Growing up, based off of little references and memories that my parents talked about, I was able to piece together a loose timeline of how we arrived in Wichita, Kansas. But it wasn’t until last year when I went back home for the holidays in Wichita that I actually sat down with my parents and got an oral history. We wrote everything down — where they were born, what they remembered, how we actually escaped, the little details of everything. There were so many things I never knew and had never asked about because I knew that it was it was a very traumatic experience for my parents to flee from their own home country and become refugees.
My mom is actually Tai Dam, which is a northern ethnic tribe in Laos. Her mom escaped the village because of the civil war in Laos in the early 60s. My grandmother had already lost two of her husbands to the war so she escaped to Luang Prabang as a single woman with two young daughters; she was also pregnant with my mother at the time. When they arrived in Luang Prabang, my grandmother gave my mom up for adoption, a fact my mom did not know about until she was in her 30s. So that is how my mom ended up growing up in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of the Northern Kingdom. My dad and his family is from Vientiane, which is the current capital of Laos.
In the span of just a few years, my mom lost the three most important people in her life: her father, her sister, and her mother. After Saigon fell, communist regimes took over in the mid-70s. My mother’s adopted father was in the Royal Lao Army and anyone who had been part of the Royal Armed Forces was then taken and placed in “seminars,” which were basically “re-education” labor camps. He was there for about 5 years. My mother’s younger sister was killed from one of the million cluster bombs that were dropped in Laos during the Secret War. She was 13 years old and was playing out in the gardens when all of a sudden, she accidently stepped on and triggered a cluster bomb. She was taken to the hospital but she had lost so much blood that they could not save her. The year after her sister’s death, my mom’s adopted mom passed away, possibly from all the heartbreak. After that, my mother and her younger brother were left alone to fend for themselves. They were then shipped down to live with an aunt and uncle in Vientiane, which was where my mom ultimately spent half of her young adulthood, and where she and my dad met.
My dad’s father was a pilot in the Royal Lao Air Force. After the communists took over, he was sent to “seminar” for 9 years, leaving my grandma to take care of 6 children by herself. By the time my grandfather was somehow able to leave/escape the camp, and as soon as I was born in 1984, they began planning the family’s escape from Laos. Our group included me as an infant, my parents, one uncle, and a couple of friends. My grandpa and another uncle escaped four months later, and my grandma and aunt were able to leave together with subsequent groups. My parents told me that they had to drug me so that I would knock out and not cry as they crossed the Mekong River; if we were caught by the communists, we would have been shot on the spot.
We made it across safely and ended up in the Napo refugee camp in Thailand, where we stayed for the next 1.5 years of my life. Luckily I was so young at the time that I don’t have memories of that time, but I know that the conditions were horrific: I didn’t have a proper diet, proper medical care, diapers. But finally our sponsorship papers were approved. My grandfather had someone who served under him in the Royal Lao Army be relocated to Wichita, and with the help of this friend and his former military status, our paperwork was pushed through a little bit faster. On the day of my 2nd birthday, we boarded a bus to go to the next camp where we awaited air transportation to fly to a transit camp in Manila, Philippines. My parents said that that it was here that they had classes to teach them how to acclimate to Western society and their new lives. However, my mom was pregnant with my sister at the time and the authorities wouldn’t let her board the plane, so my family had to wait until my mom gave birth to my sister in Manila before we could go to Wichita.
I had not known most of this before last winter. My mother didn’t even want to talk about the earlier part of her life and she even tried to lie to me. For instance, she told me that her sister got sick and died. Then I said, “No, I’m pretty sure Dad said that she stepped on a bomb.” Then my mother said, “Oh, so you know about that?” This is where my mother slowly became more open in telling me the truth about her past. But from this experience, I realized that I didn’t know that my mother, who is in her mid-50s, had never grieved properly. At one point my mother got up from the chair and said, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore — these are bad memories.” I didn’t realize that I re-traumatized her because she had repressed her memories for so long and had not dealt with her grief. I felt so bad because I didn’t know that this was the reaction she was going to have, and that I had unknowingly caused her to reopen those wounds. But after having this conversation with my mom, I think I show her a lot more empathy and patience now. I think it started with my first trip to Laos and visiting Luang Prabang for the first time, experiencing the culture, seeing how the people were and acted. It opened my eyes to why the way my mom was the way she was, and after have a better understanding of her traumatic past, I have a lot more empathy for her and try to tell my sisters to do the same. I think in general, as women, the older we get, the more we understand our mom's lessons and actions and why they act a certain way. My mom and I have definitely grown closer since I moved away from home and I hope she'll share even more stories with me in the future -- when she's ready, of course.
