Khanthaly Thammavong on being Laotian refugee
Interview by Anne Morin
1 Disc, 51:02, 2 Tracks
TRACK 1 – 1:08
TRACK 2 – 49:53
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: I am Khanthaly Thammavong. I am a Laotian from Viengchen, Laos. Talking about the meaning of my name, the only first word means “the bold” but “thaly” doesn’t mean that much. So that’s what the meaning of my name would be. Part of the town I came from is Viengchen Laos. Probably a lot of people know Laos is east of Vietnam and north of Cambodia. I came from a small town in Viengchen. My parents were born in the suburb area but moved to the capital because my dad has a job in the capital. A lot of people ask about the difference between the Hmong, the Lao and the Mien. We are all people from Laos but different ethnic group. The Hmong and the mien one of the major ethnic group in Laos. People say about eighteen ethnic groups in Lao itself. I’m the only Lao one who came from Viengchen.
ANNE: How are they different?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: The language is completely different. The majority of Laotians speak Thai but the Hmong and Mien speak completely different, there’s no similarity at all.
ANNE: Comes from Chinese.
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: That’s what they believe.
ANNE: Where did your father work?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: My father worked in a bank. My mom was a housewife, no job, because she is raising five girls. That has been her major job for married life. No brothers. I’m the oldest one out of five girls and right now three are here in Portland with me and two are still in Laos.
ANNE: Do they intend to come here?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: They intend to stay there but once in a while they have the ability to visit. They came to visit my mom when she couldn’t visit Laos. Now she is a citizen so she can visit. She is over there now. She prefers it over there because of the weather.
ANNE: Why did you leave?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: My family, my husband and my two children at the time left Laos in 1980. The reason to flee Laos was my husband was an officer servicing the Lao government. After they gave him a chance to finish his education under the new Lao regime and they wanted him to teach in a place far away from the rest of the family so we decided to go.
ANNE: he was in a re-education camp?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: Right. 1976-1978 he was taken to a re-education camp, which is about fifty miles from where we live. And after three years they realized he got the opportunity to be re-educated under a different field, which was agriculture. When he graduated, so he’s not going to become a police officer again. So the new government said he would be safe, not threaten the government with rebelling ability.
ANNE: Like school?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: IN reality it was not quite a school, but a place where they would keep the people who they could do forced labor. Giving you a new philosophy, what the new government was running. You should believe in sacrificing yourself for the community and the country.
ANNE: So he didn’t get skills to use here?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: Not from that camp. But after 1978 they allow him to go to the agricultural school for three years until he finished, or only two years.
K; Nearly before, let’s go back. We decided not to leave the country earlier. In 1975 he was a policeman in the immigration unit. He worked at the airport. We were told by friends and French boss, said would you want to consider leaving because this is going to happen. We’ll give your family a ticket to fly to France in 1974. He said I don’t want to go, I like my country, I wouldn’t be harmful to the new government. So that’s how he decided to stay and give up that chance to fly to France. So throughout those years we realized there is no hope, no future, even though we love our country, we want to stay, but at the end after all these years if they’re going to keep us apart, no hope for the future, so we say let’s leave. And we leave everything behind on August 1980. Leaving home is not easy because you don’t want to get suspected and if you’re caught they’ll put you in jail. So we’re just doing a small plan, saying we want to give our house to take over by our older sisters, and then move in closer to town, which is my parents house. We live there for three months and then after that we arrange for people who take the job of freeing people across the Maikong River to the Thai camp. Who we know. If you don’t know the person well your family is at risk. There is a lot of robbery and killing.
