Don Han

We're Never Poor in "Love"

Profilers: Nelson Chan, Mark Christenson, Annie Kao, and Mary Martikian

Secret War in Laos

My name is Don Han. I am from Laos. My family actually escaped the Laos communist government at the time in 1980. That’s post-Vietnam War or the Secret War of Laos. I was born in 1968, which was the midst of the war. And my recollection of that is that I remember one day my mom and I went to a morning market and we would see all these families on the side of the road and I was asking my mom “who are these people” and my mom told me these are refugees from another town. And I didn’t understand what that means.

Both of my parents owned a café in our hometown of Northern Laos. Our house, our home, has always been the center point where all the foreigners would come to have breakfast, and have their lunch and their dinner. Especially my dad was the person who knew how to make Baguette, make the bread and when the foreigners come, they would want this bread. So we made a lot of friends who were Americans or French that came to Laos.

…not too long after that I was woken up in the middle of the night and my parents told me that we need to go to a hiding area because the war was going on. And I didn’t understand much of that. So we went to the basement of our neighbor and were hiding there for several days. After several days we heard all these trucks coming to town and the town watchman come and says, “you all can come out now, go back to your homes because now you have a new government.” So we came back out and of course there are army tanks and trucks and things like that in downtown, because we lived in the city. We see that there are new flags being put up in every single house. It was a celebration; it was more like a liberation of a new government. And, not too long after that we see foreigners start disappearing, and not too long after that the currency of our country changed and unfortunately the restaurant had to close because we didn’t have clients or customers because they all left. So my parents [went] from ‘a restaurant owner’ slowly [to] becoming farmer[s]. We went from a very wealthy family to pretty poor.

Little by little we start seeing our neighbors, our family, our friends started to escape the communists into Thailand and went into refugee camps. But my parents didn’t want to leave, even though a couple of my brothers left on their own, but my parents didn’t want to leave because they didn’t want to leave their oldest son. And in 1979, my oldest brother came home and it was too hard. We were too poor. We didn’t have much. So my parents decide, for my future, for my little sister’s future and for the future of the younger ones. They decided, “let’s leave” so we were wiling to sacrifice everything and leave the country.

We actually escaped. I was 12 and being a twelve year old growing up mostly in poverty at the time. It was a big responsibility to say you know, “you and your uncle are going to plan an escape to cross the whole family to Thailand” and I was a big part of that. And we did that. One night we got everybody in a canoe and we left and we came to Thailand and we went into a refugee camp, and the first camp. We lived there and we were waiting to figure out who will be our sponsoring country, who’s going to pick us up? We submitted paperwork to France and we submitted paperwork United States. And we just sat there waiting.

Refugee camp was a bit tough because you have all these people who escaped the former country and came into a camp where they wanted to be picked up to go somewhere and some people were living there for a decade. They didn’t have a sponsor. Luckily, for my family, we got picked up by the United State’s government for sponsorship. We were already living in refugee camp for 9 months, that’s a very short time. It’s a very stressful time for us. Because the uncertainty of…will we make it to our new country.

Refugee Camp & Moving to America

Refugee camp is probably one of the most stressful situations anyone can go through. First, you have to escape your own country, to get asylum from another country nearby your country. And even if that neighbor country is willing to allow you to stay, they are not that welcoming, because: first of all, you are an illegal immigrant, per se. So the red carpet was not put out, lets put it that way.

So we were put in this barbed wire fence community, that was built out of bamboo and leaves and things like that, and they said, “Okay, you gotta build where you are going to stay.” So you can’t leave the gate, you know? And there are curfews. Your lantern had to be off, at 8 or 9 o’clock at night, and you can’t really venture around. It’s almost like a little prison. They would bring you food because they are obligated to feed you there.

The first camp was not so bad because we knew the people there. It was not too far from my hometown. It’s not too far from the border where we crossed, you know? Some of our relatives still could come and visit us. In fact, some of the people who worked there knew our family, so it wasn’t so bad.