Wichita actually has a pretty big Southeast Asian community with a lot of Lao, Viet, and Cambodian folks here. I didn’t actually meet many East Asians until I moved to Los Angeles. I grew up in this really low-income neighborhood that had a small Lao community and so I always felt like I was surrounded by my people. But I did grow up in this dichotomy where I was from an area that was predominantly people of color, but I was bused to Derby High, a school in a more White and affluent part of town south from us — I would go from being with my people and part of this diverse community to being a minority. But it wasn’t really my Lao ethnicity that made me feel different since I was so used to being the only Asian girl or Lao person in classrooms or the only Asian female basketball player on teams, a reality I accepted and didn’t think about much throughout most of my life, and luckily I don’t remember experiencing any out-right racism growing up. The one thing that stands out that made me feel different was my socioeconomic status — being a poor refugee immigrant, you don’t think you’re poor until you go to a White school and kids are wearing the latest fashions, have multiple expensive cars and a boat in the driveway, have two-story homes, and get to go on family vacations. It wasn’t until then that I began to see myself as “the poor girl,” the one without lots of money, the one who had to share a small room with her two younger sisters and couldn’t host sleepovers cause our house was too small and my neighborhood was too “dangerous” for the suburban kids to visit. Looking back, I was very ashamed of where I lived at the time. I know better now as an adult.
There was really nothing about Lao American or Southeast Asian American history in school. There might be a blurb about the Vietnam War or maybe half a chapter, but Laos and the Secret War was never mentioned. I personally did not even learn about the Secret War until post-college and I had to do my own research. Laos Angeles, a Lao diasporic community I am a part of, is currently working to help shine a light on SB 895, a bill in California that will include the Southeast Asian American experience in public school curriculums, but it does not currently include anything about Laos or the Lao American experience. The leaders of the Lao community and organizations like LaoSD are trying to fight for us to be represented in the next round of amendments.
My dad has always supported me and has taught me so many important life lessons. As a young girl, especially the first child of immigrant parents, you have a lot of pressure to make your parents proud. I have always been a Daddy’s Little Girl, and he’s someone I look up to for his selflessness, love, genuineness, and kindness toward everyone, whether they are family, friends, or strangers. He taught me not to be afraid of being unique, and not to follow the pack but to really own who I am and carve my own path in life. Lessons I carry with me now.
I did not know that acting was something that was even possible for someone like me because growing up, I never saw any Asian Americans on screen until Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu and Asian Canadians like Sandra Oh made their way into Hollywood. I had always known that I had this calling, that I was meant for something bigger than myself, but at the time, I didn’t know what that something was yet. So I continued on my academic path and tried to make my parents proud; I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer so I got my Bachelor’s in International Business and followed up with a Master’s in Economics, all while trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and what my true purpose was. What I did know, though, was that I loved movies.
One of my favorite memories growing up was Friday night movie nights because my dad would take us to go rent movies. I remember being so excited to browse the shelves and see what new releases were available, and then going home and binge-watching all the movies over the weekend. Another favorite childhood memory is when my uncle would take me and my sisters and cousins to the movies. Movies were such a huge part of my childhood and so I began trying to find a way to combine my love for TV and film with my business background. I thought about maybe being on the business side of the movie industry, possibly one day running a movie studio. So about a year before I graduated, I began submitting my resume to all the accounting and finance departments of the big studios in L.A. Then after graduating, despite not having no job lined up and only a few thousand dollars saved up, I told my parents I was moving to L.A. anyway. I was ready to dive in and was unafraid of the potential risks and consequences, even though my friends all told me that I was crazy and my parents were probably terrified for me. Then about six months later, I got my first corporate job at Fox Studios as an accounting clerk and worked right on the Fox lot; every day I would see actors and actresses walking to their auditions or going to set.
But after a year of working behind a desk, I realized that this was not the life for me. I believed that my true calling was to represent my people — Lao Americans, Southeast Asian Americans, and the bigger Asian American community. I wasn’t sure how I could do that, and had a bit of a quarter-life crisis. I decided to take acting classes and just fell in love with it. I realized that I had a gift for acting because I can very easily tap into emotions, probably the result of the intergenerational trauma inherited from my mother and grandmother. Growing up, I thought it was a weakness to be emotional but now it happens to be my strength as an actor. The emotional life I was gifted with fuels my ability to be emotionally available for the characters I play. I remember my acting coach telling me, “You have been given a gift, and if you don’t use that, then shame on you.”
