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The Lao Diaspora Through the Eyes of an Expat

I remember it being a day brimming with possibilities. True to mark, it should so happen through the greatest of chances, that I met Ms. Julia Sophia Zimic* later that day. Julia is a Brazilian-born Austrian expat living in Luang Prabang, operating a guest house and jam-making business. She also has a strong interest in the stories of the Lao Diaspora Community, having worked several years in Germany with refugees, helping them acclimate to their new lives.

It’s the middle of the rainy season and the sky is in a constant state of gloom. My uncle has to go up to Luang Prabang for a business trip and lets me tag along.

It is dusk by the time we arrive in Luang Prabang. After checking in to our guesthouse, we freshen up and part ways for the night; my uncle going to meet with some friends, and me once again, with no clear destination in mind. Alone, I wander about the small historic town, passing by old haunts.

Dusk might be this city’s best time to explore alone. The air has this hazy, magic about it and the winding narrow streets are dimly illuminated by yellow lanterns. Occasionally, the jarring neon signs of bars and massage parlors momentarily splice through one’s vision. Luang Prabang is best encapsulated by friends sitting under an orange glow, emitted by the light of a lantern, accompanied with drinks in front of a wide door that opens up to dark green trees on low hills.

At the setting of the sun, I decide to hunt for dinner. Amigos Mexican Cantina, a restaurant owned by some acquaintances of mine, is the lucky winner for the night. The restaurant is empty when I get there. After small talk with the owners, I find a seat and order whatever looks good off the menu. The food is good in that as-good-as-it-can-get-considering-what-and-where-I-am lens. Halfway through dinner, a party of seven enter the small restaurant and immediately bring it to life with their carefree laughter and banter. They sit at a long table next to me. I pay my due and am about to leave when the party asks me to join their group for the night. I accept because life is long and I’m short on experiences.

As it turns out, they are headed to salsa night, and since I’m feeling a bit adventurous, I agree to join in their fun. While they dine, I get a chance to get to know some of them a little better. I marvel. This is the magic that traveling bestows–meeting random strangers from the many corners of the world and gaining just a glimpse into the worlds other people inhabit. It just keeps making deeper impressions on me.

After introductions, I find out they all met because of Salsa Night. I introduce myself briefly, explaining that I am originally from Laos, but raised in America, and now back again.

My first conversation of the night turns out to be a young man from South Korea who was a helicopter technician. Having experienced such stress in the workaholic lifestyle of South Korea, he put his life on hold and made the decision to visit Southeast Asia–where the pace is slower. Here, he recuperates. Next up are a pair of teachers, a man and a woman, from a nearby international school. The man’s girlfriend is also in attendance. Then, I talk to an American expat living in Thailand visiting an old friend in town. Last are two elderly women, a Caucasian and a half Latina-half Caucasian, both with businesses in Luang Prabang. The half Latina takes a keen interest in me.

Her name is Julia. After my initial confusion at her rapid-pace questions, questions all to do with my time abroad and the reason for my coming back to my mother country, understanding hits me after she relays her own history with the Lao Diaspora. I share with her my own personal story and we begin to discuss the broader topic.

Just as we are diving deeper into our conversation, the dance instructor whisks me away to salsa. I make plans with Ms. Julia to meet up the next day for further discussions.

The next day, while my uncle goes about his business, I make my way to the guesthouse Ms. Julia runs. The guesthouse offers three bedrooms, all simply adorned, yet still offering the comforts of home. The guesthouse is happily situated on the banks of the Mekong River, where the river bends wide, on the outskirts of town. Though quite a drive from the town center, it’s not such a bad thing, when one has nothing but time. Interestingly, leaving town actually allows me to fully immerse myself more authentically to the way of life of someone living in Luang Prabang.

After a brief tour of the guesthouse we arrive at a lush garden that surrounds the guesthouse. It keeps the place cool and seemingly keeps me close to nature, at the same time. This outdoor living room at the back of the guesthouse comes with an enchanting view of the Mekong River and local mountains: a view that showcases a small example of the beauty Laos has to offer. Here is where she also makes the jam she sells in town. Over tea, we talk about our lives. I realize I am doing more of the talking while Ms. Julia nods passionately.

Ms. Julia is very happy living in Laos. Laos slows her down and she realizes that it’s better when it’s slow. Circular maybe, but true, nonetheless. Although, sometimes it drives her a little bit crazy, she still loves the imperfections of the country. I realize how much I agree with her. Though life can get a bit frantic, at the end of the day, everything comes to a stop. You go out, have a couple of Beer Lao with some friends, lay your worries to rest, and wait for another day to begin. Sabai, sabai (relax, relax) as they say in Laos.

