Talitha, Laos

I was born in Laos, in the southern part, in 1965.  My mom had twelve births.  Two of them didn’t survive and died at a younger age of illnesses. I am the eighth child.  I have five brothers and seven sisters.  Sometimes I lose count because the oldest ones would take care of us.  Sometimes she would get help with the house chores.

During summer season I would visit coffee plantations where my parents would farm.  We lived in the city and would go to the coffee farm in the summer to visit and see what it was like working on the farm.  In the city we would go to school, come home, do chores, do homework, sleep and do it all over again.  It was different on the farm.   I remember my parents would hire about ten workers to help with the farming. Coffee farming was about twenty-eight kilometers from the city.  We had to walk about eight of the kilometers.  Coffee was part of the income of our family, but my parents would also work in the rice fields. We had an acre or two of rice. I helped with the cooking and preparing meals.  My parents considered us average, middle class.  It was common to own a little land.  The rice farming helped reduce the costs of buying rice. Sometimes we shared with others, did some trading of rice for vegetables.  We grew vegetables, but not all the vegetables would grow in the city, like cucumbers and cabbage.  They grew better along the river.  The coffee was shipped to Thailand.  We had a buyer from Thailand who would come and buy coffee with huge trucks.  The buyer would hire people to load the coffee beans in big sacks.  Maybe a hundred pounds.

The city I lived in was very small. The tallest building was about five stories.  Small streets, compared to Portland, and it was less crowded.  Not very populated.  The whole country is about three million.  It is shaped like California.

In school I liked to study math, science, and home economics. Probably not writing.  Math is repetitive and I like the structure. When I came to America, I had a hard time with geometry and story problems because of the language, reading comprehension.

The bombing started in the 1970s. I remember we had a military group moving so close to the city that my grandma’s bamboo farm became a place where the military based.  They dug up the bamboo for a hiding place.  Some of the coffee village got destroyed by the bombs.  The bombs came from the US military.  There were a lot of bombs.  Some of them exploded and some didn’t.  We didn’t know sometimes whether it was a smoke bomb or a real bomb.  In our village we had a hiding place, a shelter.  Certain parts of our coffee farm were ruined.  There were at least three villages nearby that were ruined. Back then the parents would just go out after the fires cooled down and they would let kids go and explore themselves.  People would collect the bombs and turn them into usable household items like buckets. I remember some of my friends playing with the leftovers.  There were also human remains discovered.  My house in the city is about a mile from the airport and I remember the military warehouse that held live bombs to be shipped out to other bases got burned down. During that explosion we had to find a hiding place to protect us so that we wouldn’t get killed.  Every time the bomb would go off my parents would ask us to cover our ears, stay low to the ground and cover ourselves. The airport was very loud too.  Later on I did a little bit of research about how certain chemicals in the bombs affected people. The stuff that was used was Agent Orange.  People I know, like my cousin’s husband, died of Parkinson’s disease.  The stuff they used in the bombs had chemicals that can cause cancer.

The bombing stopped in 1975 when the war ended, but the new government took over then.  I remember that the neighborhood began to be quieter.  I remember seeing a military group from Thailand to come to help us.  We had Thai military and Laotian military and American military all there in the cities.

My sister was a college student.  The reeducation started with the college students, but also people who were in the military or who worked for the US government.  My brother-in-law taught high school math and he went to the reeducation camp for a year or so, then they released him back.  That’s when he decided to take his family out of the city. He didn’t want to go back again.  If you don’t pass the course they send you far away.

During the change of the government, food was very limited.  We couldn’t farm rice, couldn’t grow vegetables, so people would go out and buy rice in bulk.  Food supply from Thailand got cut off because of the government change.  Food prices went up.  When there is not enough food supply some families sell their food on the black market.  I remember a pound of sugar would be sold for three times as much.  My parents grew clumps of sugar cane and would use it for a tea remedy.  They knew which plants to use for stomach problems or how to purify water using tea.

I later realized that I came here because I was affected by the Vietnam War.  At the time I was just like, oh my sister is going so I am going too. I don’t want to get sent to a concentration camp by the new government.  It took me very many years to understand because in that culture parents are not telling us the true story. They told me, “Go go go, if you don’t want to go to a reeducation camp then go with your sister and leave.”  My other sisters were too young to go.  My older sister who was about seven years older than me went to reeducation camp for several years, learning about the government.

I escaped from Laos with one of my sisters in 1979 and came to the US in 1980. I remember that with my sister we had to ride the bus to a town near the border and cross the border over a mountain by hiking. We had to leave at night.  The villagers kinda knew, but there were some people who were stopping people so we had to sneak off in the night.  We had to walk across the mountains and spend the night on the mountaintop.  We had to pay money to a trail leader to take us to a city in southern Thailand.  From there we had to ride the bus to the refugee camps.  Then my sister had to adopt me as one of her kids.  I came with her and two of her kids and her husband.  Her friend was there too and she had one child.  I remember that we had to stay at the village near the Mekong River and try to take the bus to the camp and during that trip we would avoid the police in Thailand because they would send us home.

