Rita Phetmixay

Escaping a Secret War

Profilers: Rachel Zhuang, Kyla Sylvers, Danielle Fregoni, Mason Coon


Interviewer: What exactly is your relation to the Vietnam War?

Interviewee: Okay so. It is a very indirect relation, obviously, but, my dad was a rebel in the Lao Army, but really, he wasn’t in it, the actually army because he didn’t graduate. Basically there was a secret war. There was a secret war in Laos, and with the secret war, there was a battle between Communists Pathet Lao and Royal Army Lao. And basically my dad’s side was on Royal Army Lao and he was training in the military academy in Lao in 1973. And obviously, Indochina, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos all fell to communism in 1975, one year before he was able to graduate the military academy. So, with that being said, it’s a long story, but my dad basically, after the fall of the Royal Lao Army, he was captured and he was sent to a seminar camp, like a concentration camp. And he did that for like five years until he finally escaped Thailand. And then after escaping Thailand he kept fighting for like 8 more years, and he finally came to the United States in 1988. So, I’m the daughter of a Lao refugee.

Interviewer: What did your dad do in the war exactly? Was he just a soldier or did he work for the CIA or something?

Interviewee: Yea, it’s really blurry, but…that’s a very good question. He was a rebel more than anything because whenever he… when the fall of Laos to communism 1975 one year before he would have been able to graduate and become an officer, like a military officer, so it was kinda like he was in this liminal space like, “I’m almost there but I’m not” and so I think he does identify as just like a rebel and he basically said that he is just fighting and I think that’s whenever… I’m not sure how they get connected, but he did talk to US officials, and government officials, military officials, and I do remember that he, I think he would like collect information for the US Embassy like okay these people are here like the communists are like here communists are here now, but basically just collecting information for them so he was just like be very, very secretive like his life… he lived in a lot of secrecy because he’s, “I want to you know help my country out by helping the US because the US can help me in the end.” But he did travel to all these countries… I don’t know. I’m honestly working on a time line, I need to do better but he has been to Cambodia, he’s been to Burma, he’s been to China and Thailand obviously, so like the bordering countries and Vietnam.

Interviewer: And he was a rebel fighting in all those places…?

Interviewee: Yea, so he was like, he would like strategize; like he said that he basically carried a bag with a lot of maps and strategies of how to… he led 250 people to fight against the communists. He basically was teaching them how to kill you know. Like how to, you know, strategize and be like okay take these people out but I think I remember him saying 250 people who he led until he was like, “I can’t do this anymore”. But yea, through these different areas of Southeast Asia basically and so umm yea not many people know about the secret war obviously because being like the secret war but is was happening at the same time as the Vietnam war was happening and at the same time Pol Pot was happening and the Khmer rouge and so umm… yea… its very I mean kind of like our history is like deleted within like cold war politics; kind of umm and so like, back to where you asked like you know what’s the relationship to Laos to the overall…? Vietnam War should be called the Indo-China war or something because obviously like the United States isCambodia, United States are in Laos, and you know of course Vietnam, but it is just coined the Vietnam War because I guess that’s where Communists kind of leaked out to other countries.

Crossing the Mekong River

Interviewer: Are there any stories or memories that you dad told you about? What was your favorite?

Interviewee: One of my favorites, I mentioned also in my documentary that I am making right now, is the time that he swam across the Mekong River. Uhm, I will say a couple. But, basically he said that it was a very dark night and he was, planning to escape because like, he had already asked his parents. He told me, “I had to ask my parents because it was the only way I would feel a sense of peace in myself, if I ask my parents if I can leave. Because if I don’t leave right now, they’re gonna kill me, they’re gonna find me.” Because basically, they knew that he was part of the other side, they were like you may not be Communist, but you’re on the other side. You’re our enemy. And so, my dad, he was very well-known in his leadership with anti-communism and stuff like that. And so, he asked his parents and his parents were like “yea, just go,” and so he left home and he went with his cousin- he went with someone else- to go and try to escape from Laos to Thailand, you know, to seek refuge and he thought that Thailand would be safer, well that’s another story.

