The Best of Both Worlds
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Best of both worlds



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World Poems #2 ກະວີແປ #2

World Poems #3 ກະວີແປ #3

World Poems #4 ກະວີແປ #4

World Poems #5 ກະວີແປ #5

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The best of both worlds

In this series of essays, I will try to synthesize what the best of the both
worlds has to offer to us - the overseas Lao, in particular, and the Lao
people, in general. I won't say that I am the master of both worlds, in fact
far from it, but I will say that I read a lot, ponder a lot; and this series
will reflect my summarization of these two great worlds. Before I go on, I
would like to define what I mean by the two worlds.

The first world is the world we come from and derive our identities from it.
That is the world of the exotic Eastern culture. To be specific, in our case,
it is 'Theravada' Buddhism. As for the second world, it is the world we are
currently facing it whether we like it or not. That is the world of Western
culture with all its sophistication that no single one of us can effectively
master it.

The series will be about my experience deriving from living in these two worlds
concurrently but, most importantly, it will be about you as much as it will be
about me. If there is anything good coming out of this series, I would like to
devote it to all of our readers who kindly follow my writing throughout all the
years. Hope that this series will strengthen you intellectually, emotionally
and existentially as much as it will do to me during this long process of

To keep it manageable for the web readers, I will make each essay short and
concise. Please do remember that this series won't be academic for I won't
resort to books but plainly existential with the storyline as the basis of the

It is my intention to post an essay at least once a week. If I can find time, I
will make it twice a week. Hopefully, we will be done with this series in three
months at the most.

Kongkeo Saycocie

That is me in the middle wearing a white sweater and blue jean


Is this a bad start or what? I have three versions of 'the best of
both worlds'. I will let you be the judge. Just let me know what you
think is the appropriate version for this series. The first one begins
with Laos and twigs its way to the States. The second and third ones,
on the contrary, begin with the States and zigzag back to Laos as
needed. Without further ado, here is the first version:

The story behind the story

I arrived in the U.S. in late 1985 after wasting four invaluable years
in the refugee camp in Thailand. First, I landed in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin where my family had settled there since the late 80s. Here,
some will ask why I came to the U.S. five years later. Why not at the
same time with my family?

I guess here you will need an explanation, lame though it may be. So,
here is the story behind the story. First and foremost, I told myself
'I am a Lao' consciously or unconsciously. Worse yet, I kept reminding
myself 'I am a Lao patriot'. Then, as a logical conclusion, never once
I entertained the idea of leaving Muang Lao (period). I would say 'let
others flee across the Mekong River, but it would never be me'. Why?
To me, being Lao was synonymous to living in Muang Lao, working for
Muang Lao and lastly dying for Muang Lao.

Hundreds of years living under the yoke of foreign rule whether it was
Siam or France was too much for any Lao patriots. As a voracious
reader of Lao history and Lao consciousness, it pained me to see our
own people leaving her en mass when she was finally her 'own master'.
I couldn't help asking myself 'are we a bickering people that we can't
live even among ourselves?' If not, why we left the country? Why our
motherland was reduced to a petty piece of land hardly able to sustain
herself economically and politically? Worse yet, our emotion was
scarred with the way our neighbors especially the one on the west
treated us like we were nothing but pieces of shit.

Typical of a so-called 'tower intellectual', I found nothing wrong
with the new regime. To me, those Ai-Nong fought for all of us, for
the dignity of Muang Lao and those in themselves were enough to rally
us behind them. I guess we were all tired of seeing our country
divided, our people died infighting. Wouldn't it be nice just to see
her in peace and Muang Lao for Quon Lao at last?

I always hope that I would build Muang Lao anew with my own hands and
big sweat on my forehead. Together, we would make our country rivaled
the one that always looked down on us. That was why I stayed behind.
That was why I still hope this was the new Muang Lao we were all
longing for. Why couldn't we make it work just for once? Or was I just

Kongkeo Saycocie

Version 2

Like most of us who migrated to the great country of the U.S.A., I came here barehanded. Even my favorite book, my own writing which put me in the forefront of the Lao literary world, I left them behind for fear of being labeled a Communist. If you ask: 'was I one of them?' it will depend on your definition. If being a Communist means joining the Pak Pasason Pativat Lao (the Lao People Revolutionary Party) or even a revolutionary youth organization, I wasn't. If, instead, it means that sympathizing with the cause of the revolution which purportedly will improve the lives of the poor majority of Lao people, I was inevitably one.


Why then I came to the U.S.? This question in itself needs a lengthy explanation. Simply put, I had no future in the land of my ancestors. With no connection, worse yet my family left the country, I became an outcast. I won't say that I hated the new regime though many things turned out to be drastically different from what I expected. It is like the more you see the true face of something, the uglier it becomes to you. Then, you couldn't help wondering what went wrong. Who was to blame? And why did it have to be like that? Couldn't we have done better? Or was that the best we could do as a country and as a people?


With a heavy heart, I left the country as did many of us. By this fact alone, I was scarred emotionally. Even today, the many 'if' and the many 'what could have been' still torment my soul. One way to get back my identity is to come to terms with my past, our country long history. Only then, I can bring out the best in me, the best of both worlds which have nourished me and stood by me throughout all those rough years.


Again, here I am in this land - naked and vulnerable. Though almost twenty years have passed by, it was still like yesterday to me. With that in mind, this series will be a cornerstone, a turning point of my new understanding put forth into life so do join me in this endeavor. When the journey is finally over, you will learn a valuable lesson from my mistake and rightfully partake in my joy of a wonderful life truly worth living.



Kongkeo Saycocie

Version 3

Finally, the U.S. of A.


I set foot on the U.S. soil on the 21st of November 1985. First, our airplane landed in Seattle. Not much to see there since we just stopped to switch to a domestic flight and did the paper work. I said 'we' because it was me and my brother 'Nyai' who stubbornly stayed behind for the reason only heaven knew. Besides, I sat in the aisle so the tiny view from the airplane window wasn't of that much help. Moreover, much of the airplane left wing took most of the view away whenever I tried to take a pick at the ground below.


To me, though a first time newcomer to the U.S., Seattle International Airport didn't impress me that much. Would say it was kind of small on first look. Only after my second visit in 1997 did I realize that what I saw on the first try was just a partial view of this grand international airport. In fact, I had to take the underground train to get from the main terminal to the parking area. That was how big this airport was.


On a personal note, the first hour in the U.S. was kind of absurd. I couldn't even bring in the airplane food with me. On the airplane, I just couldn't eat -too nauseating. Thought that once landed I would find a quiet and nice place to swallow some pieces. Wrong idea! While waiting to board a plane to Chicago (at that time, I didn't know where it would go for my final destination would be Milwaukee), I sipped some water from the water tap. Turning out to be that the water was burning my palate with its sharp taste. Didn't know why and still can't figure out even now. Bad sign? Let the future be the judge!


If I remember correctly, I boarded the now defunct Pan-Am to Chicago - a truly grand city. Even the airport bathroom impressed me with its fancy decorated wall. Then, it was time to move again. This time, we took the really small airplane with the seats I could even count with my own fingers. In fact, it was so small and insignificant that we had to walk to the airplane. During this flight which was at the twilight, Chicago was even bigger. The city was like spreading everywhere with its light springing forth from the street lights, the house lights, so on and so on. Yes, with this small airplane, it was like I was floating in the air. Better yet, there was a pretty blonde girl sitting by my side. I thought of talking to her, asking for her phone, address or something but just couldn't manage to utter a word. It wasn't that I couldn't speak English but it was something else hard to nail down.


I remember that my only thought at that time was to go to school and further my studies to the university level. Anything else was just a distraction! Finally, our plane landed in Milwaukee after only a short flight. Looking at the well-lit terminal, I couldn't help yearning to see my family for the first time after a long five years apart. Would my little siblings grow big now? What about my mom? Was she okay when dad wasn't around any more? Would they still remember me the way I was? Only time will tell...



Kongkeo Saycocie



I guess version 3 is the appropriate version for this series so I will make it the version I will write about for the next 3 months. With that said, this installment will be 'Best of both worlds #2'.

Was I ready yet?


Slowly, I stepped out of the terminal and into the waiting area. With the small bag in my right hand and a silly smile on my face, I was greeted by the flashing light. Then, an influx of warm hands, beaming faces completely enveloped me. Took quite a while to know who was who for all my siblings were grown up with some having the families of their own. Besides, those who were single brought their girlfriends along with them, and friends of their friends. It was such a nice gathering there. Apart from the few tears seeping down my mom's cheeks, all went smoothly. Yes, only if my dad was still alive, things would have been the same. Mom's words were still with me when she uttered that dad always wanted me to be here. Life, no one can say, what would have happened next? Only faith in oneself, in one's goodness is what's left with us in this life journey.


Before I came to the U.S., I did learn something about this great country. I knew of Patrick Henry's famous slogan 'Give me death, or give me liberty'. I took to heart Thomas Jefferson's ideals put forth in the declaration of independence 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' and not the least of Abraham Lincoln's governance 'government of people, by people and for people'. They were all from those paperbacks I frequented at the USIS library in the early 70s. At the same time, I was aware of the dual nature of everything. Nothing comes with the untagged prices. You win some and you lose some. A question is: how can you take only the best and leave its ugly side aside? In a nutshell, my life is a long process of digesting what is thrust to me and makes it my own. So, if I fail at some point, it is life. Isn't it?


