. Two of the most important festivals are the Pha Vet, which commemorates the life of the Buddha in the fourth lunar month, and the Boon Bang Fay, or "rocket festival." Held in the sixth month to celebrate the Buddha, it is marked by fireworks displays.
Laotian cuisine is spicy. Most meals contain either rice ( khao ) or rice noodles ( khao poon ). The rice may be glutinous ( khao nyao ) or nonglutinous ( khao chao ), but glutinous, or "sticky," rice is the food most often associated with Laotian cuisine. The rice is accompanied by meat, fish, and vegetables. Meats are often chopped, pounded, and spiced to make a dish known as lap, and fish is usually eaten with a special sauce called nam ba . The sticky rice is usually taken in the thumb and first three fingers and used to scoop up other foods. A papaya salad spiced with hot peppers,
Many Laotian Americans still eat Lao-style foods at home. These dishes are also available at most Thai restaurants, since the cooking of northeastern Thailand is almost identical to that of Laos. Sticky rice and other ingredients for Lao foods are likewise available at most stores that specialize in Asian foods. In areas that have large Laotian American communities, there are also a number of Lao markets where these ingredients may be purchased.
On special occasions marked by the sookhwan ceremony, some Laotian American women wear traditional costumes. The staple of their attire is the sinh, a skirt made from a piece of silk brocade about two yards long that is wrapped around the waist. It is often held in place by a belt made of silver buckles or rings. Accompanying the sinh is a shawl, or a strip of material, which is draped over the left shoulder and under the right arm. Some Laotian American men wear ethnic costumes at weddings, especially during the sookhwan ritual, and on stage during a maw lam performance, when actors sometimes don the sampot, or baggy trousers worn in Laos before French occupation.
Traditional Laotian medicine involves massages and herbal cures. Practitioners of traditional medicine may be laypeople or monks. Since sickness is often seen as a problem of spiritual essence, the khwan, chants, and healing rituals are often used to cure illnesses. Although some traditional Lao medicine may be found in the United States, particularly in places that have large Laotian American communities, the practice of mainstream western medicine in America appears to be much more common.
Laotian Americans are more likely to visit a community clinic than any other type of medical establishment. As new arrivals, their mental health generally follows a pattern common to refugees. The first year in the United States tends to be a period of euphoria at having reached their destination. The second year tends to be a time of psychological shock, producing feelings of helplessness as the strangeness of the new environment becomes apparent. New Laotian Americans usually begin to adjust during the third or fourth year in the United States.
Lao is a tonal language; therefore, the meaning of a word is determined by the tone or pitch at which it is spoken. Although the tones vary somewhat from one part of the country to another, the dialect of the capital, Vientiane, is considered standard Lao. In Vientiane there are six tones: low, mid, high, rising, high falling, and low falling. Changing the tone of a word makes it a different word. The sound "kow," pronounced much like the English "cow," spoken with a high tone means "an occasion, a time." "Kow" spoken with a rising tone means "white." Spoken with a mid tone, this word means "news." These tones give the Lao language a musical quality, so that its speakers often sound like they are singing or reciting melodic poetry.
The Lao alphabet is phonetic, meaning that each Lao letter stands for a sound. Lao writing has 27 consonant symbols that are used for 21 consonant sounds. There are more symbols than sounds because different consonants are used to begin words of different tones. The Lao alphabet also has 38 vowel symbols, representing 24 vowel sounds. These 24 sounds are made up of nine simple vowels and three diphthongs (vowels made up of two vowel sounds), each of which has a short form and a long form. The sounds are written with more than 24 symbols because some of them are written differently at the end of a word and in the middle of a word. All Lao words end in a vowel or in a consonant sound similar to the English "k," "p," "t," "m," "n," or "ng." Some English diphthongs (including "th" and "oh") do not exist in the Lao phonetic system. This is why some Laotian Americans who learned English as a second language may occasionally pronounce "fish" as "fit" or "stiff" as "stip."
The graceful, curving letters of the Laotian alphabet are based on the Khmer (Cambodian) alphabet, which, in turn, was developed from an ancient writing system in India. Although the Lao writing system is not the same as the Thai writing system, the two are very similar, and anyone who can read one language can read the other with only a little instruction.