ANNE: So this is a guide?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: yes. He helped us reach the border. We had to pay a certain amount for each child, each adult. The night before we’re going to leave, the person will just come inform us how you are going to come from your home to the river border, where everybody will arrange the canoe. I call it a canoe, it’s not a boat. It’s not big. This canoe will fit maybe five or six but we had fourteen or fifteen. In that average sized canoe. The reason why is there is not that many and everybody wants to go. Other people want to take a chance and okay, let’s do it. So my husband’s situation is pretty good because he had to ask permission from the local government, saying we’ve got to visit our relative in that town. So this is a good plan. But throughout the transportation process we have to go in this big truck. Like a big bus. It has these long rows where these people sit, maybe thirty to forty people in one trip. So my husband gets permission from the school, at that time he was still in the school. At this time I want to go visit my town for my relative’s wedding. And he got a letter, because he’d been acting good for the last three years. He almost graduated, but he was told if you graduate we’re going to send you to the north of Laos to be a teacher. He didn’t want to do that so he said let’s escape. So that night we spent in our father’s house, did the packing. We couldn’t take much with us. maybe one bag, supplies for one day. We knew once we went across the Thai border we would have new supplies. We needed some money. at five o’clock in the morning my father took us to drop off at the bus station. It took usually four or five house to get to the village at the Maikong border. And we had some incidence of police patrol stopped our truck. They said we’re looking for a lady of the name Mrs. Green. It was so scary because we didn’t want them to know we were escaping. But because we had the permission nothing will happen to us. and with the gun here they would say lift up your face so we can see who you are. They would look at the face and look at the picture and say oh, it’s not you. So they had a picture, and it was not us. we were saved. We got to the village okay but the bus would not go into the village. We have to walk another two-three miles. My husband with the kids at that time, the kids had never walked that distance. We stayed at our relative’s house. Not our relative, but we did have relatives in our village. We knew someone in that town too, just to be safe. So all this planning it took us a long time. So at night, after dinner, still make everybody come, load the canoe, that’s how we wended up saying where are these people coming from? We thought it was just our family. The guy said it’s okay, you want everybody to have a chance, right? So my son, since he was four he was crying, afraid because he see the water. And even though I gave him the coughing medication to make him sleep he was not sleepy and he cried. I had to cover his mouth.
ANNE: who would hear him?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: If you’re making a scene, like kids cry or the soldier, communist soldier see that, they would shoot, they would kill. So 14, 15 lives would be at risk. Out of that trip we were the only ones with young kids, the others were teenagers young people. So we realized in order to make it quiet we had to do other ways to not make kids cry. So my daughter who is six she obey, but my son is young, eh doesn’t’ know, so before we board we gave him cough syrup assuming he would be sleepy. But it wasn’t a big enough dose. And some incidents we heard from some other people too, they killed the kids. Unintentionally. Because they cover them there and don’t realize they cover the nose. Because they don’t want to hurt the same people. It was very traumatic. A lot of people when we come across to the US and people interview you. It’s still in you and sometimes it comes in a nightmare but we try to cope with it and we know that’s how it was. and we ‘re alive. Compared to the people who were killed in the middle of the Maikong River. We came here and didn’t see them. Because the people you hired would rob you too. How could you help? In the middle of the Maikong they would flip it and take your belonging.
ANNE: How wide was it?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: The place we went to cross. The wider part would be about eh Columbia. But we went to a place that was not too wide, but we hoped nobody would follow. And the guy we hired took us across too.
ANNE: How far is it from the river to the camp?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: After we arrived at the other side, the folks who come and pick us up took us to Vilachief in Thailand. We spent one night there until they bussed us to the camp. my husband had an arrangement that we were refugees, to bring us to the camp. those were the rules in Thailand at the time.
ANNE: Life in the camp?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: In my time, I was fortunate to have the family come in where the camp was pretty much almost empty. There was a policy at that time that Thailand people stopped the border crossing. That’s why for our time it was dangerous. Because we crossed at the time when two governments wanted to stop the border crossing. They were taking people out from the camps, the first camp we were in. there were two camps. The first camp is temporary and after that they move us to the Pananicom, that’s the main camp where the refugees wait until the transition to the third country. The first camp we stayed two weeks and after that they move us to the big camp. there’s not that many people in the camp because they were evacuating.