Also, I was quite at ease with the English language especially in writing and reading so the U.S. wasn't that much of an alien object or a mystery to me. In fact, I was selected to attend the summer school organized by the Lao American School at Namphu (not so sure about the name) and attended by the handpicked bright Lao students from many prestigious schools all over Vientiane. There, I came to be exposed to the best of America either in government, literature, arts and so on. Every school day, we had the opportunity to act out American plays, argue in an American debate, and participate in American holidays like life was nothing but fun. At the afternoon, one also had a chance to watch a documentary or even a movie ready to glorify American greatness. Even today, the words 'stout heart and steady hands' are still ringing in my ears and the images of the men building the skyscrapers are still stuck in my mind. Yes, America really did a wonderful job in me. Now, it is time for me to learn what really makes America great by myself.


With the darkness occasionally pervading the street from the airport to my new home, I breathed out a sign of relief but, at the same time, a sign of concern just settled in. Here, I was in this new land. What was going to happen next? Not on a refugee quota but of an immigration status, what was my life going to be? Would I be a burden to my family? And how long could they support me? Oh, life, it wasn't easy as my glorious American school days portrayed it. Was I ready yet? I didn't know and didn't have a single clue!



Kongkeo Saycocie

Something nice to see



Finally, the car took a turn off the highway and veered its way to a row of apartments. Though not inside yet, I could see that people food was busily prepared as the aroma spread far and wide into my nose and captivated my hungry stomach. As soon as I stepped inside, the food was brought onto the table and for the first after a long time, I finally had a chance to eat the familiar Lao food. At the refugee camp, we ate whatever we could lay hands on - mostly tuna fish with a quick fried bowl of vegetables. Yes, we were lucky than most since our family sent us a check every month or so. Still, there was nothing more soul satisfying than nourishing your body with mom's cooking and at mom's home - my home.


As usual, mom always urged me to eat more. Everything nice she put on my plate. Yes, only I could take to heart how my parent loved me, I wouldn't have stayed behind and worried them for so long. Like the Lao saying that goes 'hell is where disobeying kid goes.' I guess five years in the refugee camp was close to hell to me. And for the future, let's see what kind of hell will be following me.


Done with the food, I rushed upstairs to see what this apartment looked like, what my room would be like. Altogether, my home was consisted of four bedrooms with eight of us sharing under its roof. Yes, apart from my mom, I had six brothers who were all single ranging from the age of 10 to 24, the oldest one being Nyai who stayed behind with me in Laos. Me, being Ai Kok, you could guess how old I was at that time.


My room sharing with Nyai was located next to the bathroom - the only bathroom upstairs. In fact, the whole apartment has only one bathroom plus a half bathroom downstairs so you could guess how hectic it would be in the morning. Just imagine seven young guys tried to do their things in less than an hour before rushing off to school or work in a wink of an eye. Yes, that would spare the two of us in the beginning but how long that would be, only if I could know.


My brother, Ko, who is about to get married this summer is the most uninhibited fellow. Though, at that time, he was only 16, he was an expert in the opposite sex. Even back in Laos, he always found a way to squeeze his way into the lap of pretty girls. I don't know how he made it but more time than others his innocent face won the day. Now in the U.S., he was even better. Just to show that he came a long way, he brought out stacks of Playboy magazines from 'my room closet'. At the sight, I just couldn't imagine how he could afford to buy that many. With a sly smile, his face lit up at my wide eyes. Later, he told me that Jack, a family friend subscribed to the magazine and let To, another one of my brothers, whom he was so fond of brought home the old issues. That was why my 'would-be' closet was such a worldly haven for all of my brothers.


Flipping through the pages, I thought it wasn't that bad as long as one wasn't obsessed with it. After all, to complete the circle, you need the opposite. As they say, everything serves its purpose otherwise it will be extinct or go out of business. I guess the Playboy magazine does have a role to play so a fair mind won't hurt it here. Besides, I just got out of the jungle (figuratively speaking, of course), beautiful figures would keep me a good company until I saved enough money to fly to the West Coast. Why did I want to go there especially California? Who did I want to see? You will find out later so just keep reading, my dear readers.




Kongkeo Saycocie 


A flower of my life


While stuck in the refugee camp, I met a beautiful girl by the name of Soukvilay whom everyone called Nett. I would say that she became my love, my life even at first sight. Strange as it might be, it wasn't that a cupid arrow hadn't struck me before. In fact, to my dismay, there was quite many. Still, this one had a special ring to it. Maybe, it was her innocent smile, her dreamy eyes or just her plain words, I just couldn't go anywhere.


I remember that, at the SoKoTho Nya - that was we called a transitory refugee camp at  Nongkhai before they packed us to Napho, Nakhon Phanom, this heavenly sent girl liked to walk past my 'living hole'. Fortunately for me, our 'buildings' happened to be facing one another. That meant I had a chance to see her every day - day and night. As you may know, transitory refugee 'building' had no wall. As a result, I could even see her in almost every gesture - cooking, washing the dishes, so on and so on.


Maybe, because the pull of a cupid arrow was so strong, I couldn't resist dropping by to see her at her place one night. You know what a coward like me did? I walked to her sister who was busily washing the dishes and said 'I think I saw you at Lycee de Vientiane. Were you a student there?' You could say it was a made-up excuse but, somewhere in my mind, I believed that I saw her sister at the Lycee. As if fate was on my side, she did really go to that infamous school. In fact, she was a grade lower than I was.


With such an auspicious start, I suddenly made a friend with her. As it was said, nothing was stronger than the tie of your own kind. In this case, it was the Lycee - an institution all of its student body was tightly proudly of. While helping her sister to wash the dishes, I sneaked a glance at her reading a book by the candle. I guess Vanh, her sister, sensed my true intention for she caught me turning my head to her sister a number of times. As soon as we were done with the dishes, Vanh was fast in introducing me to the girl of my life. Couldn't really remember what I did or said when suddenly standing in front of this gorgeous girl. I guess that didn't matter for, from now on, I wasn't a stranger to her any more. With some luck on my side, she might have turned an eye on me, not much just for once then life in this harsh refugee camp wouldn't be that unbearable any more.


To make the story short, with dogged persistence and the help of my love poems, I somehow won her heart. To my surprise, I came to know that she didn't have a single boyfriend. At that time, she was about to turn eighteen. What a good luck and what a responsibility at the same time! It was a good luck in the sense that I always dreamed of finding a true love, better yet a virgin to share life with. Yes, when this became a reality, a big responsibility came as a result. With such a treasure and with such a trust, I made a pact to myself that whatever it took I would put her first. Wherever she might be, I would find her no matter how long it would be, no matter how hard it would take me.


So, when her family left the camp in 1983, exactly two years before me, and then settled in Santa Rosa, California in early 84; my only wish was to be with her again. This time, I would make sure that she wouldn't leave me again for, without her, life was but dark clouds fleeting across the sky. Still, the unsettling question was: would she still be waiting for me? Or did she already find someone to replace me? I guess I had to find out by myself. Two months without a single mail were enough to torment a passionate heart. What then would be waiting for me in California? I just don't know.



Kongkeo Saycocie





Here is a continuation of the series 'Best of Both Worlds' entitled 'Colorful falling leaves'. This installment was written on the airplane on the way to Florida. I just have time to type it into my laptop today.


Kongkeo Saycocie


Colorful falling leaves

With a Nissan, my brother Noy just bought not a long time ago, we went to see the cemetery where the remains of our father were kept. Dad, being a true provider of the family by always placing the interest of the family first, decided to leave the country he was dearly attached to. In spite of the fact that he was familiar with the foreign countries since he studied in Vietnam and France, never for once did he cherish the idea of settling in any land apart from Muang Lao - the land of his ancestors. I used to hear how proudly he talked of the many provinces he served as a post officer headmaster namely Savannakhet and Thakek - the former because of the employees' high regards of him and the latter because of his beloved clan 'the Saycocie clan'.

As with many of his countrymen, dad decided to leave the country when the family's fortune began to dwindle to the point that we would go broke pretty soon. Yes, with many mouths to feed and with only one income though from the nicely paid private enterprise, the future looked quite bleak. As straightforward as he was, one day, dad told us that we would better pack up and leave the country before it was too late. Of course, you already knew Nyai and I stayed behind to his dismay for we were the two oldest boys who were supposedly to take care of the financially hard-hit family.

For four months, my family stayed in the refugee camp in Nongkhai. Virtually, every month, we got a letter secretly brought urging us to join them. They would even make things easier for us by arranging our departure in advance. That meant if we just popped up at the refugee camp, we would have a chance to leave for the U.S. with them in a relatively short time.

Then, with no hope of having their eldest two sons joining them, they left for the U.S. in the late 1980 and arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With the first picture sent from the new land, I saw my dad in a big coat. He looked tired and worried. Who wouldn't be? All his kids were young and he didn't have a single idea how to raise them the way he knew so well as in Laos. Moreover, he had a problem with the stomach for quite some time which I wasn't even aware of. Maybe, because of the change of the climate and the different treatment he received in the U.S., his health was fast deteriotating. Surgery after surgery wouldn't help. Then, with less than a year in the U.S., dad passed away leaving mom who didn't even know how to pay the bills in a precarious situation. Frankly speaking, I don't know how he died. Some said his eyes were still open when his last breath had left him while some claimed the opposite.