GREETINGS AND OTHER COMMON EXPRESSIONS
Common Laotian American greetings and expressions include: Sabai dee baw —How are you? (literally, are you well?); Koy sabai dee —I'm well; Jao day — And how are you? (used when responding to Sabai dee ); Pai sai —Where are you going? (used as a greeting); Kawp jai —Thank you; Kaw toht —Excuse me; Baw pen nyang —You're welcome, never mind (literally, it's nothing); Ma gin khao —Come eat! (literally, come eat rice); Sab baw —Is the food good?; Sab eelee —It's delicious.
Most Laotian literature consists of oral tales and religious texts. Laotian oral literature often takes the form of poetry and is sung or chanted to the accompaniment of a hand-held bamboo pipe organ called the khene (pronounced like the word "can" in American English). Such poetry is most often used in theater, or opera, known as maw lam. The maw lam leuang, or "story maw lam, " is similar to European opera; a cast of actors in costume sing and act out a story, often drawn from historical or religious legend. Maw lam khoo, or " maw lam of couples," involves a young man and a young woman. The man flirts with the woman through inventive methods and she refuses him with witty verse responses. Maw lam chote, or "maw lam competition," is a competition in verse sung between two people of the same gender, in which each challenges the other by asking questions or beginning a story that the other must finish. In maw lam dio, or " maw lam alone," a single narrator sings about almost any topic.
Among the many legends and folktales told by Laotians and Laotian Americans, the stories about the character Xieng Mieng are among the most popular. Xieng Mieng is a trickster figure who plays pranks on people of various social classes. Other popular tales involve legends taken from Buddhist writings, especially the Sip Sat, stories about the last ten lives of the Buddha before he was reborn and achieved enlightenment. All Laotian religious literature is made up of the same Buddhist texts used by other Theravada Buddhists. These include the Jataka, the five Vinaya, the Dighanikaya, and the Abhidamma, all of which are scriptures written in Pali, an ancient language from India still used for religious purposes in countries practicing Theravada Buddhism. Verses in Pali known as the parittam are also important to Laotian Buddhists and are chanted by monks to protect people from a variety of dangers.
In the United States, Laotian monks have successfully retained Laotian religious literature. In addition, secular legends and stories, told through the medium of maw lam, may be heard at gatherings in cities with large Laotian American communities.
Family and Community Dynamics
In Laos, men represent their family in village affairs, while women are responsible for running the household and controlling the financial affairs of the family. Among Laotian Americans, however, female employment is an important source of family income, and it is common for Laotian American women to work outside the home. Fifty percent of Laotian American women and 58 percent of Laotian American men participate in the American labor force. Because of the relative equality between men and women in Laotian American society, many Laotian American men share responsibility for completing household tasks. While Laotian American men almost always hold the official positions of leadership in community organizations, women are also quite active in their communities and are often important (though usually unacknowledged) decision makers.
The most common family arrangement in Laos is that of a nuclear family that lives in close proximity to their extended family. In the United States, extended families have, in many cases, become even more important to Laotian Americans for social and financial support. This interdependence may account for the low divorce rate among Laotian Americans. In 1990, only about four percent of Laotian Americans over the age of 15 who had been married were divorced, while nearly 12 percent of the American population over 15 years of age who had been married were divorced.
The practice of dating is also new to Laotian American immigrants, as it simply was not done in their homeland. In Laos couples usually come to know one another in the course of village life. In the United States, however, many young people date, although this custom is not always embraced by their parents.
Since Laotian Americans are such a young group, their prospects for continuing adaptation are good, especially considering the scholastic successes of Laotian American children. In The Boat People and Achievement in America, an influential book on the academic achievement of young Indochinese Americans, Nathan Caplan, John K. Whitmore, and Marcella H. Choy asserted that refugee children, including Laotians, "spoke almost no English when they came, and they attend predominantly inner-city schools whose reputations for good education are poor. Yet by 1982, we find that the Indochinese had already begun to move ahead of other minorities on a national basis, and, two years later, their children are already doing very well on national tests."
