After the Vietnamese communist invasion of Cambodia a mass of refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam began arriving to the United States between 1979 and 1982. Of the Southeast Asian refugees during this time, over twenty-one percent came from Laos. These groups of refugees came from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds ranging from fisherman to farmers with very little education or transferable job skills. Many of these new immigrants came without knowing any English.
The national language of Laos is Lao. This language consists of thirty-three consonants, which are distinguished by tone, either namely, low, high, and rising, twenty-eight vowel sounds, divided into short or long vowels, and six total tones used in Lao. It is a monosyllabic language in which substantial numbers of polysyllabic words are derived from Sanskrit. Lao is also an uninflected language without plural, possessive, or past tense endings. Beside this national language spoken by the majority of Laotian people, there are also minority languages such as Hmong, Mien, Thai-Dam, and various hill tribe languages.
Laos public school system consists of: five years that begin at the age of six, the pathom or primary level, followed by three years of middle school called mathayon, and three years of udom or high school. In reality, children receive less than three years of formal education, the national norm, and frequently leave school to begin vocational job training.
For Laotians, the predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism, the southern branch of Buddhism that is widespread in such countries as Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Buddhism is over 2500 years old today and includes a series of rituals, meditations, and beliefs that construct the way a person lives their life.
Gautama Buddha, called the Enlightened One, founded Buddhism in India during his lifetime which spanned from 563-483 BC. Buddha believed that man was born into suffering caused by craving fame, power, wealth, which ultimately lead to frustration and disappointment. In order to prevent oneself from suffering, it is believed that man must deny all cravings and live a virtuous life. This idealized lifestyle is called the Eightfold Path and consists of having: right view, right thought, right conduct, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. Buddhists believe an individual’s fate is determined by their previous existence or present life path and that their soul will be reincarnated until they reach a level of enlightenment. The ultimate stage of enlightenment achieved is known as Nirvana.
Another important element of religious beliefs is animism. Animists believe that spirits inhabit every corner of the universe, even human beings. Animism is at the root of the Baci ceremony. The purpose of the Baci is to contact the body; spirits, protect them, and bind them to a person who needs help since they are likely to leave this body on important occasions like a marriage, birth, death, illness, trip, or pregnancy. The Baci is usually performed at home with members of the family and friends gathering around the altar with flowers, candles, incense, rice, food offerings, holy water, and strings for binding the spirits. Normally an elder is invited to perform the ceremony by chanting from a religious text. The person or persons receiving the Baci are presented with strings around their wrist in order to bind the spirits to their body. These strings are typically worn for three days. Today the traditional Baci ceremony is used to commemorate family celebrations such as homecomings, weddings, and festivals. Children, adults, and elders can head the ceremony for the family and tie strings around family members and friends wrists. For fun, the strings can include wishes for the future, good health, money, eggs, or candies.
Literature and Art
Lao literature derives largely from Buddhist beliefs, but a variety of legends, tales, and poetry are dedicated to the values of Brahmanism (a form of Hindusim). Most of the ancient Lao literature is preserved in written form, though the Lao prefer to present their literary legacy orally. Folk tales, proverbs, children’s stories, and poems are included in the grouping of oral literature. Lao art and architecture can be very expressive, although limited in range. Typically art is religious in nature. This includes the pervasive image of Buddha and the temple or monastery known as a wat.
The Lao New Year Festival
The New Year Festival comes in the middle of April, based on the old Buddhist calendar. The festivities often take several days and includes cleaning the house, preparing special foods like barbecue chicken, rice, and papaya green salad, sprinkling scented water on each other, performing the Baci ceremony, and going to the temple.
In Southeast Asia, Lao villagers were able to find a similar geography, collective responsibility, mutual respect, and closeness to family members even when they moved to urban places. In an American community such as San Diego, there are groupings of individuals who live in adjacent apartments and homes who form a so-called ban (village), but it does not retain the influence it did in Southeast Asia. The poban or formal Lao village leader no longer has the power to influence families, encouraging respect and commitment towards family and community. Once in the United States, individuals are no longer dependent upon their fellow community members and more or less go their own way. Children tend to be prone to disregard the respectful cultural expectations of elders, which discourages early dating and staying out of trouble, but instead follow their peer groups and American cultural trends. This mix of beliefs and cultural viewpoints between children and their parents can cause an enormous amount of tension and stress.
Ima, K. (1988). A handbook for professionals working with Southeast Asian delinquent and at risk youth. San Diego: Social Advocates for Youth.
Savada, A. M. (1995). Laos: a country study. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.
Lonely Planet Publications. (1997). Southeast Asia on a shoestring.Singapore: SNP Printing Pte. Ltd.
Websites Worth Surfing
Southeast Asian Refugee Experience:
This site offers a visual experience through pictures of refugees, excerpts from letters, and information regarding the Southeast Asian immigration into the United States (including Hmong and Vietnamese immigration as well).
Lao U.S. Embassy:
This site offers general information about Lao regarding culture, geography, religion, and news.
Websites for Teachers
Lao Language and Culture Learning Resources:
The web page of Northern Illinois Universities Center for Southeast Asian Studies. This site offers on-line language learning resources with language lessons, literature, folklore, references, and products.
Coburn, Jewell. Encircled Kingdom: Legends and Folktales of Laos.
Lao Folktales, Retold by Steve Epstein, Xieng Mieng: The Cleverest Man in the Kingdom.
Luangpraseut, Khamchong. Laos and the Laotians.
Bounkeo, S., Inthavong, O., Luangpraseut, K. Soukbandith, B., Phommasouvanh, B. & Compton, C. First Phase Development. (1980). Second Phase Development Lewis, J. & Luangprasuet, K. (1989). Handbook for Teaching Lao-Speaking Students. Avaliable online at http://www.seacrc.org/
Dakin, B. (2003). Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos.
Evans, G. (1998). The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975.Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
Huo, T.C. Land of Smiles. (2000). New York : Plume
Proudfoot, Robert. Even the Birds Don’t Sound the Same Here: The Laotian Refugees Search for Heart in American Culture.
Scott, J.C. (1989). Indochina’s Refugees: Oral Histories from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. McFarland & Company.