Lee Po Cha on being a refugee
Interview by Anne Morin
Date: June 6, 2005
1 Disc, 48:00, 6 Tracks
NOTE: THIS INTERVIEW IS RECORDED ON VERY HIGH LEVELS. ANYTHING IN BOLD HAS FREQUENT DISTORTED OR HIGH PEAKS. THINGS NOT IN BOLD ARE STILL HIGH, BUT HAVE FEWER PEAKS.
TRACK 1 – 10:49
ANNE MORIN: Introduce yourself.
LEE PO CHA: I am Lee Po Cha. Originally I came from the country of Laos, in which I was born in that country. And I pretty much say I grew up in that country and left the country in about 1975 after the US withdrew from Vietnam. And just so that you understand the Hmongs particularly, my parents had also been very involved with the US government during the Vietnam conflict. They were supportive in the CIA’s effort in stopping the rapid growth of the Ho Chi Minh trail so the Hmong were recruited by the US to rescue downed pilots. I realize that coming to America that story is not well known to the general public and a lot of people are surprised. Why after the fall of Saigon do we have Laotian Hmong refugees? Just so we can also tie that story together. So I came. We fly to Thailand as refugees and how do we get there? In different part of the country all the people have the opportunity to fly by boat or fly by planes by cars, but that part of the country and at the particular time my family does not have such luxury, so we have to fly by foot. So we fled the country by foot and it took us close to a month by foot. We go through the jungles and follow trials and were fortunate enough that my father and grandfathers were very familiar with that part of the country because they have been in the service and known the Thai authority that control the border in that area. So what did I remember in terms of the difficult moments for us? For sure at the time we fled the country when the new communist Lao government had not taken full control of the government, so it’s still an open border. So we can fly without much of a hazard situation but it’s still very dangerous and you fly the country in secret so a lot of time you have to depend on what area of the country. I mention, there’s no road. You may have to go through jungles and little trial. And as a young boy what I remember is at that time the only thing I could carry with me is a tiny blanket. And even that is still hard for me. My ankles were fallen, some of the horrible things that happen to us as children is you walk through the tropical jungle where there are lots of leeches. Some of us knew them as bloodsucker. And you wouldn’t know it. And they already got fat and anywhere on your body you feel cold you knew it was leeches. So those things were yucky and scary for us as young people, but we have gone through other periods that are much more scarier. Particularly if you were spotted you could be shot at so in those areas you have to fly you have to run by days and you have gone through some steep hills. In one particular area I could still remember is that it could be as dangerous as if you slip you are done. And we have seen horses because at that time we were able to use some horses to carry stuff for us. Otherwise we’re not going to be able to carry the food or enough materials to support us to make it where we wanted to go, Thailand. So in one instance we have a horse that slip out of the trail and there it was. All the way down to the bottom of the hill and that was it, you could not get the horses back, your materials. So that alone the dangers of being spotted but also the road and the trials of the jungles itself. It is the road to get to the Thai border, the camp is not an easy journey either.
ANNE MORIN: What was the fun time?
LEE PO CHA: The fun time was as kids we didn’t know better. You don’t worry much about the danger. The only fun time is you got these forty or fifty people so you have a lot of kids and there’s time you think it’s kind of fun like you went camping, so those are some of the fun memories, but when you really think back consciously the danger, it’s like gosh your life is really on the line and it could take a few second and anything could go wrong and you could be finished. Things like that are pretty scary. Of course, we lost a couple of cousins on the way to the camp, mostly due to illness. Of course, on those jungles you don’t have any medications and the only thing you could do was pray and if pray does not work and god does not help you’re done. One of the sad part is as a kid you saw somebody pass away and you got no tools, so the adult would do the best they can to bury those dead individuals and as a teenager, as a young child it’s devastating and so some of those moments are pretty horrifying and pretty scary. So that’s pretty much the journey from Laos to the border of Thailand and to the refugee camp.
TRACK 2 – 5:22
ANNE MORIN: How much school had you had in Laos?