Whatever it was, I know for sure life wasn't fair to a good and decent man I've known in my life. Why didn't heaven spare time for a few more years so that he could enjoy what the great country like the U.S. had to offer him? Why wasn't he given an opportunity to see his kids grow up and to witness how his blood had shaped them they were - decent, honest and Lao conscious to the very last bit of them.

I wouldn't want to say how I reacted to the news of my dad's passing away for only heaven knows how much I love him. Let my outburst of hot tears soaked my checks and the decision to leave the country for good once and for all  told the story itself. Yes, enough was enough. For the silly sake of the revolution, what else do I have to sacrifice?

As the car approached the cemetery, I felt something inside choking inside me. Dad, here I was standing in front of his remains. With the flowers placed at the altar, I let my tears fall. Was this life? Why did it have to be this way? I was finally with him but not with him any more. Yes, life has a way to hit you where it most hurts.

Through the car window, I let my eyes float with the falling leaves. Here they fell - some expectedly and some not. Whatever situation that might be, to us mortals, only if they could just hang on a little more. What a beautiful picture to see! What a perfect way to end! Yes, life has its own way independent of our wishes. Maybe, it is time for dad to depart for a better place where there is no struggle, no separation but only happiness. I wish I could know then my soul would truly be at peace!


First job


Less than two weeks in the new land, I happened to get a job with the Milwaukee Public Schools as a teacher aide working but they called it so nicely as ESL (English as a Second Language) consultant. I guess I was lucky to land a less sweaty job with quite a decent pay to start with (Better yet, I had the opportunity to work at the same school where three of my brothers were currently attending). My half-brother, Ai Ep, planned to have us work at the company he was working with doing some kind of machinery. I thought why not as the idea of staring at the four-cornered walls days in and days out began to bore me to death.


In fact, it was kind of funny how my mom told me about the job. She said that they just wanted someone who could tell them if the students swore at them. I don't know how she got that idea or how she knew about the job but it was through her street smart way, I somehow managed to get this white collar job. What a good luck to start with! At the same time, it came with a prize for I reasoned that finding a job wasn't that hard so I would rather go easy with myself. Yes, as an ivory tower intellectual, I was quite good at this kind of things.


So, every day from 8am to 2:40pm, I took a school bus along with my brothers to school and hopped back home at the same time. One of my brothers' teachers might take pity of the newly arrival like me so she issued me a free school bus pass every week. Yes, in my life, occasionally I would meet nice people like that teacher who was willing to break some rules for others who were less fortunate than they were. As for the job, it was relatively easy. Most of the time, I would do the live translation for the Lao students who weren't quite fluent with English. Typically, these Lao students tended to be a little bit older than the average high school kids. I guess because of their ages, they were placed in higher grades without regards to their educational background. Most of the time, these students had only primary education back in their own country. Even if they had some secondary education, a gap of a few years in the refugee camp would just throw them off educational wise.


Sad to say, I could do very little to help them apart from the patchwork needed for each school day. What's funny was sometimes I was paired up with the Hmong students who could hardly speak Lao and still they expected me to do the magic. I guess, as an educational institution, they should have known better. During the latter part of the school years, maybe they had figured out of how to make a better use of the teacher aides so they put me in some kind of tutorial center where the kids who needed help with their homework could drop by for our service.


In that 'tutorial center', there were five of us - one Vietnamese, one Hmong, two Thai (not sure how they got the jobs. Maybe, they thought Lao and Thai languages were quite similar) and me. The Vietnamese teacher aide, a lady, came to rule the center with the virtue of her shrieking loud voice. In fact, hardly I ever noticed she stopped chattering with or without students in front of her. The recurring theme would be how stupid the Americans were for they always expected us, non-Americans, to say the word 'thank you' every time a service was rendered. In a way, she was right for the word 'thank you' without sincerity was like an hypocrite. Still, most of us just couldn't stand how she could repeat those words again and again as if they were nothing else in this big wide world to utter or be concerned about.


I, myself, had plenty of Lao kids to drop by and see me so I was spared of the nuisance pretty much most of the time. I would say that most of the Lao kids I tutored were quite weak in math. Once in a while, I would find some kids who, with the right help and guidance, would go a long way.


At times, between the intervals of the tutorial hours, when the kids had to rush back and forth between classes, I would bring out the math book which my brother Noy took at the engineering school called MSOE (Milwaukee School Of Engineering). Seeing the book, some students would ask me 'why do I still need to study as I already got a job?' Hardly did they realize education wouldn't stop when the school was over or when they graduated. Besides, I myself planned to go to that engineering school the next school year so I would rather make use of my precious time by getting ready for the GED (General Education Diploma) test, the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), and ACT (Achievement Curricular Test) way ahead of time.


Would I succeed? Hard to tell for this educational road was such a long one. Any tiny twist and turn could throw me off the track. Besides, I myself was such a messy head. First, for lack of imagination, I wanted to be a lawyer. Then, since I was quite good at math, why didn't I study engineering instead? As they say 'you don't need to be smart book-wise to succeed, just a focus and a will to succeed will do the job.' I guess I still have more to learn in this game of life.



First snow


It was always my wish to see the snow in real time, not like in the movie which I couldn't feel anything. So, when it finally happened, I was ecstatic. Just imagine seeing the white stuff floating down from the sky onto everywhere - on your clothes, on your hair and right in your face. Yes, though cold to the point of freezing as it was, the experience was enough for me to withstand the shivering for at least the first few days. Anyway, I still like the snow. The image of snow blanketing the roofs, the roads, the trees, the cars, the pavements with whiteness captivated my eyes. I would sit by the window - sometimes for hours just to watch the snow doing its magic work.


At that time, I didn't know how to drive yet though at the late twenties already. I heard it was very hard to navigate the car during the snowy season for the road would be slippery. To prevent the accident, the drivers would put a chain under their cars. Even now, I just couldn't imagine how strange it would be driving a car that way especially to people in typical California like me.


I remember, at one time, the snow was heavily swirling down for hours and days. With that, it wasn't hard to see everything got buried under the whiteness of snow from the parked cars to a row of bushes in front of my apartment. Since nothing but deep layers of snow pervaded everywhere, you couldn't even go to your car not to mention driving it out to the street. In fact, the street was deserted as no sweeping truck can sweep the snow out fast enough. Obviously, I couldn't go to work but it didn't bother me a bit since the avalanche of snow was so spectacular that no amount of money was worth it.


You know what I did on those long stretches of days - I just sat by the window and watched the snow tumbling down. With the sheer act of imagination, I saw the image of my girlfriend reflected in the snow as captivating as the snow itself. Yes, if only she were here by my side, this world would be perfect. Couldn't help to wonder if she was still thinking of me as I obviously did of her, or the distance and time apart took her further and further away from me. I guess only time would tell. By the way, I wasn't faultless about the commitment towards her for, at times, my eyes fell for another girl. Yes, as they say 'distance can sever your love', likewise our love faced an obstacle more or less on a different level.


Since she came to the U.S. before me about two years, she stood a chance of finding someone better, richer and far more suitable to her than me. As this was the law of nature, someone else of those qualities came to her life. That was why the absence of letter for a long stretch of time reminded me of. I, myself, couldn't help cast my eyes on other girls though not of a serious matter as of with her. I remember that I liked a high school Vietnamese student who went to the same high school I was tutoring at. Not quite a few times I met her at the tutorial center. Though hardly spoken to her, I felt some connection with her whenever she was around. The way our eyes met just shook my soul. Yes, she was a beautiful girl whom every guy just couldn't keep their heads straight whenever she was passing by. That was my case too. With some help of my Lao student in her class, I managed to have the Lao girl taken her picture. Then, one day with no sign whatsoever, she approached me asking if I could help her reload the film. Dumb as I was, I told her I didn't know how. Turning out to be, to my regret, that was the end of our relationship as she moved on to college and never once did I meet her again. Left with me even now is her nice picture standing in front of Washington High School with the snow stacking up all around her. Hope that she is doing well in life. Maybe, one day, when met again somewhere in Milwaukee if she is still there, I can help her reload the film and take her picture with the falling snow I much adore again.


 Time to rumble


It took me quite a while before I could say that I finally settled in America. When first arrived, I thought it would be quite an adaptation to this new life in this new land. I remember watching the movie 'Fast times at Ridgemont High' in Nongkhai starring the teen idol, Phoebe Cates, I thought I too might have to start somewhere working in the restaurant. The image of Phoebe Cates and her friend pulled down the restaurant kind-of-garage door after a long day reminded me that somehow I had to get ready for this long boring job (maybe, not to those girls, but very much to me).


You know what I did at the beginning. I meditated on that possible occurrence and tried to come to terms with it. I remember that even doing some workout at the basement of the apartment building, the thought was very much on my lingering thought. By the way, I assumed I could get ready by training myself physically. After all, even my brother who was in the U.S. before me still didn't have a better job to start with. I guess my case wouldn't be much different. To be fair, Noy my brother only worked part time and only during the weekend since he went to school fulltime during the weekday. So, working as a dishwasher would be quite all right at least for a couple of years since your ultimate goal was a better paid job which you and your family could depend on.


