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On Lao New Year and the Diaspora: Q&A with Saengmany Ratsabout

Saengmany Ratsabout is our guest blogger for this week’s series on Lao New Year, so LLOTP caught up with him to chat about his work. 

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Saengmany Ratsabout has been part of a new generation of emerging Lao community builders in Minnesota. He’s volunteered and supported numerous events and activities nationally and locally. With many years of experience working in the non-profit sector, he has coordinated programs such as Southeast Asians Living Chemically Free, and served as board member for the Center for Lao Studies and the Asian Pacific Endowment Fund.

He received his Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from St. Cloud State University in 2004, where also co-founded Asian Students In Action. He received a

Master of Arts in Southeast Asian Studies from the  University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006 focusing on “Continuity and Changes of Buddhism from Old State to New State of Lao People’s Democratic Republic.” He is currently pursuing a Master of Liberal Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with an expected graduation date of 2014.

Saengmany Ratsabout has worked as a coordinator and consultant on community-based projects, research analysis, grant writing, program planning and evaluation, and community assessment. He is a firm advocate of “collaborative community outreach” and community-based programming.  He’s currently working with the Immigration History Research Center as a program coordinator. We caught up with him recently to discuss his work and next directions.

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Let’s start with a quick introduction. Can you tell us a little about where you and your family are from and how you came to the US, and what keeps you in Minnesota?

My family was part of the second wave of refugees from Laos, we immigrated to the U.S. in the summer of 1986.  Our family is from Nongbok Village in Khammouan Province, outside of the provincial capital of Thakhek.

We left Laos in early spring of 1984, I was two years old.  My parents once told me that the day we left Laos, a cousin of mine had written my name on the sandy shore of the Mekong River, reminding me that my heart and soul will always be connected to Laos.

My family spent two years in Na Pho refugee camp, on the outskirts of Nakhon Phanom, Thailand.  We then spent six months in the Philippines Refugee Processing Center near Morong, Baatan, Philippines.

Though the refugee spirit in me often tempt me to move, Minnesota is now where I call home.   I am very family-oriented, both my family and my wife’s family live in Minnesota.

You were recently with the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota but now you’re with the Immigration History Research Center. That’s an interesting jump. How have your responsibilities changed and what are some of the things you hope to accomplish with this new position?

At my previous position, I was the program coordinator for community outreach with the Asian American Studies Program and Secretariat to the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS).  I had the opportunity to designed and implemented programs and projects that build and connect community organizations, students and units across the University.  The position also allowed me to work closely with students and student organizations to implement a mentoring program that connects our undergraduate students and area high school students.  I am fortunate and honored to have managed the day to day operation of such an amazing organization such as AAAS and to work with scholars in the field of Asian American Studies, many of whom have work I admire.

Since January, I am now a program coordinator with the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) at the University of Minnesota’s College Liberal Arts. Founded in 1965, the IHRC promotes interdisciplinary research on international migration, develops archives documenting immigrant and refugee life, especially in the U.S., and makes specialized scholarship accessible to students, teachers, and the public.  The IHRC houses one of the largest and most important collections of materials on U.S. immigration and refugee life to be found anywhere in the world.  I am fortunate to be part of such a great institution with a long history of innovative programming and look forward in continuing this tradition.

I am able to transfer my skills and experiences in implementing of programs and projects easily. The general duties of implementing of programs and projects have not change much, though things are now at a faster pace. The IHRC will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2015 as well as commemorating the fifty years after the 1965 Immigration Act which abolished the national origin quota systems among other things.  We have a number of exciting programs in the work around this event.  Additionally, we are working with the Somali community on a series of workshops and events on Somali Diasporas research.  These types of partnership with the community are the type of outreach we continue to work on and expand.  Another exciting project that is in the work is a user-generated oral history project, please keep a lookout.

Among the rewarding and exciting things I do at the IHRC, I also like to take the opportunity to grow as a scholar and researcher.  I hope to conduct my own research on the Lao American diaspora, around resettlement and community development, utilizing the amazing collections and materials that the IHRC houses, such as files from the International Institutes, the Refugee Studies Center, and the personal collections and papers from Suchen Chan, an influential scholar in Asian American Studies.

You graduated in 2004 with a degree in Anthropology from St. Cloud State University. What made you choose this major?  What was your toughest course?

I took an introductory course on cultural anthropology and was astounded by the ethnography of cultural groups I had never heard of.  I was intrigued by the similarities of cultural practices amongst groups and wanted to research and learn more about the cultural practices of my own people.  Courses like Fantastic Archaeology, Hmong Culture and Society, and Asian Homelands and/or Diaspora Communities (I later taught this course as an adjunct) further enhanced my understanding of culture and society, of which I took keen interest in those of Southeast Asia.

The toughest and most rewarding courses were my senior methodology and field study courses.  I had to applied my readings from the work of Anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski, Paul Rabinow and Glifford Geertz.  I was particularly influenced by Geertz’s work “Religion as a Cultural System”, he argues that every social group and individual has a religion and that religion is part of everyday life and interaction.  Besides learning how to apply research methodology, I had the opportunity to design and conduct my own field study research on Lao American Buddhist Festivals.  I focused on Boun Pravet (Vessantara Festival).  I wanted to understand how Lao Americans interacted with one another intergenerationally within the context of this festival and also how knowledgeable they were about its history, and the cultural and religious meanings of the festival.  It was both educational and personally rewarding.  I learned cultural and religious practices that I had never known about Boun Pravet before.  For example, I learned that there is a ceremony before the festival to welcome the spirit of Pra Upakhut(sp?), a Buddhist arahant, believed to protect worshippers and festival goers from evil spirits and natural disasters.