LEE PO CHA: I would probably feel fortunate as a child. Mostly because of my family. Considered to a lot of Hmong children, many people by history or stories, many think Hmongs are living on a hilltop and those hills are not like here, considered the mountains. Not that kind of mountains, I think what they refer to is theses people are living in the countryside. Not access to a lot of stuff. So we have a better understanding. As a child, we had properties and we live in the province, mostly in the city so as a child I feel very fortunate to go to a formal education schooling in Laos. As a young man I was, we left the country when I was about 12, 13 years old. And in Laos if you could make it into, because the schooling system is different, you do not have a twelve-grade level like here where they will issue you a diploma in sixth grade and after that you will go to trade schools or go on to your college, more related to college type training. So I have some education back there, much more like what I would call, to your almost to your high school level over here. So one of the interesting things when I got here, in terms of math and science stuff it’s starting in high school here it seems pretty familiar, pretty easy. So I do have some formal education and I do feel very fortunate, partially because of the opportunities that my parents provide us as young children. And so we got to the camp. we were in the camp for about close to three years. We didn’t know better. When we got there my parents think we’re only here for temporary and we’ll return to our homeland in a matter of time. And we try to ignore the reality and the reality is we know that when any kind of treaty happens or any political change I twill take some time to see new policies and changes and so we stayed in the camp for almost three years, in the refugee camps, and the refugee camps are not something many of us could imagine. At first you have flexibilities but when you got put into the refugee camps, where it’s all fence. And you don’t have much freedoms, flexibilities in getting out of the camps. Can you imagine maybe 16-8,000 people living in at most this tiny camp.
TRACK 3 – 4:05
a lot of people haven’t seen it before. In these camps, you live in this bamboo tent. People refer to house or things, but it’s more like your little space. And families after families crawl into this little space. When we first got there every family able to bring some cash with them or maybe some goods or some silver or gold with them and after a while because there’s no other way to make any money or raise any funds or grow anything so for that reason whatever you had you’re going to spend it on food and raising your families. Even thought the US government was helpful in contributing aid, those are not enough so I remember the hope of most elderly people and the parents thinking one day we’ll be able to return, but we slowly realized that is not going to be possible. So our family decided to resettle in the US. We came to the states in 1978 and before we came over because of the involvements in the type of service my family provided to the US government we had the opportunity to resettle in the US much earlier than ‘78 but we wanted to wait and see whether we could go back. So sure enough we were there long enough, when you’re that broke and don’t have other ways to live on besides the aides the US government or Thai governments were able to provide. So at that time the family decided to resettle to the US, so my family decided to come to the US in 1978.
ANNE MORIN: How many people in your family?
LEE PO CHA: I’m talking about my immediate family, that means my mom and dad, brothers, and sisters, and because when you were processed overseas to resettle in the US or Australia or France or anywhere, in Canada or elsewhere in Europe, even though you may have huge extended families, truly you will just be considered and registered and processed with your immediate family. So I mean the immediate family.
TRACK 4 – 3:18
ANNE MORIN: What stories did you hear about the US?
LEE PO CHA: For sure coming from Indochina to the Western World it’s a lot of unknown and honestly I must say some of the stories we had heard before we arrived were very scary. One thing I must share is that it’s somewhat funny in a way, it was funny when we arrived and realized the reality but it was so scary before we arrived and this story scared refugees in the camp before they would come. And some of the stories were like in the west we do have monsters and when you come over you can be eaten by monsters. So this kind of things for sure we didn’t know better. And so those who had some basic families with basic educations and knowledge of the world it’s easier for us to say ah, but those who may not have any good understanding or knowledge of the world, it’s very hard. So does the west have monsters? Well, not really. And so, those are some of the stories we were told before. But some of the funny thing is for sure you are coming from a country that I would say an undeveloped country to a very developed country that’s a huge change. For example basic life, basic living is something you have to learn all over. For example we do have many refugees and many families that came over. As basic as how do you turn a stove on? How do you deal with electricity and that kind of things? These are basic challenges our family had to face. Basic living over here, how do you make a living, how do you start a life. It’s very foreign to us, to our families and in general to many refugees. For us, what are some of the things that are funny or scary?
TRACK 5 – 4:07
Well, when you first came over let alone the language barriers or cultural barriers, do you know your way around? It’s a scary thing. Do you know where the bus is going to take you? I remember in early days many of us got lost around town. When you get on the bus you don’t know where to get off and when you get off you don’t know where you are, so we have many horrible stories and experiences trying to adapt and adjust and learn.
