“Refugee Nation” explores the lives of three generations of Lao immigrants to the U.S.
While the tragedy of the Vietnam War and its bloodshed is a tale familiar to Americans, few of us are aware of a related and equally bloody conflict – the Laotian Civil War. Among US veterans of the conflict, it is known as the Secret War.
The play was written and is performed by husband and wife team Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan, and was inspired in part by a trip they took to Laos to visit Saopeng’s relatives. Chan says what they found there shocked them:
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the devastation from the Vietnam War era – the bombings and war in Laos – is still there. And the poverty was just overwhelming for both of us. It inspired us to create this play to talk about the Laotian-American experience.
Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan perform in “Refugee Nation”
For Saopeng, the play is in large part about his own experience as a member of what he calls the “1.5 generation.”
The Lao community is spread like ashes throughout the United States. My family arrived here in the United States in 1979, when I was 5 years old. So I have one foot in the old world of Laos, and the culture and the language, and the other foot firmly planted in America. My parents generation is still very old school, and still speak primarily Lao, while those in the second generation, who were born here, grow up speaking English, and surrounded by American culture. I grew up between the two.
Saopeng interviewed numerous Lao immigrants to help develop the play, many of them here in the Twin Cities (Saopeng and Chan live and work in Los Angeles). What emerged were three persistant themes: a disconnect between the different generations, young Laotian men turning to gangs because they couldn’t navigate the American system successfully, and, says Saopeng, an overpowering lack of identity.
Where’s our voice? Where do we stand here in the United States? How come we can’t speak up? How come no one knows who we are? The younger generation doesn’t even know where they come from. What’s going on with us that we’re not progressing like other immigrant communities who came here at the same time?
What Saopeng and Chan found was that many Laotian elders still suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 30 years after evacuating from the horrors of the Secret War. While the older generation is seeking to forget the horrors of their past, their children want to know how they came to the United States, but don’t feel it’s something they can talk about, says “Refugee Nation” performer Litdet Viravong:
I’m learning more about my own culture, history and people, because growing up we weren’t taught these things, and certainly here [in the U.S.] in history class we don’t hear about Laos.
Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan say the play serves as a catalyst to get different generations of Laotian-Americans talking to one another about their family history, and the challenges they face today. They’ve been touring the production to different communities across the country, sometimes appearing at local festivals in order to reach their target audience. But director Rena Heinrich, whose father served in the U.S. military in Laos, says it’s equally important for non-Laotians to see the show:
For me it pains me that Laos is the most bombed country in the history of the world, and no one knows about that – that’s huge! And the devastation that it’s caused and is still causing. And even thirty years later immigrants are still traumatized, locked within themselves, and we’re still feeling the effects of that.
“Refugee Nation” runs this weekend and next at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, co-presented by the Lao Assistance Center and Pangea World Theater.