ANNE: It wasn’t too bad.
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: Not too crowded. But the sanitation, that’s a luxury. You have to stay there and eat their food.
ANNE: How long did you think you would be there? KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: As soon as my husband went into the camp he went in to work with the camp processing officers. He said it wouldn’t be a long wait for him. We would be a first priority. Even with that we were there for six, seven months.
ANNE: What was your husbands’ experience here?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: For our family, we thought we are in the much better situation than somebody else because my husband had friends who came in and lived in Portland as the first refugees in 1974. as soon as he heard we were in the camp he tried to sponsor us here. So when we came t hey tried to help us get a job. When we came, we came through Catholic Charities, but I’m not sure what they call USCC. That’s one of the resettlement agencies at helping people in local. Even though I said we know how to speak English some at that time, but it’s not at the standard point comparing to US. finding a job is going to be hard, so we know we need to go back to school and continue to learn English before we get a job. My husband also took machinist training for a year but I got a job before him at the time. I got a job as a translator because I know English a little bit. My education in Laos was 16 years and I got a bachelor’s in education. Even though my main language at the time was French but we had English classes two times a week. If I knew we were going to the US, I would have selected a major in English rather than French.
ANNE: You worked for IRCO?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: IRCO stands for, now the current name is Immigrant and Refugees Community Organization. But it was the International Refugee Center of Oregon. They changed it to keep the same acronym. They want to broaden the service to cover the immigrant as well, so that’s why they’re changing the name to encompass this group.
ANNE: What did you hear about America before you came?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: When we were in Laos we study history and geography, American, and we imagine we would walk into a land that would be so high buildings, big town, nice, clean, and skyscrapers. That’s my experience. Then, for our experience we had to wait for the plane to Portland. W e stayed in San Francisco for two days but in the c amp, we couldn’t get out. In an arranged place for transitioning. In an apartment complex that they arranged for refugees to stay there until they had the plane for our final destination. So we stayed there for two days, three days. We didn’t see much of high-scraping buildings. And then we had to fly to Portland, Oregon, the pilot said we’re almost close and we came down in the evening late March. And I tried to look down, I was sitting by the window, and I couldn’t see anything but sky and all this green. I said where are we going? We land in Portland Oregon, my friends live in Gresham. We tired to look for high buildings and we couldn’t keep it. So that’s how our first experience. So later on my friends took us to downtown. But Portland is considered small town, so we continue to be disappointed.
ANNE: Have you traveled?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: yes. Through my job I was able to go to conferences in places like DC and Fort Worth and down to Florida. Several states I’ve been in. and we still like Portland Oregon even though I don’t like the weather. My co-worker says you’ve been here for 24 years and you still don’t like the cold?
ANNE: Happiest experience.
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: The opportunities, comparing to the first day we tried to escape. We said well, here we are, we’re alive, our kids with us, and I now have another child, who is 18 years old, who was born here. And we have the chance to put our kids in the school. My first daughter is 30 years old and she’s a nurse, having a good job. And the younger one is 18 and going to graduate June 18, so I see the up and down in my life. And number two is still working on it because it’s been a challenge for him. We did not know about the parenting and how we’re going to cope with life in the US. I did not have quite success with #2 but we know the up and down and learn from our experience. And since we came here we can tell the newcomers how to come to a community and be part of a society, be good contributors. Ad share our valuable culture so we can all live in harmony, have good understanding, and be a good contributor in this Portland area.
ANNE: Laotian values?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: It’s a challenge because they’re going to school and they’re going to have to learn the new way, how the school is here. With parents, we see them after school but time is limited. We are Buddhists and we still have a pagoda, a Lao temple they can go visit. We still do that practice. Once in a while I ask them to come but they don’t want to do that. And to speak with them in Laos at home is difficult. You can see the beauty of people who are bilingual, it’s very helpful. So we want them to speak some so they can communicate with the older ones and teach the younger ones.