I started at East West Players, the longest-running professional theater of color in the States. After a year of the conservatory program there, I began to train at multiple studios and eventually found an acting studio and acting coach that I wanted to stick with. After studying with him, I booked a few co-starring roles and a feature film, which also happened to be a zombie movie, and it turned out that the casting director was also casting for Z Nation and they were looking to introduce the Sun Mei character for season three. He emailed me and my manager right away, saying that I would be perfect for this role: a strong Asian American woman, a doctor, a captain of the pan-Asian army, and an overall badass. When I read the description of this strong, three-dimensional character, I knew that I was Sun Mei, and that I had to play this role. I auditioned and was luckily cast.
Originally, the character of Sun Mei did not have a specific ethnic background and was just listed as open Asian, but once the producers found out I was Lao, they decided to change a few of the lines of the script to reflect my ethnic background. At that time, I felt so amazed that they would even consider doing something like that, and it made me feel seen and validated. I remember the scene where I got to say “I’m Lao,” and how significant that was for me, my family, and my community. My dad was so proud when he saw that scene. After my episode aired, I remember one of the fans tweeting me and she said, “I finally see myself on screen.” I get really emotional about these things because I’m really passionate about representation in TV and film. It’s been an honor to be able to play Sun Mei, and I still get tweets and messages saying, “Thank you for representing us,” and “Finally, I get to see some type of representation of me.” I hope to be able to keep giving a voice and a face to represent the Lao community, as well as the larger Southeast Asian community.
About three years ago, I was getting frustrated by the lack of opportunities and roles and storylines that I was getting, or not getting, I should say. So then I asked myself what I could do about it: was I going to whine about this or was I going to take control of my life? It was then that I decided to create my own story.
I researched some short film competitions and came across one called the Different Faces Different Voices Film Festival, and there was a Flicks4Chicks short film competition where you had to write and shoot a 10-minute film based off one of the three topics given on Day 1. My girlfriend, who is a writer and an editor, and I brainstormed the idea for “The Letter,” inspired by my family’s story of escaping Laos, life in the refugee camps, and establishing a new life in a new country, and centered it around a mother-daughter reconciliation storyline. She wrote the script based on our story ideas and we used our own money to hire a small skeleton crew and shot it all in one day. When the festival happened, I had already booked Z Nation and was filming at the time so I couldn’t make the premiere in Boston, but Becca represented our film at the festival, and I remember her calling me and telling me that we had won the Grand Prize, as well as the Diversity Award and Best Actor for Katie Chan. I was blown away. It was so surreal to see how our seed of an idea came into fruition, to know that we did this and saw a project through from beginning to end.
The best thing about producing is the collaborative process: there’s a whole team of people involved, everybody from the producers and writers and actors to the editors and colorists and sound design — most folks don’t know how many people it takes to make just a short 10-minute film. And I love producing because it allows me to tap into the business side of my mind. I think my type-A personality is just drawn to it. I currently am helping to produce my friend Phet’s short film “Go to Sleep: A Lao Ghost Story.” It revolves around SUDS (Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome), which affected quite a few Southeast Asian men post-Vietnam War era, and it stars Ova Saopeng, whose own father actually died of SUDS in his early 40s. We shot for two days already, and are campaigning for funds to shoot one more day. I’m so excited to be a part of this project and to support another Lao sister and artist.
Kulap Vilaysack started Laos Angeles about a year ago, and it’s basically a Lao community for anyone who lives in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas to come and connect. Our mission is to push, uplift, and shine a light on the Lao American experience and community. Our mission is to also advocate for Lao representation in media and entertainment. We’re not all in Hollywood, but there are a handful of members who are actors, producers, directors, and writers, and we are working to put ourselves in the mainstream. Saeng Douangdara, a Lao chef, reached out to me when the group was just getting started, and now we have grown to about 165 members. It’s so incredible because the wildfire growth shows just how much this generation of Lao Americans wants to connect to our roots, to find and build community. Laos Angeles is genuinely my family away from home, and they are so supportive; we all sincerely root for each other’s success. It’s just a great group of beautiful souls with amazing energy. I’m so proud to be a part of Laos Angeles, and to also see the love that’s been shown from outside of our community has been so powerful and inspiring.