Reflections from a Former Refugee from Laos

LaosIt’s a great honor for me to share my culture with you. Please be aware that Laos has 68 minorities groups within a small landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Before we go on let me explain a little bit about these interchangeable words. Laos refers to the country of Laos. Laotian refers to all ethnic and people from Laos, included Hmong, Mien, Khmu and lowlander Lao. Lao is an adjective and it also refers to lowlander Lao.

Lao people have a wide variety of characteristics. Here in San Diego, many of us are rice farmers from small villages with no electricity, while others are wealthy and live in the city. Therefore, the information in this section should not be generalized or applied to all Lao people. However, there are several things in common among Lao people such as that Lao tend to be polite toward others. Oftentimes, this is perceived as passive by an American standard. Lao people tend to avoid confrontation which is why we tend to say YES and then later find an excuse to give a NO answer. This mannerism has created a lot of confusion for American employers or supervisors at a worksite. Sometimes, a Lao employee may be very unhappy at work and instead of discussing the issue they will just quit without any apparent reason. I used to work with a delinquent youth, who had been abused in school but could not communicate well enough to report the abusive classmates, and therefore were the ones to assume the consequences. Unfortunately, this path may lead to revenge in the form of after school fights, instead of resolving the matter with the school.

Lao people love to smile, but these smiles do not necessarily mean that we are always happy. We try to keep our emotions under control, whether happy or sad. We do not laugh as much or as loud as other group, and even in a very sad situation, it is rare to see a Lao person burst into tears. Instead our grieving is done in private. So these smiles may be a public cover for anger, suffering, and unhappiness.

Laos was under the colonization of Siam for almost two centuries and then under the French for another ninety years after gaining the independence under the form of an authoritarian government. Therefore Lao people still carry maintain respect for authority, be it an officer in uniform or any government or public service officer. This respect makes parental communication with schools more complex because parents are reluctant to come to their child’s school for a meeting, an assembly, or even just to talk to a teacher about their child’s progress. However, this does not mean that Lao parents are not concerned with their child’s education. Indeed, they are deeply concerned with education and have high expectations for their children in schools.

In my experience working with parents in parent-teacher conferences or in sessions with the Juvenile Probation Officer/Police Officer, I have learned that parents always nod, smile and pretend that they understand what is happening at the meeting, as I translate and interpret (both ways Lao-English and English-Lao) during the session. But, after the meeting is over the parent will ask me to explain again and I have to review the entire conference again with them.

It is a great shame for parents to go to the police station, juvenile court, or to the school office when their kids have problems. At that point, they feel that have not been good parents and blame themselves. Additionally, parents are also afraid of losing face in the community because of the incident. In a similar situation, if a Lao person is a victim of a scam or business extortion or any crime for that matter, they prefer to keep it inside because of the shame factor.

Most of Lao lowlanders are Buddhist, but in practice they blend Hinduism and supernatural beliefs. They go to Pagoda or a Buddhist temple at home worshiping the spirit of ancestors, and when family members become terminally ill they consult a shaman to find a cure.

I’d like to share the following important notes which will be useful for teachers and tutors during home visits or when tutoring:

  • Remember that everyone is watching you here. You are a teacher, a school representative or official figure, and you must act with dignity, restraint, and kindness.
  • Dress modestly. Showing too much skin is bad form.
  • Please, take your shoes off when entering a house or temple.
  • Refrain from public displays of affection. Public kisses and hugs are frowned upon. But a sincere “nop” or handshake will be OK.
  • Touching anyone but a small child on the head is insulting. Likewise, pointing with your feet, or putting your feet up on a table, is very rude.
  • Avoid confrontation. Instead, try patience and understanding. It is better to count to ten, smile and try again. Smiling will make you a winner.
  • Please refrain from advancing political or religious opinions here.

Mr. Bounghong is a former refugee from Laos, came to the United States in June 1978. Now, a US citizen. He has more than 20 years of direct services and administration experience working with refugees in San Diego, California. He served not only the Southeast Asian refugees but also Eastern European and Northeastern African refugees in the area of resettlement, employment, health screening, family counseling, drug and alcohol prevention and juvenile delinquency prevention.

His employment during the last 16 years included :

1986-89 Director of Southeast Asian Juvenile Diversion Project, funded by Office of Crime and Juvenile Justice Planning.

1989-90 Director of Refugee Personal Counseling and Community Education, funded by San Diego County Health and Human Services, Refugee Employment Program.

1990-95 Director of Pan Asian High Risk Youth Project, funded by the Housing and Urban Development.

1995-96 Director of Pan Asian Alcohol & Drug Prevention Program, funded by San Diego County Health and Human Services, Health Department.

1997- Present, he serves as the Southeast Asian/Pacific Islander Parent Advocate with San Diego City Schools to develop, plan, organize by language group and provide training sessions for Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander parents to get actively involve in their children education. He is also a resource person for the district and school administrators/staff to assist them in working effectively with Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander parents and students.

Mr. Bounhong is an active community member; he used to serve on Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s Asian Advisory Board; currently, he is a member of San Diego Police Chief’s Asian Advisory Board. In his spare time he is also the webmaster of www.lao.i8.com,  a Lao learning Online program through the internet. He could be reached at the above address and/or email: bounhong@yahoo.com