What about me? Much older than he was, I would have a lot to catch up. Since Noy was studying at the prestigious engineering school (MSOE) so I thought why couldn't I? The first thing I did was to check out the test books from the library and busily prepared for many exams at the same time. First on the list was the GED (General Education Diploma), then the SAT and lastly ACT. Remember the first one wasn't quite that hard. After all, it was roughly equivalent to high school passable grades. On the contrary, the last two was nothing I could take lightly of. Yes, just the vocabulary section of the English verbal test was quite a beast in itself. I thought I had a sizable command of the English language but those words on the sample test just threw me off. Most of them looked like Greek to me. That was to say I didn't have a clue of what those words meant at all. Wow, if this trend continued, I wasn't sure I could get a passable score for the college, not to mention a good college where the high score is the requirement.


Before I realized, the test dates for those three were lining up for me, not any one of them was a week apart. Luckily, the GED was first on the line-up. The test site was at MATC (Milwaukee Area Technical College). Glad to say that I did well. Then, SAT which I had to take at Markette University. This one was quite a contrast. The students taking the test were all young and energetic compared to those who took the GED, it was like night and day. Yes, GED was for those who didn't finish high school so obviously, as it happened, not a few was of an old age as typified by me. Obviously, I finished the high school but not the one from the U.S. so it wouldn't count. Still, would you believe that, for some of us, finishing high school in other countries was better than the U.S. namely in math? Or was I an anomaly due to my status as the graduate of Lycee de Vientiane? I wasn't sure. By the way, strolling in the college campus was quite exciting as I came to brush shoulders with some of the brightest Americans, the would-be leaders of this country.


Getting back to the SAT test, I had to labor hard and perspired badly for the time seemed to fly by while I was struggling with the English section. For those who used to take this kind of test, you will know that you hardly have time to think. The ability to filter out the possible wrong answers is crucial here. I guess I wasn't good at that either since most of the choice look unfamiliar to me anyway. I don't think you want to know how I did on that English test. Not good, of course but, to my somewhat surprise, I was far better than the average American high school students. I guess I was just lucky on that day. As for my math score, I just left a majority of test takers at the starting line.


In regards to the ACT, it was somewhat in the middle of those two in terms of difficulty. If you just knew the material well, you will tend to do well in that test. Again, I wasn't studying in the American curriculum so I wasn't sure how my knowledge could be measured up to those U.S.  high schoolers. Turning out to be I did reasonably well, though not great. So, when I applied to MSOE, I got accepted which brought me a lot of relief. Now, the big task was how I could make use of this great educational opportunity which my own country completely denied me of. I guess time will tell.




Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I would say that the city that I lived in wasn't that big as compared to the one next door about 60 miles to the East, Chicago. Still, this city was an eye-opener for someone like me. Besides snow, Milwaukee was the home of many Scandinavians and not the least the beer heavily drinking Germans who came to establish their own distilled beer company, the Miller Lite. Though, not a beer drinker myself, I could see beers had a deep mark in this city. It seems like virtually everybody likes to have a pack of beers by their sides either momentarily sipping it or preferring their greater-than-life presence. My brother-in-law even went a little further by drinking beers as a substitute for water.


Apart from the beers, the German influence seemed to pervade everywhere from the imposing architecture to the business-like culture of this city. The shopping mall in downtown where I tended to frequent after work was quite a sight. I guess everything of fashion, gadgetry and beauty was there for the pleasure of your eyes. My relative who just came to the U.S. even said that this country was sure a heaven for your eyes. In her words, they rang the power of consumerism at its best while it also connotes the notion of powerlessness in the eyes of the beholders.


For me, I just went there for no particular reasons. Sometimes, it was too hot outside so the air conditioner in the mall was just the thing I yearned for. By the way, for those who have never experienced living in the cold climate, you will be surprised to learn that the summer is a lot hotter than the region in the hot climate itself. I remember that even at night I couldn't sleep despite the fact that I opened all the windows and still nothing but hot air surrounded me. What a contrast to the Northern California where I am currently living! Even in the hot summer (a rarity), whenever the sun goes down, the cool air begins to flow in so it is not an unusual thing to see us cover ourselves with a blanket snoozing off to a good night sleep.


Did I tell that I took the school bus to work? As I remember the bus did stop in front of the Marquette University. To the population in this city, Marquette was synonymous to Harvard or Yale University while MSOE was like the top engineering school, MIT. So, it wasn't unusual to see the Marquette student body beaming with pride when they strode off to their campus across the street from us. Talking about MSOE, I did visit the campus and register for the upcoming fall classes. Since, at that time, I was tantalized with computer so much so I opted to go with Computer Science at this school. By the way, my brother Noy was studying Mechanical Engineering in his sophomore year. You know what they showed after the orientation. It was nothing academic but the comedy film 'Police Academy'.


I guess this installment won't be complete if I won't talk about the demography of this city. To my later surprise, I found out that most of the wealthy white lived in the southern part of the city while the north and downtown became the home of the black, non-white (Hispanic and Asian) and poor white. Of course, my family apartment was located not that far from downtown as were many refugees' residence. Occasionally, I managed to stop by the southern section of the city and saw what a microcosm of the real world in real time.


I remember that, in front of my apartment, there was a school with its big basketball court. To, my tall brother, was quite good at this game. Since he didn't have ball to play with at his liking, I bought him one.  Not a few times, the black came to play with us. Yes, my brother To could stand his own with them but me, I was just too slow and too clumsy with the ball so most of the time I just watched them play instead. I guess in one game that I seemed to excel at was the soccer. For no obvious reasons, the black female came to watch me play and said after the match that I looked like Bruce Lee. Through her dreamy eyes and shy gesture, I could see that I had more than a fan standing in front of me. Even today, I just couldn't imagine what on earth made her think that I looked like Bruce Lee. Yes, Milwaukee did have everything for me. I love to be back there one day and see for myself if someone is still mistaken me for Bruce Lee again.




A Buddhist monk


Since my dad passed away five years ago, it was always on my mom's mind to ordain her sons to be Buddhist monks especially me who was the first male born. Now, that I was in the U.S., she was more than ready to go ahead with her plan. Frankly speaking, I didn't want to be ordained yet though for only a week. The reason was that I planned to visit my girlfriend in California that very summer. The thought of appearing at her door with the shaved head for the first time since last seen her at the refugee camp two years ago wasn't enticing to me at all. Still, as a son, it was my duty to be in the yellow robe so that my deceased dad could go to heaven. As the saying goes: 'the parents can go to heaven through the yellow robe of their sons', I then decided to be a monk at whatever cost.


I guess I don't need to tell you how much trouble I had to go through before shaving off my head. If you remember the summer of 1996 was the year of soccer World Cup tournament held in Mexico. Being a big soccer fan, it ached me to miss a good chunk of the world cup. Know what? While in the refugee camp, I avidly followed the world cup though only through the news. Now, that I was in the U.S. and had a chance to watch it live on CNN, the thought of missing it even a week really troubled me. Anyway, I had to put all of that distraction aside while staying at the temple which, at that time, Milwaukee didn't have any Buddhist temple yet so I had to be ordained at the one in Elgin (or Rockford, I am not sure now) - a town about 2 hours away from Milwaukee.


Surprised to say that, while at the temple, not a single of thought about the world cup or even about my girlfriend passed through my mind even once. Even today, I was still at awe at myself. I guess I had something in myself that was hard to put into words - a kind of Zen-like quality. I remember that I read lots of philosophical and spiritual stuffs that when it was time for me to put them into practice, they just came out of nowhere and changed me into something else. Or I would rightly say that they changed me into my true self.


If I remember correctly, for most of the time, I was just in the meditation mood seeing everything in its true nature. The way the leaves fell from the trees, seen in this light, was quite an eye opening in itself. Even the way I moved around, it struck me as I was one with the motion. Yes, even a beautiful girl coming for Takbath didn't strike me as a lustful object as I usually came to think of but a manifestation of the divinity.


I would say that I became a monk more than the monks themselves for I didn't joke, didn't stroll around unreservedly and, most important of all, I didn't become a monk to make money as some monks tended to be. As the joke going around that whenever there was a Takbath, there was money to be made. By the time I reentered the ordinary life, I made quite a sum despite the fact I stayed in the temple for only a week. My two brothers, Noy and Ko, ordained at the same time also enjoyed their stay in the temple for different reasons. Noy striking a friend with one monk loved to learn about the magic while Ko was there just for a ride.


We, new ordained monks, slept in the Sim where the big Buddha resided. Outside, there was a big Pho tree so whenever the wind blew especially late at night, you couldn't help but felt a chill in your bones. What was interesting was that we had to get up early for the chant, had a breakfast and not that long it was the time for the last meal before noon. Usually, there would be ready food sent to us from the families who supported the temple. Only on Sunday did the monks cook their own food.


You could say that we didn't have dinner but coffee or light drinks. At first, it was hard to get used to this no-dinner but, after for a while, it didn't bother us that much. Maybe, we resigned to this unbreakable rule or we just didn't feel hungry that much after all. Besides, it was said that if you ate at night, your head would be full of KhiKag (something that made you want to scratch all the time). That, in itself, would scare anyone off especially my youngest brother, Ko.


