It’s been my ritual to order a Beerlao as the plane approaches Laos. Over the years, it is always the same sense of joy, excitement, and sadness all in one feeling. Those mixed feelings are the culmination of escaping Laos with my family at three years of age, raised in Kansas and living my adult life in NYC. Growing up, Laos was a distant place too far out of reach both economically and geographically. However, we stayed in touch with family through letters, photos and collect calls from relatives. My earliest memory was turning over rocks in the rice paddy, catching frogs and eating khao piak sen (Lao chicken noodle soup) with my grandmother.
It was early in the morning when I sat on a stool at a roadside restaurant with my mom and grandmother enjoying our bowls of khao piek sen with swirls of chopped green onion, fried garlic, and chunks of chicken on top of milky white noodles floating in a thick, rich broth. I was very happy and felt safe with my mom and grandmother by my side. But that joy did not last very long. I remember crying for my grandmother as my mom tried to keep me on her lap on the bus. My grandmother was running after us on the dirt road, waving and crying as the bus departed. It would be 25 years before I saw my grandmother again. That moment is forever suspended in my mind.
Maybe I order the Beerlao to calm my nerves before the red earth comes into view and I can see small towns surrounded by green rice paddies. It brings back those fragmented memories, the sense of loss and longing. When my mom was fifteen years old, my grandfather put her on a small military plane from Salavan to Pakse with a briefcase full of cash. Her mission was to buy land for the family’s new home before the bombing began. The land is adjacent to what is now the Pakse Airport. My mom referred to this time as the “great fire” in Salavan. My grandfather was a senior ranking official in the Royal Lao Army, and he knew ahead of time that the U.S. would be bombing our ancestral home.
I grew up knowing only this much of the U.S. Secret War in Laos and its immediate impact on my family. However, it would take decades later until I attended the last-minute “Lao Now Fashion Meets Philanthropy” fundraiser in NYC. I was inspired by Channapha’s passionate speech about the 2 million tons of explosives that were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War-era. To this day, farmers and children are still getting hurt or killed by UXO. Legacies of War opened my eyes not only to the tragedies of our careless and failed U.S. foreign policy in Laos, but also that it is not too late for us to right the wrong. I am a part of the Lam Vong Circle because it connects me with the mission of Legacies of War, and I know that my voice counts.
My last trip to Laos was in February 2020, right before the world came to a halt due to the pandemic. I stayed in Luang Prabang and finally visited the UXO Lao Visitor Center. I was so proud to see the placards acknowledging the support of Legacies of War in educating the world about the Secret War in Laos.
When I visit my family in Pakse, I first visit my grandparents’ stupa at the village temple and light an incense in their honor. I ask them to watch over our family and keep us safe. I think they are proud that I am still connected to my country of birth and able to help in some small way.
Til we meet in Laos, Cheers!