And he basically escaped from Laos and he met with his cousin and he told me that he went to speak to.. you know to distract the people that are watching because there are obviously guards around the Mekong River because they know that there are people trying to escape Laos from communism. And he was just talking to the person at the house near the Mekong River, and whenever he’d talked to this [person], his cousin would call and say “oh, I found something” or whatever and my dad said that he left, “oh I gotta go, oh I gotta go meet up with my cousin.” And that’s when he put most of his clothes in his bag, and him and his cousin, took the dip and just swam across the Mekong River and then he said he was swimming, swimming, swimming, and when he finally hit sand he still kept swimming because he was like “oh my god water, or sand,” and he didn’t realize because he had been swimming for so long, he just didn’t look back. And he said that at that time he cried, because… and knowing my dad he doesn’t really cry at all. He is a very, very strong and very prideful person, but he said that he lost his country and he is a very, very patriotic person. It just runs through his veins, and runs through me. He is a very prideful person.

A Refugee in Thailand

Interviewer: So you said that he originally went there to find refuge. So did he ever make it to any type of refugee camp?

Interviewee: It was really blurry, but I think he explained that he escaped or they let him go or something, but he still had needed a place to stay so I think he did stay in the refugee camp a little bit. And…whenever he realized, I guess eight years later, when he realized, ‘I can’t stay here because if not Thai people are going to kill me if they find out I’m undocumented, and I’m not supposed to be here, and they already don’t like Lao people.’ So, he was like ‘I have to go the United States.’ Or…he knew that he had options of going to either Canada, Australia, France or the United States. He chose the United States.

And so, he stayed at the refugee camp until he recognized that he needed to leave. And, that’s whenever he went to some clothing store, and eventually somebody connected him and my mom together and my mom basically, I don’t think they are related, but through the network of Lao people and Thai people, my mom was selling clothes, and my dad saw her and then, I think that they knew that she was single and he was like ‘I need someone to go to the United States with me. If I get sick or if anything happens, I need someone who can take care of me, or we can take care of each other.’ And, so he didn’t tell my mom, anything really. He was just like, ‘We’re going to go to different places, and we’re going to,’ you know—basically, she eloped with him. But, basically the story is, I went back to Thailand, and I got this story from my aunt in Thailand. I was like ‘I know, my parents, they probably would never tell me because they don’t want to say bad things about their history.’ But, I don’t think it’s bad. It’s just very vibrant, their history. But, basically, my mom, she knew my dad but she didn’t know my dad too well, but she would say, ‘Oh, I’m going to the library,’ or ‘I’m going to this shop,’ or whatever. But, she’d actually go meet up with my dad to see what his plans are, and to see what he was wanting from my mom. I mean, obviously they probably liked each other. But basically, so my dad during that time when he did make this decision it took him six months to finally decide ‘yeah, I have to go.’ And, then that’s whenever he found my mom, before, I think, a year in 1988, because he came to the states December 10th, 1988. So, there was like six months before that. And so, whenever my mom did finally make her decision ‘Okay, Ill go with you,’ she didn’t tell anyone, her sisters, at all. And just left, and her sisters were just trying to find her. They cried. And, everything was just really a mess, from what I heard.

But, then she went to stay at the refugee camp with my dad. I think that was, like a year, I’m not sure but I think it was about a year that they stayed until they finally got admitted to go to the United States. Yeah, but before that it was like, my mom never really went anywhere outside the house, much less, you know. And so, it was just funny when I think about it how my parents made the decision, or my mom, she’d never been anywhere, but when she did go somewhere she went across the whole world. And so, that kind of the story of how they met.

Once in America

Interviewer: So when he got to America, how did he process being over here? Was it surprising that people didn’t know about Laos? What was that like for him?

Interviewee: It was such a big contrast coming from rural farming, agricultural based – almost 90% of Laos is agriculture. So, coming to California was such the biggest change-culture shock, language barriers, everything. And so, basically my dad was like “how can I survive?” He honestly had really low self-esteem when he came in here, because [he went] from water oxen to cars to big buildings it was all a change for him. But I think one thing that really helped him was his educational background because he actually went to one of the four high schools in Laos. At the time they only had four high schools. Out of the whole country. And, yeah, he was able to do that. Then he went to the military academy to get more education. So, he learned about history and stuff. So he’s very very passionate about education. And so, he realized his English was not good at all, and he tried applying to a job, and no one would hire him because he didn’t speak English. And so he was like to my mom ‘No, we have to speak English. We have to learn how to.’ And so, that’s whenever he enrolled in ESL classes and went to finally get his, he actually got his associates degree in business administration and management. So, I think it helped him in that bit, but most of the time, most Lao during the second wave which was in the 80’s, that was when most of them were from agriculture and really didn’t have an education. But my dad was a little bit more privileged than the people that would have middle school education, and they would just go to work. He had, I would say, high school and first year of college, and so coming here it was hard but because he had those tools he made for himself in Laos, it helped him and my mom.