One more interesting thing that I almost forgot to mention was that we were not allowed to wear underwear so it was kind of awkward to walk around especially when you had to walk past the young female right in front of your nose. Lastly, if you were there for the learning, you wouldn't be disappointed at all. Elgin Buddhist temple was equipped with the PhatayPidok (the Buddhist Bible). I, myself, definitively made of them for my entire stay. For those who haven't read this book before (in fact, a series of books big enough to fill your whole bookcase), you would find that it was repetitive. Still, if you were scholarly oriented like me, you would find a gem there.


I really wonder that if I stayed ordained, how far I could go in the path of the Buddhahood. I guess it wasn't meant to be as I was no less Lao than of Dharma. Suffice it to say that I learned much from being a monk not by learning anything new but by going deeper into myself. So, when it was time for me to depart the Sangha communities, I was ready to face the world in whatever form it may present. Life for me was precisely just beginning at that point.




My Thai friend


Not long after I left the monk life, my Thai friend came to visit me. At that time, she stayed in Minnesota and brought her American boyfriend along with her. This woman I met her at the Panat Nikhom transit center. Here is a little story about our coincidence meeting.


While staying at the transit center, my ears were bugging me for I seemed to hear something ringing in them all the time. Not able to stand the nuisance any more, I dropped by the transit health clinic. It happened that the doctor who treated me was no other than this woman who was just graduating from the medical school and stationed there.


At first, I had no intention whatsoever to strike a conversation with her. In fact, I had to admit that my perception about Thai people weren't that good for the reasons we all know well. As it was my habit to bring along a book with me whenever I had to leave home, that day, I tucked in a book of Ajarn Buddhadasa in my arm. Seeing the book, the doctor who happened to follow Ajarn Buddhadasa's teachings quite seriously took an immediate interest in me.


She asked how I came to know of this learned monk, what I thought of his teachings, so on and so on. I told her that I read quite a number of his books and thought that his teaching was of a first rate - very different from the teachings prevalent in Thailand at that time. In fact, if I didn't know about the author first, I would have thought that the book was of a Zen book. Better yet, since his teaching talked directly to Panyason (the 'educated class'), it greatly appealed to me.


For some unknown reasons, the two of us became friends immediately. I guess parts of it came from the shared interest in the 1973 student demonstration, the 1976 massacre of the students, the band 'Caravan',  the writer 'Jik Phoumisak' and the founding father of Thammasat University 'Pridi Phanomyong'. By the time I had to leave her, she called me 'Kanlaya Mit' (a dear friend) and would like to meet me again before I left for the U.S. At that time, she had no boyfriend yet and was quite a beauty herself. She told me that her ancestors were from China. Though of a Chinese origin, by her generation, she couldn't speak Chinese even a bit. In another word, she was Thai as any Thai could be. Still, she couldn't come to adopt the religion as practiced by the majority Thai. Being a progressive herself, she thought of the current Thai Buddhism as full of superstition. It took her quite a lot searching before finding the right teachings in Ajarn Buddhadasa. She even told me that it was hard to find someone who shared her view even in the so-called 'Buddhist country'.


From her eyes, I could see that she liked me despite the fact that I showed her my girlfriend's picture. Maybe, she spent too much time talking to me, she got called by her supervisor. In another room, I overheard the interesting conversation that carried a lot of implications. Obviously, her American supervisor had an eye on her as his potential girlfriend. Among the many words, he said something like why she was attached to me, a refugee, whom she just met more than him who had been working with her for many months already. Unequivocally, she sounded out that it was none of his business. She would do whatever her heart desired. Before thundering out, she said that she found many good qualities in me that were obviously missing in him.


Couldn't really say what I thought of her assessment. Would definitively say that she was really something. If only I had an eye for a Thai woman, I would find a way to spend time with her. Being that I would leave for the U.S. in the following day, she insisted that I stopped by to see her at the clinic tonight. I told her that I would try to come. If I couldn't, let's meet other time. I then gave her my family's phone and address in the U.S.


Frankly speaking, I didn't think that we would have met again. Like many contacts that we frequently gave in our lifetime, rarely we ran across one another again. Then one year later, out of nowhere, she called me and would like to come by. Of course, this time around, she had someone dear to her and would like me to meet him too. I wouldn't say what impression I had of her boyfriend but I would say that if only he shared the passion she abundantly had, they would have made a perfect couple.


Before leaving us, she held my hand and would wish to see me again though not in real time but at least in dreams. Even today, I still can't figure out why I, the penniless refugee, managed to hold a special place in her heart. I sincerely wish wherever she is, may she be happy for she rightly deserves it. I, for one, will remember her for as long as I live for never in my life that such a precious woman has come into my life and reminded me that someone out there still thinks highly of me in this very life.





Time to see my girlfriend


With my hair grown up a little bit more from the once-shaved head, I booked a ticket to California where my sweetheart was residing. Yes, though just three years had passed since I last saw her, to me, it was like the infinity of time. First, I thought of going straight to see my beloved when I first landed in the U.S. but as I had no whatsoever with me, I had to postpone the visit past Christmas, past Valentine day and past the almost gone summer as well.


I remember when I was about to leave for the U.S., I had called her but she wasn’t home. I left her a message that I would call her back later in the day. Then, it just happened that the Thai post office, where the long distance telephone was located, was closed for the day. Sad to say that I made her wait hours and hours for the phone to ring. Yes, if her heart wasn’t with me, she would sure dump her for being so inconsiderate.


I wouldn’t tell you how our relationship was on a good note again after a long absence of correspondence. Suffice it to say that we both learned a good lesson from life. After all, no one loved us more than we had towards one another. With that good feeling reestablished, I called her on a regular basis. I would say that the phone bill was kind of stiff for me for, most of the time, it would escalate to no less than a hundred bucks a month. My mom would even say that if I spent money like flushing the toilet, how matter how much I would make, it would all dry up like a well in the summer time. Luckily for me, my brother got free numbers that I could call anywhere in the U.S. but the problem was that I had to make a call at the phone booth so that the trace wouldn’t come to our house. This kind of numbers was for use for only a couple of weeks or, most of the time, days before they made them useless. Therefore, it was crucial that I had to use a certain number before its time was up.


Frankly speaking, I don’t know how my brother got those numbers, maybe through someone who knew the ins and outs of the phone system or through a wizard kid who was good with this kind of things. It just happened that I was supplied with the new numbers every week and that meant I had to go out and book my place at the neighborhood phone booth on a rotating basis. Most of the phone booths were about two or three blocks away. By the time I was done with this roaming service, I became a familiar face in the area. At times, I didn’t want people to recognize me so I would go out at night. Luckily that the time in California was two hours later than the central time, calling her late at night wouldn’t become a nuisance to her and her family.


I guess, for more than one time, I talked on the phone for a stretch of three to four hours. Now, I just couldn’t figure out how I could find the many words to last that long, how I could risk my safety stranding in a lonely phone booth late at night, and how I completely ignored the freezing temperature that was fast enveloping me. Yes, as they said ‘love is blind’, I guess I was blind no less than any other lovers. In fact, my niece even called me ‘a lover boy’ whenever she caught me dropping out and then coming back with the hands and face frozen. Yes, even the rubbing of the hands on the stove would take a good five minutes before they would feel some blood was flowing again.


Getting back to my visit to California, I finally made it come true right before summer was over. As scheduled, the plane landed at the San Francisco International Airport. Right at the gate, nothing was more pleasing than the face and smile of her, the girl of my life. Dressed in a white and blue suit, she looked fabulous - more beautiful than I could have imagined. Yes, it always happened that if you were okay before, you would be pretty in the U.S. More than that, if you were a beauty to start with, you would become quite a sight that had an effect of turning everyone’s head. The latter case could be aptly applied to my girlfriend for no more or no less.


Should I say that I was happy to see her again? Yes, if only my heart and soul could put what they felt in words, they would do a better job than this pitiful writer like me. Suffice it to say that the whole two weeks that I spent with her were the most memorable weeks in my entire life. Like a shadow, I followed everywhere, gazed at her every move, and admired her every gesture. In fact, since she had to work as a waitress at the restaurant for the night shift, I would wait for her until she came back before I could swallow anything for the dinner. That was how deep she caught me under her spell.


During the day, for not having much to do, I tutored her as I used to do like the days in the refugee camp. Yes, at times, I did less tutoring than saturating myself with her full blown beauty. At that time, she was turning twenty two - a prime age for the beauty to show through. I remember when the moonlight was shining on her while we went to the moon gazing at the top of the hill overlooking the town, she looked more like an angel among mortals like me.  


I did remember that we went to the Great America amusement park where the roller coaster almost took our breath away. We also went to the park spending the precious time among the trees with the birds chirping and the insects humming their tunes. And not the least, we spent a memorable day taking pictures with my hair just sprouted up at the world famous Golden Gate Bridge. Seeing those pictures again, she would tease me that I had to be a nut showing up like a bald eagle to her, the one I expected to win her heart with all my charms.


By the time I had to leave her, it was obvious that we couldn’t do without one another in this life. With that in mind, I proposed to her parents that we would be engaged and get married next year around. As her parents knew what kind of a person I was since the days at the refugee camp, they had no problem accepting my proposal. So, by next year, I had to save quite a substantial amount of money for the wedding. Would I be able to do so? And how could I accomplish that given that I planned to go back to school full time? This was the question that I had to be reckoned with.


With the longing last look at her, I passed through the gate and wished that I already had the answer in me.






