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LCSC Washington Presents: 1st Annual Miss Lao Washington

For those that were lucky enough to be in the Seattle, WA area the weekend of the 7th of April–congratulations! I hope you were able to make it out to the 1st Annual Miss Lao Washington pageant to support the Lao Community Service Center of Washington’s (LCSC) quest for a Lao Community center, as well as, all the other services they provide for our community. Held at the Vasa Park Ballroom in Bellevue, WA, the fundraising event went from 4pm to 12am. While I’m not a pageant sort of person–I most definitely am a woman who wants to help raise Lao voices, stories, and to see us fully harness our powers and THRIVE as a community.

I confess, outside of the Lao Writer’s Summit in Seattle, last June 2017, I haven’t really been to a Lao function too often. My nearly 10 years in NYC found me adrift from Lao community events–though I certainly threw my own dinner parties to honor different bouns. I wasn’t sure what to expect–but I was pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, some things definitely don’t change–like what we fondly or exasperatingly call “Lao time.” That, apparently, is still alive and well. Guests communing and visiting with one another loudly despite the program happening on stage, at hand? Also, still annoyingly present.

Quick PSA: I get it, it’s a social event–but the folks that put this all together for you and the various folks providing entertainment? They spent a lot of time, energy, and money to coordinate all of this–would it hurt to show a little respect and appreciation by paying attention for a few minutes at a time? Yeah? Kop chai. Next generation: please do better than the older folks on this, please. It’s like the folks talking during a monk’s sermon. It’s just ridiculous. I digress.

Just some of the crush of guests

Okay, breathe. Back to the pageant. The contestants have been put through a pretty grueling schedule. They’ve been: representing LCSC while engaging in activities with the community, learning about Lao culture, actively thinking about their future goals, creating video presentations of themselves and showcasing their talents, and other team-building activities meant to strengthen their ties with one another–and the local Lao community. All this and more…since JANUARY. That’s right. It wasn’t just a couple of weekends of hurried and harried prep work. The time spent here with the chance at winning scholarship money is on top of their regular school coursework, activities, and sports. By deduction, that also means that the folks at LCSC had to be on hand working with them, constantly preparing activities and events for the contestants to partake in. That’s a lot of work on both sides.

Lucky for me (or unluckily), not being a part of LCSC, I only had to participate the night before, when I was kindly invited to observe judges’ prep. It’s a Friday night, the night before the main event, and the judges are gathered at the breathtaking home of the Executive Director of LCSC, Kayla Somvilay. True to our Lao heritage–there’s a lot of food and drink. I’m not a lush, but I won’t say no if I don’t have to drive. As luck would have it, I didn’t have to drive that night.

The Kinnaly Troupe of Seattle

The Night’s Major Players:

Master of Ceremony: Somkhouan Keoamphay aka Mairkong Ban Na
Guest Speaker on Education: Ekkarath Sisavatdy, Director of AANAPISI
Guest Musical Performances: Mittapharb Friendship Band, Miss Darling USA California, and Mr. Leon Noravong “Golden Voice”
Guest Musical Dance Performances: Kinnaly Lao Traditional Music and Dance Troupe 
Photography: Lao Ocean and Khom Photography (nearly every photo shown in this article!)

The contestants in their chosen evening gowns

The 11 Contestants for Miss Lao Washington 2018:

Alexis Kongmanivong, 18, Seatac
Aliyah Srithongkham, 16, Federal Way
Amanda Syharath, 16, Kent
Angel Phandanouvong, 16, Renton
Deanna Phoumy, 16, Renton
Jalyssa Tiengkhamsaly, 16, Tacoma
Kaliyah Mounarath, 16, Lake Stevens
Nida Phengkhanya, 20, Renton
Nitnida Vorarath, 19, Seattle
Nithjarlar Syluangkhot, 21, Renton
Samantha Chi, 16, Renton

Pageant Adjudicators:

Ekkarath Sisavatdy, Representing Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs
Manila Whyte, Representing Lao Community Service Center of Washington (LCSC)
Souliphone Souvatdy, Representing Lao Women’s Association of Washington
Led Noy Chann, Representing Wat Lao Mixayaram
Sarky Mekmorakoth, Lao American Music Artist
Zer Vue, Representing the Hmong Community
Tracie Chulaparn-Friedman, Representing the Khmu Community
Van Phane-Green, Representing Pom Foundation