In the camps, there were many people and we would live in a hut, like a shed.  My sister had two bedrooms and an eating area and a cooking area.  Similar to a camping cabin.  Open fire cooking.  We were on the military base and they would have military training so in the morning we would see the military doing their drills, marching around the camp.  There was a small Buddhist area.  My family was half and half religious.  It is part of the tradition. I can’t remember how many people were at the camp, there were at least five buildings.  Many many people.  Some people came with little or nothing, like me and my sister.  After a while my sister was able to connect with my two other brothers in the US and they were able to sponsor us.  My second brother would work at night and go to school.  It took us about twelve months to come to the US.

Culture shock!  Lots of different foods, different cars, different fashion.  We came in the month of April and it was almost the end of the school year.  Since it was towards the end I registered for class at community college. We went to the one at Swan Island and there was a Laotian man there.  We rode the bus there, and my teacher was so concerned that my sister and I would get on the wrong bus that she walked us across the overpass to get the right bus.  We had to ride two buses home.  I did not like the high schools here because of the language.  While I was at the camp I was able to learn English a little bit.  My brother-in-law would have a class in the evening and he would teach English.  But we were taught the England accent, British.  It took me a while to get used to the accents in the US.

It took me over twenty years to return home, not until 2003.  It is amazing that my parents were alive.  My dad didn’t pass away until 2006, my mom in 2016.  It took me awhile to visit because I was not only coping with culture shock and learned to live independently, get into the workforce and live like an average person.  I did not have a good year in high school, like an average student born here.  There were always things to remind me that I am a first generation immigrant.  My high school GPA was pretty bad, but I graduated. During the summer while I was in high school I would work a part time job at McDonald’s.  The other summer job I had was working in a factory that made cheerleader clothes.  I tried to be independent.

As soon as I graduated I worked in the factory for two years and then I decided to get married and go to school.  Three years later in 1987 I decided to buy my very first home.  The Portland Housing Development made it so we were able to put down just a little bit, made it affordable.  I was still working at the factory.  My husband was working full-time. He was also Laotian.  He got a job at a glass company.  I decided to take classes at PCC. During the summer time in high school I would take ESOL classes at Mt. Hood Community College.  I was living with my older sister with her kids.  The apartment where we were living is now owned by a Laotian family.

Several members of my family live here now. My eldest sister and another sister, and two of my older brothers who came before me.  My older brother came to Thailand, then got sponsored and came to the United States before us by a couple years.  Three brothers went back home, they decided to leave.

After working at the factory for a couple years, the men who sold the uniforms told me if you have courage to take classes and learn more that would be a wiser choice.  At first I thought I was going to go to school to teach me how to cook or make clothes.  But then I decided to take classes in ESOL and learn more.  My original thought was just to learn to be able to speak English, learning to get used to life here.   I remember paying for a class at PCC back then was twenty-three dollars per credit. Penny Thompson was my first teacher, she retired a long time ago.  I took classes at Cascade. Back then I lived out east, there were farms and strawberry fields. I like Portland even though we have more rain than other towns and cities. I love the landscape, Mt. Hood and the coast.

We learned that if someone doesn’t like us, leave them alone. Back then in the 1980s the north side of Portland was very divided.  Gresham and SE were majority white community.  The neighborhoods were pretty beaten up.  From time to time I would get a ride from my sister to come to the market where people would sell used things and fresh vegetables. This neighborhood seemed not so safe to live in.  We learned as a new immigrant not to be a fighter.  Be peacemakers.  We didn’t want to get into violence.

The government system here is very helpful.  It helped support families that need it, less fortunate families. We had food stamps.  Sociology is one of my favorite subjects, and I managed to complete a sequence of it.  Even though the United States is so powerful and we have military bases in so many countries, internally we are still coping with problems like homelessness, poverty, healthcare.  Now housing is a major issue here.

Last time I visited home they saw me as a foreigner.  I knew that I would not be able to go back home to settle. I decided to become a citizen in 1990.  I wanted to get involved with the community here.  Some people chose to go back home, but I decided to stay here.  Also, I might be able to get a better job.  Much of my life was already here.

America has all this wonderful opportunity, like allowing people to go to school. Community college played a major role in my life.  School here does not discriminate with age, especially community college.  That is a big benefit.  It allows me to open up, instead of working at home it allows me to be independent.   I started to see the possibility, maybe instead of working in the market I could have another choice.  At first I thought I wanted to study accounting because of the numbers, but I changed and decided to become an administrative assistant. Back then they had word processing and office management.  I chose it because I had learned how to type at high school.  I got my degree from PCC in 1992.

My first job was at Sylvania in 1992 and I have been moving around at PCC.  I am level thirteen as classified.  A job in student records opened, but I was expecting a child, so I decided to work three-quarter’s time for a year.  That is when student records moved to Rock Creek, and I worked there for about ten years. I was the last person to let go when student records moved downtown. I was in tears when they asked me to move to the front desk, but after a while by practicing it became not bad.  And then I realized that people like me come to school and I can help with that.

Be ready to work hard.  Be independent.  Stay on track.  I know that some people are going to have a hard time coping with change, but that is part of education.  Whatever opportunity is available, take advantage of it.  People need to learn to use natural resources in a better way instead of wasting it.  I try to appreciate what is available to me.