ANNE MORIN: What about the area where you and I met? What was that neighborhood like?
LEE PO CHA: Well, if I were to think back, I probably believe that I may be one of the very first Hmong students that went to Roosevelt. I remember there were three other Vietnamese students that had attended Roosevelt before I did, and during those days one thing that was very different in the education system. I didn’t know better, where I came from the classes, you remain in one class and in different hours different subjects would be taught to you but over here every hour every period a different class with a different subject. So that was most challenging for me, how do you go to room 222, room 29, 109, or one part of the building to the next, one room to the next, so that is one thing I have to learn quickly to adjust. In terms of the environment of the neighborhood I have to say during those day we do have some difficulty. And not to be too harsh but I believe in those days we do have racism going on and we do have some difficulty
ANNE MORIN: Examples?
LEE PO CHA: One I remember is during those days we had a lot of fights between Asian kids and Caucasians or African American kids there and probably one of the things that were different, we’d been calling names, we’d been shot at. I remember one of my friends got shot with a bee bee gun. And the Hmong community in that area got harassed, they got beat up and in one incidence I remember having to call the cops, we have some other kids from other race that came over and threw smoke bombs at the apartments close to Roosevelt and we’d been egged and one of the interesting things is coming from Indochina throwing eggs at somebody’s house we didn’t know what the meaning was at that. Why eggs? Where we came from we threw rocks.
TRACK 6 – 20:17
And we learned if you really don’t like someone you egg them. So that was some of the things we encountered and had to learn from. As a young person you encounter I remember we went to town hall, talk about this conflict, try to promote cross-culturals and those kinds of things, and these are some of the issues we had to overcome.
ANNE MORIN: You helped a service center do a bilingual bingo. And a fair.
LEE PO CHA: As a matter of fact, I think that’s one of the social service organizations where I had my first experience in advisories and planning. Yes, I am involved in that. At that time we had about 5 –6,000 Hmong in Portland and so few able to speak English. So I remember yes we had to do a lot of troubleshooting and organizing parents and working with communities to solve problems and work together to understand one another. And to also have a better understanding of each other’s differences. One of the events you refer to was combined with a potluck or some activities, and during those times congressman Ron Wyden came over and gave us a talk so those are some activities that have been productive in solving problems and bringing communities together to solve problems and best work to overcome or solve some conflicts.
ANNE MORIN: How is the Hmong community doing these days?
LEE PO CHA: I must say that if I look at it Hmong communities in the city of Portland have come a long way and one thing that today we knew much better what we have gone through in terms of the integration process. During those days, I used to call it we’re in our honeymoon stages and we don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re going to be arrested for what you say, what you believe. Even though we are so poor, don’t have anything, you still enjoyed who you are, what you are, and though you don’t have much money you don’t worry about it because during those days everybody says oh, America is the land of opportunities and home s of milk and honey or whatever people refer too. Do you know what that is? for a lot of people when they came here for economic reasons versus political reasons or fled for persecutions yeah, they understand what the American dream was and the land of milk and honey, but for us we don’t understand that, we just don’t want to hear the guns and don’t want to be killed. So the honeymoon stage is during those days. The integration process for Hmong. Oregon is the state where I would say we have the highest working class Hmong people in Oregon. In the late70s and during the 80s Oregon has gone through a recession. You go from a timber industry to transitioning to other industry, high-tech and attract other businesses to the state to replace the timber industry and during that time I would say the unemployment rate is from eight to sixteen percent at that time and among Hmong I would say is very high, especially in the 80s.
So I would remember fighting for dishwashing jobs, cleaning jobs, horticultural jobs. During those days a lot of Hmong families are struggling, but these days they are employed, have their own homes and I would say we’re not living the American dream yet, but we’re getting toward the working class folks. We’re slowly becoming self-sufficient and not locally here but across the country Hmong has been doing very well economically and academically as well. In the 80s you look at college level education very limited but today I think nationally among the 200,000 Hmong population in the US we had 8 or 7% college level education. We’re making progress. we’re not there yet compared to the whole 13 million API population which is, we had 25% college education success for this population. So compared to that percentage the Hmong population has a lot of hard work ahead of them and need to grow quite a bit before they catch up to the general population.
ANNE MORIN: What future do you see for yourself?