Back to reality


Once back to Milwaukee, I went to MSOE enquiring about the evening program. Turning out to be that the evening program was far more of an inferior quality than the one presented during the daytime. To me, that was unacceptable. Besides, I would need quite a substantial amount of money for the wedding so I would rather bypass the education this time around and instead focusing on making more money. That meant I had to postpone my college years for the unforeseen future.


As usual, during the daytime, I went to work as a teacher aide for the Milwaukee Public Schools. The year was 1986. This time, they sent me to work at the South Division High School where the Lao students were in dire need of the educational assistance. I would say that despite the fact that there was very little I could help them, my tenure over there was quite a learning experience.


Most of the Lao students were academically of a mediocrity to average, only a very few had a promising future. Strange to say that most Hmong who weren’t exposed to education before back in Laos did exceptionally well. Though ranking in the top of their class, they wouldn’t be bothered to seek my occasional help with their sometimes unsolved math questions. Our Lao kids instead just wanted to get the ready made answers without trying to solve the problems first.


To be fair to all sides, I guess it was understandable. Most of the Lao kids’ parents didn’t have a high expectation of them to start with therefore they just made a motion through school until, hopefully, graduation. On the contrary, not a few of the Hmong kids’ parents were quite determined to push their kids harder that even a B grade or a 3.0 average wasn’t even acceptable. For a couple of Lao kids who did well in school, their parents were very much involved with their child’s education.


In this assigned school, I did get more involved with the Lao kids and sometimes their parents. Not a few times, I had to go on a field trip with them. By having more time to talk to them, I came to understand what they had to go through in their young lives. Yes, if only they had an educated parent like mine or a close-knit and a strongly demanding community like the Hmong, they would come to appreciate what education can take them to the promised land. Like a saying that goes ‘the higher the level of the water reaches, the higher the lotus will rise.’ I guess we, as a community, have to look at ourselves before we can unrealistically expect more from what we actually put in.


Like the Washington High School I was assigned to last school year, a nice teacher at the new school gave me a free bus pass too. His name was Mr. Pysack and he taught the history class. Given that I was strong with history to start with, we could discuss things of the past which his students were rarely interested in. He understood why we had to come to his country. What role did the U.S. play in the destructive Vietnam War that wrecked the tiny country like Laos? At the same time, he could see that Communism wasn’t a solution to Indochina but what alternative they had, given that the U.S. was insensitive to the plight of these war-inflicted people?


At that time, I was kind of living a double life. During the day, I assumed a role of an instructor or even an intellectual. During the night, I instead worked as a janitor vacuuming the luxurious offices around the town. Yes, since I needed to save money, I couldn’t afford to choose the kind of work I wanted to do. Besides, being a nighttime janitor fitted nicely with my daytime schedule and so it went my double life. By the way, it was interesting to add that, in some offices, the high powered guys had a Playmate calendar semi-secretly stood on their grand desks. I couldn’t help wondering if they happened to have pretty secretaries at their services, what would be ensuring next?


Before I leave this episode, I would like to add one more thing. One time, I even worked as a dishwasher but it lasted only one night. Why? Because they treated me as if I were less than a human being. They would insist that I shouldn’t have a spare time just to breathe but works and works. If not enough dishes to wash, I had to sweep the floors, empty the garbage, so on and so on. Yes, working was one thing but enslaving was another. What most infuriated me was that they did me a favor by hiring me without realizing that I had to give more for what their petty wages could have compensated. I guess they might have thought that I was hopeless for any kind of works like many Mexicans I encountered at the kitchen. Coming out of this back breaking experience, I made a promise to myself that if I would never be on the side of those who made a fortune out of other human beings’ suffering. Whatever I may turn out to be in life, one thing is for sure: I would be a staunch advocate for those who are less fortunate than I am.






My American friend



One day, my brother, To, brought his American friend to our apartment. Turning out to be that he was a student of theology who wanted to be a pastor.  To, himself, maybe through his friend’s influence came to adopt Christianity. Every Sunday, he would go to church but rarely did he bring any of his friends home. After all, our family was all Buddhist so how could talking about God fare in our home, right?


Tom, the friend he brought home, was a little different from all professed Christians. Though no less a die-hard Christian himself, he was instead willing to learn about other faiths and other way of life. To me that, in itself, was enough to extend my friendship. I would say that Tom was a nice guy despite my perception that he was a little weird wanting to be a missionary. I wonder what he could accomplish by changing people’s faith without changing people’s living conditions. To me, that was a naive thinking not to mention that by changing people’s faith you were taking away what constituted themselves and leaving behind instead your own cloning for better or for worse.


Among the many things we discussed, he was curious to know why I had to give money to my would-be wife before we could get married. Wasn’t it like selling your own daughter? I replied that this custom was a safeguard that the would-be son-in-law was in a position to support his family by proving that he was financially a capable person. Of course, the would-be son-in-law could just borrow money and start off the married life in debt. Though our custom was not a fool proof, it was still a workable one that can provide some safety to the new marriage.


Getting back to religion, Tom was adamant that Christianity was incomparable. If anyone wanted to be saved from the eternal hell, he or she should adopt his religion. Though admittedly that other religions namely Buddhism taught nothing but goodness, they could not guarantee you salvation. Besides, he added that Buddha was not a God so he settled for less while Christianity offered more.


In fact, I encountered this issue before both back in Laos and in the refugee camp. Strangely enough, I was exposed to the idea of God since I first started school - the Catholic school. Everyday, it was drummed into my young head that God was supreme and that I should listen to him. Frankly speaking, though still a puny intellectually, I felt a pity for the son of God who had to stand almost naked on the cross. It was said that it was for our sin that God sacrificed his only son.


Then, at the refugee camp, not a few of our compatriots turned to Christianity - some for the economic reasons and some for the faith they had less to start with. What was so funny was that the newly converted tended to belittle their old faith or the faith they thought they professed. Hardly did they realize they knew very little of themselves. As a person who studied all the main religions, I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that a certain religion was better than the rest. Each had a place, a role to play. As long as one was not fanatical with their professed faith, this world would sure be better off.


I told Tom that it didn’t matter what religion you practiced for truth was the truth. Label just didn’t amount to anything. It was like going to the top of the mountain, it didn’t matter what side of the mountain you were climbing from. To me, personally, and to most Lao in general, Buddhism was our way. It wasn’t other fancy things that made us unique in this diverse world and, at the same time, provided us with a sanctuary from the vicissitude of life but Lao Buddhism. With time, as I learned more and experienced more, I began to appreciate what was handed down to me and this is going to be what I am going to hand down to my offspring for many generations to come.


By the way, did I tell you that I was frequented by many Jehovah that began to get on my nerves? First, I thought of using this occasion to practice my English. Then, since they didn’t just take ‘No’ for an answer, I just told my brothers that whenever they came, I wasn’t home. Luckily, for me, Tom realizing what kind of a person I was, he stopped talking about God in my presence. Strangely enough, we became good friends ever since. Even when I moved to California, he even stopped by to see me and have a delicious Lao food with us. I don’t know where he is now since we lost contact when he went to do the missionary things in Thailand. Wherever he is, I sincerely wish that his religion is a true sanctuary to him as the Buddha way is to me. Yes, if all of us accept one another as who they really are without trying to change them into our carbon copies, we as a species would come a long way from being other things than human beings.






Lao community in Milwaukee


In Milwaukee, there was a sizable group of Lao people. You could easily run into most of them whenever you went to the party. I, myself, hardly attended any parties but I could still tell that the party was the best place to get to know who was who in the community. My brother Noy, at that time, was also a musician. He played in the band that was regularly called for at the party. Not a few times, he would tell me about people of our kind that he met. They were those frequent party-goers who tended to be the talk of the town since it was their dutiful tasks to be on everyone’s lips. Then, they were those who wanted to fit in with the former group. The latter tended to copycat what they saw and incorporated into their own with the hope that they would some day become the talk of the town themselves. Finally, the last group would be people like me who just wanted to check out what our own kind was up to.


At one of the parties that I managed to attend, I would say that it was quite an eye opening. Virtually everyone was well dressed to the point of overdressing. If judged by their outfit alone, one would sure reason that the Lao community was making a giant leap forward economically in their newly adopted country. With black suit and tie, the men looked sharp and had the world by its neck. For their young counterparts, they were as hip as any affluent young American could be. As for the women, some would dress traditionally looking as dignified as the ladies on the classy catalogue. This group tended to be older in age and knew of their place in society. Then, came the last group who was dressed to the latest fashion. Their hairstyle, outfit and even dialogue really fascinated me. Youthful to start with, they were the life of the party. With some inquiries, I then came to know that most of them were the daughters of these party-goers themselves. It was like learning of the ropes before passing on the baton to the next generation.

Like most parties, kids were running around while their parents or big siblings were gracefully swirling around the dancing floor. At times, they would get a scold or two for playing so rough or for straying into the dancing floor. With a mild smile, I looked at those kids whom once their parents turned their heads away, continued to play on as if nothing had happened. I guess that was the way they would usually react, given that they had to be dragged to the party for their parents’ own benefit, not theirs. With the music as loud as the non-stop car horn, everything was pitched to the maximum. Especially, when the evening was wearing down with the older folks taking off for home, everything was wild - the dance, the singing and, of course, the drinking. Should I add that they didn’t play the Lao songs any more but the heavy metal blasting off your earwax?