Despite these accomplishments, few Laotian American young people attend college; this may be attributed to the economic disadvantages of their families. Only 26.3 percent of Laotian Americans (not counting the Hmong) between the ages of 18 and 24 attended college in 1990 (compared to 39.5 percent of white Americans and 28.1 percent of African Americans). Laotian American young people also had relatively high dropout rates; 12.2 percent of Laotian Americans between the ages of 16 and 19 were neither high school graduates nor enrolled in school in 1990 (compared to 9.8 percent of white Americans and 13.7 percent of African Americans).
Many Laotian Americans retain the ritual practices of their culture. The most common of all Laotian rituals is the baci (pronounced "bah-see") or sookhwan, which is performed at important occasions. The word sookhwan may be interpreted as "the invitation of the khwan " or "the calling of the khwan. " The khwan are 32 spirits that are believed to watch over the 32 organs of the human body. Together, the khwan are thought to constitute the spiritual essence of a person. The baci is a ritual binding of the spirits to their possessor. Even Laotians who do not believe in the existence of the khwan will usually participate in the baci as a means of expressing goodwill and good luck to others.
In the baci ceremony, a respected person, usually an older man who has been a monk, invokes the khwan in a loud, song-like voice. He calls on the spirits of all present to cease wandering and to return to the bodies of those present. He then asks the khwan to bring well-being and happiness with them and to share in the feast that will follow. After the invocation to the khwan is finished, the celebrants take pieces of cotton thread from silver platters covered with food, and tie them around each other's wrists to bind the khwan in place. While tying the thread, they will wish one another health and prosperity. Often an egg is placed in the palm of someone whose wrist is being bound, as a symbol of fertility. Some of the threads must be left on for three days, and when they are removed they must be broken or untied, not cut. Non-Laotians are not only welcomed to this ceremony, they are frequently treated as guests of honor.
The khwan is also significant to traditional Laotian wedding ceremonies. When a couple adheres to Laotian traditions strictly, the groom goes to the bride's house the day before the wedding feast, where monks await with bowls of water. The bride's and groom's wrists are tied together with a long cotton thread, which is looped around the bowls of water and then tied to the wrists of the monks. The next morning, friends and relatives of the couple sprinkle them with the water and then hold a baci ceremony. Afterward, the couple is seated together in front of all the guests and the monks chant prayers to bless the marriage.
In Laos almost all lowland Laotians are Buddhists, and the temple, or wat, is the center of village life. Most Laotian Americans are Buddhists as well, although many have converted to Protestant Christianity, especially in areas where there are no large Laotian concentrations to sustain traditional religious practices. Laotian American Buddhist temples are frequently established in converted garages, private homes, and other makeshift religious centers.
Buddhism is divided into two schools of thought. The "Northern School," known as Mahayana Buddhism, is a school of Buddhism most often found in China, Japan, Tibet, Korea, and Vietnam. The "Southern School," or Theravada Buddhism, is predominant in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Theravada Buddhists stress the importance of becoming a monk and achieving Nirvana, an ideal state in which an individual transcends suffering. Mahayana Buddhists rely more on Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who delay achieving Nirvana in order to help others become enlightened.
Essential to the Buddhist faith is the belief that all worldly things are impermanent. Those who are not aware of this concept become attached to worldly things, and this leads to suffering. Their suffering continues as the soul goes through a cycle of rebirths, and they are continually drawn back to worldly desires. An individual may break this cycle by overcoming desire through meditation and a moral, disciplined life. The soul that successfully overcomes all worldly desires reaches Nirvana.
Also significant to Buddhism is karma, which is form of spiritual accounting: good deeds performed in this life enable the soul to be reborn in better circumstances; bad deeds cause the soul to be reborn in worse circumstances. Accordingly, performing good deeds, or "making merit," is important to all Laotians and Laotian Americans. One can make merit through acts of kindness; however, becoming a monk or supporting monks or a temple are considered the best methods for making merit. All Laotian men are expected to become monks, usually in early manhood, before marriage. It is also common for older men, especially widowers, to become monks. Laotian women may become nuns, although nuns are not as respected as monks. In Laos, some men are not able to fulfill their religious duty of entering the temple for a time. This is even more difficult for Laotian American men because of demands in the workplace and the scarcity of temples in the United States. Laotian American monks sometimes share temples with Thai American or Cambodian American monks, since the latter also adhere to Theravada Buddhism.
