2013 was a year that brought out Laos on many forefronts in the literary arts, film, and human rights issues. 2014 is now shaping up to be the year that the Lao diaspora movement is being defined by many from the post-80s immigration wave. They are back in Laos, trying to making sense of the memories that connect their identity and journey. They are the stories that our families have held so close, yet so far from each other with every passing year.
The Lao diaspora are special for a reason. We have a unique role in Laos’ current state of mind.
What is ‘diaspora’ and why do we matter? While scholars of social sciences might debate about it, in the basic sense, ‘diaspora’ is a catchy term that has been used as the metaphoric definition of the dispersal of those from the homeland– the expatriates, expellees, refugees, alien residents, immigrants, displaced communities and ethnic minorities.
Recently, I came across a definition of ‘diaspora’ that best describes the very real and common internal tension and negotiation that happens with those in the Lao diaspora community. It is also one that I’ve adopted for my work and LLOTP. It’s from John Docker’s Poetics of Diaspora:
Diaspora (noun, verb, adjective): A sense of belonging to more than one history, to more than one time and place, to more than past and future.
A few years ago, there was a quiet marketing campaign by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism to encourage Lao Diaspora to return to Laos to invest in the country. Many are now back in their homeland running their own cafes serving up a Western cup of Lao flavor, owning hotels that are adorned with natural Lao bamboo, and leading NGOs that put grassroots efforts in the hands of their fellow Lao.
It used to be that those who were displaced were considered powerless, but with globalization and the millennial generation as driving forces that question our identity, the socio-political and economic landscape in the motherland is impacted by the diasporaic communities who hold their own reasons for why they are in Laos. There’s a case to be made that they not only invest in Laos and the Lao, but are more equipped and empowered as agents of change in their place of familiarity and culture– making contributions to those who watched them leave as little ones.
With decades of displacement and cultural clashes for the Lao diaspora, we’re just getting started with asking the right questions about our histories. While navigating today’s Laos, it doesn’t come with easy answers. Some Lao diaspora would say they are conflicted with cultural identity and self-discovery once in Laos. Every journey is somewhat similar in theme, yet different to process. It is personal and it is emotional.
The Lao diaspora are the only niche of settlers to return to this changing and complex state of Laos with a understanding of the people, culture and language– qualities not characteristic of any other expats in Laos. With remittances making up the second highest source of income for developing countries like Laos, behind direct foreign investment; this is where the Lao diaspora hold power. While other foreigners are heavily invested in Laos, Lao diaspora returnees are re-defining their place of home. They have the opportunity to carve a path that is not just for them but one that would impact their family and country in a much more meaningful and personal way.
“In the absence of state support for education, healthcare and relief…diaspora is often the only mechanism for relief, reconstruction and development” (Cheran, 2003).
A friend once said that the best development is self-development. It speaks for the Lao who are here and the Lao who were here and are here now. What is your story as a Lao diaspora?
Learn more about our Lao Diaspora Project here.
-Chanida Potter, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Cheran, R. 2003. “Diaspora Circulation and Transnationalism as Agents for Change in the Post Conflict Zones of Sri Lanka”. Department of Sociology and Centre for Refugee Studies.