Once we got our sponsorship we had to go to a second camp, which was toward southern Thailand, and that camp was rough. That camp actually had Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians living in one camp, and it was a little stricter. You would get a bucket of water a day, you know? A small bucket of water, that’s all you get, to bathe, drink, whatever. So a truck would come and each family would go there with their bucket and get water. You couldn’t have an open fire. They gave you two meals a day, lunch and dinner. That’s a very harsh environment to live in. And you live in barracks, you know? There are three walls of barracks facing into the center, so there’s no privacy. Your family is literally sleeping next to the other families in mosquito nets. So, the stress level is very, very high for all families, not just my family. The way to escape our conditions was always dreaming of the next country. For us it was dreaming of when we would get to America, you know? How things were going to be different.

When my family came we had a sponsor, a church that sponsored us, in Oakland, California. We had no clue where that was, all we knew is that we’re going to America.

So, I remember that when I was in the second refugee camp, that three months to learn about who the Americans are, right? I remember the American that came to my house when I was little, blonde hair, tall, white, right? I didn’t know that America had different ethnicity. My perception of America was all white people. Well, to my surprise, when I got picked up from San Francisco International Airport at night, to come to our house in Oakland, California, I couldn’t wait to see the Americans even though it was the middle of the night. [My parents] said, “go to sleep, tomorrow you can see the Americans.” I got up pretty early, I wanted to see the American kids when they went to school. I went out to my front door, stood on the front porch, and I’m standing there looking at the Americans, and I’m thinking, “who are these people?” Cause every single person who passed my house to go to school, they’re not white, they’re black, and I’ve never seen a black person in my life *laughs*. I’m like, “What country are we in? We came to the wrong country. This is not the America I know.” From the films, right?

That was a culture shock for me. I didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t understand exactly where we were. The first two years for my parents and my family, living in Oakland, California, in a predominantly African-American community. There were great people that invited us across the street and tried to teach us English, and showed us around, and let us use the library, and stuff like that. That made us feel good. But, then there were other people that would keep telling us “Go back home you Cambodian,” but we are not Cambodian, we are Laotian, and things like that. We did face some discrimination because we looked different. We looked like refugees. We didn’t speak a word of English. We couldn’t communicate with the people that lived around us.

The separation of our family? That was probably the most difficult part for my parents. Because not just my family, but the Laotian culture is very family oriented, just like many other cultures, right? So, to know that you might not see your kid again, or the possibility of never seeing your sibling again – for myself- is very, very tough. Two of my brothers who left early in the 70′s, they ended up in France, and the majority of my family ended up here in the United States, and I had one brother end up in Australia with his own family – wife and kids. It wasn’t like today, communication back then was a bit more difficult, you actually had to write letters and mail them. There was no sending people email or Facetime them. So, that was very difficult, in the early 80′s, for my parents to be thinking of the possibility that they may never see their kid again, and in fact, unfortunately, they didn’t.

Being Part of The Community

…this whole time, I never felt like I really belonged here. I didn’t want to be here. It’s a foreign country to me. I hated America when I first came, as much as America hated having me here. I remember people telling me: “Go home, you Cambodian.” Even though I’m not Cambodian, and I knew who I was, I didn’t feel like I belonged here. I didn’t feel like I wanted to be here. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the culture, and I can speak for a lot of refugees who feel that way. I didn’t really feel like I wanted to be here until I graduated from high school, that’s when my language abilities were a little bit better, I could communicate, I could have set goals, I could see the benefits of me being here.

Not too long after I graduated from high school, I remember I had to register to be drafted, to join the Army… join the Military. And even though I had been here a while, that whole memory of “The American is your enemy,” that I received as a child kicked in, and I was a little hesitant. But, I’m glad I did. I was beginning to slowly start taking pride in being part of this community.

I think the biggest step that I took … and my family took, to become American was when we decided to naturalize ourselves. To become US Citizens, and that was a big step. You know, it’s a very emotional step.