A belief in spirits, or phi (pronounced like the English word "pea"), dates back to the time before the Lao were introduced to Buddhism. Since then, the spirit cult has become a part of popular Buddhist practices in Laos. Some of these spirits are "ghosts," the spirits of human beings following death. Other phi are benevolent guardians of people and places or malevolent beings who cause harm and suffering.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Although Laotian Americans have earned a reputation as hardworking people, many find themselves among the most disadvantaged in their new country. In 1990, while one out of every ten Americans lived below the poverty line, about one out of every three Laotian Americans lived below the poverty line. The median household income of Laotian Americans in that year was only $23,019, compared to $30,056 for other Americans. Unemployment among Laotian Americans is high (9.3 percent in 1990) and those with jobs tend to be concentrated in manual labor. Fully 44 percent of employed Laotian Americans held jobs classified as "operators, fabricators, and laborers" in 1990.
Many of the economic hardships of people in this ethnic group stem from to their newness in America and from the difficulties in making the change from life in a predominantly agricultural country to a highly industrialized country. Nearly 34 percent of Laotian Americans over the age of 25 had not completed fifth grade in 1990, compared to 2.7 percent of other Americans. While 75.2 percent of all adult Americans had completed high school, only 40 percent of adult Laotian Americans had finished high school. With regard to higher education, over 20 percent of Americans over 25 had finished college, while only about five percent of adult Laotian Americans were college graduates.
Learning English has hindered the economic adjustment of Laotian Americans. Over two-thirds (68 percent) of Laotians over five years of age reported that they did not speak English very well in 1990. While adult education programs and classes in English as a second language in community colleges and other institutions have helped, the transition has not been easy.
Despite their economic difficulties, Laotian Americans generally have positive views of life in the United States, probably because they tend to contrast life in America with their experiences in war-ravaged Laos.
Politics and Government
As a group, Laotian Americans are very concerned about occurrences in their homeland and many would like to return but are unable to because of Laos's communist government. Laotian Americans have not yet become very active in American politics. At present, their first priority appears to be achieving economic independence. In general, they tend to have a positive view of American society and government, as might be expected of recent political refugees.
Individual and Group Contributions
Although Laotian Americans are relatively new to the United States, many professional individuals have made significant contributions to the Laotian American community and American society in general, specifically in professions requiring strong communication skills. Many Laotian American professionals are multilingual and serve as interpreters, negotiators, counselors, organization executives, and educators. For example, Banlang Phommasouvanh (1946–), a respected Laotian American educator, is the founder and executive director of the Lao Parent and Teacher Association. As such, she assists in promoting Lao culture, language, and arts through classes and support services. In 1990, Phommasouvanh received the Minnesota Governor's Commendation, Assisting the Pacific Minnesotans, State Council of Asia. In 1988, Lee Pao Xiong (1966-) served as an intern in the U.S. Senate. That same year he was one of 25 people chosen in a nationwide competition to attend the International Peace and Justice Seminar. From 1991 to 1993, Xiong was executive director of the Hmong Youth Association of Minnesota. Currently, he is executive director of the Hmong American Partnership in St. Paul, Minnesota. William Joua Xiong (1963– ), who is proficient in Lao, Hmong, Thai, English, and French, served as an interpreter and translator at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok in 1979. Presently a guidance counselor, he is also co-author of the English-Hmong Dictionary (1983).
Because Laotian Americans are still establishing themselves in the United States, there are very few Laotian publications. Worthy of mention is the monthly, multilingual publication New Life, which has attained a wide readership among Laotian Americans. Published by the federal government, it provides international news and articles covering American culture and institutions. New Life circulates 35,000 copies in Vietnamese, 10,000 in Lao, and 5,000 in Cambodian.