What made you decide to go for your Masters? What was the biggest challenge?

I had this amazing last year of my undergraduate studies and wanted to learn more about the history and cultures of Southeast Asia.  The Southeast Asian Studies graduate program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison is known as one of the best programs in Southeast Asian Studies in the U.S.  It was close to home and I was offered a fellowship.

I rushed through the program and finished my coursework and research, wrote and defended a master’s thesis within a year, which was intense.  If I could do it again, I would take my time and explore other courses and disciplines such as the Pali language course that was offered by a visiting professor from Harvard Divinity School.

The biggest challenge was not having a mentor in Lao Studies.  It would have been immensely helpful to have a faculty or fellow graduate student mentor in that program.  There is a need for professionals in the field to reach out to students.  That is why I became involved with organizations such as the Center for Lao Studies and the Association for Asian American Studies, among others.  It is through these amazing organizations that I hope my work in studying the Lao diaspora would inspire others to engage in the growth of the field of Lao Studies.

How do you relax these days?

I’m fortunate to have a rewarding professional career.  Besides work, I love to just hang out at home with my family and spend time with my wife and kids.  However, once in awhile, we all need “me time”.  Picking up new hobbies is a way to ease my mind.  I recently began restoring a classic Japanese car, a Datsun Z.  Something about working on the mechanisms of a classic car that is very rewarding to me.

Additionally, I started brewing my own beer, mostly stout, lager, and ales.  I enjoy the taste of beer and appreciate the amount of work that goes into brewing a batch.  The large community of homebrewers and microbreweries in the Twin Cities has been very resourceful.  Who knows, maybe a future Lao American brewery is in the making?

What was it like growing up for you?

My family moved around a few times.  As refugees, my family first settled in College Park, GA (outside of Atlanta) where my aunt and her church sponsored us.  I went to kindergarten there, of which I have such fond memories of.  My family then moved to Sacramento, CA where we have relatives. Growing up in Sacramento was wonderful, we lived in a mini Lao neighborhood and all the kids attended the same school.

I recall attending Saturday morning Lao language classes offered by a social services organization in Sacramento. Later, the local Lao temple started offering Lao language classes and I attended those as well.

My family attended almost every Lao Buddhist festival and give-alms to Buddhist monks whenever we could.  The Lao New Year was one of my favorites.   As a kid, playing with water and splashing your friends was most fun.  Watching traditional Lao Opera performances Mor Lum Leurng and participating in Lumvong on temple grounds is some of the most fond memories of my childhood.  It taught me to appreciate and respect the culture and religion more.

Life was not always fun and carefree.  Gang violence was an everyday issue surrounding our impoverished neighborhood.  News of drive-by shootings and robberies within the Lao community was normal.  Though we were surrounded by gang activities, my parents kept us away from that as best they could, many times not allowing for us to play outside.

My family moved to Minnesota during my sophomore year of high school.  Coming from such a diverse city as Sacramento, it was tough making new friends and it was the first time in my life that I felt like a minority.  It was not until college that I felt empowered to become involved in the community.

When do you feel most successful at your jobs?

I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with people from diverse backgrounds, to me that in itself is enough.  Coordinating multiple programs and events often means assembling a team of talented people together to help plan and implement.  Though we look forward to the end results, it is the experiences we gain along the way that is most rewarding.

What’s an important issue you wish more members of the Lao Minnesotan community took seriously?

Access to education is an issue that should be given high priority.   Higher education attainment not only benefits the economic development, but also the viability of the community.

Nationally, the Lao population has one of the lowest numbers of high school graduates, only 35%.  Additionally, numbers are even lower with bachelor and graduate degrees, with only 34% completing post-secondary education.  Data for the Lao in Minnesota is even more shocking, roughly 94.5% have less than a bachelor degree.

The data saddens me to know that many of our young people lack resources in pursuing higher education.  We have seen how much our parents’ generation struggled to provide the best opportunities they could for us.  I see education as the key to success, and I don’t mean money, I mean opportunities, resources, and experiences.

With this is in mind, I think that policy work matters in that it dictates the use of resources and funding priorities for both local and national leaders to be involved in efforts to improve the educational system.

Collecting disaggregated data so that policy makers, researchers and communities have accurate information to assess the needs of each community are necessary to help improve disparities such as access to higher education.

What’s an untapped resource in our community you would like to see us focus on in the future?

We have many talented and dedicated individuals in our community who have worked tirelessly to ensure that the voices of our community are heard.  Like the cliché, strength in numbers, I would like to see more members of our community involve in civic engagement and advocacy work.  The social and political invisibility of our community makes advocacy work an important steps for us to take towards a more strategic ways to promote visibility and voice.

What’s your advice for younger readers considering college?

The college experience is a very important milestone where you learn who you are and what you stand for as an individual.  It teaches you to question everything you think you know and also challenges you to leave your comfort zone which allows for you to grow.  I think every student has the potential to achieve a post-secondary education with the necessary support and network.  Once in college, you should explore your surroundings, both inside and out of the classroom, and participate in campus groups and community activities.

Resources:

ihrc.umn.edu

aas.umn.edu

aaastudies.org

laostudies.org

legaciesofwar.org

searac.org 

-Dr. Ketmani Kouanchao

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