I think the main accomplishment for us was to get higher education. So, like I mentioned, I didn’t have both of my parents by the time I finished high school, and the welfare was cut and I had to support myself, so the first thing I did was get a full time job as a dental assistant. I worked full time and I went to school part time, and eventually I was able to work and support myself through college. I got a degree in sociology, and it’s been over a decade now that I’ve been working with that degree, doing what I do today.

Values & Memories

“I don’t like conflict”
Me, personally, I don’t like conflict. You know, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the worst part of it. For example, I’ve seen people who die and literally float by. I remember one evening or one night, we got woken up by all these gunshots, and I popped up and went to the window at my house to look towards those hills behind our house where the post…well…the army post was on those hills. And I would see storms of bullets, because bullets glow at night, you can literally see it – there’re just storms of bullets, you know? And people were fighting back there. My parents said, “No, no, you can’t stand there. Get down. We are trying to protect ourselves.”

And I’ve seen how it changed people’s life. I didn’t like that. I didn’t want to be in the military. I remember that recruiters came to school and told us how we needed to join the service. I didn’t want to be part of that. Two of my nephews actually joined – one joined the U.S. Marines for eight years, and the other joined the U.S. Army for six years. In fact, they went to the Gulf War in the early 90s. Not too long after high school, both my nephews went there and fought, and they are both veterans. They have a different perspective, but for me, in general for our older siblings. We didn’t like conflicts – the nature of ‘we need to fight for something.’

The other thing that I think affected my family, and including myself, was we were always afraid of the authoritative figures. You know how governments change and we were kind of afraid of new governments. And we escaped – coming to Thailand to refugee camp – we were being watched 24/7, by a guard and things like that. And they were they could be very rough. You can be mistreated. And the consciousness of you not being able to say what you really feel because other people might take it the wrong way and you might end up where you don’t want to go. So authority figures, especially someone in a uniform, are very intimidating to us.

Did your parents tell you any story about the war? And how the memories were remembered?
…And it is very usual for refugee family not to talk about it. And we don’t talk much about it unless there is some kind of funny story behind it. We really like to remember the funny stuff, right? Something that would make us happy. They do talk about how life was different before the war. You know before when they were still owning businesses and being able to have the freedom to travel, and you know to go to the other countries on vacation and things like that, versus [when] all the borders were closed and you don’t even get to communicate you know with your neighbor countries, or you [cannot] do exchange or business with them, right. So that’s the big difference and they do talk about the way we lived our [lives] differently.

Did you feel you were stripped away from your home?
At the beginning I was. Before I graduated from high school, I didn’t like it. I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t feel that people wanted me here, and not just me but my kind of people. The refugees, the southeast Asians, we didn’t feel like we belong because others judged us. I am not saying that’s everyone but there are these little incidents that will make you remember.

“I was born at home but not in the hospital”
This is actually the house that I was born in. So, many people they don’t give birth in the hospital and they give birth at home with the midwife. I was actually born somewhere up here.

“We got baptized” when we’re in the U.S.
And majority of Southeast Asians: Laos, Thai, Cambodia were predominately Buddhists who practice Buddhism. And we were sponsored by the church. So every Sunday we get picked up by the church van to go to church and we were baptized. Sit at the front row of the church and watching the whole ceremony thing. And we were being baptized. I don’t know why we, you know, we get to do that.

We’re Never Poor in “Love”
One of the things that I know in our own family even though we’re poor with value, with currency, with money, [and] with possession, we were never poor with love. My parents always love us, and support us and encourage us like we’re going to make it. And I think that that’s probably one of the key factors for us to be able to make it, to have that hope is that we’re still family.

“I am very proud to be who I am today”
I am today very proud to be who I am, a U.S. citizen. I’m also proud to call myself a Laotian American. No matter where I go, where I end up, that was always going to be a part of me. In fact, I went home with my son who was born and raised here to Laos in 2004 so that he could know and learn where his dad came from, where his ancestors came from. I will always have that tie, in a bittersweet kind of way.

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