One reason I didn’t like to go to the party that much stemmed from the fact that I felt lonely seeing couples hanging around while my girlfriend was thousands of miles away. Moreover, I just didn’t know how to dance so the most I could do was to watch people dancing with every move imaginable. For the beginning, it was perfectly okay but seeing the same thing over and over I couldn’t help but feeling bored. Besides, at the party, you could hardly continue any conversation without being constantly disturbed by the roaring music. So, why should I keep coming to the party when nothing really enticed me? Instead, I would rather stay home and read books that picked my curiosity. I guess I would leave for another installment to write about the books I read that was far more interesting than anything I encountered at the party.


It was sad to say that I met not that many Lao people aside from the students I worked with at the high school. In fact, it was even sadder to admit that I didn’t even have a single Lao whom I could really call a friend. I guess I was a bored guy who just couldn’t find a way to connect to my own people. Most people that came into my circle seemed to talk about nothing but sports, entertainment, cars, careers and so on. In another word, those things seemed to be their whole world, and that didn’t fare very well with me at all. Though, at that time, I was at the late twenties, I was still very much an idealist whose feet just didn’t touch the ground.


More importantly, Lao people that I met felt short of my expectation. I always asked myself: why did we come to this country if we didn’t make use of the opportunity presented to us especially in the field of education? Or was a daily survival enough in itself to justify our existence in this world? Why should we waste an enormous amount of time playing cards as if nothing else mattered? What about consuming so much alcohol that drowned us into a world of senselessness? Those two things tended to go hand in hand reinforcing their grip over our mental states that even at every child birthday we just couldn’t go without them. For a change, why didn’t we leave our young minds at home instead tugging them along with us for the sake of playing cards which, at times, lasted until early in the morning? I just couldn’t help to say what kind of example we set for our kids. If we were that way, how could we expect more from our kids? I guess we completely forgot that kids learned by example - our example more than we could have imagined!





Treasure at hand


When I first got to the U.S., one thing that fascinated me about this great country was the public library. Suffice it to say that the Milwaukee public library was huge with full shelves of books lining up from top to bottom. Being a person who was addicted to books, the library became a heaven for me. Most of the time, when I had a free time, I would just take a bus and drop by the library which was not that far from my apartment. Better yet, since the library was on the same bus route from work, I would just hop on the bus and spend some available time there before going home.


Frankly speaking, when I first entered the library and saw shelves of book all around me, something choke inside me. Yes, if only I was surrounded by these things back in Laos, I would have devoured them and, in return, turned myself into a learned scholar my country would have been proud of. Instead, what I had learned bits from here and there hardly satisfied my thirst for knowledge. Besides, most of the book I read back in Laos were of a second rate and sporadic in their cover of knowledge - not to mention that not a few books were merely propaganda books from either the left or the right.


Before 1975, you would get the latter from the USIS library. Most books would be self-congratulatory about the excellence of the capitalist system with the U.S. political system at its best. Names like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison just to name a few were treated like demigods while the native American Indians were barely mentioned, or if they did, it wouldn’t be of a high tone. At the same token, the U.S. nemesis like the evil empire was short of any nice words about them.


Then, after 1975, the opposite came into play. You would get the left view that shook the foundation of your knowledge. In another word, you didn’t know any more which one was right and which one was not. For the sake of survival, you had to buy into what they fed into you. Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Mao became no less demigods than their counterparts from the right. At times, you were so sick with the pseudo knowledge that you just wanted to turn off your thirst of knowledge itself. I guess it would be rightly so since the more you knew, the more you became a lesser fit for the regime your life was depended on.


I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the new regime became a thaw in your search for a true knowledge but I would say that it acted as a main catalyst in shutting off your eyes and ears. With that being said, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of us who were so used to this condition that even a golden opportunity presented to us here, we would still keep our eyes and ears off very much like the post 1975.


Here in the U.S., if you really had your eyes and ears open, you would have a good chance to see the real picture with both sides of the coin laying out for you. Instead, if you still lived in the post 1975 Laos, you would get the view that reinforced your bias whether they were from the left or the right. Worse yet, since you thought that you were free given the flow of information, you became crystallized with your view that you came to harden your position even further. To me, that was sad for this time it wasn’t anybody who forced you to take a certain view but you yourself.


I guess I was lucky in the sense that I was born with an inquisitive mind. It was my tendency to see things in perspective and therefore subscribing head and toe to a certain ideology was beyond my scope. Of course, this came with a price since no one wanted you for your half hearted belief and commitment. In this world, if you wanted to get ahead in life, you had to choose sides and stick to your side no matter what. Yes, this game of life was hard to play but fully worth it you could be true to yourself to the very end.


I would say that, at the library, I made up for all the lost time knowledge had passed me by. Yes, I might not get a degree out of this kind of learning but I didn’t care. Life, to me, was to find the truth wherever the truth might take me. On the way, I might be broke, let it be for whom to judge the worth of my life than I, myself. It was strange to add that I found my true self when the old sages talked to me from the pages I read. Sometimes, it came in the form of Buddha, sometimes of Lao Tze, sometimes of Socrates and sometimes even of Marx himself. If you have your eyes and ears, wisdom can come to you in many forms so don’t restrict yourself to a certain view for life is beyond the intellect you are originally equipped with.







American pastime


Yes, if I don’t talk about sports and the entertainment, it is like that I am not living in America at all. First, let’s talk about sports which Americans are so madly fascinated about. I, myself, would say that I have always been a big fan of sports especially soccer and basketball. Nothing in my repertoire could prepare me for American football which, at the first viewing, was so strange. In this sport, athletes for no particular reasons were just hitting one another with so much bang. Moreover, they piled over another for the ball like madmen. Frankly speaking, I just couldn’t figure out why this kind of game was so popular in this country.


Of course, at first, I had no interest whatsoever in the sports called ‘Football’ which should be called ‘handball’, ‘throwball’, ‘rushball’ or any kind of ball but not definitively football. After all, they hardly kick the ball expect kick off, punting and the field goal. I guess, since America could say whatever she feels like, despite the fact that, to the world, the name of football applies to something else which Americans just call ‘soccer’ instead. For those who have a weak heart, they had better not watched this game for it is so full of justified violence. Many of the schoolteachers I worked with came out to say that football was a violent sport. Still, when it came to any given Sunday especially the Super bowl, they would turn on the TV and glued to the game for the full three hours. I guess football was so much in the American psyches that it would be insightful for us all to probe into this highly addictive game.


I read somewhere that the game of football was invented as a metaphor for modern warfare. At the head of the pyramid, stands the head coach who acts like the five-star commander-in-chief. He has every game plan made ahead of time. To achieve his goal, he will need a group of absolutely obedient players executing his game plan as exactly as dictated. As the name of the game is winning, every mean within the rules is justifiable. That is to say if you can disable the key player like the quarterback from the opposite team with impunity, you had better do it. Like warfare, you are judged not by how noble you are in the act, but how effective you are in the battle Ã’Æ’Ã ’҂¢҃¢Ң€š҂¬҃¢Ң‚¬҅“ be it annihilating the whole village or even the whole town. Moreover, since Americans are so infatuated with the gadgets, a product of modern technology which America herself is at the spearhead, football Ã’Æ’Ã ’҂¢҃¢Ң€š҂¬҃¢Ң‚¬҅“ a highly fast game couldn’t help but becoming a logical favorite game and therefore number one American pastime.


As stated earlier, though hardly a fan of football to start with, I was gradually sucked into this game as any given Sunday (for the pro league, and Saturday, for the college games) virtually everything TV in the U.S. household was turned on to the NFL games. Like or not, I couldn’t help but watch a little bit here and there. As I came to know more about the game especially how they scored, it added another dimension to the cursory watching. Of course, I won’t mention about the gambling associated with the sports which, at times, ruined many lives. As they say, football is the perfect sport for TV commercials for it has a lot of timely stop-and-go action. No wonder this sport became a colossal money making for all those who are involved.


By the way, did I say that sport has a big role to play in society? It subtly instills in us loyalty that goes far beyond place and time. In another word, it is good in some sense but it is also destructive in another sense. I guess I don’t have much to say about the first for it is a common sense. As for the second, it is a way that the citizens can be lead by the nose by the power-that-be out of the instilled loyalty to the country that they happen to be associated with. In another word, conformity at the detriment of a good judgment - a key ingredient for a democratic society is at risk here. No wonder American foreign policy is taken by the majority of Americans at face value (benign?) despite the contradictory perception by the rest of the world.


I guess I as well as many of us, non Americans to start with, are more or less Americans now. We tend to follow the up-to-date scores either from the radio, TV, or sports section of the newspaper. For me, though I rarely watched baseball, I still occasionally follow its scoreboard as if this kind of things matters to me. That shows you how American pastime legitimately becomes my pastime. I can’t help wondering how much of Lao is still in me. I guess I can’t tell until I have to stand against the test of time myself.




Maya world

While living in Laos, I could say that I was a cool guy. In another word, nothing could get to me as there were fewer things to distract me. On the contrary, in the U.S., wherever I looked, I was overwhelmed with things Ң€“ beautiful things that tickled my five senses. That wasn’t to say that they weren’t good but they were just too much for me at any given time.