ANNE: Vietnamese have a school. Will the Lao group do that?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: It has been done before, but some time it’s to the point you get started and now there’s lack of participation, and so they launch another one again. But we are attempting to do that. As an older generation we want to maintain our culture and language to pass it down. We had a chance a few years ago and we sent our daughter to visit Laos. She left when she was six years old and she doesn’t remember much, but it enrich her knowledge and make it help to know that we are all crossing cultures. And we want to help the young one but that’s tough because if your hair is black but you say I’m an American, it’s hard to be accepted in this society and it’s hard to accept themselves too. If you’re not white, they’ll see you are an Asian. They have to learn to cope with it. But I see it as an advantage.
ANNE: Much prejudice?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: I say a little bit. My son, we put him in a catholic school. A bit more of a challenge for us, but we feel we could have decided wrong on that one. We did lose but we did not succeed with the first son, so we think maybe this is another way to prevent, put him in a smaller school. People say look at that Laotian soccer boy. But not big discrimination like being yelled at. I’ve heard people say that like they get yelled at, go back to where you came from. We didn’t but it does happen in this community.
ANNE: Middle son experienced more than the rest of you?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: I would say he probably did. He was not able to succeed in the community.
ANNE: You work at IRCO with refugees today. How many years?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: Since May ’82.
ANNE: Tell us about changes in people.
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: In the ‘80s we had the Southeast Asian and after that we don’t have that many anymore. But Vietnamese group sand Burmese and some Southeast Asian, but little in Portland. The majority are changing in ethnic group or people from nationalities, countries. Each group from each country, each region, have some unique cultures, experience they brought in. we have to learn to cope with it and comprehend it ahead of time. Once in a while we have a cultural presentation through IRCO to make us aware of how to deal with this group so we don’t have to go through a lot of… we go through a shortcut in helping them. In general, the refugees have been, experience for the refugees is a challenge of a new life, experiences to keep going, that’s a big challenge even though they have had experience or no experience at all, there is a certain degree they have to cope with this new society.
ANNE: You work with all groups.
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: Right. Because of the change in the refugees’ flow.
ANNE: How are Laotian people doing?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: Pretty good. Last Saturday we got invited to the graduation of a Laotian woman who just got her doctorate diploma to be specialized in anesthesiologist. You could see all these people show up and give her support. We say look at this model, look at this family, and how do we support our kids to encourage them to go forward. Then they can help each other and help the community and the society at large.
ANNE: What changes are the most difficult between countries?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: I would say pace. Pace in terms of keeping up, holding many tasks together and roll it along with the time American people experience. You probably heard a lot of Laotian people say the robber time. Going out on time, every minute counts, and to struggle if you have family. I only had two but a lot of Southeast Asians have four, five kids. How are you going to go to school, go to orientation meetings? You have to work full time to care for your family. What are you going to do to save some money? there are many takes to do and do it on time. You have to do it every single minute. It’s been a challenge.
ANNE: What future do you see for yourself?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: If I wish, and it seems like I have been in a pretty stable position for this job. I like working with people and helping the future generation to come as refugees and overcome the barriers and help with resettlement. If this will allow me today I will stay for a few more years and hopefully retire early.
ANNE: What will you do when you retire?
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: I learn from this community when you have more time, you contribute back to your community. maybe going back to visit Laos. I long to go back again. Since I left I only had the chance to go in 2003 to my father’s funeral. I had only one week to stay, I didn’t have a chance to see what is changed and I would like to go back often. When we came, we didn’t worry about missing the homeland, but when we get older the feeling comes that you want to see your own country. Maybe because we finish with so many things and now we have more time to think about it. You want to go back and travel, see friends and family in other states too. You have classmate, you have relative in another state you haven’t been able to see either.
ANNE: Thank you.
KHANTHALY THAMMAVONG: Thank you. It’s an honor to be a part of this and share this experience with people. It may be different from others but we want other people to strive for work, to succeed, and don’t give up hope.