Storm Lake family retraces its freedom flight back to Laos

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Thankful for U.S. opportunity

Laos was in a great turmoil 30 years ago. Many escaped the country with only the clothes on their backs, seeking freedom.

Cal and Meng Lai, owners of China House, were among the lucky ones. Storm Lake is home now - they have been citizens of the United States since 1987.

They don't speak much now of the past but they hold on to their culture as best they can. They have shared stories with their children of their journey to America but it wasn't until this month that they were able to share their homeland with their eldest daughter, Diana. It was important to them that she see where they grew up. Diana came away with a greater appreciation for life and more empathy for her parents than she has ever had before.

The couple spoke somberly of their flee for freedom. Meng and his family of 10 escaped into the night across the river that separates Laos from Thailand in a tiny boat back in 1975. Many people tried to escape in this way and many were shot while afloat in their boats. Meng and his family were welcomed into a refugee camp in Thailand.

Cal and her family got out of the country in a safer manner in 1978 and landed in the same camp as Meng. The two met there, not knowing where their future would led them. Those in the refugee camps were shown their freedom by sponsors of many churches in many nations. Cal's family and Meng's family were asked to come to Iowa. They came to Storm Lake in 1993.

The gunfire her that was the backdrop to her parents' early lives has been stilled. The first thing that struck Diana when she arrived in Laos was "the poverty." The rutted dirt roads are a far cry from the Storm Lake streets she grew up with.

"The stores are open shacks," she observed. Prices are "bargained" in an age-old game. Shoppers who back down pay a premium; tough negotiators land merchandise for almost nothing.

There has been much growth since Cal and Meng lived in Laos.There are more stores, restaurants and even homes. The fighting and chaos in the streets that were present at the time the families fled is gone.

The people of Laos are laid back, Diana noticed, most likely relieved to have overcome the many years of fear. They are very soft-spoken and don't raise their voices. They have learned patience.

Diana also made mental notes on the differences of the children and teenagers in Laos as compared to those in America.

There is more respect in Laos. The children do not go out in the evenings or to the temple without their parents. Families are extremely close.

Diana met several teenagers in the village and exchanged stories. In America where most teenagers have cars, the mode of travel in Laos is by foot, bikes or if they are lucky, mopeds. There was great surprise from the Laotian teenagers when Diana showed them all a picture of her own car.

The girls in the family are expected to stay home and cook while the boys help their fathers. The Laotian people are very hard workers, it is pointed out.

The countryside in Laos is green - very green, Diana said. Rice fields dot the area. When Cal and Meng were in the country, the labor in the fields was done by hand; they are glad to see there is more mechanical ways of doing the hard work today.

Wages are very low in Laos. It is difficult for the friends Cal and Meng have in Laos to imagine that the hourly wage at the China House is weekly salary for work in Laos.

School is also different than in America. If the children and young teenagers want to go to school, they go, if not, they decide to skip a day, it's not a big deal. Technology is far from current although there are now night classes available for Laotians to learn such skills as operating a computer. "Many of the people want to learn and many study English," Diana pointed out.

The family attended a soccer game and Diana was amazed that there was no shouting for the "home" team during the game, as there is here.

Cal and Meng have been back to Laos only a few times but with each time back, they feel more and more like "tourists." Meng added, "Visiting is OK, but living there again, no!"

While growing up, they experienced a lot of what their daughter noted in her short time in the country. But, they agreed, "We didn't think anything was different until we came to America. We didn't know freedom."

Another thing Diana noted was that in America, parents and teachers always encourage children to "dream big." In Laos, Cal said, "Children do not dream for big things."

Diana won't take anything for granted again after this "life-changing experience." She cried when she saw the conditions her parents once lived in.

She understands now to a greater degree what she has been told and read in history books about Laos.

Following the trip, Diana said, "I thanked my parents a ton and told them how glad I am to be able to live in the United States." Her parents agree. They are so happy for their lives. "I am so happy we are here," said Cal. Meng echoed, "We are lucky to be in the U.S."

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