No wonder for those who weren’t emotionally mature to start with, living in the U.S. was quite a challenge. First, one had to find a way to make a living at whatever way one could. Second, one had to find a way to save what one earned through sweat and spent it in a meaningful way. Third, one had to find a balance between temptation in external things and peace in one own heart.

I, myself, was a little bit lucky in the sense that I was grounded in the Buddha’s teachings and exposed to the thinking of the West while still in Laos. But, most importantly, I was too much of a Lao patriot to waste my time in senseless things. In another word, since I was good in writing, I became a writer and spent most of my spare time either writing or reading. I hoped that, through the act of writing, I could somehow cause a meaningful change to the land I much loved and to the people I much cared for.

Now, that I was in the U.S., a country not of my own, my paradigm had to change whether I liked it or not. Emotionally mature as I thought I was, I still found my existence in the U.S. doubly hard to adjust myself to. Since landing in the U.S., I always asked myself what I wanted out of my life abroad. Did I come here just to extend my bourgeois life that I was accustomed to like in Laos? Or did I come here to prove that I still had much to give, given the enormous opportunity available here? Yes, one easy way for me was to continue my higher education which I excelled at. Or I could find a way to make lots of money as many of the rags-to-riches had paved the way.

The reason I found life in the U.S. hard stemmed from the fact that I was given too many choices but fewer guidance. Given that one wasn’t used to this game of life, one could easily pick up the wrong signal and end up with the wrong path. I guess many of us were faced with this problem. Some might be able to come out of this quagmire and move ahead as if it was of a minor setback. Still, not a few of us who were too much in the game weren’t able to change courses and therefore spent the rest of their lives lamenting of what it could be.

Some spent their lives glued to the TV, constantly being fed with the nonsense days and days out. Some were too much addicted to the gambling that nothing else could replace the emptiness inside but a good dose of this adreline rush. And some were objectifying themselves with the things that tantalized them, the things they owned and the things they craved for as if those were the true measurement of their true worth.

I thought of writing of the many lives I encountered here but, given the intricate nature of the issue, I would rather leave it for another series instead. Suffice it to say that I myself had swallowed a good dose of reality checks as many of us did. Given that I was still able to come out relatively okay, though with some bruises, I had to say that the Maya world as epitomized by the daily existence in the materialistic U.S. was the first hurdle one had to overcome on the way to discover one real self. May luck be on Quon Lao side as it did to me when I was badly in need of. After all, we all need a break sometimes in our long and arduous journey.




A last look at Milwaukee


For almost three years, I had stayed in Milwaukee - the town so cold in the winter and so hot in the summer. Yes, in the winter, you had to wear many layers of coats to keep yourself warm. Then, out of nowhere, when summer rushed in, you couldn’t even sleep though opening all of the windows real wide.


As usual, I went to work at the South Division High School now not so sure about my future. Thought of attending the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee but, for some reasons, I didn’t think that this university was of a high caliber. At times, I even thought of attending the technical school (MATC) just to get a somewhat well-paid job right after two years of study like many of the people I knew. In fact, most of the teacher aides went to the technical school and they were quite happy with their decisions. But me, it was my tendency to always aim higher something like a bachelor degree, master degree or even a ph. D. Yes, that was me - a big time dreamer.


While in Milwaukee, I ran into many people whose dreams or even lack of dreams fascinated me. There were two sisters who weren’t sure what they were going to do once they finished high school. I wouldn’t say that they were doing well in school but maybe enough to get a diploma. After all, U.S. high school was like going through the motion. If you just went to school, did some homework, there weren’t any reasons for the school authorities to keep you from graduating. I guess that was why the quality of the U.S. high school graduates was so low compared to other industrialized nations. In fact, I would even go so far to say that those of us who graduated from the Lycee system back in Laos were much more grounded in the knowledge than these U.S. high school graduates.


By the way, as in any case, there was always an exception. As expected, those who went to the private school, suburb schools or even those who took advantage of the advanced classes offered by the public schools did exceptionally well in the standardized tests. In another word, they were ready to fill in the shoes of the movers and shakers of this great country. A couple of Lao students fitted that role, and I was so happy for them. Truthfully, I wasn’t tired helping out in any way I could. What distressed me the most instead was the need for a quick answer without doing the actual homework.


If you ask me, do I like Milwaukee? It was hard to say. Obviously, I wanted to stay wherever my family was. At that time, it was Milwaukee. Apart from that, the town tended to be boring. It was like always waiting for something big to happen but never did. In another word, you feel like being suspended in the air all the time. Of course, if I was still in Milwaukee, I wouldn’t gain enough perspective to say so. Still, I would say that the town was not a bad place to raise a family as many of our people did over there including my brother Noy and my two sisters Euay Ae and Orth.


In the end, Milwaukee had left me a good memory. It was the place I first settled in the U.S., made the first living and partook in the many lives of our people. Now, that time had passed, I sincerely hope that they do learn about themselves, what they could do and what was expected of them as citizens of this country and as respectable members of our growing communities.





Wedding in Santa Rosa, CA

With two weeks to go and barely enough money for the wedding, I took off for my girlfriend’s hometown at the far end of the continental U.S. Santa Rosa, California. I guess I don’t have to say how elated I was to see her again. Better yet, from now on, there wouldn’t be anything that would separate her from me anymore.

Before I left, my relative was kind of saying that once married I should find a way to come back to Milwaukee as this was where my family, brothers and sisters lived. His reasoning was that if I stayed at my would-be wife’s hometown, I would be alone virtually among strangers especially when hard time was on me. In another word, when I was financially insecure, I would be looked down on and that would exasperate the marriage even more. Frankly speaking, I wasn’t concerned about this kind of things for I was so sure of myself of my ability as the good provider of the family whatever it may be. I guess it would be wise for me to pay more attention to the voice of those who treaded this road before as no one could imagine what the future may be.

Anyway, all started well at the beginning. I got picked up at the San Francisco International Airport with a warm welcome. Though still having two more weeks to go before the wedding, there was plenty of things to do. First, we had to drive around picking the bed, the dressing mirror so on and so forth. Then, we had to run around arranging things many things that really baffled me for I hardly realized that there were tons of things to do just for the wedding itself. I guess if I were to take charge of the wedding, it would have never happened. Fortunately, my would-be wife and her family were such a big help virtually an expert for magically turning the most sophisticating things intro reality.

About a couple of days to go, some of my family members flew to join us at the wedding. Of course, there was my mom who yearned to see this day for a very long time. Though of the second born, I was the fifth one to get married. All of my sisters, three younger than me, were all married and already had kids of their own. Fortunately for me, I was the first one of the seven brothers who got married first as things should be. It would be awkward indeed if any one of my brothers would get married before me.

Three of my brothers came. Noy who, for some reasons, was close to me even today. I guess when I was back in Laos, I let him use the guitar which he later became a musician himself. If only he had his way, he might even have stayed behind with me when our family had left the country. That was to show how much he looked up to me as a big brother. Then, it was Nyai who stayed behind with me in Laos. With four years in the refugee camp, we developed a bond that was likely to last a lifetime.

Then, there was my half-brother, Ai Ep, with his beautiful wife, Monekeo. This couple was always there for me since the first day I landed in the U.S. Last but, not the least, was Ai Keomoungkhoun a video guy who videotaped the wedding with so much panache that it always made me grin whenever I happened to watch the wedding tape again.

Finally, when the big day arrived, I just don’t know how to describe the emotion, the excitement and whatever feeling associating with the event. Since everything was so overwhelming, I just remember that they dressed me up in the traditional Lao suit with red robe wrapped around my thighs, white formal dress and golden strap shoulders. Moreover, they did my hair, whiten my face that even today my wife told me I looked very handsome on that wedding day.

As for the wedding itself, it was divided into two separate parts: the Lao traditional Baci and the party with all its music and dancing. For the former, it was kind of reserved to the family members and relatives. This one was held earlier in the day before the guests arrived. As Lao traditional custom dictated, we sat in the Lao way around the Baci while the MohPhone (the Brahman priest) recited the magic formula calling the good spirit to come up, to witness the event and finally to bless us in this marriage. Then, he would start wrapping the magic string around our wrists before our family members and relatives joining in this well-wishing. Of course, there were many customs to follow such as the eating of the egg, the asking for forgiveness from our parents, so on and so forth. Before this ceremony within the ceremony was over, it would take over an hour indeed.

Then, the party was officially opened with the customed Lamvong dance of the newly wed. In this case, it was me and my gorgeous wife, Soukvilay. Not soon after, it was the slow dance with our arms wrapping on one another. Frankly speaking, both of us were awful dancers either in Lamvong or not. I guess you could imagine it was such a drag circulating around the floor with everyone’s eyes on every of our gesture. So when the music stopped, we did feel a big relief until the round of opening the champagne and the cutting of the wedding cake was finally kicked in. Again, this time with the light brightly on us, we drew everyone’s eyes and remained that way until the cake was passed around and another round of dancing began.

At roughly one hour past midnight, the party was officially over. Taking another half an hour to clean the place, we finally made it home. I thought I was going to have a good time of my life when I was finally alone with my girlfriend whom I dearly loved since first met six years ago. Know what? She told me that it was her family custom to observe the three-day abstinence. I guess I had no choice but letting have her way. After all, I love her so much that even today this love is still as strong as two decades ago. I don’t know what the future may hold for us. What I am sure is that whatever may happen in our marriage, I will stick with her and never for once thinking of leaving her at all.