The host and the judges

I do love how judges were chosen. I’m always going to be for a more inclusive event. I long for a day when we no longer feel the need to rehash previously created events and just blaze our own trails for fundraising events. My experience is–young Lao boys need to be held accountable and be in the conversation for development, for our culture and its future, too. But that’s why organizations like LCSC, Kinnaly, and all the other amazing spaces, exist, right? I’m excited for the future of our community. We’re taking some well-needed steps.

Anyhow, to see representatives from the different ethnic groups, warmed my heart. Finding out how small the world actually is, always fills me with wonder. The night went by in a somewhat agitated and inconsistent pace. Noise level was a problem–but so was the speaker system. Oh…the speaker system. There seemed to be quite a stir after each pageant segment at judges’ table, as well. The contestants have all worked so hard–and you can tell that every single one of them, wanted to win. So, it would make sense that the judges be given all the time they need to deliberate. Anything less than a fair vote would have been pretty mind-boggling. I mean, it’s a community pageant for young women, not choosing the next President of the free world. All kidding aside–they all worked so hard and deserve to be at the same starting line–if just for one night. Allow me to digress real quick. That’s the world I want to live in–and that’s the world I hope we pass on to them–the next generation. Not the rigged one we were dropped into where arbitrary traits can keep an innocent child for years from even participating. That world made us not trust our earlier organizations and it took us time to rebuild because of it. We lost valuable time. I’m glad to see so many successful community focused organizations stepping up. Mostly, I’m happy to see so many of US step up for all of us.

The contestants in traditional Lao outfits

It’s the first year. Even events that have run for decades aren’t perfect. This event may have had its kinks, but it was for an incredible cause–scholarship money for young students and raising money for a building for the Lao community here in Washington. Now, kinks are kinks, but I would LOVE to see a live talent show. I know, I know, time consumption alone makes it nearly impossible. But seriously, how many Justin Bieber or Ed Sheeran songs can we listen to in one night? The answer from nearly every teenage girl and my brother on his wedding day? NOT ENOUGH!

The judges and contestants

At the end of the night, every girl went home with an honorary title, ranging from Miss Photogenic to Miss Congeniality and beyond, but here is the winning court:

Winner: Alexis Kongmanivong, 18, Seatac
2nd Place: Nitnida Vorarath, 19, Seattle/Laos (International Student)*
3rd Place: Nithjarlar Syluangkhot, 21, Renton

3rd place winner: Nithjarlar Syluangkhot, 1st place winner: Alexis Kongmanivong, and 2nd place winner: Nitnida Vorarath*

Miss Lao Washington 2018: Alexis Kongmanivong

I see a lot of hope in this new generation. They’re not hindered by prior prejudices–just through what they’ve heard and are taught. So let’s pass on the positive, right? We were told and taught to keep our heads down because our parents were dropped into a new world with rules and barriers they wouldn’t easily overcome. Even then, they knew it was a rigged system. I hope this new generation learns to #BeEvenLaoder than the mark we set. I see that hope in my nieces and nephews–unafraid to march alongside adults for a better future–choosing the village over the individual, and even themselves. I see a quiet version in some of the contestants. And I saw a brightness in one that put a smile to my face. She didn’t make it to the last round–and obviously, most everyone did not, but I hope they all keep fighting for their better future and pulling the community up with them, as they progress. I know they’re gonna do better. Heck, the first Miss Lao Washington was one of the last to leave–as she was busy cleaning up afterwards. No rest for the weary.

So while we rebuild and build upon our new shining communities–I wonder what model we’re emulating…and why? I wonder how many twists and turns the community will take under the guidance of younger, more energetic, and vastly different generations. Will we continue to represent our communities the way they are or do we keep tugging our community along with us, up and towards something brighter and better?

Photo Courtesy of Lao Ocean

Edits: *We made an earlier mistake and swapped the 2nd and 3rd place winners. It has since been edited to reflect the night’s results. Our apologies to the affected contestants!

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