LEE PO CHA: For sure, I’m going to be and I am an American and I will continue to be an American. One day I dream I’ll go back home, in the 90s I had the opportunity to visit my country and I came back and said oh, Oregon is my home. And I’ll go back overseas as a visitor rather than going home.
ANNE MORIN: Why?
LEE PO CHA: One thing politically it’s impossible right now. At first it’s easier to listen and read history about those political differences and some of those structures. When you go back…I thought I’m so Asianized and every chance I got I spoke about cross-cultural issues I’m so Asianized and I’m not as aggressive and not as direct. But when I went overseas I saw I’m westernized.
ANNE MORIN: Example?
LEE PO CHA: For example, my way of communicating. Back there, I still have respect but I do not and I cannot not be very vocal. And so I am a lot more vocal than I should have. So that is one of the examples where I’m too direct and too westernized. Because over here you were taught not to be quiet. Silent means you agree and silent means you don’t know, so going back there you try to apply that kind of meaning and those principles and those values to the way you communicate and the way you interact with other people and that’s where I refer to myself as my goodness, I’m westernized. For example, before you do business with somebody you take a little time to learn about somebody before you talk business. And when I went over there, I apply the western culture too much to it, time is money, you get on to it. So those were some things I realized I’m not the person I thought I am.
ANNE MORIN: Dreams?
LEE PO CHA: You don’t know what the future will hold, but I would like to continue to support my communities and I’ve been in the social service filed for the last twenty-four, going on 25 years, and partially because of the passion, I didn’t know I had that kind of passion until recently, but my family had a long history of working with people and so maybe I got one of those genes. But continue to be helping and to support my community, particularly community that I can make a difference with. Particularly helping with our young children, families and people who are struggling. That is one of my passions. Someday I would love to get into some sort of business but for now what I know I will continue to be in human service and working with different people. It’s one thing I will continue to do.
ANNE MORIN: What do you do?
LEE PO CHA: Right now I’m working with the Asian Family Center as a manager and we do have Asian Family Center and IRCO. We do have different kind of social service programs. So you have an idea, AFC and IRCO, many programs are still focused on refugee resettlement. Focused on employment and retraining services to language services to domestic violence and other youth and family services there. So at the Asian Family center we do have early childhood development and parent-education programs. Focusing on early childhood developments. And going on to youth and family services, this day we refer to them as Lincoln-school based services. In early days a lot of Multnomah-county programs in those days were community-based services but these days it’s a lot more school based services . so it’s a different strategy, how to best reach our communities and serve the most needy children and families. We have other programs focusing on delinquent youth, those involved in gangs and gang-affected kids.
ANNE MORIN: What percentage of Hmong kids are gang—involved?
LEE PO CHA: It varies so much. I would say you have the biggest problems in the late 80s and early 90s and these days I think that we are much, its’ kind of quite this day. That does not mean we don’t have t hose problems, we do. many of our young people, those who are hard-core, have been arrested for whatever they had caused and our, one thing is the communities and the police and the justice department have come to, have a better collaboration and work together in terms of how to deal with these problems. So at this point I would say the problem is still there. One thing I’m not going to be able to tell is now, after the police have their own gang identification of how they would identify gangs, they have certain criteria to determine that and I would say the best way to do it is refer to those designation determination process to be able to tell how many we still have, but I know for a fact because I live in the community and even though we may not have those tough young people it still exists. And I hope one day we may be able to really help those young people to overcome those challenges they may have.
ANNE MORIN: Is gang activity connected to poverty?
LEE PO CHA: Many reasons. If you go back, what motivates a kid to join gangs? There are so much. Poverty is one. If you go back, we see poverty motivates not only for boys but for girls too, and some they just look at that as a way to overcome their own ways of dealing with their parents. That’s one way to really feel that they can empower themselves and or some of the reasons based on conflict among the different groups or so. For example like being discriminated against may be one of the reason and they say we’ll be together to overcome this. It could be a more organized crime type of motive or interest. Those who are into drugs and those who are into weapons. But truly one of the basic things is it could mean social. Hey, I want to fit in, I want to be liked and maybe acting like them and being like them maybe I’ll attract a new group of friends and this and that. It just has so. The reason that motivated these kids to be in gangs is so much, not purely just poverty.
ANNE MORIN: Thank you.