The semi-annual newsletter of the Thai/Lao/Cambodian Studies Group. News about scholarly activities and endeavors.
Circulation contact information.
Contact: Arlene Neher.
Address: Association for Asian Studies, Thailand-
Laos-Cambodia Studies Group, Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University, Dekalb, Illinois 60115.
Telephone: (815) 753-8577.
Editorial contact information.
Contact: Michael R. Rhum, Editor.
Address: Khosana, 5100 South Kimbark Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60615.
Organizations and Associations
Most Laotian organizations in the United States were established to help Laotian Americans adapt to life in a new country. Therefore, these organizations concentrate heavily on providing English language tutoring, job counseling, psychological counseling, and other social services.
Coalition of Lao Mutual Assistance.
Located in Washington State, this organization coordinates the activities of ten Laotian organizations (including Hmong organizations and organizations of other minority groups from Laos). The Coalition also provides social services, including transitional counseling, transportation, and tutoring. This is probably the best source for information on the Laotian American community of Washington.
Contact: Udong Sayasana, President.
Address: 4714 Rainier Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98118.
Telephone: (206) 723-8440.
Lao-American Association of Oklahoma.
Address: 2433 Northwest 44th Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73112-8301.
Lao American Community Service.
Address: 4750 North Sheridan Road #369, Chicago, Illinois 60640-5042.
Lao Assistance Center of Minneapolis.
Provides social services to the Laotian American community in Minneapolis.
Contact: Manivah Foun, Executive Director.
Address: 1015 Olson Memorial Highway, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55405.
Telephone: (612) 374-4967.
Lao Family Community of Stockton.
Provides training in English as a second language, vocational education, a variety of youth programs, and a gang prevention program for people from Laos and other countries in Southeast Asia.
Contact: Pheng Lo.
Address: 807 North Joaquin, Suite 211, Stockton, California 95202-1716.
Telephone: (209) 466-0721.
Migration and Refugee Services.
Public policy and social action office of the U.S. Catholic Conference, on matters of migration, refugee, and immigration. Provides program support ad regional coordination for a network of 110 diocesan refugee resettlement offices. Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees provides the pastoral foundation for all MRS programs and assists the Bishops in encouraging the integration of immigrants, migrants, and refugees into the life and mission of the local Church. The Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), a related organization, ensures that all newcomers have access to affordable immigration related services.
Contact: Mark Franken.
Address: 3211 Fourth Street NE, Washington, DC 20017-1194.
Telephone: (202) 541-3352.
Fax: (202) 722-8755.
Online: http://www.nccbuscc.org/mrs .
National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans (NAFEA).
Seeks to provide equal educational opportunities for and advance the rights of Indochinese Americans; acknowledge and publicize contributions of Indochinese in American schools, culture, and society; and encourage appreciation of Indochinese cultures, peoples, education, and language.
Contact: Ms. Ngoc Diep Nguyen, President.
Address: Illinois Research Center, 1855 Mt. Prospect Road, Des Plaines, Illinois 60018.
Telephone: (708) 803-3112.
Museums and Research Centers
Laotian Cultural and Research Center (LCRC).
Individuals interested in preserving Laotian culture by collecting documents that illustrate the history of Laos. Maintains library of more than 500 items.
Contact: Seng Chidhalay, President.
Address: 1413 Meriday Lane, Santa Ana, California 92706.
Telephone: (714) 541-4533.
Fax: (714) 953-7693.
Sources for Additional Study
Caplan, Nathan, John K. Whitmore, and Marcella H. Choy. The Boat People and Achievement in Amer ica: A Study of Family Life and Cultural Values. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.
Mansfield, Stephen. Culture shock! A Guide to Customs and Etiquette: Laos. Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Center Pub. Co., 1997.
Proudfoot, Robert. Even the Birds Don't Sound the Same Here: The Laotian Refugees' Search for Heart in American Culture. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1990.
Stuart-Fox, Martin. Laos: Politics, Economics, and Society. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1986.
——. A History of Laos. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Tenhula, John. Voices from Southeast Asia: The Refugee Experience in the United States. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1991.