In much the same way, Julia and I have both grown to love Laos for what it is and worry what the future might hold with all the rapid changes occurring. It is clearly developing, but in whose hands? Will the owner of those hands have the same care and appreciation we do for the country or do they just see the monetary potential there is to exploit? There are tough questions neither of us has answers to, but we do arrive at one commonality.

The Lao Diaspora, a vast group of Lao who have benefited in terms of education, skills, and perspective from living in more developed countries, can play a huge role in the changes to come.

Ms. Julia asks me how I can play a part in shaping the future of our mother country. She has seen for herself what we could bring to the table, having met many of the Lao Diaspora, as well as, the Lao that have spent time abroad. Many of the people she has met, work in the development sector or own and operate businesses, contributing in what capacity they can to the growth of the country.

Time ticks forward, endlessly. Maybe it’s time to come home. Ms. Julia believes so. In my short life span, I have been fortunate to have met many of the Lao Diaspora doing great things abroad and in Laos. The Lao Diaspora community have faced, and continue to face so many obstacles since the beginning of the journey, around 1975. And still, Laos can use all the help it can get.

My chance meeting with Ms. Julia might seem like it has concluded…but it feels more like the beginning of something else, hazy and dotted with fluorescent lighting, but every now and again, a forced intrusion of neon lights dagger through. There are so many questions left to answer and left to ask, but I believe they are meant to come in time. The Lao Diaspora community continues to ask questions, seek answers, and arrive at new destinations, all in the spaces between heartbeats, where uncertainty and dreams lie.

Yet our home is changing and the big question we haven’t arrived to is, “Do we just stand idly by on the sideline and watch as it all goes by or might we rise to the occasion and take part in whatever capacity we can, to help grow and preserve our country together?”

One thing is for sure; there are curious observers, waiting and watching as our story unfolds.

To the Lao Diaspora community reading this: Knowing your current skills and armed with the knowledge you have gained, in what way could you contribute to improving Laos?

–A.Ou

*Name has been changed

——————————————————————————————————————Little Laos strives to amplify our community’s diverse voices. To submit your story for consideration, go here or shoot us an email at editor@littlelaos.org.

6 Comments

  1. Interesting read. Question here is how many overseas Lao have returned to start business. I’ve been back several times and I did see more and more non Lao business owner aside from neighboring countries China, Thailand, Vietnam. Is there any interest from overseas Lao people to conduct business there. I’ve asked questions about this to my cousins over there but never could get any hard answers and if I did get answers they were vague and inconsistent.

  2. littlelaosontheprairie says

    Hi The Laoung,

    While it’s true that foreigners from neighboring countries make up the majority of business owners in Laos, surprisingly there are many Lao diaspora returnees who have started or sustained many businesses in Laos, such as Voluntour Laos and Run VTE (all of which we featured on here). Obviously those numbers aren’t being tracked or kept with the government. But some barriers exist such as land ownership, taxes and lengthy legal papers that make it increasingly difficult.

    -Little Laos Team

    http://littlelaosontheprairie.org/2015/12/17/from-madison-to-luang-prabang-with-volun-tours-ounprason-inthachith/

    http://littlelaosontheprairie.org/2016/02/01/lao-american-returnee-organizes-first-official-vientiane-international-half-marathon/

  3. Hi thanks for the response. I’ve been back several times and seen business owned by Americans, Australians, Europeans, Africans, South Asians aside from bribery which is the norm to get things done or done fast. These business weren’t anything that anyone Lao person from here couldn’t do but I guess the question is it the lack of interest to connect back to the motherland or are we just to ingrained into the places we moved to or just to damm lazy as well.

    • I’ve been back several times, and from my observations it doesn’t seem that difficult if foreigners can go and set up shop. Might take some capital and more than likely bribery for anything in the capital. But in my honest opinion the numbers of 1st generation Lao Americans that are interested in connecting back with Lao PDR for something other than visiting is minimal. I know they announced a program for dual citizenship 4-5 years ago but the process and where to get the information was unclear. If I were to go back I would want everything in my name and not in my families since I don’t have a full grasp on business/land ownership laws work over there.

      • E Mee says

        From my perspective- I have more opportunities in the US and can make more money here, compared to Laos, which is very important if you’re supporting family in Laos.It’s easier to start from nothing and work your way up in the US- and you don’t have to compromise your integrity and principles by giving people bribes.

        As a female, I have to admit, I feel freer and less constrained in the US, also safer.

        I think the best way we can improve Laos is by making more people aware of Laos and becoming successful in order to contribute copious amount of money to charities operating in Laos.

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