Forty years after thousands of refugees left Laos to settle in different countries across the world, a new generation of the Lao diaspora is redefining their relationship with their heritage and motherland. LLOTP sat down with Stacey Phengvath, a second generation Lao American who became the first non-military Lao American to serve as a U.S. Foreign Service Specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. At her post, Stacey not only represents the U.S. government, but a unique segment of the Lao American experience.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.
My parents fled Laos as refugees in 1975, and I grew up listening to their stories. It’s amazing how their story telling created a motion picture in my mind; while I wasn’t personally there, I could feel the pain they went through years ago. When I was born, my family moved to Danbury, Connecticut and struggled to make ends meet in a subsidized housing community. It was their experiences as refugees and their hardships in America that piqued my interested in entering public service.
Can you tell us a little bit about your career path? How did you get started in this field and how did you end up in Laos?
I started with the U.S. State Department as an intern during my senior year of college and was then hired on as a civil servant for a year. Afterwards, I joined the U.S. Foreign Service and served at U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, Israel and U.S. Consulate General Shenyang, China. The opportunity to work for Ambassador Clune came to me as a surprise; I never thought I would work in Laos. I interviewed and competed against other candidates in my field, but having a Lao language background was helpful in the Ambassador’s decision making. When he offered me the position, I did not hesitate to accept.
What do you currently do? What’s your favorite part about your job?
I am the Office Management Specialist for the Office of Ambassador Daniel Clune at the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos. My day depends on the Ambassador’s day. Most days I am in the office responding to emails and reviewing correspondence. I also attend diplomatic functions, conduct professional development trainings, and participate in speaking engagements. The best part of being a diplomat is facing issues up front and working together to solve them. I saw this first hand when I traveled with Ambassador Clune to Phongsaly province. We met with the World Food Program (WFP) and Akha and Phunoy villagers, and observed how much of an impact the U.S. funded WFP school lunch program had on the children’s school attendance. I can personally relate to the Akha children as a recipient of a similar school lunch program in America. Seeing these programs making an impact in the field underscores why I love my job and why I am proud to represent the United States abroad.
What’s it like being a Lao American living and working in Laos, the birthplace of your parents?
Living in Laos is surreal. When I talk to the Aunty at the grocery store, or when I shop for silks at the morning market, I feel a sense of home, as if I have known this country before through the stories of my parents. As I walk along the Mekong River to the temples in the heart of Vientiane, I often wonder if those were the same places my parents had walked before me. It must have been heart breaking to leave a place they called home, but 40 years later, it feels like we’ve come full circle.
Outside of work, what’s been your favorite thing about Laos?
There is a new food delivery service in Vientiane, which is fantastic after a long day of work. I can order delicious Lao food on a website and it arrives at my doorstep in thirty minutes. After living in two countries and being unable to fully express myself, I also love being able to communicate everywhere I go. Finally, it’s also been an amazing experience just traveling throughout the motherland. While riding up the windy roads to Phongsaly, I reflected on the beauty of our country. I said to the Embassy driver, ban hao ngam nor? Our country is beautiful, isn’t it? And it’s true! It is just breathtaking.
-Leslie Chanthaphasouk, email@example.com