And so, yeah it is a major major culture shock, but I think he realized that education is the only tool he had for upward mobility, to go from here. And, that’s why he got his degree. He graduated from community college and he told my mom, ‘You need to do something, too.’ So, she got her, I think, her CN, and she does nursing and home health. But yeah, he knew he had a goal when he came here. He had goals of education, ESL, and learning English and then, whenever he had children he was like, ‘I’m going to focus on my children, and make sure they have, you know, all the resources they have, all the resources here to learn. I’m going to make sure that I stay close to them and that they succeed.’ And he’s trying to live vicariously through his children. So, that’s why he was very strict obviously whenever we were children, and he wouldn’t let us go out and play or anything, and make sure that our grades were up in par. And so, he knew that if my children can make good grades, and become citizens in society, and do something with their lives, then I know I did my job coming to the United States.

But, he’s still very passionate about going back. Well, not going back, but very passionate about still having his country back…. You know there’s some way to do it, but one day he still wants to have Laos as a free country. And that’s one of his main goals for David, my older brother. David, he went to the air force academy, and so, my dad says that if David is able to graduate from the air force academy, ‘that’s whenever I graduate.’ And so, then eventually he graduated in 2011, and I think that was when my dad was able to find more peace within himself, that he did his job and that he finally graduated too. And that’s the moment that he actually felt whole for once and that he didn’t have to worry about anything. He feels very very lucky and very, I guess, proud to be in the United States and to be Lao American. He’s like, ‘I’m Lao-American, and I’m not a refugee anymore. I’m past that point.’

Impact on the Next Generation

Interviewer: How has this story affected your life and what you’re studying now, and what is the impact of the war overall in your life?

Interviewee: The older I get, the more I learn about my own history, the more I feel, I don’t know umm what my dad feels too, in a way, in how he… all this time passed and his community and his country and like his culture and just knowing my history knowing my culture and these stories it makes you realizes like wow you know how very privileged we are to be here. It makes me realize how privileged my life is compared to people who are still in Laos worrying about getting food on the table each day, but learning more about my family history and my dad’s struggles empowers me to give back because he’s given me so much. He’s given my brothers and everything you know. He gave his life up just in order for us to continue our education, continue our own lives and make sure we find happiness, but he has been able to find happiness through our happiness in a way.

And so umm like right now I am at UCLA and doing a Master’s degree in Asian American studies so I’m collecting research on Lao Americans and trans-generational memory, kind of like your professor, and how memory passes from like the first generation refugees to second generation. And how does the second generation reflect on their individual experiences with the world and so just kind of like this journey as well for me to find a sense of wholeness and to find out like why what why my history is so important to me and why because the war and colonization and how everything happened and now appear is kind of like story and trying to like figure out and so learning about my dad’s history it just kind fills this empty void that I have like, because no know else is able to relate to me like you know there’s a large number of Vietnamese people that came earlier then there’s Cambodians and Khmer and then you have Hmong people and there actually people that traveled and lived in different countries but they don’t have like an actual country but like with Lao it’s just like people…

I feel like brush over Lao and its history and importance and its importance to the United States, too, so I think that through my dad’s story like he wants to live vicariously through me but I want to live vicariously live through him in a way just to really understand a sense of peace within myself. I don’t know it’s like really spiritual but have a sense of closure that I can be able to, you know, be able to have people validate my history and I think everyone else has a very important history. I think that everyone should be recognized but I don’t think like for me it’s harder to do that because there is nothing for me to relate to a lot of other Asian Americans as much and so, just going back I really hope to, you know, just open spaces and talk about Lao and what is Lao and who are Lao and who are Lao Americans so… I mean it’s just like, you know, what is the next generation going to be because there are also a lot of mixed babies, so I mean that is just awesome and where do we take Lao from there. My dad’s stories have really left a really strong impression on what I do in terms of my research and how I identify myself as a Lao American, well with my mom too she is Thai so like my mom is Thai-Isan so basically that region is an ethnic group in Thailand but they are ethnically Lao. They eat sticky rice they eat like Lao food do Lao things but because the Thai did not want Lao there they named them Thai-Isan kind of like ethnic cleansing and so I say I’m Lao Thai-Isan American Woman.

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